by Keri Wallace
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead recounts the physical and emotional odyssey of a slave girl Cora as she escapes bondage in Georgia. After a particularly devastating experience, Cora, following in the footsteps of her mother who escaped before her, decides to light out with a fellow literate slave Caesar in search of the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad in this novel is literal, Cora and Caesar receive help from black and white conductors and station agents as they advance on their journey. The perils of their journey are enhanced by the pursuit of the fanatical slave catcher Ridgeway, who is intent on catching Cora, as he failed to capture her mother.
After sixteen years of mulling over how to tackle the issue of slavery through a novel, Colson Whitehead put pen to paper in 2015 and began the writing process. He was considering a male lead but ultimately chose a female one because he wanted to explore not only a complex mother-daughter relationship but also the unique struggles of female slaves who often at the age of fourteen became ‘breeding stock’. Overall, Whitehead wanted to explore the notion of the Underground Railroad being a real thing, concentrating on the following questions he revealed in another interview with Oprah: “What if it was a literal underground train network traveling from state to state, with each state it goes through representing a different opportunity or danger?”
Historical and Cultural Context
The Underground Railroad is a criticism of America’s policing of black bodies. The consequences of this policing are revealed through evidence explored in the context of the novel surrounding the origins of modern policing and Black Lives Matter Movement, the American eugenics movement, and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.
The novel was published in the midst of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. In a Time Magazine Interview, Whitehead states that he’d had the idea for a while, but sees Ferguson and BLM as part of the “periodic eruptions where we actually are thinking about race in a different way”. While Whitehead did not intend The Underground Railroad to be a commentary on these events specifically, the novel still is a commentary on recent police brutality. For example, while hiding Cora in his attic, Martin, an agent of the Underground Railroad, explains to her the history of the patrollers, stating “The patroller required no reason to stop a person of color” and “Rogue blacks who did not surrender could be shot”(Whitehead 162). This resemblance to modern policing is not coincidental. Dr. Kappeler, Associate Dean of the School of Justice Studies at EKU assesses that “Slave patrols and Night Watches, which later became modern police departments, were both designed to control the behaviors of minorities.” Their actions were legally supported by the Fugitive slave laws. In the wake of video-documented police brutality against black youth, the BLM emerged to advocate against such behavior. The novel’s appeal for sympathy through the harrowing description of organized brutality against black slaves mirror the plea of the movement.
The policing of black bodies also takes shape through state control of black reproduction and fertility. The eugenics against women of color and the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments within the chapter “South Carolina” is key to demonstrating this. The eugenics movement limiting birth rates of women of color emerged in the early 1900s the and decreased in force after the discreditable Nazi association following World War II ( Rivard and Bouche). The landmark case Relf v. Weinberger in 1974 concerned two poor African American sisters ages 14 and 12, who were sterilized after their illiterate mother signed an “X” on documents which she believed would allow them to receive birth control shots (Bridgewater, 408). Over the course of the case, it was revealed that 100,000 poor, nearly all non-white women had received coerced sterilizations by federally-funded programs. The disabled, criminals, poor, and minority women were targeted because of the social Darwinist rhetoric that certain people were more fit than others.
In the anachronistic version of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, limiting black birth rates through promoting the proliferation of venereal disease was seen as a possible solution to the negro problem. The true “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”, initiated in 1932, was a study surreptitiously conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service, its true purpose hidden from the study’s participants as well as the public until the late 1970s. According to Brandt, Professor of the History of Medicine, the moral justification for the study was informed by social Darwinism, especially where it concerned the sexual nature of black people. These researchers believed the proliferation of the disease which threatened the future of the race was due to the lascivious appetites of blacks rather than socioeconomic factors, arguing that “better medical care could not alter the evolutionary scheme”(Brandt 22). Simply observing nature take its course, rather than offering penicillin treatment that became widely available in 1947, was deemed an appropriate way of gathering data.
Themes and Style
Viewing it as an “easy way to frame it for people”, Whitehead’s third person narrative is written with the time-tested structure of Gulliver’s Travels and the Odyssey where the main character is tested through, as Whitehead describes various “allegorical episodes”.
Within the book, this makes it plainer to see the idea of alternative Americas as Cora attempts to escape bondage as she travels from state to state. The various trials and tribulations Cora encounters demonstrate the ways black bodies are controlled, leading her to personal enlightenment.
One of the recurring themes of the novel, “the performance of blackness…for a white audience”(Wilkinson), is an example of how society perpetuates stereotypes and misconceptions. In South Carolina, while working on an exhibit designed for white audiences to get a glimpse of the history of the black experiences, Cora is subjected to the baleful and disinterested gazes of visitors. The exhibit itself depicts a joyful Middle Passage and a tranquil labor scene on the Plantation. Furthermore, white children are active witnesses of the minstrel show performed in the “North Carolina” chapter before the lynching. The caricature of a foolish slave extends stereotypes to younger generations. The museum exhibit and minstrel show are treacherous because they whitewash the true brutalities of slavery and obliviate chances to develop sympathy.
