The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave. Her mother Mable is a slave. Her grandmother Ajarry is a slave who was, in the words of Bob Marley, stolen from Africa, brought to America. Yet Cora is strong like Ajarry. She has dreams like Mable. Cora intends to be free.
Set in the early 19th century, The Underground Railroad is an unusual presentation of the methods of escape employed by runaway slaves in the southern states of the US.
Whereas the real underground railroad was a network of sympathizers, escape routes and means of transportation, Whitehead has imagined a world where there are actual trains running through man-made subterranean passages, transporting those slaves fortunate enough to have encountered a station master, from their plantation prisons to a chance at freedom.
Whilst such a perspective adds mystery and excitement to the story (not that any tale involving a runaway slave needs such), it is hardly feasible. Yet the plot progresses swiftly, regardless, and the unlikely scenario of such secret railway lines and locomotives does not detract from the overall story.
As Cora accesses the railway, she moves from state to state in her pursuit of safety and freedom, all the while being hunted by the indefatigable and merciless slave-catcher, Ridgeway, through a pre-Civil War nation.
I expect that everyone is familiar with the horrors of the slave trade. Perhaps fewer are intimately familiar with the horrific minutiae of life as a possession to be used, abused, killed or sold. In addressing this, Whitehead has done an excellent job. As Cora encounters one terror after another, we are swept along by her side, experiencing her ineffable fears and sharing her hopes and dreams, simple though they may be.
As a boy, I recall watching the T.V series Roots, based on the Alex Haley novel. The conditions of the slaves, Kunta Kinte and Chicken George, remained with me. Their suffering was imprinted upon my young memory. Later in life, I learned of the Irish who were forcibly deported as indentured servants to the English West Indies. There, the Irish and African slaves mingled and procreated. Their ancestors still inhabit Montserrat today. The sheer arrogance and inhumanity that would cause one individual to believe that they could own another is staggering. It is a vile mindset and I have never forgotten its existence.
Many would argue that such cruelty still exists in the penal servitude still in existence across the globe today. I wouldn’t disagree with their arguments.
The best records of the travesty that is slavery, exist in the US, and it is these records that provide the bedrock for Colson Whitehead’s solid rendering of a time of shame in that nation. It is astounding that slavery was still legal in Washington D.C. until 1862. The legacy of the slave-trade still shames nations across the world where governments have made scant effort in embracing the slave descendant. The US is one country where this currently is the case. The UK and France are two others.
Colson Whitehead is a black man understandably angry at the treatment of his race. This anger shows in his prose. His upset finds an appropriate and comfortable home in the heart and mind of Cora.
The Underground Railroad is a tough read in that it presents the reader with the ugly truth of slavery and those who not only engaged in it, but also those who turned a blind eye. It also speaks highly of the white citizens who risked, and in many cases lost, their lives to try to do the right thing.
I wish that I could believe that the mindsets that introduced slavery were gone. They’re not. The same psychology still exists in all our communities. It is the mindset of those who perpetuated the Irish Famine; who wrought the Holocaust; who massacred entire villages in the Balkans and Cambodia and Vietnam and Myanmar and Yemen and Syria; who repeat the slaughter of the people of Palestine. It would appear that the methods might change, but the propensity or our species for wholesale bloodshed has not.
The Underground Railroad ultimately charts the perilous journey of one courageous black woman who refuses to accept the shackles of slavery. Although Whitehead has exaggerated certain points and introduced some fiction, this novel is still an important and personalized insight into how it really was. Statistics and summaries are all very well, but there is no substitute for being introduced to an individual, a person, who allows us the kindness of relating to them so that we might never forget.
Cora is one such person. She is an inspiration to all who struggle in life. The Underground Railroad is an opportunity to better understand the life of a slave. We would be remiss to ignore it.
Sult scale rating: 8 out of 10. Recommended.