The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, 2016)


I learned the basics of American slavery in high school history class. It was, well, history, distant and cold. I relished Gone with the Wind with its romanticized depiction of how slaves were incorporated into family life and stayed loyal to their masters, even during the Civil War. I shuddered at the horrific depiction of slavery in the remarkable film Twelve Years a Slave. And last year, I re-read and reviewed Alex Haley's classic Roots, based on the oral tradition that Haley's family had passed down through its generations, starting with a free man named Kunte Kunte who was stolen from Africa and finishing with Haley's family in modern times. But as an American, 150 years removed from Emancipation Proclamation, I've never felt the wallop of what it meant to be a slave until I read Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad.

And, there is something even more important than understanding the horrors of slavery that shines through Whitehead's masterpiece. While one would expect that by 2017 America, with its artful Declaration of Independence, referred to often in The Underground Railroad, race relations would have improved vastly since emancipation, but in so many ways inter-racial compatibility, understanding, and even friendship is still a dream deferred. Although Whitehead's book isn't about America today, it is the note that resonates in our minds as we take the metaphoric journey on The Underground Railroad.

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In this grueling story of a third generation slave, Cora, Whitehead prods the reader along on a journey to freedom that is harrowing and forces the reader to face what it means to be free. Cora's grandmother, Ajarry, who had been stolen from West Africa, twice tries to commit suicide on her journey to an unknown world. The narrative explains, “Ajarry didn't even make it to the gunwale when she tried to jump overboard. Her piteous aspect, recognizable from thousands of slaves before her, betrayed her intentions. Chained head to toe, head to toe, in exponential misery.” (p. 4) After being sold several times, Ajarry ends up on the Randall plantation in Georgia where she bears five children, only one of whom lives past the age of ten.

Whitehead describes Ajarry's death in this poignant passage, “Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean. The last of her village, keeled over in the rows from a knot in her brain, blood pouring from her nose and white froth covering her lips. As if it could have been anywhere else. Liberty was reserved for other people, for the citizens of the City of Pennsylvania bustling a thousand miles to the north.” (p.9) Only in her death is Ajarry finally free again.

Mabel, Ajarry's surviving child, and mother of the protagonist, Cora, manages an uncanny feat; she escapes off the Randall property, abandoning her child to the cruelties of life as a slave. The target of a slave tracker named Ridgeway, Mabel becomes the wrath of her nemesis as she is the only slave to ever slip away from him. She also becomes a symbol of bitterness to the daughter who cannot fathom how her mother could leave her only child to a life in chains. The pressure of that abandonment weighs heavy in the story until Whitehead artfully reveals Mabel's shocking fate as a slave on the run.

Ridgeway, who hangs around with an Indian scout who proudly wears a string of shriveled ears on a cord around his neck, is as relentless as Inspector Javert in Les Miserables, driven by an enormous ego to catch his prey. Ridgeway views the thrill of the chase as his mission, as he seeks to defend “The American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer, to build, and civilize. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription---the American imperative.” (p. 266) It is in this painful statement that all Americans must question, what is the American imperative that we want as move forward in these dark times?

Whitehead's description of the fate of an escaped slave, Big Anthony, who is returned to the plantation is so graphic that it is stomach churning, and it stays in the reader's mind with every step of Cora's decision to take her chances and run away with two of her friends, Caesar and Lovey. While Caesar seems worldly wise and introduces Cora to the Underground Railroad, Lovey is so simple-minded and childlike in her world view that the sense of loss looms over her from the onset of the journey to freedom. Despite knowing what her fate would be if she were caught and returned to the plantation, Cora moves through several states. While each one appears to hold promise and sanctuary in the beginning, Cora faces the shock of the plans of North and South Carolinians to sterilize or murder blacks into oblivion. There is no retreat from planned annihilation.

It should be mentioned that Whitehead's depiction of the Underground Railroad does not follow the trail of the abolitionists who assisted escaped slaves through a series of hidden passages that led East. Rather Cora and Caesar's journey can be likened to Alice's fall through the rabbit hole, leading her to a series of strange and threatening adventures.

A final note on Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize winning novel; the prose is elegant, poetic, and his workmanship to get each word right is obvious in the beauty of so many thought provoking passages. There are so many formulaic best selling writers on the weekly list of the New York Times, which is okay because such novels serve their purpose. However, to find a book that is crafted carefully, in plot, theme, character development, and word smithing is a powerful thing. The Underground Railroad will provide the reader with thought provoking passages and ideas that are worthy of meaningful and enlightening conversations.