Modern authors often choose to explore different parts of their ancestors’ history that were unavailable to them before (Maus 37). Many of the writers do not only retell the stories of the past but also use some fictional elements to create a narrative that will show the struggles of the past generations. One of these authors is Colson Whitehead, whose works often blend real issues and struggles with futuristic concepts and imaginative approaches (Fain 25).
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His novel The Underground Railroad explores the history of slavery in the US during the 1800s through the story of a young woman, Cora, a slave on a plantation in Georgia. However, Whitehead decides to stray away from a simple historical retelling. Instead of describing the real underground railroad, which was a network of hidden routes and stops that span across the USA, the author chooses to interpret it in a literal way, creating an actual subway system. Through describing the lives of slaves and reimagining the concepts of the railroad, the novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead comments on the history of the US and brings the attention to the problems created by it.
At the beginning of the novel, Whitehead focuses on creating a narrative and showcasing the state of slavery in the United States by writing about the protagonist’s grandmother, Ajarry. Through the scenes from the first chapter, the audience is able to picture the conditions, in which slaves had to live during that time period. The story of Ajarry shows many aspects of slavery, including one’s living and working conditions, the idea of one’s worth, and the relationships between slaveholders, sellers, and slaves themselves.
By describing the life of the character’s grandmother before introducing Cora, the author also highlights the longevity and inalterability of slavery (Saldívar 15). The audience is presented with the thought that, while generations of people change, the relationship between slaves and their masters does not alter significantly.
The description of individuals and places in this chapter portrays the harsh conditions that enslaved black people faced during that time. The author uses strong comparisons and epithets to show the insufferable atmosphere of slave ships, writing “the noxious air of the hold, the gloom of confinement, and the screams of those shackled to her” (Whitehead 15). Moreover, Whitehead shows the attitude of buyers and sellers towards slaves through the scenes with such words as “the slavers stove in his head and left his body by the trail” (15), and “he pinched her breasts to see if she was in flower” (17).
These moments later are brought up as a discussion of one’s worth. The author outlines that slaves are seen as items, whose price is established by their physical capabilities – men’s physical strength and women’s ability to bear children. This theme is prevalent in further scenes that portray the interaction between enslaved people and slave catchers or holders.
In this case, the story of Ajarry is representative of the lives of most slaves. Her relationships with other slaves, her journeys, and the timeline of her growing up are also used to showcase the general situation of the country’s slavery. Thus, the audience is exposed to an established system of slavery through the eyes of one woman. At the end of this chapter, the readers are reminded of Cora and Caesar and their decision to escape. It is possible that Whitehead chooses to use this episode as a way to give the audience a reason behind the protagonist’s actions.
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The second chapter introduces Cora, a young black woman, who never traveled from the place where her grandmother spent her last days. In this part, readers can see the everyday life of slaves in the south. In contrast to the first chapter, which talks about slaves traveling and moving from place to place, this part explores the routine of slaves, their customs, and their relationship with the owner. Cora is described through her actions and thoughts. She is scared of the masters as much as everyone else and just as many of the slaves she believes that the masters are allowed to act in the ways they do. The audience, acquainted with Ajarry’s story, learns about a different relative of Cora – her mother, Mabel.
Mabel ran away from the plantation. In fact, her escape is one of the most intriguing elements of this chapter, as readers do not know about the result of her escape. However, they see how Mabel’s disappearance affects Cora. Cora is resentful of her mother for leaving her at a young age because nobody would take care of a young child in these harsh conditions.
The author starts the chapter by describing a rather rare event, which happens “once or twice a year” (Whitehead 25). The scene begins with preparations for a celebration of a slave’s birthday. However, the notion that slaves can celebrate their birthdays is quickly destroyed with the phrase “everybody knew niggers didn’t have birthdays” (Whitehead 25). Thus, the author establishes the rarity of this occasion. Readers can see many people that work on the plantation.
Various characters have different purposes and personalities. However, they all act as one organism before their owner. Whitehead portrays the two current owners, James, and Terrance Randall, as two different people. However, while the two men have entirely different personalities, their attitude towards slaves is the same because they both see them as items. Thus, while both groups of people have a plethora of characteristics and traits, their connection with each other is built on the same set of relationship patterns and behaviors.
