Underground Airlines


By: Mary Garrett McLeod


Underground Airlines is a fiction novel written by Ben. H Winters and published in July of 2016. The book is based on modern day America where slavery is legal in four states. The book follows an ex-slave, Victor, who is recaptured and trained to be a slave catcher by tracking down those that have escaped from slavery. One particular case assigned to Victor is to find a slave named Jackdaw, who we learn is an undercover slave. This means that Jackdaw is a free man who went to the south to pose as a slave so that he could collect information against a company that manufactured and produced clothing. With this information, Jackdaw planned to give it to a group of people called “the underground airlines” who are vying to have slavery abolished. Victor discovers this assignment is contrived by his boss to obtain this vital information before it is made public because of the potential turmoil and riots that could ensue. Victor infiltrates the farm in Alabama and proceeds to locate Jackdaw’s hidden information and attempts to trade it for his own freedom. In the end, Victor ends up walking away free, but he does not forget what evils he has had to confront. His efforts are then focused on bringing the institution of slavery down piece by piece.

Historical and Cultural Context

Underground Airlines is based on an America where slavery is both legal and illegal depending on the state. This exact scenario did occur before the Civil War where the North and South were divided on the issue of slavery. Neither side was willing to compromise their beliefs, but Abraham Lincoln was the man that made America choose: freedom for all or freedom for some. In Underground Airlines, Abraham Lincoln is shot giving his famous Gettysburg Address. Therefore, his presidency and strong leadership never helped America become a unified country.

An accurate picture of true treatment of slaves is still unknown to the world today because it was illegal for slaves to know how to read or write in fear that blacks may come together and revolt. Therefore, the main source of information about life as a slave in early America is found in history books. The most descriptive accounts of what slavery was like before the Civil War has also stemmed from latter generations recording stories that had been passed down from their grandparents or parents. Because of the scarcity of available information, Winters was intrigued and decided to use what sources he could to construct his own interpretation of the practice of slavery.

Ben H. Winter’s “Underground Airlines” is such a pertinent book in today’s world even though discussing slavery of the 1800’s because tension remains in in America over racial issues including Black Lives Matter and police racial prejudice. There have been over 2,000 Black Lives Matter protests in Baton Rouge, San Francisco, Dallas, Pittsburgh and other major cities to show authorities and others around the world that this kind of injustice will not go unnoticed. The group describes themselves as a “collective {group} of liberators who believe in an inclusive and spacious movement” and have multiple chapters all across the nation (Black Lives Matter). The main goal of Black Lives Matter is to attempt to change the racial stereotypes of blacks in America. Most of their protests recently have been over the shooting of Bruce Kelley Jr., Alton Sterling, Joseph Mann, Deborah Danner, and many others because their deaths appeared to be for no real reason other than their skin color. This kind of racism and strain between blacks and whites in America influenced Winters to write this novel so that the world would clearly see the similarities between the world today and the past America of  legalized slavery. Winters is pushing for a change  in attitude towards blacks today because he sees the social injustice and unfair treatment towards their race as something they cannot control or ever change. Winters wanted to use his ability to write so that he could illuminate and expose to America what kind of world we live in: one where the white people “close {their} eyes to the problems” that are found in our society and our government. He wants to open their eyes to the injustice and problems that now face our generation (Klein).

Themes and Style

A main reason this book was written was to enlighten readers to see the that black prejudice still exists in modern day America. A main theme is the lack of identity reflected by  the main character who always feels like he is empty and is almost like a robot because he does not make any choices, but has them made for him. Victor’s job forced him into innumerable fake personas and empty lifestyles so that he forgets who he was  and what he believed in. At one point he even says to himself, “I was a monster, but way down underneath I was good. Wasn’t I?” (164). In this instant, Williams gives us a glimpse into  Victor’s mind. Victor is asking himself who he was and what he stood for after he had deceived an innocent woman for information to do the right thing and save Jackdaw from a terrible fate. Victor did something bad in order to do something good, but he was still unsure if this made him a good or bad person. Victor became more uncertain of his actual identity day by day as his freedom slipped from his grasp. He was forced to leave behind the free Victor and succumbed to another lifestyle of obedience and suppression in order to hope for the dream that he would be free once more. His employer arrested him and said that if Victor did not obey all of his directions, he would return Victor to his previous life as a slave. After two years of freedom and living as a freeman, Victor could not take that chance. His employer promised freedom after he had done the necessary work. After four years of working for his employer, Victor had become so lost that he did not even identify himself with a single name. He did not tell his closest friend in the novel his true name given to him when he was born- only his slave name. He hides that part of himself away so that no one can truly know him, and therefore, he thinks, no one can hurt him. Victor’s lifestyle and attitude mirrors most slaves lives pre-Civil War in America; men and women were made to do the same task over and over for weeks on end which subsequently made their lives bland and without purpose.

