by Colson Whitehead, 2016
After languishing at nearly number 500 on the waitlist, The Underground Railroad finally came in at the library! Anyone who reads any sort of books is likely to have heard of this blessed-by-Oprah, National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize winner and I was experiencing an acute case of FOMO with this one. The only question I had was, would it live up to the hype?
The book centers around Cora and her attempts to escape slavery, first from the Randall plantation and then for the rest of her life. In this world Whitehead turns the historically metaphorical underground railroad into a literal one – there are crumbling stations and boxcars and station agents who are risking their lives to help slaves escape. Cora has something of a legacy about her, with her mother being the only slave to have successfully escaped Randall when Cora was a child, so when fellow slave Caesar gets it in his mind to attempt the same, he convinces Cora to come along for good luck.
The strength of the story lies not in the physical reimagining of the underground railroad – there was actually much less of that than I would have liked – but in Whitehead’s exposing of the myriad forms of black oppression Cora encounters in each town that she visits. I can imagine for some readers that this book will be the first time they’ve really stopped to think that, while slavery was officially abolished, whites have always worked to devise a system of oppression that threatens true black freedom at every turn. Eugenics, medical experiments, minstrel shows, so-called freedom trails lined with hanging bodies – these are not merely plot points in the book, but things that have happened.
They had gone to bed believing themselves free from white people’s control and commands about what they should do and be. That they managed their own affairs. But the women were still being herded and domesticated. Not pure merchandise as formerly, but livestock: bred, neutered.
I don’t want to spoil exactly how these ideas come into play, but I found myself nodding along with each new horrific development, simultaneously amazed and not, for I know these things to be true, and yet I can’t help but be shocked when I am forced to acknowledge our freedom’s constant peril.
My one criticism is that there is a certain coldness to the book, a standoffishness that never truly allows the reader to connect with the characters or feel they are experiencing emotions alongside them. I don’t know if that’s by design or if that’s just a facet of Whitehead’s style, but I imagine it will turn some readers off and that’s unfortunate. In mining the past for wrongs done against the black community, Whitehead inevitably leads us to consider how these very things continue today, only under a different name and a different shape. Segregation, police shootings, a disproportionate inmate population, lack of access to education – these are all ways that oppression has continued, even if we don’t call it slavery, even if we deem it lawful and look the other way and are erroneously told we are free.
If niggers were supposed to have their 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.
It’s a fair question as to whether we need to add another slave narrative to the canon of black literature. The subject has been approached and reimagined time and time again, but that is, in part, because we haven’t finished mining the depths of the cruelty inflicted on the people of a nation founded on the idea of freedom, nor have we finally escaped the effects of our historical bondage.
Slavery is a sin when whites were put to the yoke, but not the African. All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.
So, if the question is, “Is this book worthy? Does it need to be read?” I must say yes. For we cannot cease to contemplate the shackles around our wrists, whether literal or metaphorical, until we are truly free.