A Look at Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”: The Antebellum Era

Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Published: 2016
Genre: Alternate History


Cora is a young slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is on the cusp of womanhood — where greater pain awaits. And so when Caesar, a slave who has recently arrived from Virginia, urges her to join him on the Underground Railroad, she seizes the opportunity and escapes with him. In Colson Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering, like Gulliver, strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the terrors of the antebellum era, he weaves in the saga of our nation, from the brutal abduction of African to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is the gripping tale of one woman’s will to escape the horrors of bondage — and a powerful meditation on the history we all share.

The Antebellum Era: In an Evil World, Nowhere is Safe

Reading slave narratives, at least for me, is a bittersweet ordeal. On one hand, I get to marvel at usually excellent writing, vivid storytelling, and compelling characters, which result in great works of literature like Kindred by Octavia Butler. On the other hand, reading about the horrors of slavery doesn’t necessarily make for “fun” reading experiences, and as a Black person who witnesses the long-lasting legacy of slavery on a routine basis — institutional racism, mass incarceration, police brutality, etc. — slave narratives are almost always sour reminders that America has not really moved far beyond the antebellum era at all.

With that being said, I can say that I enjoyed Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, about as much as there’s enjoyment to be gleaned from a horror movie whose goal is to terrify its viewers. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Whitehead reimagines the Underground Railroad — the name given to the network of secret routes and safe houses masterminded by abolitionists of the 1800s to help enslaved African Americans find safe passage to free states — as a literal train transport system, running under the earth through massive tunnels excavated by former slaves and operated by a network of both abolitionists and liberal-minded allies.

The story centers around an enslaved girl named Cora, who, persuaded by a fellow slave named Caesar, runs away from the brutal Randall plantation, as she believes her mother had done years ago. They link up with a man named Fletcher, who leads them to another man named Lumbly, an agent of the Underground Railroad who operates a station located under his barn. From there, Cora’s journey takes her across the American countryside as she seeks freedom and refuge from recapture, as she is being tailed by infamous slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway, who remains haunted by his inability to capture Cora’s mother and makes finding Cora a personal vendetta.

Part of what Cora learns at each leg of her long journey is that, regardless of how far she thinks she is from the horrors of bondage, she is never really that far at all — in an evil world, nowhere is safe. At their first stop along the Underground Railroad in South Carolina, Cora and Caesar are impressed by what they perceive as a more “progressive” society — black and white people not just coexisting, but intermingling, as they are continuously fed the narrative about South Carolina’s emphasis on “negro uplift.” But as Cora settles in, she becomes more aware of how insidious racism can be: through the use of “public health programs,” the South Carolina government is strategically sterilizing Black women and conducting disease experiments on Black men. The concept of “negro uplift” was merely ploy.

The South Carolina chains were of new manufacture—the keys and tumblers marked by regional design—but accomplished the purpose of chains. They had not traveled very far at all.

After Ridgeway’s arrival ends her stint in South Carolina, Cora takes the Underground Railroad to a stop in North Carolina, a place where the cruel irony of racism continues — every racist act of horror is given an upstanding name. The “Freedom Trail” is a wagon path lined by the bodies of dead African Americans; “Friday Festivals” are weekly public lynchings; the “Justice Convention” is the scheme to replace slaves with indentured European servants and, essentially, criminalize the existence of African Americans within the state borders. Because of this, the entirety of her stay in North Carolina is spent, literally, in an attic, as setting foot outside is almost guaranteed death for her and agent who houses her.

Cora’s journey also takes her up to Indiana, where she finds a farm, owned by a man named Valentine, that serves as a safe haven and an oasis for both freemen and fugitive slaves to thrive. But at every turn of her journey, there is Ridgeway, always chasing her down and even momentarily capturing her, constantly serving as a reminder that, again, there are no safe spaces for Black people in a racist country.

…The way poor Michael reciting the Declaration of Independence was an echo of something that existed elsewhere. Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the document described anything real at all…

One of the most important symbols in the Underground Railroad is the railroad system itself. Back in Georgia, at Lumbly’s station, he told Cora and Caesar that if they “want to see what this nation is all about…you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” But, as Cora recalls later on in the novel, since the trains run underground, she never got to see anything outside her windows (“It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows of her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.”).

I interpreted this in a couple ways: firstly, the railroad running underground describes how Black Americans do not get to experience the same “America” that white Americans do; the full breadth of America’s “wonders” and “possibilities” were really only intended for white people to have access to, while the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and people of color have been dark and a lot less glamorous. And secondly, the railroad systems (above ground and underground), which were mined and constructed by enslaved African Americans, could be a metaphor for how Black people are actually the real “faces of America”, seeing as to how the products of Black labor are all around us. Blackness is the very foundation on which this country was built on, of which it is continuously exploited.

Rating: ★★★★☆ (4 stars out of 5)

Read also: Another Look at “The Underground Railroad”: The American Imperative

Did you read this novel? If so, how did you feel about it? What elements of the story resonated with you the most?


Published by Bryan-O

Nigerian-American | Dallas, TX

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