Thoughts: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

You know how sometimes the outside world seems to conspire to create these sort of teachable moments aimed solely at you? Where outside events are suddenly relevant to something private you’re doing or learning? Well, while I was reading The Underground Railroad, Kanye West said something almost comically ignorant about slavery.

Now, he’s absolutely not the first person to hold this sort of view – he would possibly be surprised at just how unoriginal this view is (and at the people who traditionally hold it) – but he’s in a unique position to have his words misused, and unfortunately will have to deal with that.

I wanted to wrap up this book and send it to him when I was finished, because if you really want to know how not-optional slavery was, you could do much worse than starting with The Underground Railroad.

As always, I want to reiterate that I am a white non-American, so if I don’t find “obvious” things familiar it’s not out of malice, it’s most likely because I am not from the US, and US history is not universal. I will also take the opportunity to say that the talk of race and racism which follows in the context of this book is US-centric – the rest of us have our own unique problems to work on, but this book and review aren’t about them. (Spoiler, but the UK’s time will come – Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge is also on my TBR list.)

So, starting from there, the underground railroad of the book’s title was a network of routes and safe houses used to help escaped slaves flee to free states and/or Canada. In the book, this railroad is a literal railway, literally underground, taking our protagonist Cora from place to place on her (mental, emotional and physical) journey out of slavery.

I will admit that through most of the book I wasn’t sure how much this device added except to streamline the journey – Cora is essentially safe between stations – but at the end I was blindsided by how well it worked. I think it might have been deliberate to leave it sort of ambiguous until the end, or maybe I’m just dim and it was a happy coincidence that I came to the same realisation as Cora at the same time.

Who builds anything indeed.

I sort of knew. Let’s say I suspected. But I, the book and Cora needed the actual reveal, for it to be said out loud. One of the most powerful scenes in the book. I won’t say too much.

I learned a lot about the sheer spite in those old laws, and inconsistent laws, and laws broken or not enforced. I learned a lot about what you have to do to keep people subjugated and make that subjugation acceptable to polite society. Whitehead’s white characters aren’t all villains and his black people aren’t all saints, nor does he resort to over-allegorising them. They all feel very human* – sometimes disappointingly so, when I wished they would be better, or terrifyingly so. He shows a wide range of people affected by and affecting slavery, while avoiding the feeling that each character is there to fit a certain slot. The slaves who know which side their bread is buttered, the kind-voiced eugenicists, the discouraged do-gooders, the driven-away and self-exiled and people who fold under beatings, the white saviour complexes, the reluctant helpers and the thrill-seeking activists. The progressives with charisma but no answers, and those who value their skin for it being their own, and not for its colour.

He deftly shows the hollowness of the white help offered to slaves, freed slaves and freemen. Not everyone, and not all the time, and not always maliciously meant, but it’s telling. Again and again Cora receives help and goodwill which is eagerly accepted, and which then gradually reveals its own motives. It shows clearly and sensitively why there’s been so little trust in American race relations from the start, and why, though it may feel unfair, being wary of well-meaning white people has always had something of survival instinct about it.

In South Carolina, for instance, when Cora is living as a free woman for the first time, she finds herself expected to participate in the maintenance of the black underclass. First she’s employed as a living exhibit in the local museum’s inaccurate tableaux of “life in Africa”, meant to educate the white population while sanitising away reality. This is a paid position, but it’s no less exploitative for that. Secondly she’s asked to reassure the other women she knows with regards to a voluntary sterilisation programme (and participate herself), of the kind that weren’t uncommon and are still** coming out of the woodwork.

It’s hard not to draw a parallel with Moses, the mean-spirited slave boss, who elevates his position beyond the daily misery by allying himself with the white people who inflict that misery. Cora has reached the top of what she can achieve as a lone black woman, and is now expected to make the choice to ally herself with the white population in order to raise her own status by helping keep the rest of the black population downtrodden.

And later on there’s another sort of parallel – Mingo’s choice of ideological and political progress at Valentine’s farm shows little solidarity with the black population. He sees them as coming from different cultures and disparate places and backgrounds (which is true, because the white slavers raided a variety of African countries and ethnic groups, but feels infuriatingly unfair) and therefore is out for himself and those like him. He would throw criminals and runaways (as opposed to him, who lawfully bought his way out of his own slavery due to a combination of hard work, determination and incredible, unimaginable luck) under the bus in order to appear more palatable to white society. But as has been noted by cleverer people than me: the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. And though it isn’t confirmed that he was the one to bring the fragile utopia of Valentine’s farm crashing down, I agree with Sybil that it probably was. The message is clear: you help everyone, or you help no one, and your activism is worthless. As long as slavery or racism exist, then no one is safe from it – you might use it for your own ends one day and the next find it turned on you.

With regards to the masters house and tools, the government purchase of slaves to confound slavecatchers and vigilantes is one of those things which is meant well, and indeed the only language such people understand (as long as the people are owned by someone they have no “legal” leg to stand on), but it opens the way for mistreatment later. Even if your ownership is relegated to a piece of paper in a file in a dusty room a hundred miles away, it’s not enough.

Cora’s journey from enslaved to free traces another path, if you imagine the events of the book to be the movements of a much larger, slower creature. Her own future is open-ended, though other survivors from Valentine’s farm are given flash-forwards to happier times, which lends weight to the idea that Cora’s story is a broader one. Her journey takes a sort of broad way through time, from the US’s past to its future, and if you look at it, you might be able to guess at where the US is now. Will it follow Colson’s narrative?

The future is still open to be built by someone, tunnelled through solid rock to open a route that other people can follow.


*I say “human” deliberately. Calling people who act in ways unacceptable to society “monsters” is unhelpful and lazy. It encourages a sort of complacency in our behaviour because we know we are “not monsters” and so we convince ourselves that we aren’t capable of badness, which is patently not true. We must decide to be good, and keep deciding it.

**See also Rebecca Skloot’s fantastic The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for more on the American medical profession’s crimes against the African-American population.

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