Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad

Unless you've been out of the country and offline for the past month, you already know that Colson Whitehead ( is the author du jour. He is everywhere! Since I heard him talk briefly at Book Expo in May, his latest novel, "The Underground Railroad," was chosen by Oprah for her book club, a wonderful phenomenon that gets important books into the hands of readers who may not otherwise be reached. I have since learned that Whitehead knew of the honor months earlier and had even filmed a PR video with Ms. Winfrey, but had been sworn to secrecy.

Product Details

I read the book several weeks ago but was suddenly hospitalized and didn't get a chance to put my thoughts down while they were fresh. I've mulled it over, letting it percolate in my mind a bit, and have decided that the novel can be read on two levels, as a gripping historical fiction that you simply can't put down, and/or as a call to arms to open hearts and minds to the realization that only by reopening talks of reparations and then making good on them, will we ever come close to atoning for America's original sin.

Except for native Americans, all of us are the progeny of those who arrived voluntarily on our shores searching for a better life. Africans are the only people to be kidnapped from their homes, forcibly chained and shackled in the holds of boats, and dumped in ports like Annapolis, Charleston and Savannah to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. This is every bit as much a travesty as the Holocaust.

By researching original slave narratives for authenticity and detail, Whitehead created original narrative voices. Young Cora, the Gulliver who takes us along on her harrowing travels, is a formidable character. Enslaved on the Randall plantation in Georgia, Cora was only ten when her mother disappeared. Without protection she quickly learns to defend herself and the tiny scrap of land she tends outside her cottage door. But after Cora commits a personality defining, glorious act of rebellion, she is confined to the Hob, a crowded living space for "troubled" individuals. She is subjected, like all enslaved women, to rape and whippings. When Caesar approaches her with an escape plan, she is ready.

Whitehead's metaphor of underground railroad as actual trains and rails constructed within the bowels of the earth is brilliant. When Cora asks in awe, "Who built this?" the response is, "Who builds anything?" Thanks to Michelle Obama, now the whole world knows that enslaved blacks built the White House and oh so much more. By giving agency to the black workers on the long road to freedom, Whitehead instills pride in Cora and other escapees who have been beaten down physically and psychologically.

When Caesar and Cora reach South Carolina, Whitehead fills the reader with a false sense of security. Enslaved people are being taught to speak "properly," to read and write, while constantly being reminded that this would be against the law in North Carolina. Cora is found "acceptable" to be employed in a museum in a grossly demeaning job where she sits in position all day long behind a tourists' glass window, in an installation reflecting the "happy negro working on the plantation." She receives free health care. Wonderful, you might think, until the ugly truth surfaces and readers learn that she and others are being primed to submit to forced sterilization.

By the time the slave catcher, Ridgeway, finds them, Caesar and Cora are already on their way to another safe place. She is smuggled to Martin and Ethel's house in the back of a wagon. On the road into town, the so-called Freedom Trail, Cora sees mile after mile of black faces, bloated and vile in their death throes, hanging like decorations from the trees along the way. For months she languishes, barely fed, hidden under the rafters in Martin's attic, where she suffers the bird's eye view of the Friday night lynchings on the town green.

No, this is not an emotionally easy read but it is clever, insightful, and accessible for a new generation of readers whose knowledge of slavery and the underground railroad may have stopped in grammar school. As you read it, and you must, please try to imagine for one moment that you are Cora, barely living in this marginal existence. Try to understand the injustice that brought her and her forebears to the land of opportunity and the evil of a policy that denied full humanity to Africans and their descendants. You can't of course, but you can try.


Mij said...

I enjoyed your review here very much. However, while it's true that it's easier to be white than black in America, and has been throughout our history, it is not accurate that whites are progeny of people who arrived here voluntarily. Half the immigrants from Europe in the 17th century were indentured servants. Check out their history--in many ways, it was like slavery. Many whites were forced to come to America, as were the Chinese on the West Coast. Children and women and anyone who was poor could be forced into labor. If you are at all interested in pursuing this topic in more detail, I could hunt up some references for you.

Sallyb said...

Thank you for you thoughtful comment. I was not aware that half of the immigrants from Europe came here as indentured servants and yes, I would be interested in books on this. I did check out the History Channel which indicates that many went into voluntary indentured servitude to pay for their passage. As for the Chinese, I believed that they were already here and then were rounded up to work on the railroads for very little pay. Many came here because they would work for less than those already here would work. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Mij said...