The actions that are described in this chapter can be considered the starting point of the main story. Apart from participating in a birthday celebration and reminiscing about their past, Cora and Caesar discuss, plan, and execute their escape from the plantation. While the historical representation of most scenes can be considered accurate, the ending of the second chapter reveals one purely fictional aspect of the novel.
Cora and Caesar run from their working grounds into the town and ride to the underground railroad, which is unveiled to be a real railroad with moving trains and stations. However, most of the narrative follows history rather closely. For example, scenes that depict owners’ violence towards their slaves are based on real events. Foner writes that many fugitives, who escaped slavery through the actual underground railroad or otherwise, told many stories about their lives, which were full of brutality (145). Therefore, it is safe to say that such scenes as Chester and Cora’s repeated beatings or Big Anthony’s torturous execution are based on real historical events.
In the scene where Cora, Caesar, and Lovey encounter a group of hunters during their escape, the slaves are treated by white people as pray rather than humans. Moreover, the death of the young man that Cora kills to save herself is seen as a tragedy not simply because he is dead but also because a slave killed him. People that talk about the incident behave as though this young man was killed as a result of an unsuccessful hunt. The slave sympathizer, Mr. Fetcher, has to thank God for looking “over a white man and his interests” to avoid raising suspicion when talking about this incident (Whitehead 72). Thus, Whitehead shows that some southern states do not tolerate sympathizers and abolishers.
The third chapter talks about Ridgeway, a slave catcher, that once attempted to capture Mabel. In fact, he sees the failure to capture Mabel as a significant defeat and a blow to his otherwise excellent record. Ridgeway personally apologizes to the last owner of Mabel, Old Rendall, for this misfortune. The chapter talks about Ridgeway’s past. His father is a blacksmith, who often tells his son about finding spirit in one’s work, which affects Ridgeway’s thoughts about his purpose.
However, after joining patrollers, Ridgeway quickly decides that spirit is not essential in one’s profession, telling his father that the real significance lies in people “serving a nation rising to its destiny” (Whitehead 82). Thus, it is possible to assume that Ridgeway sees his actions as a contribution to the country’s success.
The fourth chapter presents a completely different picture as it describes the lives of Cora and Caesar after arriving in South Carolina. In the beginning, readers are introduced to Bessie, who is later revealed to be Cora. Cora’s work and leisure time are portrayed as exciting and pleasant. Cora’s clothes are nice and clean, and she sleeps in bed for the first time in her life. Moreover, she has time and opportunity to learn how to read and write.
In the earlier chapters, literacy is regarded by white people to be poisonous for escapees, as after learning to read and write they can pretend to be freedmen and avoid being captured. In this chapter, readers can see that Cora’s eagerness to learn is met with a positive affirmation from proctors. Moreover, one of the proctors, Miss Lucy, talks about grammar classes being a part of the “mission of colored uplift,” which portrays South Carolina and its citizens as positive forces in the fight for slave abolishment (Whitehead 103).
Cora’s past does not leave her easily as she often recalls words that she used to describe her life on the plantation. However, her happy days in South Carolina are tarnished by a series of events that change Cora’s view on many things. During a social gathering, Cora witnesses a distressed black woman running down the street. The woman cries out “my babies, they are taking away my babies” and is quickly rushed to one of the rooms of the dormitory (Whitehead 110). Everyone around Cora dismisses this incident as a person being hunted by the horrors of the plantation.
Later, Cora has to go through a medical exam, during which the doctor asks if she wants to consider “birth control” (Whitehead 116). The doctor portrays the idea or a permanent operation as a way for Cora to be free of unnecessary burdens saying “this is just a chance for you to take control over your own destiny” (Whitehead 117).
Cora pieces the two incidents together and realizes that “the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest,” implying that by taking away black women’s ability to give birth, white people want to take away black people’s future as a population (Whitehead 120). The idea that white people are posing this operation as a way to help black people may be astounding to the modern reader as it is evident that white people do this to restrict the birth of black and biracial individuals.
