Map of the U.G.G.R., from www.undergroundrailroadnovel.com.
Written, hypothetically, for The New York Times.
The first time I picked up Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, I could not get past the first few chapters. The introductory chapters narrate the slave life in a cotton plantation in Georgia, focusing on three generations of women and their legacies. Thinking this novel was just another slave narrative slowed my reading, but due to my four hour flight, I decided to keep reading and could not have been more wrong.
Through a fictionalized America, Whitehead finds a new angle to re-tell the well-known stories of slavery. This new angle could have something to do with the novel belonging across the whole spectrum of literary genres, including but not limited to, slave narrative, historical fiction, contemporary, and I would daresay even dystopian with Gothic elements. Additionally, The Underground Railroad is not just a slave narrative, or just a historical fiction, but also the coming-of-age story of the main female protagonist, Cora. She is a sixteen-year-old at the start of the novel, who defies all obstacles and fears in search for freedom. Think Katniss Everdeen fighting different arenas in a dystopian world to save her life, but in this case, the different arenas are different states with different degrees of white supremacy and oppression.
The underground railroad in Whitehead’s narrative world is not metaphorical, but literal, with stations, operators and locomotives. Cora moves through different states, experiencing different kinds of liberty, all of which reflect current times. From plantation Georgia, medical laboratory South Carolina, genocidal North Carolina, oppressive Tennessee, and finally, to racially tensed Indiana, each of these sections have something so say about current times. But the fact that Whitehead positions his novel in antebellum America, shows how deeply rooted the “colored question” and race tensions are within the United States. The fictionalization of the stories in the novel create the possibility of talking about these deeply-rooted issues through a different perspective, through all the characters. Additionally, it allows the readers to visualize the metaphorical underground railroad, with its sacrifices and untold stories, as literal. This is one of the major achievements of the novel.
Whitehead captures the perfect tone to make an entertaining novel about the foundation on which the United States is built – oppression of black people by white supremacists. He manages to sneak in some funny and ironic comments every now and then, such as Cora questioning this about her owner and boss: “What kind of white man would willingly submit to the whip?” A couple of chapters later, he would insert a truthful and bold statement regarding the past and present: “And because of that fear [white people’s fear of blacks], they erected a new scaffolding of oppression on the cruel foundation laid hundreds of years before.” Not only does this reflect the origin of the oppression of blacks, as emerging from a fear of black people rooted in the past, but the extent of it resonating still to the present day. For those unfamiliar with Michelle Alexander’s powerful book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she states that mass incarceration is just our current way of oppressing black people. Just as white supremacy took different disguises throughout the novel and the different states that Cora traveled to, one could also add an additional chapter with an additional state representing the current issue of mass incarceration, because that’s the current mode of oppression and slavery. That’s how powerful and relevant this novel is – another major achievement.
Amid the irony and bold statements about history and slavery, there are other themes presented that are worthy to talk about. Setting aside the brutality of slavery and racial discrimination, Cora is dealing with typical, in addition to the not-so-typical, rites of passages that one undergoes during the teenage years. As mentioned before, this story can also be characterized as a coming-of-age, adding to the complexity of the main character. Our heroine is gang raped and whipped, but also experiences her first love and with that regret. Hers is a journey, or adventure story, in which she demonstrates bravery by overcoming obstacles and this is one of the core elements of the novel.
Cora first exhibits this bravery in the beginning by standing up to Blake, who is basically a big bully that takes over the home where she was born and her inherited small terrain. After smashing this bully’s dog’s house, she took a stand against him and established her power through a posture that said “You may get the better of me, but it will cost you.” Although, not long after, she’s gang raped. As if this wasn’t bad enough, in an effort to alleviate young slave Chester’s pain upon receiving his first whipping, she steps in for him and receives the punishment, another Katniss Everdeen move.
Tired of the plantation’s abuse, Caesar, a fellow property of the Randalls, convinces Cora to escape. At first, she declines his proposition because no one, with the exception of her mother Mabel, has made it out. Although Cora admits to hating her mother because she left her behind when she left the plantation, the hope of finding her to express her hatred and the hope that someone else can make it out, propels Cora to leave.
Cora escapes via the literal underground railroad and her first stop is South Carolina. Although at first seeming progressive enough due to the effort of “colored uplift,” she soon finds out that black people are being abused for the sake of medicine and are unknowingly part of a medical laboratory. Adding to the abuse of blacks, Cora is employed in a live museum that exhibits the inaccurate lives of slaves. She works as a live example of slave life, but this does not deter her from making a statement or pushing through white supremacy. During her exhibit shifts, Cora starts giving the evil eye to the whites who look at her as an attraction in a Disney park hoping to teach them a lesson: “It was a fine lesson, Cora thought, to learn that the slave, the African in your midst, is looking at you, too.”
Cora tries teaching white people a lesson, but in her next stint, after being forced to escape from South Carolina, she also learns something from white people. In genocidal North Carolina, Cora is confined to hiding in an attic just like Anne Frank. Although, in this case, the enemies are white Americans. She studies white people through a small opening from her attic and sees the brutality, savagery, and violence that white people inflict on black people hoping to purify their state from the Africans. Through their theatrics, Cora realizes that bondage can be disguised as something else and that many slaves are victims of the “false promise of the Free States.”
North Carolina didn’t end so well because she is finally captured by Ridgeway, who with the perseverance of Javert from Les Miserables, makes it his mission to capture Cora and return her to her rightful owner. This is not a random mission on his part, but a way of finding redemption after failing to capture Mabel, whose whereabouts are unknown until the end of the novel. They go through a scorched Tennessee when she escapes once again with the help of some freemen she encountered in the town. They bring her to the Valentine farm community in Indiana, known as the North and associated with freedom, where everything seems perfect, that is, until they are forced to decide whether to stay or leave because of racial tensions between white neighbors. Caesar, her male companion and possible love interest, has been confirmed dead after not being able to make it out of North Carolina. Cora then finds some happiness and hope with Royal, one of the freemen that helped her make it to Indiana. Yet, a happy ending here is impossible. The farm community is raided and Royal dies in Cora’s arms. Forced to grieve again, start anew, and leave, somehow, Cora finds it in herself to move on and keep going West. Her resilience throughout her journey makes this novel more than just a slave narrative, but also a heroine’s journey filled with sadness, anger, and hope.
Despite surviving many grueling situations, the novel ends with Cora moving on into a new beginning. She even seems invincible after overcoming so many things: a bully, gang rape, abandonment from mother, grieving two lovers, constant persecution, living in an attic, and living with the burden of all the lives lost for her freedom. She’s basically a superhero, which is definitely an uplifting and powerful trend lately. Just like the recent superhero movie Black Panther, The Underground Railroad portrays black people and their story as one of heroism, bravery, and admiration. Cora’s own heroism shines through the darkness of the railroad and of black America, as one of the conductors implies. These unconventional narratives shed a different light on the foundation of the United States and the origins of current issues. The Underground Railroad resonates with contemporary times and numerous quotes from the novel will always ring true: “The Great War had always been between the white and the black. It would always be.”