The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a young slave, who escapes a Georgia plantation hoping to hop a ride to freedom on the Underground Railroad. What she discovers is that freedom’s journey has many obstacles. At the end of the story, after suffering psychological and physical harm along the way, we find her continuing her flight still hoping to reach freedom’s promised land.
This novel is an allegory of sorts. It begins offering a harsh portrait of life under slavery; but when Cora leaves the plantation, she moves into an imagined world, still harsh, meant it seems to teach the reader about the dangers of placing one’s hopes on whites.
Cora is transported north, as the title implies, on the Underground Railroad. Only in Whitehead’s fictional world, it is a real railroad with tracks, trains, and conductors. The reader might ask why doesn’t he reproduce the actual system? One answer might be because the journey he creates takes Cora to fictional places.
Cora’s journey takes her to several states where whites seem to be competing to see who can devise the most pernicious use of former slaves. In one state, they are allowed to live without chains and overseers, but for the purpose of cleansing them of rebelliousness by sterilization; in another state, no blacks may remain inside the state’s borders and those who are caught are hung in weekly celebrations. The culminating insult to Cora’s hopes, however, comes in the closing chapters when she lands on a prosperous farm run by freeborn and runaway blacks in the free state of Indiana. This turns out to be another false way station, however, when the farm’s occupants, except for Cora, are decimated by its white neighbors.
Cora seems to embody Whitehead’s personal quest for liberty from the ravages of slavery. Of course, he can only imagine what slavery was like just as I can only imagine what my relatives experienced in the Shoah (the Holocaust). In creating an artificial underground railroad leading to fictional destinations in order to highlight the complicity of whites in keeping blacks down, however, hasn’t he undermined his description of slavery in the early chapters? Can that portrait be accurate if the world after her escape is totally artificial?
The novel is presented in twelve sections. Not all are contiguous in time or place, which works with the exception of one section––entitled “Stevens”––five and a half pages devoted to an entirely separate topic––the practice of grave robbing in the north to provide cadavers for medical schools. In this section, the characters, including a would-be doctor, focus their efforts on robbing the last resting place of blacks. One has to assume Whitehead read something that documented this practice and concluded it needed to see the light of day despite the fact this section has little connection to the rest of the story.
While overall well-written, there were too many times when I had to re-read paragraphs where he jumps around in time and viewpoint. Yet, there is also much to praise in his writing. His characters are unique, his descriptions fresh, and the dialogue is griping.
The danger of Whitehead’s fictional treatment of slavery and the system of people who risked their lives to transport escaped slaves north to freedom is that some people will take it as historically accurate. Rather he treats slavery from the contemporary perspective as a function of white racism rather than how it actually existed as an institution in which people, white and black, were trapped not as a result of hate or “racism,” but rather out of historical, social and economic necessity.
There are almost no good “white” people in The Underground Railroad. There are a few who participate in the railroad, but they are both peculiar and too weak to stop the whites who made it their life’s work to capture runaways.
I haven’t read any of Whitehead’s other works, but based on this novel, I have to conclude that his awards and high recognition are based on his choice of subject matter and the fact that he rubs slavery in the face of the citizens of that nation where the offspring of African slaves have risen the highest. White guilt is easy to exploit these days.
People who are interested in the real story of slavery and its aftermath can find plenty of histories. Certainly histories can be distorted by writers’ biases, but histories are subject to professional review and as such, errors of fact, omissions, and overemphasis are usually brought to light. Fiction is treated through a different lens. Does it seem plausible? Does it fit how I wish things were or are? Fiction can offer a different kind of truth, but should not be taken to represent what actually happened.
Whitehead’s Underground Railroad never existed. Whether it serves as an object lesson in white/black relations each reader must decide for his or herself.