The underground railway of Colson Whitehead’s title refers to the network of abolitionists and sympathisers who helped American slaves escape to free states. In reality, it was not a railway at all – of course, it was a metaphor – but in Whitehead’s portrayal of the slave culture of predominantly southern American states of the early nineteenth century, the railway is a real railway. Whitehead never burdens his story with how the railway was constructed or maintained, or indeed, how the problems of ventilation of coal-fired steam trains underground are solved. It remains a mystery. It doesn’t matter. There are slight elements of magical realism in this. All Cora’s journeys on the underground railway are strangely divorced from reality, moving through a darkened, disembodied world. It’s a little like Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, in which doors appear in the fabric of reality, allowing refugees to be magically transported about the world. Sometimes it takes one change, one assumption about the way the world is, to be overturned, to question other assumptions.
The Underground Railway is the story of Cora’s escape from Terrance Randall’s farm. Long ago, when Cora was just a child, her mother disappeared in the night and was never recaptured. Her escape is legendary, as well as a thorn in the side of professional slave catcher, Arnold Ridgeway. When Cora escapes with Caesar and Lovey, Ridgeway makes it his personal mission to track them down. The story follows the stages of Cora’s bid for freedom, from her first arrival in South Carolina where she is given nominal freedom and lives as a boarder and works as a part of an exhibit in a natural history museum, to her long imprisonment in the attic of Martin and Ethel, a well-meaning couple, to avoid capture, to the utopian possibilities of Valentine’s farm, run by blacks.
Unlike Alex Haley’s Roots, which purported to be a true account of an African-American family’s history, The Underground Railway is decidedly fictional. The railway itself, while assuming a ‘reality’, is a device that allows Whitehead to do what non-fiction accounts cannot. The railway is both a real railway as well as a metaphor transformed, of America as a benighted country with a dark soul.
America was a ghost in the darkness, Cora thinks, when she meditates upon the importance of the Declaration of Independence, a document that haunts this work:
Lumbly’s words returned to her: If you 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. It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.
It was this aspect of the novel that stuck with me the most. Apart from the personal story of Cora and the horrors of the slave trade, the book is important because it engages with the problem of what America means. Just as the promise of the French Revolution, an event spurred by Enlightenment ideals, quickly degenerated into terror and war, the American experiment was full of its own contradictions.
The Declaration is like a map, Georgina, a school mistress, tells Cora. And like a map, it may be followed or misread. The irony that the founding fathers, even Jefferson who wrote the declaration, kept slaves, is pertinent. The high ideals of equality espoused by the Declaration are interrogated by the novel. On one hand there is Ridgeway’s dogma which explains a lot about the founding of America: the notion of the American Imperative and Manifest Destiny, represented as quasi-Enlightenment principles that sanctify the breaking of America’s ideals from its very inception. Ridgeway reasons:
If niggers were supposed to have freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.
Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.
He later tells Cora:
“…I prefer the American spirit [to indigenous spirituality], the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilise. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny is by divine prescription – the American imperative.”
The Manifest Destiny of white civilisation is validated by scripture. But it is a specific reading of scripture which excludes negroes from claiming their humanity, instead conflating their existence with the biblical sons of Ham
with black skin and tails, their supposed inhumanity thereby justifying their inhuman treatment:
the women were still being herded and domesticated. Not pure merchandise as formerly but livestock: bred, neutered. Penned in dormitories that were like coops or hutches.
In telling Cora’s story Whitehead identifies the keystones of racial oppression: not just the brutal force of the system wielded through tortures by men like Ridgeway, but the ideological underpinnings that use force to repress a coloured voice. I think this explains the attention given to reading in the novel, from the slave boy, Michael, who could recite the Declaration of Independence, but ironically turns out to have died from a beating before Terrence can be entertained by this parlour trick, to the library of the Valentine farm which is political dynamite:
…If they kill a slave for learning his letters, how do you think they feel about a library? We’re in a room brimming with ideas. Too many ideas for a coloured man. Or woman.
It is telling that Cora’s response is to reject religion as a distraction from the root problem of the machinery of slavery. In fact, Cora expresses her understanding of the slave system as a machine throughout the novel:
It was the engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood…;
[religion] distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world… Instead, what reading Cora does is consumed by Almanacs, devoid of ideology or poetry, describing a physical, not a moral or spiritual universe:
Versifying left her cold. Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed…
This is a powerful book, both for its ideas and the story it tells. The story has strong characterisations. It is brutal and it has the power to surprise and fascinate. It is a clear empathetic connection to a world and a set of ideals that built America and continues to plague it in its strained race relations, as well as an insight into other white cultures. Highly recommended.
“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest 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.”