M.G. Reviews: Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and The Traveling Theater of History


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Happy Black Speculative Fiction Month. This month I will post reviews and lists of black speculative works that I’ve read recently. By the way, please support my Go Fund Me as I raise money to get a new laptop and continue building my writing career. Here is my review of The Underground Railroad:

It is 2016 and although times have changed, sometimes it feels like deja vu when I see one after another incidents of state-sanctioned violence and injustice done towards black people. Sometimes I wonder if things are for certain changing or just changing costume and name, that time is just changing its face and the past and present are collapsing in on each other. Our concept of freedom shapeshifts as much as the injustice and violence; with every change in environment; it is another way we have to adapt and strategize on how to fight back.

Reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad felt like what going through quick wardrobe changes would feel like. As a reader, I barely had time to get used to another place, another violence scene before the main character, Cora, is pushed to another state and into another type of social violence against black people. Based on the real Underground Railroad, which was not an actual railroad, but a network of safe routes, safe houses, and people who could provide aid to fugitive enslaved people, Whitehead turns this network into a picaresque-like adventure novel with real underground railroad system with tunnels carved out by unknown people and with single car trains that carry enslaved people to other destinations. What I appreciate about how Whitehead creates this system is that he did not make it fully fantastical and unbelievable. The trains are often in poor condition and the schedules for the next trains are inconsistent. We are constantly reminded throughout the book as Caesar questioned in the beginning who built this system as we are never told. As someone who is from New York and rides the subway, it is easy to forget that the creation of an underground railroad system takes a enormous amount of time, energy, resources and sacrifice, and is built by people we most likely will never meet and risked their lives to bring it into reality. But that goes for any monumental human imperative or any kind of change in general, even the original Underground Railroad.

But the railroad in the book was more of a background prop for what I felt was the true nature of the novel — a traveling theater of historical absurdity. Call it a freak show, a circus, even a minstrel show to an extent, and Cora is the ring master introducing us to all the acts as we travel from state to state. The idea of a real underground railroad may force us to suspend disbelief but the brutal violence of racial slavery and breaking up of black families and relationships, of scientific experiments and procedures done on black people like sterilization and the Tuskegee experiments, of human zoos and exhibits, of slave patrols and catchers, of minstrel shows, of the “grotesque pageants” of the KKK, night riders and lynchings and of the massacres of black towns like Black Wall Street all happened. Compounded together in the novel, they become a historical museum of horrors that seems impossible to escape. Throughout you feel as if you are constantly trying to escape along with Cora.

I will admit that at first, for about the first 100 or so pages, I wasn’t compelled by the novel. I felt detached from Cora’s character and I couldn’t immerse fully into the story. It didn’t help that the novel was structured with these “character stops” throughout. But when I changed my perspective of it to view Cora a more of a guide or tour conductor, I began to look at the book differently. In an indirect way, we as the readers are shown what is going on through the minds of white people who perpetuate racialized systems of violence — the class issues and lack of purpose (called his need to “find his spirit) that leads Ridgeway to become a slave catcher, Doctor Stevens’ need for accessible test subjects in his medical experiments and exploiting black people and their bodies, knowing we are socially valued less, and the patronizing white savior missionary mentality of Ethel, the wife of abolitionist Martin (whose not much better). Cora and

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Illustration for The New Underground Railroad Movement

other black people are projections of their fears and desires. And those fears and desires can lead them to take part in and perpetuate a dehumanizing system — the root of it is the need for survival and comfort, but those systems and myths and stories that uphold those systems become larger than life as they suck on those needs, fears, desires.

It is the power, danger and beauty of the larger than life fantasy of escape, power, the journey “home,” and the supernatural stories of which we convince ourselves to believe to keep surviving this dangerous world that Whitehead explores. The stories we create, the words we create, “the fancy talk to hide things” or “to pretty things up.” The fantasy which can give us hope and can easily become an obsession and a mass delusion. We see it in the superficial patriotism  of the white people in North Carolina who are willing to give up freedoms and their sanity (Cora describes them as ghosts walking around at night) to maintain a certain social and racial order. We see it in Ridgeway’s obsession with Mabel, Cora’s mother, and by extension Cora, who are a threat to his way of life because of their desire to be free and the power they have to go against the system. But also Cora’s anger at and inspiration from her mother for escaping. Caesar’s belief that Cora was his best luck and with her he could find home. The creation of the refuge Valentine Farm amidst the threat of racial tensions, the fugitive slave laws and slave catchers who do not want it to exist. We see it in Tom Bird, the saloon owner’s belief in the Great Spirit and Ridgeway’s father’s belief in the spiritual power of the blacksmith furnace to forge new tools. These “delusions” that haunts the characters, keeps them going and permits them to question current realities.

The Underground Railroad is more than Cora’s story, but everyone’s. I fully connected with her at the end when she takes action for herself, relying on that human impulse to escape predetermined spaces and laws that restrict our freedoms, the “slave’s choice” as it’s called, and she creates her own makeshift train. Cora, the “stray,” the outsider, becomes a pioneer of a new space. Her self-determination to save herself and define freedom for herself despite heading into the unknown is the danger to the system, the “flaw in the American imperative” of the institution of racialized slavery and white supremacist notion of “manifest destiny” as Ridgeway called it. Cora is part of the true face of America underneath its delusion. Out of her desire to escape, she becomes her own hope, the cross on her head turns into a “North Star,” and that is one thing despite all the violence and trauma that has happened to her, no one can take from her.

The glitch in the system is free will and that is human.

*****

By the way for anyone looking for a children’s book companion, before I read this book, I read Faith Ringgold’s Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky, a children’s book about a fantastical train mixing together the lore of the Underground Railroad and the folktale, The People Could Fly.

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And to be funny, Porsha Williams from Real House Wives of Atlanta thought the Underground Railroad was a real train! Maybe Whitehead saw this episode! Ha!

 

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