I was halfway through reading “The Underground Railroad” this past week when the American election results came through. It was difficult to do anything on that devastating day as I was so depressed, but I did keep reading Colson Whitehead’s novel because it took on an added poignancy. It merges a modern consciousness with representations of inequality, oppression and racial discrimination to create a new kind of historical novel about the struggle for freedom. It’s the tale of Cora who lives on a southern plantation owned by the Randall family in the 1820s. She’s invited by a fellow slave named Caesar to escape the enslavement of the south through a connection he has in The Underground Railroad. Her journey takes her through a number of states which all have distinct social characteristics and exhibit different forms of prejudice. Over time she’s pursued by vicious slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway who is motivated primarily by his belief that America belongs to whites and that he’s restoring order by profitably returning slaves to their owners. It’s a novel which is both fantastical for the way it invents a physical underground railroad used to transport escaped slaves and starkly realistic for the brutality with which slaves and abolitionists are suppressed, beaten and killed. Whitehead has created a story with phenomenal momentum and moving insights into our society.
We currently face at least four years of Trump leading America. Because his campaign was imbued with many overtly racist and isolationist statements, we’re going to have to keep asking ourselves over time: who does America belong to? The sentiment of Trump and many people who voted for him feels not too dissimilar from the logic of slavers in Whitehead’s novel: “If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.” A bi-racial writer, orator and intellectual named Lander in the story states at one point: “America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.” To many people’s astonishment here we are in Trump’s America, a country half filled with citizens who believe they are entitled to imprison, throw out or build a wall against anyone who is different. It’s a reactionary stance which will no doubt lead to further discrimination and animosity between factions of society. Whitehead shows how little these sentiments have changed in America over time.
It’s fascinating how Cora finds various levels of tyranny in the different states she lives in and at the plantation she’s born into. After losing her imposing grandmother and her mother runs away from the plantation, Cora is left vulnerably alone and must live in a place called the Hob which is for female outcasts within the community of slaves. Amongst the slave cabins “There was no recourse, were no laws but the ones rewritten every day.” Here she has to learn to protect herself and what belongs to her not only against the slave owners and fierce overseer, but the threatening individuals amongst the slaves. Once Cora finds her freedom she becomes attuned to other forms of oppression including becoming an actor in a museum simulating white people’s ideas of African communities and slaver ships, sterilization, and all out annihilation of the black population. The logic behind these methods is to quell the difficulty and complication of difference. Rather than embrace the challenges involved with trying to live together they are radically inhumane strategies to maintain white people’s sole ownership of America.
Cora inhabits a series of different possibilities for how America can deal with its historically racist past. In this way Whitehead plays with history to say something urgent about the present. It’s remarked that “She had never learned history proper, but sometimes one’s eyes are teacher enough.” Although we should learn as much about the past as possible, you don’t need a special knowledge of it to see that the ideologies and values exemplified by Trump and his supporters will lead to a dangerously fractious society. I was greatly moved by the way “The Underground Railroad” depicted Cora’s struggle for both a mental and physical independence within this viciously divided America. Her journey and intellectual development elucidates strategies for survival in a country plagued by such deeply embedded prejudice. It’s foolish to pretend this doesn’t exist: “Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade.” It is this country’s original sin. Whitehead brings alive a large cast of characters who present different points of view to form a disarming portrait of America past, present and future.