Slave narratives have fallen out of favour recently; the history of American slavery left sitting in textbooks and novels by Harriet Jacobs and Toni Morrison as if they were somehow no longer relevant. As if it’s something old and distant, and therefore not worth going over again. But slavery, while temporally distant (though even this is a highly suspect designation), is inextricably linked to the dispossession of, and violence and discrimination against African-Americans. After all, slavery and colonialism are the foundations upon which America’s inequality was built.
While slave narratives are no longer du jour, the statistics regarding black quality of life as compared to white are still bleak, even 150 years after the abolition of slavery, highlighting the vital importance of relearning the history in order that we may finally learn from it. To that end, Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Underground Railroad, is an important and immensely satisfying read.
Whitehead’s oeuvre is a strange and wonderful mix of sci-fi, mystery, horror and realism and The Underground Railroad sees a continuation of the genre bending he has become renowned for, though on a subtler scale. Here, Whitehead combines realism with elements of modernism and turns the historical metaphor of an ‘underground railroad’ (in truth, a network of abolitionists that helped smuggle slaves out of the south) into a physical railroad – tracks, trains and all.
The story begins the way you might expect – on a plantation in the south, the Randall plantation in Georgia to be exact. Our heroine, Cora, is a stray, abandoned by her mother, the only slave known to have escaped the plantation. She is outcast by virtue of being abandoned but this isolation has also made her both independent and resilient.
The plantation is brutal, full of violence, rape and death. In one scene, a man who tried to escape is brought back, whipped, castrated, doused in oil and burned alive for the entertainment of Randall’s guests. Writing such violence, Whitehead is matter-of-fact and devastating. He lets the words hang unadorned, trusting in the strength of the reader’s imagination to conjure horrors even greater than he could describe. In another scene he writes: ‘Lucy and Titania never spoke, the former because she chose not to, and the latter because her tongue had been hacked out by a previous owner.’ The blunt brutality of his prose reflects the cruelty of the acts he describes, and, chillingly, their ordinariness.
Eventually, having suffered enough, Cora decides to flee with Caesar, a slave from the north. The two are swept into the secret underground railroad and it is this journey to freedom that takes up the latter half of the novel. Cleverly, Whitehead personifies the American manifest destiny ideology in the hauntingly cruel slave catcher, Ridgeway, who pursues the escapees with a self-interested intensity that makes one’s skin crawl. Indeed, Ridgeway is so vividly drawn that readers can almost smell the whiskey on his breath.
Always on the run, each station sees Cora emerge in another state and in another manifestation of the horrors of slavery. In seemingly benevolent South Carolina, Cora works as a housemaid and as a living installation of slavery in the local museum. The town medical centre offers free care for blacks but this generosity takes a dark turn, reminiscent of the Tuskegee experiments and Margaret Sanger. Next stop is North Carolina, a state in which roving mobs find blacks to lynch at Friday afternoon picnics and slave patrollers ‘require no reason to stop a person apart from color’ – an unpleasant nod to today’s unfair stop-and-search policies which target black men, and of course, the state-sanctified killing of African-Americans by officers of the law. Here, Cora hides Anne Frank-style in the attic of two reluctant smugglers and the narrative becomes almost claustrophobic. In Tennessee, Cora is appalled by the hellish fire-struck wasteland of stunted trees and towns best by yellow fever and quarantined. Finally, in Virginia, Cora reaches her last stop on the railroad – though not necessarily the safety she’s been looking for.
Each stop is obviously well researched but Whitehead is understated about the time and effort put into this. He paints the background to the main narrative in broad but accurate strokes, leaving aside statistics and minutiae in preference for larger truths. Because of this, his writing never strays into historic lecturing, though it does dabble (understandably) in occasional moralizing, which can feel a little obvious against the rest of the text. This however, is small price to pay for a book as furiously and unflinchingly honest as The Underground Railroad.
Winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Underground Railroad is an extremely inventive and entirely compelling rewrite of the traditional slave narrative and it is no surprise that it has made it to both Obama’s reading list and Oprah’s Book Club. Whitehead’s prose is extraordinary: sharp, furious and potent, he portrays the fear, humiliation and indignity of slavery with a pragmatism and calm that only underscores the horrors he’s writing about. The uncomfortable truths sit naked before us, unavoidable. Despite the simplicity of his prose, there’s a great deal of beauty in it too.
“Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it.”