Colson Whitehead’s Slavery Novel “The Underground Railroad”: A Ferocious History of the Present

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If you want to read a really insightful and incisive review of Colson Whitehead’s deeply disturbing and sneakily-complex new novel, The Underground Railroad, you could do a lot worse than reading Adam Gopnik’s review of a new book on the Attica uprising in last week’s New Yorker. In talking about the slaughter that ensued when the state police, national guard and (tellingly) other prison guards took back the jail from the nearly all-black inmates, Gopnik writes:

In a curious way, the psychology of the (almost exclusively white) troopers and guards, more than the ideology of the inmates, seems most haunting now, as part of the permanent picture of American fixations. The inmates were doing what anyone would do in their situation: having seen a protest turn unexpectedly into a revolt that was sure to be short-lived, they desperately improvised a way to keep their dignity and be heard, to avoid the worst punishment and get some small reforms. Their occasionally overblown rhetoric was the act of men who, stripped of dignity, try to reclaim it. But the troopers and guards retaking the prison were indulging an orgy of racist violence neither ordered nor wholly explicable. There was no need for them to conduct a massacre to reassert their authority. They had all the firepower; the prisoners were armed only with homemade knives; the guards had control of the yard within minutes. Nor were they, so far as anyone can detect, under direct commands to kill. In an American tale already known fully to Mark Twain, a white ethnic proletariat could distinguish itself as superior only by its ability to be brutal to a still more subordinate class of color. When its members were denied their exercise of this “right,” they turned crazy and violent.

If you want to learn more about the novel, look at any Blue Lives Matter Facebook group, flip to a Trump rally, or read some hot takes on Colin Kaepernick. These will tell you as much about Whitehead’s book as any discussion of the past, because, while it is meticulously detailed, and unflinching in its cruelty, Whitehead is describing an American obsession with race, with oppression, and with the assertion of might. The novel isn’t a metaphor for today– it isn’t secretly about Michael Brown or Garfield Park– but it is all the more harrowing because of that. It doesn’t need to be. The story barely changes.

Whitehead is one of the more interesting and elusive contemporary novelists. Go ahead and describe some of his novels. The Intuitionist, about rival schools of elevator repair in a not-quite-our-New York (which was really about race and gender, but also about elevators). John Henry Days, in which junket men cynically watched an American story and the way history distorts toward the present. Zone One, a zombie book about, well, zombies. His books are funny and weird and always with a deep sadness in them. They are never “about” something, as much as they contain 10,000 buried stories.

Which is why it could seem like this is a strict message book, and in many ways, it is: it’s Oprah-approved, and patently about the horrors of slavery. It’s set in varied levels of hell throughout the pre-war South. The year is never said, but context clues would put it at no earlier than the late 1830s, I think. We flash briefly to a child character in her old age during WWI, which seems impossible, but that’s because we never really recognize that the past, that America’s buried past, is really right behind us.

That’s a lesson that the book’s protagonist, Cora, both knows instinctively through the intolerable suffering of her life, and that she learns more explicitly in her travels (minor spoilers, but nothing more than a book jacket will give you). Cora was born into slavery in a Georgia plantation, her mother an unfound runaway, her father dead before she was born. Orphaned, her life was doubly cruel, and she had few protectors, and had to fight for what was hers: a tiny patch of a garden that her grandmother, kidnapped in Africa and brought to America, scratched out decades before.

Life on the plantation is nearly-endless misery, as it would have been. Run by two brothers, one garden-level indifferent to the humanity of his slaves, and one drunkenly sadistic (think Fassbender in Twelve Years a Slave), it’s a place where humans are worked to death, and where they are often outlandishly tortured.

One of the powers of Whitehead’s book is that it doesn’t dwell or linger on suffering. There’s no doubt that for many readers, dwelling on the horrors of slavery is both titillating and exculpatory: if you can read (and re-read) depictions of rape and torture, and condemn it as horrible, then you feel a slight burden lifted off of you, even as you enjoy it. Whitehead, I think knowing the minor thrill we get, doesn’t go into detail. The torture and horror are part of the landscape, and that makes it all the more terrible.

One early scene of ornate punishment concerned a runaway, Big Anthony, who was tortured for three days before being burned alive in front of assembled dignitaries and local guests. While the bare-bones descriptions of his sufferings seared into the impression of routine agony, there was another line that, for me, showed the essential brilliance of the book.

 On the second day a band of visitors arrived in a carriage, august souls from Atlanta and Savannah. Swell ladies and gentlemen that Terrance had met on his travels, as well as a newspaperman from London come to report on the American scene. They ate at a table set up on the lawn, savoring Alice’s turtle soup and mutton and devising compliments for the cook, who would never receive them. Big Anthony was whipped for the duration of the meal, and they ate slow.

