A Feature Review of
The Underground Railroad:
*** This review orginally appeared on the reviewer’s blog,
and is reprinted here with his permission.
South Carolina seemed enlightened, until you realized that, beneath the comforts and opportunities, the plan was to sterilize the black race out of existence. North Carolina used less subterfuge, resorting to a grisly ‘Freedom Trail’ of hanging black bodies as a way of dealing with its ‘race problem.’ Tennessee was a burnt-over, cursed place and Indiana had its own terrors.
The main marvel is that Colson Whitehead’s book, The Underground Railroad, works at all. It’s a fantastical reimagining of 19th century American slavery that manages to offer both a realistic portrait of the peculiar institution and an alternative narrative in which varied states play out racial narratives in different ways and in which the metaphorical railroad that channeled persons out of slavery to the North becomes an actual iron and steam train rumbling beneath the land. In sum, the book makes an effective argument that the only way beyond the terrors and lingering trauma of American history travels via the subterranean tunnels of imagination.
The central character in the book is Cora, who is born into slavery on a coastal Georgia plantation. Her story and choices are framed by a grandmother who left her a pitiful plot to till and tend and a mother, Mabel, who ran away, abandoning her child. The first third of the book hews close to history, detailing the small and great indignities, the ever-present threat of violence, and the choking claustrophobia of cotton plantations. Cora, who is a bit of an outsider within her own community, goes through a process of consciousness-raising that leads her to eventually accept the offer of a fellow slave, Caeser, to run away.
Their journey brings them to the Georgia station of the Underground Railroad, a creation that one ‘station master’ introduces this way:” If you want to see what this nation is all about you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through and you’ll find the true face of America” (262). The grim punchline being that all you ever see in a tunnel is darkness.
In her travels, Cora is pursued by Ridgway, a sadistic slave-catcher who is just as deformed by the system of slavery as she is. He is haunted by Mabel, the one that got away, and determined to send Cora back to a violent end, even if it means his own death. His ultimate plunge into darkness is a fitting glimpse of the grotesque dance white and black were doing.
Whitehead’s book is a testament to the power of imagined alternatives, but it is just as much an indictment of the imaginary histories we tell ourselves about the past and about who we are. Cora’s job in the relative freedom of South Carolina is as a living installation in a museum where she inhabits a glassed-in triptych meant to illustrate the real black experience. Except that Scenes from Darkest Africa is ridiculously primitive, Life on the Slave Ship is jauntily nautical with a strange wax dummy of a sailor, and Typical Day on the Plantation has luxuries, like a seat and a spinning wheel, that Cora never knew. When she complains to the museum owner about the inaccuracies, his only concession is that the room for the exhibit was too small.
When a small child on the plantation recites the Declaration of Independence for the amusement of his owner, the fantasy of the national myth is exposed. To Cora it “was an echo of something that existed elsewhere. Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the document described anything real at all. America was a ghost in the darkness, like her” (180)
Is it possible to write a book that is very good without it being good writing? I think so. Whitehead’s ideas are vigorous, but his characters and dialogue aren’t. I encountered this in his last book, Zone One, which I never finished because it left me cold, (and not just because it was about a zombie apocalypse).
Nevertheless, when you pair this with Yaa Gyasi’s great debut novel, Homegoing, which came out last year and which pulsates with life in telling a multi-generational story of Africans and African-Americans through the slavery era and beyond, we have two great windows on the lingering effects of the slave system on contemporary society. As a white reader, I think these books say much more than that black lives and black history matter. They are a reminder that we always inhabit stories that began before we got here and that shape who we are. And the story I am a part of is one that has been distorted in its own way by the demonic narrative of slavery. We need all the wrestling, dancing, and imagination we can muster to envision a light at the end of the railroad tunnel.
Alex Joyner is an author and United Methodist pastor on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. He is the author, most recently, of A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel & Palestine [Englewood Review, 2014]. Find him online at AlexJoyner.com.