Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is sitting atop the NYT bestsellers chart and is an Oprah pick. It is an amazing novel about race, injustice and the American way. The story of a slave named Cora’s quest for freedom from slavery is also the story of America’s racism throughout history. Whitehead imagines a mid-nineteenth century America where the Underground Railroad was an actual physical railroad existing beneath the earth. As Cora’s first station master says, 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. As Cora travels, she will see the breadth of racism and injustice and its varying manifestations. And Cora will be pursued incessantly by the “patroller” Ridgeway, a man who represents the “American Imperative”.
The novel begins on the Randall plantation in Georgia, where Cora, even among slaves, is an outsider, a “stray.” Her mother Mabel was the only slave to have escaped without recapture, a fact that the slave catcher/patroller Ridgeway takes personally. Mabel left Cora, then age 10, behind, and Cora resents her mother for this. As a small child among other slaves, she could be easily manipulated and outmaneuvered, but Cora shows an incredible strength of will that astounds and frightens others. After standing up to a much stronger man to defend what’s hers, Cora thinks, You may get the better of me, but it will cost you. Cora, while living on the plantation, is not of the plantation. She is her own. She is eventually exiled to the “Hob,” the slave cabin for damaged women. Cora is a loner and is surprised when Casear approaches her to run away. She initially declines, but after a horrifying event and a change in plantation ownership, she and Caesar make their break. A series of misfortunes along the way threaten the success of the plan, and Cora kills a teenaged white boy after being ambushed, but she and Caesar eventually make it to the first station.
Cora will visit several places throughout the novel, including South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana. Each stop has a different way of dealing with race, all of them problematic in their own way. After the slavery of Georgia, Cora encounters a more progressive way of life for people of color in South Carolina. The black community there seems to have it all — community living with dorms and health care, education, good jobs. It’s tempting to stay and make a life here, but Cora increasingly senses something is amiss, and it’s the local station master Sam who tips her and Caesar off as to what is really happening. In North Carolina, the situation is horrifying; they didn’t just abolish slavery, they outlawed people of color entirely. Labor is now done by indentured servants from Ireland. It is illegal for a person of color to set foot in the state. Friday night festivities in each community include lynchings on the green, and whites who help fugitives are also killed. Patrollers may stop anyone and search any dwelling at any time they choose. In Indiana, a commune has been established on a farm, by and for people of color. But even this community, which experiences success, faces resentment from white neighbors and division from within about the best direction moving forward.
Whitehead’s way of showing relationships between black and white people and among black people gives readers much to consider. The whites who “help” Cora and other people of color aren’t always very helpful and/or have some questionable motives. Others are of course just horrible and hateful, like the Randalls and Ridgeway, but as Cora notes, there were plenty of hateful white faces elsewhere that just were part of a larger crowd, Round white faces like an endless field of cotton bolls, all the same material. How would one know whom to trust? The black community doesn’t get a free pass though either. On the plantation, Cora was ostracized and abused by other slaves. White men eat you up, but sometimes colored folk eat you up, too. In Indiana, the division within the community followed arguments and philosophies that one might recognize from more contemporary discussions of race. From one member of the commune who bought his wife, daughters and himself out of slavery, we hear:
We accomplished the impossible …but not everyone has the character we do. We’re not all going to make it. Some of us are too far gone.
The speaker goes on to criticize those who drink, don’t work, lack “self-respect” and who have committed crimes that bring negative attention and resentment toward the farm. Such people need to be cut loose. Others, however, take a more comprehensive view of the farm and who should be welcomed there.
The most terrifying, and an incredibly compelling, character in the novel is Ridgeway. Whitehead develops his backstory and character, along with his relentless pursuit of Cora, throughout the story. Ridgeway is embarrassed and ashamed that Mabel escaped him and he is determined that Cora will not. Ridgeway examines and explains his own character. He has always been ambitious; he recognizes his father’s skill and talent for iron working but sees that this is not where he will excel. He abhorred his father’s belief in the Great Spirit that dwells within and unites all things. Ridgeway is a creature of power and heat; he is an enforcer operating both inside the rules and outside them. He is unbridled power and he revels in his ability to stop anyone and harass them at will, whether free or slave, guilty or not. On two occasions, Ridgeway expounds upon the “American Imperative,” which is manifest destiny, might makes right, a justification for every abomination committed in the name of American greatness.
Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor — if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American Imperative.
I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that which needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription — the American Imperative.
And Ridgeway, the powerful American hunger to conquer and dominate, is always finding Cora; he is everywhere, he is what Cora sees and flees. Is he the real America? Look at our political landscape today and see Ridgeway everywhere.
The end of this novel is quite powerful. Cora is indomitable but so are her foes. Has she reached the end of the tunnel? Have we as a nation? This is a mind blowing novel, worthy of community reads.