Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad is a story we’ve heard before: an enslaved person runs away from a lifetime of forced servitude in pursuit of freedom. However, in Whitehead’s adaptation, the means of escape in this novel is anything but metaphorical; the Underground Railroad is a literal railroad underneath southern soil with conductors and passage cars and stations that take enslaved black people from the south to northern states where they have better chances at living a life not full of absolute terror.
The majority of the novel follows a young enslaved woman, Cora, who escapes her Georgia plantation with two others after suffering a brutal beating from her master when she intervened in the beating of a young boy. Cora, whose mother Mabel escaped the plantation when Cora was young, must outrun the famously determined and successful slave catcher, Ridgeway, who feels a special determination to capture Cora as her mother was the only slave he never managed to catch. In between the chapters focused on Cora are chapters on the people she comes across, such as Ridgeway, Caesar, Cora’s runaway companion whose idea it was to run away in the first place, and a reluctant slave sympathizer, Ethel, who helps Cora on her escape. Whitehead does a great job of weaving the lives of these strangers together through the one event that inevitably brought them together: Cora’s pursuit of freedom.
I don’t think I’m saying anything groundbreaking by saying that a novel about a runaway enslaved woman isn’t a happy read. At no point in this novel did I feel some sense of triumph or happiness for Cora and her companions because nothing about what they were doing was happy or triumphant. Knowing a brutal, gory punishment awaited them should they have been caught made this read tense and that’s about the only word I can use that captures the essence of this novel. It’s tense. It’s full of casual violence that was typical against black bodies in that time, it includes language that can be tough to read such as referring to people as “it” and there is absolutely no shortage of the n-word, with a hard “r.” Whitehead doesn’t soften the blow of the brutality of the slave era, not only against black people but the whites who helped them, in the slightest. I found myself having to pause sometimes while reading this because the violence is presented in such a matter-of-fact tone that sometimes I had to wonder if I read the words correctly. Did that really just happen? I’d ask myself a lot while reading this.
It’s hard critiquing a novel about slavery. Slavery left a stain on this country that has yet to be, and probably won’t ever be, washed out. It’s not like I can say I wished there was a happy ending to this because when we’re talking about slavery, what happy ending could I possibly wish for? Even when Cora thinks she has reached safety, she still cannot use her real name, she has to be careful of who she trusts, and other horrors outside of slavery that still only affect black people exist in her new surroundings. She leaves the nightmare of plantation life only to run into the nightmare of false freedom. No one is forcing her to pick cotton or beating her with a whip, but she’s also not at full liberty to make her own choices.
My only real grievance about the book would be the rewriting of the Underground Railroad as a literal railroad. A fascinating addition to what otherwise would’ve just been another story about the escape to freedom, it felt way underdeveloped. We never know who built it or how, how the station managers contact each other, or how they managed to get passengers from one destination to the next. I suppose that was for a reason; the Railroad’s success depended on its secrecy, but in the end, having it be a literal railroad instead of a metaphorical one felt unnecessary. It added nothing to the story, in my opinion, except the shadow of some whimsy and magical realism, just not nearly enough that is absolutely needed to be included. The railroad in the novel could have been exactly as it was in real life and the story would have been the exact same.
Don’t let the somber tone of this post make you think I hated this book. I didn’t. I’m actually glad I read it; I love reading work by black writers, and I don’t read much fiction about slavery because, well… it’s slavery. However, while I didn’t hate the novel, I’m not sure there’s anything I can say I liked about it. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. As a young black woman I don’t think I should find a novel detailing brutality against my ancestors entertaining, even if it is fiction. I’m assuming that was Whitehead’s intention: not to entertain, but to depict. To paint a clear picture of the mistreatment of black people and the unjust way we were (and still are) dehumanized and used as tools for the prosperity of white America. He leaves the ending of the novel somewhat vague: we know where Cora ends up at the end of her journey, but we have no idea if more horrors await her or if she has truly found freedom. How reflective and applicable that is to the current day situation for black Americans. We’ve seemingly made it out of the long road of slavery but we’re nowhere near the end, and while it may seem that we’re in a better spot, we have no idea what other potential horrors await us.
Tense as this novel was, it was a reminder of all that my ancestors and the ancestors of my fellow black Americans have suffered. I think remembering our pasts from time to time is important. For me, that fuels my determination to succeed against whatever obstacles may be in my way. If my ancestors could survive slavery, I can survive… whatever mess America is right now.