The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is one of this year’s big literary novels, and a shamefully relevant book about race. The broad narrative is nothing original – i.e. slaves run away, horrible things happen to them etc. – but Whitehead’s use of focus and his magical realist gimmick whereby the underground railroad is literally an underground railroad combine to create a starkly unique and incredibly interesting book, one that addresses contemporary race issues in as direct a way as it’s possible to be whilst setting something 200 years ago.
Before we go any further: I’m a white man, a cold-ass honky, let’s remember, so my review of this is going to be tentative and focused on the text.1 I am not qualified by education or experience to speak on race, so please stop me if I start doing whatever the ethnicity equivalent of mansplaining is.2
(Is acknowledging white privilege the same as “checking it”? Could someone please explain this in the Comments?)
Whitehead’s writing does to language that thing one often finds in beautiful novels, whereby the words fade away. Whitehead’s words, which evoke an experience and a place so vividly, melt into the reader’s mind and the narrative of Cora and those she encounters plays straight onto a visual, empathetic screen of the soul.
Cora is a young woman, age uncertain, who was born a slave in Georgia. She has been an outsider on the cotton plantation ever since her mother successfully escaped about a decade earlier. Caesar, a slave who grew up in a household with a liberal owner, was sold on after her death and ended up with a menial role unlike anything he’d been prepared for. They run away together, travelling on the underground railroad after a terrifying chase on foot. In a different state, they both begin a new life, but one doomed to fail as the slave catchers sent by their previous owner get closer. And this is the narrative of the book – a bit of stasis that is rudely interrupted, travel, then another bit of rest. The threat of recapture, the threat of violence (especially sexual violence towards Cora) never fades, and one reads the book feeling the tension of these brave, persecuted people trying to escape an unjust horror.
Every time a state line is crossed, Whitehead inserts a small chapter with a focus on someone other than Cora (the book is third person throughout, but usually tied to her perspective). Through this we get to witness the experiences of a slave brought to America from Africa, the abolitionist movement from a patronising white perspective, we get to see the power and potency a slave found in his literacy and we get introduced to Ridgeway, the conflicted slave catcher and Cora’s nemesis, a man especially keen to find her due to his previous – and first – slave-catching failure, when he was seeking Cora’s never-found mother.
Ridgeway’s characterisation is a keen signifier of Whitehead’s work’s contemporary importance – Ridgeway’s best friend (possibly lover) is a black man named Homer, who he bought as a slave and immediately freed, not wanting to be tainted by the ownership of slaves. These two men have a loyal and established bond, despite their shared occupation rendering Homer a “traitor to his race”3 This plot draws attention to an endemic tic of racists – the idea that their black friend is OK, but black people as a group aren’t. There’s that stereotype of racists claiming to not hold prejudicial opinions by saying that the best man at their second wedding was black, for example, that they once dated someone black, y’know. Prejudice means not considering people you don’t know as individuals. Ridgeway is a violent, racist, slave-catcher, but he prevents his men from sexually assaulting his female captives and he has a close personal relationship with a black person. Whitehead has created a villain, not a monster, and his book is stronger for it.
The other contemporary idea I noticed Whitehead exploring was education, and the empowerment education brings. Notions of language, i.e. “black English” vs “white English” and how the difference between these speech patterns was a deliberately constructed method of discrimination. Not teaching people a preferred way to speak and then mocking/penalising them for the language they use instead is something that still happens today.4 Lots of serious problems in relation to black unemployment and the resultant sense of disenfranchisement that comes from economic poverty are rooted in poor education provision for predominantly black districts/towns.
I’ve done what I didn’t want to do and I’ve started talking about race. I don’t know enough about this, I shouldn’t be doing it. Remove the context from the novel, look at it as a text.
The Underground Railroad uses its structure to evoke a rich history. Small or otherwise offstage characters get their own short chapters, and as Cora travels closer to the promised freedom of the North, she meets many different people, with affluent mixed race (can I say that?) men leading the most successful campaigns for equality.
Whitehead discusses how doctors implicitly acknowledged the equality of black people by using their cadavers for medical training; Whitehead writes of horrible physical acts, but also of great joy and excitement. His language is deep and involving, ones mind is wrapped in his story and his world. No, not his world. Our world, our scarily recent world.
Problems that still exist between people of different races today, all over the world, are rooted in the fact that until about 150 years ago, there were vast, vast, swathes of the world that saw people of differing ethnicities to them as animals. Black people were traded in the US in the same way livestock is today. Y’know, eurgh, that’s pretty bad.
Whitehead’s wonderful novel discusses a lot of important and relevant issues, and it does this within the context of an emotional and exciting adventure novel. His witty magical realist touch is fun, but it is his characterisation – the bravery of Cora, Caesar and all the other people risking death and torture alongside them – that strengthens this novel. Cora doesn’t sit within the pages, she bursts from them. Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother who only appears in the tiny opening chapter, stayed in my mind during the long holiday week I spent reading the book. Whitehead writes characters well, and his most analogy-heavy scenes are far more than the simplistic parables they could have been in a weaker writer’s hand.
The fact is, though, that if I read a contemporary book about race written by a black person and thought it was shit, I’m not certain I’d admit it.
I thought that The Underground Railroad was great, but I do worry that awareness of potential prejudice left me more inclined to feel favourably to it than I perhaps would have done otherwise. Again, how do I “check my privilege”?
This is a moving, important, and serious novel. It is both enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. I’d recommend it, but is that just because I don’t want anyone thinking I’m a racist?
I hope not, because The Underground Railroad feels very, very good.
1. Well, that’s what I’ll be trying to do, if I can break the habit of a blogtime. And fuccen look at this – proper html footnotes! ↩
2. Let’s be honest, that would still be mansplaining. ↩
3. That’s one of the phrases I don’t feel comfortable saying due to my race. Can I define someone a traitor to something I’m not a part of? Then again, I’d happily call a spy who sold French state secrets to the Nazis in WW2 a traitor, and I have no connection to that. Am I being over-sensitive? And is that in itself a problem, or is being over-sensitive and willing to listen a movement towards progress? I don’t know. ↩
4. David Foster Wallace writes in Consider the Lobster (my thoughts here) about getting into trouble for commenting on a black student’s use of “black English” when the student should be using “white English”. DFW’s discussion of racial language politics with a student was intended to convey openness, but it instead came across as patronising and prejudiced. DFW was faced instead with the unpleasant realisation that he was another white, male, establishment figure telling someone of lower status how to behave. He admits he was at fault. ↩