In The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead twists the genre of historical fiction and creates a slavery narrative that extends beyond the limits of the past. Whitehead’s novel highlights the insidious multiple faces of white supremacy that have plagued the United States of America since its first days. In this novel, an teenage slave named Cora escapes from a Georgia plantation and begins her journey to the north through the Underground Railroad, which takes the form of a literal railroad. The Railroad is not just a metaphor for a network of people aiding slaves in their escape to the North, but actual trains that run on a path across station. They function in a surreal way, where one of the station’s operators, a gaunt man named Lumbly, can offer minimal information on where each train goes and what paths they take. The novel has a very surreal quality in how it blends historical accuracy, fictionalized plot elements, and anachronistic settings. North Carolina, during the era of slavery, is described as having skyscrapers and medical practices reminiscent of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, which was not conducted until 1932. Whitehead’s brand of alternate historical fiction never introduces elements of fantasy or science fiction. This fictional universe simply is the way it is without any questions. The twisted historical accuracy works so well because, in reality, it is not that twisted at all. Everything in the novel is drawn from reality. Whitehead does not exaggerate or embellish the true horrors of white supremacy in America. We as readers travel with Cora throughout this country’s dark history and cannot look away at any point. It forces us to see the truth in both this fictional world and our own.
The novel’s chapters are organized by people and places. There are overviews of the states Cora travels through, and what happens to her in each state. Afterwards, the character-focused chapters explore the story of a single character; sometimes, it’s a seemingly minor character whose relevance in the plot appears to have ended. In practice, the character-based chapters provide insight to why each state is the way it is, and why these characters act the way they do. The characters inform the setting, and vice-versa. The novel’s first chapter is the story of Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother. She is sold and resold to different plantation owners, some disaster always befalling the people who owned her. She is forced to learn which white people are sadists bent on breaking their slaves, and which are complacent in simply owning other human beings. The many facets of white supremacy are revealed early on. The oppression of black people in different regions of America are explored in the state-focused chapters.
The two Carolinas are very different states in their approach to slavery and the treatment of black people. Yet in many ways, they are the same. South Carolina, the first state Cora stays in outside of Georgia, appears to be worlds better than her previous life. She gets to sleep in a bed for the first time in her life. She is taught how to write and read. While she is still owned by white people, she doesn’t experience the same daily torture she endured in Georgia. Yet this seemingly progressive society hides a dark truth. While it should be unsurprising considering they still endorse slavery, the white people South Carolina hate black people just as much as they do in other states. They just choose to be more subtle and coercive in their oppression. Cora visits the office of Dr. Stevens, who insists that she take birth control while declaring that it’s “her choice.” His medical work is reminiscent of forced sterilization and the Tuskegee experiment, while still couched in euphemisms and the illusion of choice. No choice exists anywhere for slaves, but by providing the appearance of free will, the white people can absolve themselves of blame. North Carolina is exponentially more forceful and less subtle as a white separatist state where all black people, and the white people who help them, are killed. South Carolina is the stealthy, coercive face of white supremacy while North Carolina is the loud and violent face of such racism.
Violence is laid bare for all to see in the text. The torture slaves endure is described in brutal detail, and it can be difficult to read. Yet, the reader cannot look away. One slave named Big Anthony is tortured and killed after his failed attempt at escape, and the slave owners make his execution into an event that spans three whole days. White plantation owners enjoy their dinners as they watch this man be whipped, mutilated, and ultimately burned alive. This is their entertainment. Other slaves, including Cora, are also made to bear witness to the event. The white people attending the horrific event can choose to leave whenever they want, or turn their heads away if they become sick of the carnage. The same is not true for the slaves, who must watch this man die and keep in their minds that the same could happen to them if they do not stay in line. While the violence is torturous in its detail, it never crosses the line into feeling grossly excessive. Whitehead knows what he is doing, and each brutal scene is necessary. The reader is forced to digest the reality of oppression, and is not given the opportunity to walk away. While we may overlook violent oppression in reality, we have no choice but to look it in the face here in The Underground Railroad.
In the modern times we live in, white supremacists have formed networks where they share their desires for ethnic cleansing and the “restoration” of white superiority. White supremacists are threatened by the social presence of minorities, and fear a nonexistent “white genocide.” These are the type of people who write for publications like The Daily Stormer and troll YouTube comment sections. The general public likes to believe that these racists have no true power. How could internet trolls who make memetic image macros about Hitler have any influence in society? The sad truth is that they do have this power. They may cover up their true colors in their everyday lives, but they can slip their insidious ideas into their everyday actions. They make an offensive joke at their workplace, and their coworkers laugh and shrug it off. They claim that all they want is to celebrate their “white heritage,” and people figure that they should be allowed that. Never mind the fact that there is no unifying white heritage and the concept of such is an invention of white supremacists. They hide behind the defense of tolerance, that you have no choice to accept their opinions even if they’re intolerant themselves. You may not be one of these people. You likely aren’t one of these people, if you’re reading this review and considering reading this novel. But these racists could exist in your social sphere without your knowledge.
The Underground Railroad is the harsh wake-up call all Americans need, particularly white Americans who have lived with privilege. As the station operator Lumbly states, riding the railroad will show the true face of America.