Another theme included in this book is the modern-day underground railroad, a.k.a. The underground airlines. This revolutionary group tried to give slaves a new life and a new chance in the North by taking them from what they had known their entire lives and setting them in a completely new environment where they would know no one. At least then, escaped slaves had a chance to build a life where they didn’t have to follow anyone else’s rules except for their own. The Underground Railroad that Winters is basing his book on was a group of white sympathizers that organized routes for slave escapees to travel to a promised land without slavery. A famous figure that is always associated with the Underground Railroad is Harriet Tubman. She was a strong black woman that led hundreds of slaves to their freedom. Slaves had to hide in every imaginable space whether comfortable or not until they knew it wassafe to travel usually under the protection of the dark night. Ben Winters uses the term “Underground Airlines” as a parody of “Underground Railroad” because of the freedom and deliverance that is promised to both groups.

Another major theme seen throughout the book is the idea of deception and lying which is prevalent in the main character’s lifestyles. A major example of hypocrisy throughout the book is the use of banned products in free states that were created in slave states. The slave states used offshore accounts to secretly sell their products to unsuspecting Northern buyers. The reader does not know about this until the end of the story when it is revealed the information Jackdaw was attempting to uncover. This theme of deception and lying is also apparent in Victor’s job which is based on lies and his false identity. Victor’s boss deceives Victor on the actual assignment, and the “underground airlines” deceives Jackdaw on the information that would supposedly be found in the farm. All of these lies are piled so high that Victor finds it almost impossible to determine what is true and what is not in his constant search for purpose and identity. Victor even claims, “I am myself. I am nothing” (124). Victor got lost in the lies and without the constant guiding light of random acts of kindness or the love of his only friend, Martha, Victor never could’ve come back. Winters makes sure to include these random acts of kindness and seeds of goodness throughout the book so that the humanity of people was still apparent against all of the immorality and injustice. One instance is when Victor was deep undercover in the Alabama’s company and was about to be inspected by a guard to check if he actually worked there or was an intruder. Victor discovered he was missing some signature at the last minute, but the guard checking him overlooked it and instead signed it himself in a random moment of mercy. Jackdaw was blown away because without that signature, his cover would’ve been blown and he could’ve easily been killed. Although Victor suffered through much pain and cruelty because of the injustice in society, his belief in good people and a hope for justice never died.

Critical Conversation

            Most of the articles found on Underground Airlines do not discuss the book, but instead discuss the color of the author’s skin. This novel discusses America and the issue of black prejudice and therefore society expects a black author. Ben H. Winters is a white man who chose to write a novel on something that he felt passionate about and in response, he received both positive and negative feedback from critics with differing perspectives. Because the book is so new, most of the criticism found for Underground Airlines is about the author and his “fearless” attitude towards writing this novel, according to the New York Times.  In an interview, Winters talks about how frightened he was to approach the “thorny subject of racial injustice in America” because of all the backlash and negative criticism he would receive. Nonetheless, Winter persevered and wrote the novel which turned into a national bestseller. People not only respected Winters for discussing a challenging topic, but they also enjoyed his angle and the fictional story he had to tell. The Daily Dot discusses the way in which other writers all over the world have been tweeting about how it is in fact not fearless to write about the subject of racism, but foolish because of his lack of insight. These authors argue that in no way does he know what it is like to be black living in modern day America. One tweet says, “An established author telling stories of PoC {People of Color}, risks nothing. Absolutely nothing. The most they’ll suffer is some side eye and snarky tweets” which is true. Winters will not be ostracized in any way, but he took a stand for what he thinks should be heard and in many ways, that is more than most people would do. In other criticisms on NPR Books, they discuss how it is a “breath of fresh air” for a white man to try and understand the pain of blacks today. Maureen Corrigan even says that Underground Airlines is “one suspenseful tale” that is full of lies and crossovers keeping the audience always on their toes. This kind of criticism addresses the book instead of the color of Winter’s skin which is different from the majority of articles reviewing Underground Airlines. Corrigan chose to focus on what was really important here: the novel. Corrigan did not judge Winters for being a white male writing on black prejudice, but instead accepted this fact and moved on to write a scholarly novel that gave insightful criticism on Winter’s writing habits and not on his ethnicity.  Lastly, the Slate Book Review gives criticism of the novel without a bias. The articles discusses what happens in the book, the reasons behind writing the book, and the themes of the book. Never once does it say anything inherently good or bad, but it does mention the turmoil that was caused by this book in the writing world. The criticisms that were found approach Underground Airlines from two completely different stances: one being positive and one being negative. Overall though, the novel has been welcomed warmly into society with minimal negative criticism.

