The Underground Railroad: A Novel by Colson Whitehead (New York: Doubleday, 2016. 320 pp)

Colson Whitehead was born in 1969 and raised in Manhattan. He attended Harvard College and afterward he began working as a reviewer for The Village Voice. Out of the gate, Whitehead’s fiction gained acclaim when his first novel, The Intuitionist, won the Quality Paperback Book Club’s New Voices Award. His work has earned him the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the PEN/Oakland Award, and a Whiting Writers Award. Also, Whitehead has received a MacArthur Fellowship and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

Victors Write History

History: Written by the Victors. We discuss such a phrase most often around our wars. As Americans, we imagine what history may look like after decisive victories. Some envisage what the world might look like if the Axis powers won World War II (The Man in the High Castle brings such an alternate reality to life).

This line of reasoning offers interesting “what-if” scenarios, but it neglects to submit a critical eye to the history we have written.

Too often, we assume our shared history as victorious Americans is a history of a protagonist, with God on our side.

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a shared history. And even more, American history adopts different meaning depending on your context.

Let’s Talk Context

In the year 2016, this contextualization of history states itself more strongly as various stakeholders to the American dream make the case for their voice being heard. On one side, the cross-section of America supporting Trump wants to see America becomes “great” again, suggesting in some way that the direction America takes contradicts the “proper” story of America.

On the other end, the Black Lives Matter movement presents a voice and story around a history untold for years. The advent of social media allows for marginalized voices to move toward the center and away from the margins. The shocking violence we see in recordings throughout the year is not a novel concept; instead, it finally has light shining on it.

With the various struggles around who gets to tell an American story, not to mention what that story might be, Colson Whitehead’s stunning work, The Underground Railroad seeks to open up stories around the American experience.

Cora as the American Experience

Highlighting the runaway slave, Cora, and her experiences with a literal Underground Railroad somewhat similar to what we imagine a proto-subway might be, Whitehead explores the various approaches to American history.

We become acquainted with Cora in Georgia, another slave on the Randall plantation, although her masters pay close attention to her since her mother represents the one successful runaway. Quickly, the reader discovers the common practices of the south, where human beings become divorced from humanity, instead living as a commercial product:

“In America the quirk was that people were things. Best to cut your losses on an old man who won’t survive a trip across the ocean. A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth. A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money” (6-7).

And as an object, the repercussions for running away are stark, violent, and short. Consider the punishment of this slave:

“On the third day, just after lunch, the hands were recalled from the fields, the washwomen and cooks and stable hands interrupted from their tasks, the house staff diverted from its maintenance. They gathered on the front lawn. Randall’s visitors sipped spiced rum as Big Anthony was doused with oil and roasted. The witnesses were spared his screams, as his manhood had been cut off on the first day, stuffed in his mouth, and sewn in. The stocks smoked, charred, and burned, the figures in the wood twisting in the flames as if alive” (47).

The Unending Plight

Once Cora finds the resolve to escape this hellish existence, the reader discovers the various indignities facing runaway slaves and free African Americans alike. Cora encounters South Carolina, a self-proclaimed enlightened state where free Black people interact freely with white people. And yet, Cora suffers shame in other ways. Her job includes reenacting the slave story for white visitors at an American history museum.

With the ever relentless pursuit of Ridgeway, the slave catcher, likely representing the power structures of the police force, Cora continues to run, observing the horrors of lynching while hiding away in North Carolina, and eventually seeing the fears white people have of “black advancement” in Indiana.

As Cora runs and Ridgeway pursues her, the reader discovers the many ways in which America attempts to walk away from and come to terms with its slavery origins.

Yet Here We Are

In a stunning passage, Whitehead summarizes the tension poetically when he states,

“And 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 there we are” (285).

And so we turn back to the question of history. History, likely, is and will continue to be written by the victors. But as we consider the variety of lenses through which we view history, we should continue to understand what history means for the powerful and the powerless. And as Whitehead reinforces consistently in The Underground Railroad, let’s question our story consistently, so that we can make sure we tell a story that accounts for everyone, not just a powerful and vocal subset.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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