“In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”
History is challenged and ripped apart by Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Underground Railroad.” To me, these three words combined represented a tight-knit community who offer a safe passage to the North. It represented a community who genuinely cared for the well-being of the slaves- even as I am typing this, I can hear Cora scoffing at my words- so I won’t continue. Instead of this very peachy picture, Whitehead shows The Underground Railroad as a trapdoor leading to nothing but darkness. The only escape it offers is a chance; perhaps an unreliable train cart will pass by and pick up the individual, perhaps the darkness will lead to a better light, the next stop might be better than the last one- or perhaps the house above will be burned to the ground, or white men will follow you down into the darkness… or the next stop would offer you a front row seat to watch your fellowmen be lynched. Yes, it was a chance; nothing but uncertainty. The only truth that overlaps both Whitehead’s version and my peachy Canadian version is- lives were at stake with the concept of The Underground Railroad.
Whitehead chooses a protagonist who is a survivor. She is a girl who is forced into womanhood too early. On one hand, she tills the land, tries to keep to herself; on the other, she knows when to fight and when to hide, when to kill and when to endure physical pain- Cora is the face of freedom. We witness her trials throughout the novel, and catch ourselves asking- can she not get a break? Ever? We watch her remain stone-faced when her sympathizers and companions are defeated by injustice. Through her eyes, we learn that doctors appearing sympathetic are performing experiments on negro bodies; we learn how the land of America is paved with tears, bloodstains, and sweat; we learn not to trust sunny days and rainbows; we learn that nothing is guaranteed. Yet, throughout all this strife, Whitehead seemed to be teaching me a lesson- Freedom comes at a high price- a lesson I can never forget.
The landscape in the novel depict the contrasts between Slave owner to Slave Owner and State to State. The temperaments of both Randall brothers are as contrast as day and night. Unfortunately, for Cora, her somewhat lenient slave owner dies and leaves his estate to his brother. The change in regime, along with help of a rape, nudges Cora to seek Freedom- as her mother did before her.
Her first stop is in North Carolina. The surface of this state shows a community who seems to be more tolerant of the free black population. The free slaves have reputable work- nannies for the rich and/or factory workers. In fact, this calm surface appeals to Cora and she chooses to stay- longer than expected. Yet, she soon learns of the horrifying experiments being conducted, the glorious version of slavery being taught in exhibits- the falsehoods keep multiplying. Cora is employed as an “actor” in one of the exhibits, where she is put on display for the amusement of the white community. Not long after she learns the truth about North Carolina, that she finds herself on the run towards Freedom again.
South Carolina seems to be very “clean” but “strange”. When she arrives, she is not greeted with a warm welcome by the Railroad conductor, instead, she is hidden in a nook in his attic. She is given a bucket to relieve herself, and her freedom is confined to space she can’t even sit up in! However, she does have a front row seat to a beautiful green park. Cora enjoys the freedom her imagination, and the almanacs provide. This restricted freedom is ripped away from her when she first witnesses a hanging in the beautiful park. Oh- did I forget to mention? There are no visible living Blacks in South Carolina…the road to Freedom is paved with corpses (quite literally).
Tennessee offers Cora a grim picture of reality, while Indiana offers her a delusion. A delusion so convincing, that I naively thought it might be the beginning of her happy ending.
Page after page, chapter after chapter, Whitehead keeps reminding us of a complex paradox on American Freedom– Brace yourself, the following is a compilation of random thoughts he’s triggered.
Slaves lack Freedom- this is what makes them Slaves. Slave Owners have Freedom- which gives them an advantage. Blacks crave a taste of White Freedom. The White Man fears the certainty of his Freedom if he shares it with the Black man. All the inhumanity spread in the name of Freedom is justified because we are not equals. Black Humans do not deserve Freedom. If any of this is true, then I think it is safe to say that we Humans are not worthy of Freedom. If Freedom comes at the cost of another’s life- what good is it? We constantly torture each other, abuse and intimidate one another- what makes our right to be free more worthy of their right to be free? Let’s take it a step farther, Are we ever truly free? Or is it in Death, that we are all equal and free?
This novel left me speechless. I finished reading it in my office at work, during lunch…and I found myself shaken to the core when it ended. If you have been craving a read that would challenge you to feel like you’ve never felt before, to awaken memories of generations before you, please take a step into your local bookstore or library- and pick this book up from the shelf. Colson Whitehead, Thank You for giving a voice to all the forgotten memories of our elder generations.
Side note- this was one of the most difficult reviews I’ve had to write. This book created an internal emotional chaos; a chaos that I still haven’t been able to untangle. At the beginning of this blog, I had no idea where it would lead, and even now, I think I have neglected to mention all the other layers of the writing on these pages. However, I am hoping I have created enough interest in the book for you to go and pick it up. You will not be disappointed.