Underground Airlines

Fig.1 The cover of Ben H. Winter’s best-selling book, Underground Airlines by “Underground Airlines”; Ben H. Winters; benhwinters.com, 16 Nov. 2017, https://benhwinters.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/9780316261258.jpeg

black lives matter

Fig. 3 The Black Lives Matter logo which is a figure of protest and justice in modern day America by Black Lives Matter; blacklivesmatter.com, 16 Nov. 2017, https://blacklivesmatter.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/blm-logo-black-bg.png

Ben H Winters

Fig. 2 A picture of Ben H. Winters, the author of Underground Airlines by Lori Raider-Day; Lori Raider-Day; loriraiderday.com, 16 Nov. 2017, https://loriraiderday.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/1.jpg

Works Cited

Alter, Alexandra. “Ben Winters Dares to Mix Slavery and Sci-Fi.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 July 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/07/05/books/ben-winters-underground-airlines.html.

Baker-Whitelaw, Gavia. “Controversy Is Brewing around ‘Underground Airlines’.” The Daily Dot, 5 July 2016, www.dailydot.com/parsec/ben-winters-slavery-underground-airlines-twitter-backlash/.

Black Lives Matter, 31 Oct. 2017, blacklivesmatter.com/about/.

Corrigan, Maureen. “’Underground Airlines’ Is An Extraordinary Work Of Alternate History.” NPR, NPR, 7 July 2016, www.npr.org/2016/07/07/485101495/underground-airlines-is-an-extraordinary-work-of-alternate-history.

Graff, Gilda. “The Name of the Game Is Shame: The Effects of Slavery and Its Aftermath.” The Journal of Psychohistory, vol. 39, no. 2, 2011, pp. 133–144.

Hughey, Matthew W, et al. “The Structure of Racism in Color-Blind, “Post-Racial” America.” American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 59, no. 11, 2015, pp. 1358–1376.

Jerome, Fred. “Einstein and Racism in America.” Physics Today, vol. 58, no. 9, 2005, pp. 54–55.

Klein, Stephanie. “The Rumpus Interview with Ben H. Winters.” The Rumpus.net, 21 June 2016, therumpus.net/2016/07/the-rumpus-interview-with-ben-h-winters/.

Miller, Laura. “What Would America Look Like If the Civil War Had Never Happened?” Slate Magazine, 13 July 2016, www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2016/07/underground_airlines_by_ben_winters_reviewed.html.

Tizon, Alex. “My Family’s Slave.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 5 July 2017, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/06/lolas-story/524490/.


Further Readings

“Modern Slavery: Captive Servants and Child Prostitution.” Films Media Group, 2008, fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=103297&xtid=41369. Accessed 5 Oct. 2017.

“A Tale of Modern Slavery.” Films Media Group, 2005, fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=103297&xtid=35365. Accessed 5 Oct. 2017.

“Free State Slavery: Bound Indian Labor and Slave Trafficking in California&Apos; Sacramento Valley, 1850–1864.” Vol. 81, no. 2, 2012, pp. 155–192.

English, Bertis. “A Grand Old Party (GOP) Mixtape: Modern Republican Propaganda and the Attempt to Create a New Jim Crow Political System.” The Journal of Race &Amp; Policy, vol. 12, no. 1, 2016, pp. 5–31.


“Underground Airlines”

Ben H. Winters

Slavery Fiction


Slavery identity

Modern slavery

Black Lives Matter

Identity loss