Slavery according to Colson Whitehead: My review of The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

The danger of Colson Whitehead’s fictional treatment of slavery and the system of people who jeopardized their lives to transport escaped slaves north to freedom which came to be known as the ‘underground railroad’ is that people will take as historically accurate his description of slavery and white society in nineteenth century America. Whitehead treats slavery from the contemporary perspective as a function of white racism rather than how it actually existed as an institution in which people, white and black, were trapped not primarily as a result of hate or “racism,” but rather out of historical, social and economic necessity.

There are almost no good “white” people in The Underground Railroad. Those few are participants in the fictional system he creates where actual locomotives and underground tracks replace the actual methods that were used in those days. They are peculiar and too weak to stop the evil slaveholders and whites who made it their life’s work to capture runaways.

Whitehead also interjects an ethos into white society that bothers me, portraying it as totally devoted to conquest of the New World at the expense of blacks, Native Americans, and the land itself. European settlers came to America to escape religious intolerance and for economic opportunity. Some viewed their role in relation to the Native Americans and African slaves as bringing God’s word to the ungodly and conquering the continent for Christianity. Most did not view blacks and Indians as “racially” inferior because that definition of race didn’t emerge until after the Civil War.

Whitehead’s fictional reconstruction takes a fanciful direction when he creates separate states in which whites compete to see who can devise the most pernicious use of people of African descent. In one state, they are allowed to live without chains and overseers, but for the purpose of cleansing them of rebelliousness by sterilization; in another state, no blacks may remain inside the state’s borders and those who are caught are hung in weekly celebrations. The worst example, however, of Whitehead’s projecting contemporary values on the past appears in the final chapters of the book where a prosperous community of freeborn and runaway blacks in the free state of Indiana is decimated by its white neighbors.

The Underground Railroad follows the path of Cora, a young slave who escapes a Georgia plantation only to discover freedom’s journey has many obstacles. This proves to be a useful method of telling his story including offering an ending in which after having suffered psychological and physical harm along the way she is able to continue her journey with the potential for gaining freedom in sight.

The book is organized in twelve sections. Not all are contiguous in time or place, which works with the exception of one section––entitled “Stevens”––five and a half pages devoted to an entirely separate topic––the practice of grave robbing in Boston to provide cadavers for medical schools. In this section, the characters, including a would-be doctor, focus their efforts on robbing the last resting place of blacks. One has to assume Whitehead read something that documented this inhumane practice and concluded it needed to see the light of day despite the fact this section has little connection to the rest of the story.

I haven’t read any of Whitehead’s other works, but based on this novel, I have to conclude that his awards and high recognition are based primarily on his choice of subject matter and the fact that he rubs slavery in the face of the citizens of that nation where the offspring of African slaves have risen the highest. White guilt is easy to exploit these days.

While overall well-written, there were too many times when I had to re-read paragraphs where he jumps around in time and viewpoint. Yet, there is also much to praise in his writing. His characters are unique, his descriptions fresh, and the dialogue is griping.

The slave girl, Cora, seems to embody Whitehead’s personal quest for liberty from the ravages of slavery. Of course, Whitehead can only imagine what slavery was like just as I can only imagine what my relatives experienced in the Shoah (the Holocaust). In creating an artificial underground railroad in order to highlight the complicity of whites in slavery, however, hasn’t he undermined his description of slavery itself? Can it be viewed as accurate if the world after escape is totally artificial?

In the end, I hope people who are interested in slavery and its aftermath will read histories in addition to fictional treatments. History can be distorted by a writer’s biases, but history is subject to professional review and as such, errors of fact, omissions, and overemphasis are usually brought to light. Fiction is treated through a different lens. Does it seem plausible? Does it fit how I wish things were or are? Fiction can offer a different kind of truth, but should not be taken to represent what actually happened.

In a country where the teaching of general American history has been set aside for identity history, I’m worried that readers of The Underground Railroad will take Whitehead’s version as fact and fail to learn about the actual history of slavery and of the long struggle for the equality promised to all in our constitution. That would be a shame.

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