Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is a recent addition to an arguably saturated market of slavery-fixated media. Nevertheless, Whitehead’s intelligent and exquisitely written prose distinguishes the novel from other artistic meditations mining similar historical material. Even without the Oprah’s Book Club seal embellishing its cover, readers should be enticed to check out Whitehead’s latest offering.
The Underground Railroad is a neo-slave narrative, a designation that refers to a variety of contemporary texts that echo the form and content of nineteenth-century accounts of the lives (and escapes) of enslaved peoples of African descent. Yet, while the book is in the literary tradition of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, its action-packed plot and scenes of close calls elicit comparisons to the hit television show Underground, an adventure series that chronicles its main characters’ arduous sojourn to freedom. Hence, Whitehead skillfully straddles divergent moods, genres, and audiences. He delivers a novel that is both accessible and opaque, tethered to the material realities of the nineteenth century while also illuminating conditions of the present. It is a book that, through its layered allusions, winks at scholars and well-versed readers of African American literature while also welcoming general readers into the conversation. Therefore, with the publication of the book, Whitehead is sure to satisfy much of his established readership while capturing the interest of a new audience.
The novel’s protagonist is Cora, a young woman enslaved on a Georgia plantation who, after one particularly grotesque display of violence and with the gentle nudging of a fellow bondsman, decides to take her chances on the fabled railroad. While on the run, Cora must not only evade the grips of the slavecatcher Ridgeway, who, due to a generational conflict, is obsessed with her capture, but she must also cope with being haunted by the memories of a mother she assumes abandoned her and with the after-effects of the abuse she has suffered at the hands of slave master and fellow slave alike. Through Cora’s story and the intersecting tales of the characters who share her life world, Whitehead continually reiterates two important truths about slavery: (1) the system corrupted all who came within its grasp and (2) the physical and psychic violence needed to maintain the system were devastating and enduring. For example, Cora, wrapped up in the tentacles of the institution and desperate to attain freedom, kills a boy who is one of the patrollers hunting her. Moreover, we find that the individuals assisting the fugitive slaves are at times, ambivalent and, even worse, resentful towards their wards. Whitehead repeatedly shows characters who were once enslaved suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They wake up from night terrors, suffer from hallucinations, and shrink from the touch of loved ones. Consequently, The Underground Railroad is a study in trauma, as Whitehead reminds us that the damage committed by slavery was not and cannot be entirely cured with emancipation.
Understandably, readers familiar with Whitehead’s oeuvre might suspect him of handling such subject matter with a heavy satirical hand, and that suspicion, at first, appears to be confirmed when the titular underground railroad is revealed to be composed of literal trains, tracks, and stations. Fortunately, Whitehead’s ironic stance is not overwhelming. Rather than assuming an aggressively droll tone, he respectfully signifies on the conventions of the slave narrative, the sufferings and experiences of enslaved peoples, and the individuals responsible for illuminating the tradition of the slave narrative for the masses. He incorporates actual runaway slave advertisements into the body of the text, similar to how authenticating documents were embedded in the prose of nineteenth-century slave narratives. The headache-inducing injury that Cora endures draws parallels to the plight of Harriet Tubman, who suffered her own dizzying headaches following an act of violence committed by her slave owner. Furthermore, a certain sect of readers will surely smile when one of the novel’s underground railroad agents reveals that he used the pseudonym “James Olney” to rescue captured fugitive slaves from jail. Even if readers do not recognize such allusions---in this instance to the late scholar and editor of The Southern Review--- Whitehead, in his closing acknowledgments, makes the novel’s historical situatedness apparent, articulating his indebtedness to Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, Eric Foner, and other individuals and institutions that have helped preserve the history of American slavery.
Due to this engaging play with archives and Whitehead’s literary aptness, The Underground Railroad is a lovely novel. However, it is not a pleasurable read. The book is a relentless tour of physical, sexual, and psychic violence. Many of the fugitive slaves, including several of whom readers will undoubtedly develop an emotional attachment to, never taste the fruits of freedom, either killed while on the run or returned to their plantations to be publicly executed as a type of memento mori for slaves contemplating similar plans. Nonetheless, the novel does not read as a gratuitous glimpse into black misery. Whitehead, instead, triumphantly delivers a testimony of the resiliency and liberatory imaginative capacities of African Americans inhabiting a hostile national environment. Towards the end of the novel, a character reflecting on the seemingly impossibility of black Americans finding peace in the “mean cold” of the country’s racial iniquity proclaims, “But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.” In the contemporary moment, highlighting the importance of dogged resilience in the face of hardship and impossibility seems more apropos than satisfying an audience with a happy ending.