Cora’s new job also shows some new sides to the white people of South Carolina. She has to work in a museum, where she is used as a prop for a number of expositions: “Darkest Africa,” “Life on the Slave Ship,” and “Typical Day on the Plantation” (Whitehead 113). Mr. Fields, the curator of the museum’s expositions, treats her and other actors as things, “scrutinizing her as the men in the rooms had scrutinized the projects on their worktables” (Whitehead 112).
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Cora is, again, treated as an item rather than a person. She discovers that black people are the only actors in the museum, while white people are portrayed by dolls. Moreover, the history displayed in the museum does not show the reality of the black slaves’ lives. The actors’ routine shows workers in rather manageable conditions without chains or brutality. It is possible that through this scene Whitehead also comments on modern history, which often erases the experiences of people of color. Only Cora and other black people in the museum are able to recognize that the exhibitions are wrong while visiting white people can only look at the scenes and assume them to be truthful.
Sam, the station agent that owns a saloon in South Carolina, invites Caesar and Cora to talk and tells them about what he heard at the bar. Cora’s suspicions are confirmed, as she learns about doctors’ plans to study the development of syphilis by using black men and women. Moreover, researchers want to breed black people as animals by strategically sterilizing them and getting rid of negative behaviors.
Cora’s stay in South Carolina is put to an end by the arrival of Ridgeway, who knows that she and Caesar are in town. Sam warns Cora about their appearance and asks her to come to his house. Cora goes to his house without Caesar, who has a late working shift. The scene is followed by her going down to the underground railroad, where she waits for Caesar to join her. However, after being locked in the station for hours, Cora hears the crackling of the wood and sounds of several men shouting and destroying property. The slave catchers set Sam’s house afire.
The next short chapter, called “Stevens,” talks about grave robbers or body snatchers that steal freshly buried corpses and sell them to doctors for medical examinations. This chapter showcases that white and black people deal with different treatment even after death. Many body snatchers, including the character in this part, Carpenter, choose to steal black bodies because no official will agree to look for them or demand their return. However, Stevens, a doctor that joins a group of grave robbers to fill his medical classes with bodies, considers black people and their bodies to be a miracle. He says “in death the negro became a human being” reinforcing the notion of people’s worth (Whitehead 139).
The sixth chapter returns to Cora as she travels north to North Carolina. The state of North Carolina differs significantly from places that Cora saw before. The authorities of the state decided to abolish slavery by expelling free black people and capturing and executing slaves. The system that was built on slavery was destroyed, and black slaves were replaced by working immigrants that came from European countries. Cora finds herself hidden in the attic of a white family, Martin, and Ether. Cora learns that Martin’s father was a sympathizer that once helped many people to escape through the underground railroad. However, now the station is closed because of the new laws.
Cora sees the outcomes of these new laws during Friday Festivals, which end with attendees hanging a black person that was caught previously by night riders. These night riders are the same as slave catchers of South Carolina, except in this state they do not return slaves to their masters. Here, all enslaved people share the same gruesome fate of being publicly hanged and put on display along the Freedom Trail. Martin and Ether are reluctant to help Cora to escape as they know that she will be caught.
However, Ethel cares for Cora and reads to her. Their hospitality does not end well for them as their maid, Fiona brings night riders to their house. Patrollers catch Cora but reveal to her that she will not be hanged. Ridgeway is one of these riders, and he is taking Cora back to her master. As Cora leaves the town, she sees that Martin and Ethel are tied to a tree as their neighbors and other citizens start throwing rocks at them.
In the seventh chapter, called “Ethel,” readers are shown a different perspective on the state of North Carolina. This short chapter follows the life of Ethel, exploring her behavior towards slaves and African people. In her childhood years, Ether wanted to become a missionary, thinking that “it would be spiritually fulfilling to serve the Lord in dark Africa” (Whitehead 191). Her desire to spread the word of God was unappreciated by her parents that did not understand her fixation on African people.
Ethel’s attitude towards slaves that were owned by her family differed from her feelings towards “savages” that she so eagerly wanted to teach. In fact, her opinion was similar to that of other children, as she was taught that “a slave was someone who lived in your house like family but was not family” (Whitehead 192). Moreover, she believed that black people were “descendants of cursed, black Ham” and that they “required Christian guidance all the more” (Whitehead 192).
