Decades before the Civil War, A slave woman named Cora risks her life and runs off a cotton plantation in Georgia. Colson Whitehead’s hero in The Underground Railroad is afraid to take a gamble on so much until she realizes she wouldn’t be risking that much to begin with. Being a slave is not a life anyone would want to live; her livelihood is no livelihood at all. In bondage, Cora merely exists. She must take that ultimate risk: liberty or death. In his novel, Whitehead successfully gets to the heart of how slavery reduces a person to a point beyond recoverable humanity with this masterful, weaving tale of America’s nefarious past.
Blending history with fictional innovation, Whitehead breathes life into a period of history that’s been saturated with biographies and history books, bogging us down with facts and dates rather than focusing on the people, particularly in reference to the Underground Railroad. Like many naïve grade-schoolers, when I first heard of the Underground Railroad, I thought it was an actual railway that ran beneath the earth. Playing on that misconception where I clearly wasn’t alone, Whitehead made the Underground Railroad an actual underground railroad.
With the help of her friend Caesar, Cora travels through much of the American South and Midwest. Each region taking on a world of its own in terms of culture and views on people of color, like a darker non-satirical version of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The book’s biggest strength is its unflinching look at what humanity is capable of doing.
The tragedy of this novel isn’t the degrading nature of slavery and how Whitehead’s characters suffer from it. No, the real tragedy is witnessing Cora and her fellow runaways never getting the chance to fully possess freedom or feel a sense of humanness. Even when they are free from the slave catchers, the plantations and the endless abuse, not once does Cora feel that she can rest easy and simply unclench her fists; she’s always prepared to fight off a slaver trying to kidnap her in the middle of the night. The historical parallels to modern times are unmistakable. Even the more ‘tolerant’ regions throughout Cora’s journey on the railway show how low people will go to take advantage of one another, particularly if they are of a darker complexion.
The Underground Railroad could not come at a more important time with race relations in this country causing divisions we haven’t seen since Jim Crow, from riots in the streets to national protests against police violence toward minorities to prominent athletes of color refusing to stand for the national anthem. A number of people don’t understand or even empathize with the frustrated African American sentiment because many misconceive slavery and systemic racism as memories from a past long gone. The problem with that is slavery was made illegal only 151 years ago.
Whitehead emphasizes the cruelty that masters exacted over their slaves, providing for us, the modern era, a glimpse into the true heart of darkness that was chattel slavery. The scenes of whipping a young boy’s bare back down to the bone, raping slave women for breeding purposes, weekly lynchings and even slaves reporting on their own will leave you feeling repulsed and disgusted, forcing you to put the text down from time to time. So take a few paces around your living room.
But keep reading.
Because in today’s world we need to better grasp the mistakes of a hateful past so as not to repeat them. The author has created a tool for those who weren’t physically there, using embedded historical research and visceral empathy on every page. In the same way the film 12 Years a Slave burned the horrors of the Southern plantation into our hearts, The Underground Railroad will shake your core and, hopefully, open your eyes. I promise you it will have a deeper impact than any film could. The thing is, we view movies as performances; no matter how realistic, we have the comfort of knowing it’s just a movie. But this novel presents an intimate series of revelations happening within its own universe and because Cora’s hardships in that world ring true, the weight of history forces us to acknowledge such atrocities actually occurred. This book should be required reading in classrooms across the country alongside Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. If this isn’t Colson Whitehead’s masterpiece, it’s definitely the best book of the year and maybe the most important work of the decade.
Whitehead Photo Credit: Dorothy Hong