Hi Sally. My husband is home on vacation for a couple of days. When he goes back to work, I will pursue this topic in earnest and get back to you then. Just for fun, I did a little searching on WorldCat and discovered a book on this very topic that will be published in Feb 2017. Don't know anything about the author or his credentials, but the title sounded good! So I added it to my "to read" list on Goodreads. Do you do Goodreads?

Mij said...

Hello Sally. You are going to look at my communique this morning and your eyes are going to glaze over, bored silly before you even read further! But I don't know how to shrink it down to something more inviting. So, I will just get on with it. I took out my files on the subject of indentured servants to America and realized: much of my knowledge on the subject came from academic type books and journals. I used to travel (by ferry and bus) to the large library (Suzzalo) on the campus of the University of Washington, and would get into a xerox frenzy. But I doubt you will want to pursue such a "reading adventure." I ended up corresponding with two authors on the topic of the transportation of Scottish prisoners to America after battles with Cromwell. Their names are Diane Rappaport and Andrea Button. One classic book source frequently referenced is Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776, by Abbot Emerson Smith. He presents an unflattering picture of servants, but is thorough in explaining the acquisition of servants and the roles they played in the colonies, as well as details about convicts transported there. A book more easily obtained, either at a library or from Amazon, is White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain's White Slaves in America, by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh. The authors are not academic historians, so the story is told in more "lay terms." The two were involved with television programs in England similar to, say, "60 Minutes." I am currently reading it, and finding it fascinating. Another classic reference is White Servitude in Colonial America, by David W. Galenson. You can google that one, and check out it's Table of Contents. A book by Peter Wilson Coldham, is called Emigrants in Chains: A Social History of Forced Emigration in the Americas, 1607 - 1776. Finally, one book about the banishment of Scottish prisoners of war is by David Dobson, called Directory of Scots Banished to the American Plantations, 1650-1775. He provides a short introduction on the subject. I searched in vain for books on the topic of Irish who were forced into labor here in America; if I find references in the future I will let you know. One thing of interest: there seems to be raging a controversy about whether or not the whites forced into servitude were actually slaves. Of course, slavery is slavery regardless of the color of one's skin. The difference between indentured servants and those sold into slavery is that eventually, indentured servants were likely to be set free. There was an end in sight, and just knowing that there would be an end to their misery is a huge thing. During their periods of servitude, however, their treatment was identical to slavery. They could be abused with physical torture, captured and have their length of service extended, and so on. Unfortunately, the young men and women who came over as indentured servants often did not live long enough to serve out their terms, as they were frequently not fed properly, and often literally worked to death.

Mij said...

Me again. One book I thought of as I put together the above references--did you ever read The Known World, by Edward P. Jones? I thought of this book because I was wishing there was a fictional work that gave information about the world of indentured servants. Which triggered my memory of The Known World, which opened my eyes about the world of slavery. Not to mention being a rousing good read, with my sitting on the edge of me seat if I had to put the book down. The book won the Pulitzer 2004, the International IMPAC Dublin, the National Book Critics Circle, and was a finalist in the National Book Award, the latter 3 in 2003. I think you would love this book.

Sallyb said...

YIKES! Now I'm on the spot. Yes, I am familiar with The Known World and I think that I once began it and then put it down. I will pick it up again right away. I've also heard of White Cargo and will give it a look. I am very impressed with all your research and am wondering if you are a professor of history or if this is just a hobby for you?

Mij said...

I seem to recall that it took me awhile to get into The Known World, but then I became engrossed with it. However, with books--it's all chemistry! What one person loves, another reader spurns. On my "to read" list is another book about slavery, called Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth. A few years ago, I read the sequel, called The Quality of Mercy. Could not put that book down. You might like these. Oh, guess what. I got totally bored with White Cargo this morning. It's mostly about the people in England and elsewhere who were responsible for scooping up all those children and undesirables off the streets of London, etc. About my research--I did this for a writing project about 10 years ago, or maybe it was 15 or 20 years ago--it's all a blur now. My love of history was given me by both of my parents. I have a graduate degree in social work, but if I had it to do all over again, I would have married into wealth and then laid around on pillows all day eating strawberries.