Her religious beliefs mixed with the teaching of her parents shaped her worldview that portrayed slavery as an inherent part of the world’s structure. In fact, her thoughts repeat the words that appeared earlier in the story – “if God had not meant for Africans to be enslaved, they wouldn’t be in chains” (Whitehead 194). This belief is the basis for many religious people’s thoughts on slavery. Her outlook does not change with age, as Ethel still views black people as savages. When she encounters Cora and sees that she is sick, her desire to teach the word of the Lord to a savage is finally fulfilled. Ethel cares for Cora not out of compassion but her selfish needs. She views herself as a savior.
In the chapter “Tennessee,” Ridgeway tells Cora that her capture was not planned. Ridgeway was investigating Cora and Caesar’s escape and stumbled upon the names of Martin and his father while he was searching for more information on the underground railroad. He and his team of slave capturers travel across a number of states to deliver some other slaves to their masters. Cora and Ridgeway start talking after some time on the road, and the man reveals that Lovey, who was caught during Cora’s escape, is dead.
He also shares his lack of respect for Terrance Randall, who has “an ‘ornate’ imagination when it came to nigger discipline” (Whitehead 209). Through their conversations, Cora learns that Ridgeway does not want to deliver her first. Thus, she attempts to escape multiple times. However, she fails every time and stops trying.
The catchers arrive in Tennessee, where their usual trail is closed because of yellow fever. They choose a different route, which leads them southwest to a small town that has just recovered from the disease. Cora and Ridgeway go out to a saloon for supper, where Ridgeway tells Cora about Caesar’s death. After being captured by Ridgeway, Caesar died in prison at the hands of the citizens of South Carolina. Cora is prepared to hear the news about her friend’s death, which prompts Ridgeway to talk more. He reveals his hatred for Cora’s mother and admits that he places some of it on Cora. Ridgeway speaks about the system and says that everybody, including him and Cora, is playing their designated parts according to the “American imperative” (Whitehead 220). Cora does not respond.
She is preparing herself for a plan that she has been thinking about for a long time. She wants to use one of the catchers, named Boseman, and his rude propositions to escape. However, her plan does not work because Ridgeway catches them and scares Cora enough for her to stop. Their quarreling in interrupted by black men that saw Cora enter the town in shackles. The fight between the three men and salve catchers results in Cora being freed and Ridgway left behind, chained to his carriage. It is interesting that the men decide to put Ridgeway in chains rather than shoot him. While killing him would be a safer option for all of them, their actions are understandable as they are based on their desire to turn the system on those who enforce it.
The next chapter portrays the story from Caesar’s perspective as readers are pulled back to the time of Jockey’s birthday. Caesar’s reasons for asking Cora to escape with him are finally revealed. He sees a spirit in her that ensures him of their success in running away. Caesar’s past is shown as well. Readers learn that he is different from the majority of slaves on this plantation. Caesar remembers his parents, their names, and his birthday.
He can read and he knows the feeling of being free. His previous experience is what drives his desire to escape. The author writes that “Caesar had grown up believing he was free to choose his own fate,” which sets him apart from many slaves (Whitehead 231).
The choice of the book that Caesar secretly reads is also peculiar. It is possible that Whitehead chooses to use the novel Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, also known as Gulliver’s Travels, to show the contrast between the access to freedom of white people and people of color. Moreover, Gulliver’s travels can be compared to European people discovering and taking the land of native tribes away from them. Thinking about the book, Caesar says “that was the man’s real trouble, not the savage and uncanny civilizations he encountered—he kept forgetting what he had,” highlighting the differences in opportunities that white people have (Whitehead 233).
After escaping the slave catchers, Cora and the three men travel to Indiana. Each person has a unique story and a different destination. Cora learns that one of the people that helped her to run is a freeborn man, Royal. He helps people like Cora and operates the locomotives on the railroad. The second man’s name is Red. He assists Royal in his work. Finally, the third man, Justin, is a runaway just like Cora. He wants to travel north to meet his relatives.
Royal says that they can stop at the Valentine farm and decide where to go next. