“List upon list crowded the ledger of slavery. The names gathered first on the African coast in tens of thousands of manifests. That human cargo. The names of the dead were as important as the names of the living, as every loss from disease and suicide – and the other mishaps labeled as such for accounting purposes – needed to be justified to employers. At the auction block they tallied the souls purchased at each auction, and on the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh.”
In 2016 Colson Whitehead published one of the banner books of the year. “The Underground Railroad” was lavished with enormous publicity and praise, alongside critical acclaim and awards, including the National Book Award. In an age of “Oscars so white” and Black Lives Matter, it was refreshing if not sufficient to see black writers (particularly black American men) get at least a nominal nod for cultural impact and excellence. In fact, three of the four National Book Awards, as well as the Man Booker Prize, went to black American men writing about race and racism – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, March by John Lewis, Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram Kendi (review forthcoming), and The Sellout by Paul Beatty. It seemed a foregone conclusion, then, that “The Underground Railroad” be included in my Black History Month repertoire.
“The Underground Railroad” is an epic saga, a journey of mythical proportions in the spirit of Homer’s “Odyssey” and Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”. Whitehead’s story centers around Cora, a woman in bondage on a plantation deep in Georgia. Cora is the daughter of Mabel, the only slave ever to successfully escape the Randall Plantation. When Mabel takes off in the middle of the night without a hint or trace, 10 year old Cora becomes an outcast, a stray left to scrabble for scraps, on her own in a world of sharp edges and desperate players.
At once it becomes clear that Cora’s spirit is indomitable; she is a fighter and a survivor against all odds. Orphaned Cora is cast to the slave quarter’s untouchables, the women of a cabin called “Hob”. Cora realizes that there is strength and security in her exile.
“They were exiles, but Hob provided a type of protection once they settled in. By playing up their strangeness, the way a slave simpered and acted childlike to escape a beating, they evaded the entanglements of the quarter. The walls of Hob made a fortress some nights, rescuing them from the feuds and conspiracies. White men eat you up, but sometimes colored folk eat you up, too.”
“The Underground Railroad” is the tale of Cora’s own battles to escape and the mystical, metaphorical stops along her journey to freedom.
Cora must escape again and again, her battles wearying for the reader but somehow fueling the heroine.
“Best to measure time now with one of the Randall plantation’s cotton scales, her hunger and fear piling on one side while her hopes were removed from the other in increments. The only way to know how long you are lost in the darkness is to be saved from it.”
The beauty and truth of Whitehead’s passages were gems which encouraged a ragged reader.
“She gulped the air like water, the night sky the best meal she had ever had, the stars made succulent and ripe after her time below.”
“The southern white man was spat from the loins of the devil and there was no way to forecast his next evil act.”
“That was Sea Island cotton the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and that crop grew fast. The whites were right to be afraid. One day the system would collapse in blood.”
Whitehead is a beautiful writer and his prose stands on its own. However, I went into this book having heard that it employed an interesting device – a literal Underground Railroad in place of history’s metaphorical one. It was this imaginative twist, his inventing of a physical railway underground as well as the various community experiments Cora encounters on her journey, that makes his story stand apart among the annals of slavery and that served as a hook for me. And while the sundry utopias and hells set as stations along the way were frighteningly real and well developed, it is the conceit of the literal railroad that I wanted more of. As the overarching premise to this fantastic and horrific story, I wanted the railroad to be featured more prominently, to be explored more thoroughly, rather than being treated as a cameo sprinkled lightly throughout the tale.
In the end, I feel that while I wanted something more from “The Underground Railroad” and its illustrious author, this in no way diminished the book or its impact. My critique feels like a fan’s greed, watching someone achieve astounding feats while secretly wishing for perfection. “The Underground Railroad” is superbly conceived and beautifully composed.