No one needs to be told that slavery was a horrible institution, but I think this is the essential paragraph. In it, Whitehead captures the entirety of the American experience of race, really until very recently. It was a denying of humanity. It isn’t just that the guests could eat as a human was screamingly abused in front of them, it’s that the cook would never get the compliments. They knew a living person made this, they knew that, like all other living humans, she would have thrilled a little at being complimented on her craft, her work, her labor, her life. Just that one moment of recognition. But she would never, ever get it. For the whippings, the flayings, the rape, the misery, that as much as anything demonstrated the existential horror of slavery in a land of the free: taking a human and saying “you are not a person.”

Cora, along with another slave, Ceaser, escapes this. They travel through a southern landscape of varied misery. South Carolina (it might surprise the modern reader; it certainly did me) is seen as a bastion of tolerance, where freed blacks are given education and paid jobs. They are technically still slaves, owned by the government, but that’s a formality. There is weirdness, as when Cora’s new job is to depict slavery as a living exhibition in a museum, but it seems like fresh air compared to the buggy terror of Georgia. Cora, bright and impassioned, learns more and more about the country, about manifest destiny, about the ideas of ownership, and her ideas are at once part of her time and part of ours.

(Incidentally, I don’t know of many male writers who can write female characters with such agency and subtlety. Cora joins The Intuitionists Lila Mae Watson as fully-realized, fascinating characters, with distinct worldviews that don’t seem like a recitation of the author’s. That’s hard to do in-gender, and harder when you’re trying to write an experience that isn’t entirely yours. That might be one of Whitehead’s less-remarked upon talents, but I think it demonstrates his essential sympathetic curiosity on how people are, essential for a great novelist. He’s also an incredibly funny writer, although not so much in this one.)

Reader, it’s no spoiler to say that the south had hidden agendas, terrible ones, even in the guise of a weird progressive liberalism. North Carolina is depicted as a place of even worse terror, as the state, with an emasculating and dreadful fear of slave rebellions, decided that slavery wasn’t worth it, so they had to kill every black who didn’t flee, and any white who evinced even a passing sympathy. Tennessee is a burnt-out Cormac McCarthy-esque hellscape, a land of plague and fire. Indiana is a free state where violent racism lay like a powder next to a fire: it was only a question of when.

Cora is pursued through the book by the fearsome character of Ridgeway, the slave hunter, a macabre and at times nearly sympathetic character, one of the only white characters whose perspective we briefly see (the book occasionally intersperses Cora’s tale with intimate and brief looks at some ancillary characters). Ridgeway doesn’t seem driven by racism as much as family dynamics, and more so, a strange adherence to the logic of oppression. For America to be great, she has to step over people. She has to destroy the Indians and break the blacks. He finds this motivating and thrilling. He isn’t getting rich off slavery (although he is obsessed with profits), and, indeed, as Cora points out, he’s driven by slavemasters nearly as much as she is. But that doesn’t matter. He’s American vengenace, the blunt end of the stick, the one who does more than anyone to take away humanity. He’s the one saying “you can never get away.”

The question the book asks is, “is Ridgeway right?” Can we get away? Can Cora truly escape, and can the rest of us, or is the logic of the past inexorable? Is it really past? (as Louis CK said when reminding us that slavery was only like 150 years ago: “That’s just like two old women standing back-to-back.”) Or is it doomed to be constantly present in America?

To me, that’s the point of his making the underground railroad a literal railroad, deep in the earth, probably the most instantly celebrated part of the novel. Honestly, it initially seems unimpressive as a device, if kind of cool to think about. But as Cora moves in and out, and we see people who run the railroad, a mystery sets in. Whenever she asks who built this, who carved the earth, who designed the system, there’s a wink and a shrug and the rhetorical “who builds everything in this country?” The answer would seem to be “slaves”, but I think that’s too simple.

As we move on, no one really seems to know. No one seems to know where the lines and spurs begin and end. On the surface that makes sense: it’s smart for everyone to only have a little knowledge; that way, anyone who is captured can only give away a little bit under torture. It’s more than that though. I think no one knows who built it because no one really did build it. The tunnels were forged by inevitability, by the fact that the essential truth of this nation was that it countenanced slavery, and so deep within it, as a force of nature as much as history, as the bedrock of this nation, there was a reminder. We carved this through our choices, and no one really knows where it will end. No one knows if it can end.

It’s a slight but powerful book, full of indelible images seen on the surface, through the eyes of someone who has already seen endless horror. There are asides that contain lifelong tragedies, including one that is among the saddest things I have ever read. This book understandably doesn’t have much of Whitehead’s traditional sense of humor, but it does contain notes of grace and rage that you can feel through the centuries.

We know the train moved forward through the war, and Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, and the civl rights backlash. We know that the woman alive during WWI had grandchildren who may have been able to one day vote, even in the south. We know that outrage is met with outrage.

But we also know that sometimes those tracks warp and the tunnels collapse. We know that anger and racial hatred seem baked into the American landscape, a boiling nightmare from which we may never awake. Whenever we think things are good is when we recognize that this may always be with us. By refusing to flinch from the terrible logic of slavery, Whitehead shines a beacon, a headlamp through the gloomy distant fog, on today.

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