The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

By | on October 30, 2017 | 0 Comment

This is the third of my readings from the 2017 Man Booker longlist, including the winner, Lincoln in the Bardo and Exit West. I didn’t intend to read three “fantasy” novels in a row; the Man Booker jury had more to do with that than I did. Contemporary fiction still divides itself between realist fiction and narratives with strong fantasy or surrealist elements.

It’s mostly the case that readers of realist fiction won’t touch the crazier stuff, crazy in the sense of stories that directly contradict what we know about conventional reality. And there are many readers of fantasy fiction who are not interested in fiction without the paradox of not making sense in our world.

Should I be disturbed if all three novels hit the escape hatch of unbelievability? Is it a bad sign, a sign of decadence and decline, when a civilization feels it must take narrative opium? Forget about solving our problems, which we can’t do. Let’s just dream them away. Maybe it’s the equivalent of staying home playing video games when you could be downtown meeting friends or having new experiences.

In Colson Whitehead’s book the underground railroad turns out to be a physical network of underground tracks, which reminded me of the subway. Escaped slaves would take a secret subway line out of the slave-holding states if they were lucky enough to find the hidden trains.

Now I can be a dumb-ass also. When I heard, growing up, that there was an underground railway that aided escaped slaves, at first, I thought “a train?”. But then I realized it wasn’t an “actual” train but a network of escape routes. In Hamid’s Exit West illegal immigrants discover “black doors” which quantum leap them to the West, much to the West’s frustration. It’s never explained how the black doors came to be. But why bother to explain it? It’s not going to make sense anyway.

Hamid’s black doors and Whitehead’s underground railway lines do have the advantage of jump starting their stories at critical junctures. There’s so much segueing that you don’t have to do if you imagine fantastical things. And then there’s the wonder. Like you’re a child again. But do you want to be a child again?

I rate Hamid high because he is storytelling about a contemporary problem, the flight to the West by dispossessed groups. There’s something that bothers me about historical fiction or film. It tends to be a rehearsal of accepted pieties. We all know that slavery was infamous, do we need to rehearse the fact?

But Whitehead’s book brought Ken Burns celebrated Civil War series to mind, which talks about slavery with white gloves on. Attending to the details of that series, the slavery of African Americans becomes an abstract factor contributing to civil war, and it’s viewed from a hazy, bland perspective as something that affected “other folks”.

The Underground Railroad liberates us from that myopia. It’s dense, detailed and experiential, systematically involving us in slavery as it was lived, an antidote to just conceptualizing people’s suffering. Whitehead has a gift for telling his story at point blank range.

Each chapter is named after a person or a state. The last of the 12 chapters is called “The North” and represents an all-encompassing final journey. From Ajarry, the first chapter, through Mabel, the penultimate chapter runs Cora’s family line. Cora is Mabel’s daughter, abandoned in desperation and hating her mother for leaving her on the Georgia plantation dystopia where she is enslaved.

Georgia is a chapter name. The other “states” are South and North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana. In each state Cora is treated differently, either subject to slavery, or eugenics, or being a hideaway fugitive slave in her own version of Anne Frank, or being free in a vulnerable African American community. Although all the states are horror stories, each nightmare exacts its own form of humiliation. Perhaps the last, Indiana, is the worst in that it is also the vessel of so much hope.

It’s Ridgeway, the slave hunter and vilest character in a book full of them, that has a racist spin on manifest destiny, the doctrine of American expansionism. The war between white and black is unceasing in this take, and what the white race can’t control it’s determined to destroy. You can’t look at American exceptionalism the same way if you read this book.

You can’t look at slavery the same way either. It’s someone beating you because they can and because you’ve made a harmless error. It’s Cora throwing herself over an innocent boy being cane whipped by his owner and taking the crippling blows herself. It’s family saying goodbye because some master decides to sell family members. It’s having your eyes put out by your employer if you’re caught looking at a book as if you’d like to read it. It’s being slept with because you are property.

At the end of the book Colson has an acknowledgement section of source materials, including the life stories of former slaves. I’d like to read that material and more. It’s a good remedy for when you hear about the apologists for the old South saying that the slaves mostly loved plantation life or who want to keep those statues up. That’s somewhat on a par with those who say the Holocaust never happened.

Here’s the bottom line. You must defend the “country of books” so that you can own your own mind; you must own your history and own your identity.

Because if you don’t, you may end up as just another abstraction in someone else’s documentary.


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