Apr 18, 2017

Notes on The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

It cannot be a coincidence that 3 of the several award-winning novels published in the US in the last 2 years, all deal with the question of race and America’s unreconciled problem with it. While The Sellout is a comic satire about race, Between the World and Me explores the whole question of destiny and free-agency as evinced in a Black life, and The Underground Railway (TUR) is a fictional account of the appalling life on a Southern plantation and how similar it was to the one in the free world outside then.
There is much in TUR to make the reader angry even as we shudder in disgust at the description of the putrefying Black bodies that hang from trees along a path in North Carolina ironically called the Freedom Trail. However, it is not the graphic descriptions of the routine outrages of plantation life that are particularly revealing or poignant. After you’ve read pages full of descriptions of daily whippings, rape, assault, castrations, wounds being doused with pepper water, you reach a point when you wonder, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”. Whitehead knows this and it is to his credit that throughout the novel, he spends time focusing attention on the minor deprivations, the sense of helpless longing for freedom that chains every slave, the stink of fear that taints even the free slaves, the almost unbearable poignancy captured in the familiar, yet unimaginable luxury of a Black being the first recipient of a book and inhaling the scent of its unwrinkled pages. Such descriptions form the powerful engine that draws this tale of abomination and hope across the American deep South from Georgia, to North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana to the hope of a frontier far beyond the tentacles of slavery. 

The novel opens with Ajarry’s story which forms a kind of prologue to that of our heroine Cora, who is a slave on a Georgia plantation. Ajarry was kidnapped in Africa, shipped abroad a slaveship and bought and sold several times before she landed on the Randall plantation in Georgia where she gave birth to Cora’s mother Mabel. There is a matter-of-fact, unabashed tone to the hardships that accost Ajarry which act as a kind of prelude to the horrors that Cora’s story contains. Cora’s story is interspersed with those of the other major characters such as Caesar, Ridgeway, Mabel, and Sam. Cora’s nemesis in the novel is a relentless slave catcher Ridgeway whose code of personal honour does not allow him to return home empty handed.

Cora’s story begins on the Randall plantation which is ruled by the vicious Randall brothers and their foreman Marshall. While freedom may seem like am impossible dream here, we are told “Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night.” Cora’s mother, Mabel, escaped from the plantation, abandoning her 11-year-old daughter. Left a “stray”, Cora develops the unique ability to silently question and rail against the misfortunes that govern the lives of the plantation slaves. This is important since she is our protagonist who escapes from the plantation at 16 and the rest of the novel is the story of her flight across different American states, her experiences of brief moments of fulfilment and joy, the selfless support she receives from several white Abolitionists and free slaves on the run, the macabre public hangings she spies as she lies hidden, Ann-Frank-like, in a secret attic in North Carolina, and the duplicitous kindness of the white folks she encounters in North Carolina.

Colman skilfully reveals to us the less-than-pure motivations of the white folk who appear to be supportive of the Negro emancipation cause.  While the underground railway of the title refers to a secret railway carriage that runs deep in the tunnels of the South, working to ferry escaped slaves to the North, its historical counterpart is actually the network of white abolitionists and free slaves who created a secret system of safe houses, coded messages, safe passages, and tips that enabled escaped slaves to reach freedom. Whether it’s an actual railway car or a resistance movement, there is no doubting its role in offering a beacon of hope to so many impoverished, unfortunate lives.
What is unmistakable in the novel’s tone is Colman’s raging anger at the country of his birth and its legacy of bloodshed and oppression. This is beyond disgust or mere cringing or embarrassment and makes the read that much more compelling. Compare this, “The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty.” with a line like, “Throughout 1990, Pandits are picked up selectively and put to death. They are killed because Kashmir needs to be cleansed of them.” (more on the 2nd novel hopefully in my next post later,) and you will know what I am talking about.

One of the things that struck me as I read was the truism of “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” In Cora’s world, slave patrollers “required no reason to stop a person apart from color.” Compare this with the spate of police brutality videos that have exploded across America in the past 2 years where white policemen routinely and with little cause, stop, harass and often shoot men of colour, coupled with the anti-immigrant rhetoric that runs through American politics and policy today. The novel achieves a precarious balance in its end, a note of faint hope that accompanies the realisation that centuries of death and oppression cannot be washed away by the faint promise of a better tomorrow. However, it is better than living without hope.

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