I was in Texas when I read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Somehow it felt right. Hill Country is beautiful, to be sure, but harsh as well. Cactus and pine needles, blazing sun and dry riverbeds. Dying stumps of trees abandoned by the thin topsoil. A perfect backdrop to a story about the runaway slave Cora.

slave tales

Slavery has been around since the dawn of mankind. Think of Roman prisoners of war, Irish indentured servants, and Russian serfs. But America’s form of slavery is unique in two terrible respects. It was race-based and hereditary. It was based on and fed by a conviction of white supremacy. As Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederate States of America, once said:

the negro is not equal to the white man […] slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.

There is a wealth of literature, fiction and nonfiction, about slavery. It ranges from the Disney version of the Old South with its Uncle Toms and beloved Mammies. And then there is the bitter reality of slavery as depicted by icons like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.

It took Colson Whitehead 15 years before he dared to enter this fray. A childhood memory had sparked the idea. What if the underground railroad were no mere metaphor for a network of safe houses to spirit slaves to freedom?

a railroad

In Whitehead’s novel, the railroad is a physical phenomenon. The runaway slave Cora travels its tunnels and tracks. Each stop reflects a new part of this young nation and each platform the personality of its railroad conductor.

A careful pattern of colored stones decorated the station beneath Lumbly’s farm, and wooden slabs covered the walls of Sam’s station. The builders of this stop had hacked and blasted it from the unforgiving earth and made no attempt at adornment, to showcase the difficulty of their feat. Stripes of white, orange, and rust-colored veins swam through the jags, pits, and knobs. Cora stood in the guts of a mountain.

Boxcars trundle back and forth though their final destination may be hard to predict. Lines suddenly open and close. Slave catchers know about this railroad and are determined to shut it down.

black and white

Whitehead offers an intense taste of the deprivations of slavery. As a young woman, Cora’s value is measured not only in the weight of the cotton she picks. Slaves are wealth and a fertile female is a moneymaking machine. By contrast, the dead slave, the insane slave, the runaway slave – these things have no value.

Violence in this world is both an end and a means. It allows a white owner to flay and then roast alive his errant property. The punishment is both an object lesson to the other slaves as well as amusement for the ladies who come to take afternoon tea.

That violence infects all it touches. Slaves, brutalized by day, turn on each other at night. They shun the weak. They betray each other in the hope it will spare them the whip for just one more day. In The Underground Railroad, a shared race creates no bond of loyalty. It is merely a guarantee of perpetual violence.

White on black, black on black, and yes white on white violence, too. Whites who dare to help fugitive slaves are traitors to their own race. Take August Carter, a Delaware merchant with crazy ideas and a printing press to broadcast them. The slave catcher Ridgeway decides to teach him a lesson.

[Ridgeway] daintily sewed their hoods from white sacks of flour but could barely move his fingers after their visit — his fists swelled for two days after beating the man’s face in. He permitted his men to dishonor the man’s wife in ways he never let them use a nigger gal. For years after whenever Ridgeway saw a bonfire, the smell reminded him of the sweet smoke of Carter’s house going up and a figment of a smile settled on his mouth. He later heard that the man moved to Worcester and became a cobbler.

song of the south

Cora’s first stop is in South Carolina. Runaway slaves live in clean dormitories. Proctors find work for them as housemaids or factory hands. They teach the negro how to read. Yet behind this shiny facade lurks a different form of white supremacy. An experiment on young black men suffering from syphilis. A campaign to neuter all the black women.

The railroad allows Whitehead to rove inside and outside the bounds of history. To inject a 1930s Nazi concept of eugenics into a story of America before the Civil War. To create new landscapes in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Yet none of this fantasy detracts from the reality of slavery. Whitehead puts us there: behind the smokehouse where the young Cora is seasoned through gang rape, up in an attic where she hides in the sweltering heat, out on the Freedom Trail whose trees hang heavy with strange fruit.

Whitehead dots the narrative with historical runaway slave advertisements. He inflects the speech of his characters with the songs of the south. He takes us as far into that world as the reader is willing to go.

dark heart of Texas

By some reckonings, Texas is a part of the American South. The state borders on the east with Louisiana and Mississippi. It shares the same sorts of swamps that Cora has to cross on her road to freedom. The climate in Texas is also good for cotton and there were once plenty of cotton plantations in the Lone Star State.

After the Civil War, the plantation economy collapsed without the slave labor to pick the cotton and tobacco. The state of Texas found a simple solution to that. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution forbids slavery and involuntary servitude 

except as punishment for a crime.

From 1899 to 1918, the state of Texas bought plantations and ran them as prisons. One of those prison wardens was Terrell Don Hutto who later went on to co-found Corrections Corporation of America, a private sector manager of prisons and detention centers.

If you ask Whitehead if The Underground Railroad has a political message, he’ll deny it. He says he’s just a novelist. But it’s hard not to see the stain, so vividly depicted in his novel, as it seeps into US life today. The mass incarceration of young black men, police brutality in the streets, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Charlottesville.

tracking by the moon

In The Underground Railroad, every slave thinks about running away. Maybe it’s the sudden realization of the hell your life will be if you stay. Maybe it’s a fear that if you don’t run now, you never will. Or maybe it’s just the moon taunting you.

Elijah Landers is an abolitionist, a man of mixed race in a very black and white world. He comes to speak to Cora and her fellow runaways as they try to decide whether it’s safe enough for them to stay awhile. He has no easy answers.

Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade. When you saw your mother sold off, your father beaten, your sister abused by some boss or master, did you ever think you would sit here today, without chains, without the yoke, among a new family? Everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick — yet here you are. Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary.

5 October 2018 | Karen Kao