The resistance to control is also shown in one of the most striking themes within the novel: rebellion is an insanity born from endurance. It begins with Cora’s grandmother Ajarry establishing a garden by the slave cabin to ensure her family’s survival. In the absence of her grandmother and mother, the duty fell upon Cora to defend her garden from other slaves that coveted that land. When a new slave built a doghouse in the center of her the plot and without the help of the other slaves, Cora took an ax to it, the dog inside barely escaping. To protect the physical manifestation of Ajarry’s endurance, following her grandmother’s threat to “knock open the head” of anyone who encroached on her claim, Cora alone had to go up against a man twice her size (Whitehead, 19). Her unexpected, violent retribution not only sealed her place in the Hob, the cabin for disturbed female slaves on the plantation but also sent a clear message of independence to the other slaves. The resistance continues with Cora who runs away fully knowing a terrible fate awaits her if she were ever to be captured. Despite this knowledge, after suffering personally at the hands of one of her slave owners and witnessing cruelty for the final time, she acts on the understanding she has endured bondage long enough. In a society where slavery was the status quo, reclaiming identity by revoking the label of ‘property’ at the expense of one’s life was astounding, but madness nonetheless. Operating outside of the status quo is deemed crazy by any society’s definition. However, when one’s suffering has reached a tipping point, uncommon actions are likely to emerge.
The association between black women and insanity within the novel comes from another horror that slavery created: negative stereotypes about black women that made their lives easier to control. Cora was banished to The Hob, where all the other crazy slave girls went. The women of the Hob, who were usually traumatized or disabled were disdained for their perceived insanity and their humanity was disregarded and ignored. Cora, for example, was raped by fellow slaves because there was no one to defend her, and there were people who knew she could be taken advantage of. This phenomenon of marginalized black women being taken advantage of was perpetuated in “South Carolina” with the institutionalized eugenics of black women. The procedure for sterilization was perfected on “the colored inmates of a Boston asylum” and had become “mandatory for parts of the state for women with more than two children, “imbeciles”, and “habitual criminals”(Whitehead 113).
Volscho, Associate Professor of Sociology at CUNY highlights that the eugenics of the past were based upon the assumptions of low intelligence and ‘jezebel’-like nature of female slaves. The innate promiscuity of female slaves was used to justify the master’s rape of them and later served to justify the institutional control of their bodies.
Preventing black freedom with the threat of death is another recurring theme. It is often performed by an irrational white majority. The juxtaposition of the name “Freedom trail” with the multitude of rotting black corpses that lined its path demonstrate this. The “Freedom Trail” also acts as a darker metaphor for all the martyrs and sacrifices that had and will have to be made before African Americans achieve freedom. While in Indiana, Cora witnesses the self-sustaining, education-centered black settlement destroyed by jealous whites. Before the tragedy occurred, many of the comments of the residents regarding the existence of the settlement foreshadowed its destruction by its unhappy neighbors. This understood threat is also seen in the biblical allusion to the Good Samaritan at towards the end of the novel. Instead of asking or accepting help from the two white parties who pass her by, Cora chooses to cast her lot with the third, an elderly black wagon driver with “kind eyes”. After watching her loved ones killed in the massacre in Indiana, instead of risking her life by traveling with the white parties, Cora feels safest with the what the reader feels is the implicit right choice of companion.
The Underground Railroad is often lauded for its critical and realistic depiction of slavery and ultimately won a National Book Award for handling the issue so eloquently. Oprah comments in her interview with Colson Whitehead that the book was able to convey the tremendous “courage” it took to be a slave, and even more so to try to be free. While the book is often praised for praised for its eloquence, it is often criticized however for being underdeveloped in terms of its characters. Jay Nordlinger, the senior editor of the National Review, recognizes the strength of the prose that Whitehead created, however, believes that the author through writing becomes a “social-studies teacher, with one didactic paragraph after another.” Cora becomes a viewpoint, rather than a real character. For example, Martin’s description of the slave patrollers seems less like a conversation and more like an analysis of what slave patrollers stood for. Afterwards, Cora’s response is a thoughtful, but simple acknowledgment that slaves recognize the threat their numbers pose to the white population. There is no emotion involved with this rationalization.
However, throughout any of the (occasionally didactic) passages, Whitehead sticks to revealing truths that combat stereotypes. In a book review in The New York Times, writer Kakutani quotes Faulkner with a poignant view of history as it relates to The Underground Railroad: “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The themes within the novel situated in the past still address the various struggles faced by the black community in the present. As mentioned above, the behavior of slave patrollers has a strong resemblance to the policing system today. Young black men must restrict their movements to stay alive, demonstrating that black freedom is still haunted by the threat of death. For black women associations with the “Jezebel” stereotype has skewed the interpretation of normal actions.
In addressing these themes with an unwavering description of brutality, Whitehead distinguishes The Underground Railroad as a modern slave narrative. According to Toni Morrison, early authors’ traditional slave narratives were subject to intense scrutiny by the largely white readership of the time. To avoid accusations of “inflammatory” and “improbable” narratives, authors avoided delving into the more “sordid details of their experience”(Morrison 87,90). Shielding the reader from such scenes essentially veiled the true costs of slavery. The Underground Railroad is explicit in the costs of slavery, from the description of the gruesome ‘Freedom Trail’ to description of appalling slave punishments. The lack of a veil makes understanding the consequences of policing black bodies easier. Furthermore, the odyssey-like structure with an uncertain ending diverges from the consistent happy ending reached. The reader not only gains a deeper understanding of the past but can also gain insight that this country is not a post-racial society. Acknowledging these discrepancies and discussing them are part of the path of healing for America.
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Black Female Stereotypes
The Underground Railroad