I read dark books. I know my tastes are not for everyone, and I am capable of recommending fun, lighthearted books to readers who request them. But I like to read gritty books, books about harrowing experiences, and especially books about the crimes of the past. I like these books not because I enjoy reading about other people’s misery; I gravitate to these books because they help keep alive in my memory events that should never be forgotten. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, is a book that reminds us of the horrors of American slavery, a centuries’ long crime against humanity with a legacy that still haunts my country.
Cora was born on the Randall plantation and has known only hardship, violence, isolation, and misery. The fact that her mother successfully escape just makes her bondage worse. She doesn’t hope for freedom because hope would make it harder for her to bear her daily life. When Caesar, another enslaved man, asks her to run away north with him, Cora dismisses him at first. There’s not guarantee that they’ll make it and she knows full well what will happen to a runaway. But after her the man who enslaves her dies (I can’t bring myself to call him an owner, because you can’t own a human being) and his much more violent brother inherits the estate and chattel, she takes Caesar up on his offer.
The rest of The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora’s flight north along an actual railroad system that runs underground from slave states to free. (The real Underground Railroad was never that technologically advanced.) As I read, I found that I was not so much interested in how Cora made her way north as I was in what she found at the places she stopped for any length of time. I was tempted to read the stops allegorically, as representations of various periods in African American history or as explorations of prejudices white America still has about black America. For example, at Cora’s first stop, in South Carolina, she learns that the white people still look down on black people—they’re just more subtle about it. The whites in South Carolina offer education, clothes, food, shelter, work, and a smiling face, but the doctors are eugenicists and pressure Cora to undergo a procedure that sounds a lot like a tubal ligation.
The other thing that struck me as I read The Underground Railroad was the tone Whitehead used while describing the atrocities and violence of the antebellum south. Whitehead is chillingly matter of fact about rape, mutilation, whippings, and murder. I confess I didn’t understand the full effect of the deadpan tone until I read Brit Bennett’s essay on the novel and the history of the slave narrative, “Ripping the Veil” (The New Republic). Bennett writes:
In a moment of extreme trauma, the narrator almost politely looks away. Here is a proceeding too terrible to relate, Whitehead announces, and in his silence, the proceeding becomes even more terrible. The gaps in the narrative force the reader to fill in the blanks on her own. We not only imagine the horror but become active participants in its construction.
Bennett goes on to explain that early slave narrative writers often had to omit the worst parts of their stories in order to gain an audience for the rest of the biography; if things were too gruesome, readers would stop reading. Whitehead doesn’t omit much. Instead, he gives us just enough details that it’s impossible not to “fill in the blanks,” as Bennett describes. For me, the tone also reminded me that all of this inhumanity was so common that, for a woman like Cora, nothing about these atrocities was particularly out of the ordinary or worthy of more than a comment. It is a surprisingly effective technique.
I hope The Underground Railroad is widely read. Seeing anti-black prejudices and crimes against black people at the height of slavery serves to remind us that some of those ideas are still very much with us. In the era of Black Lives Matter (or really, at any time between 1865 and 2016), this book is a powerful reminder of America’s shadow history, the history we don’t talk much about because it gets the way of the story of America as “best country on earth.” We are still awaiting a full reckoning with our past.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.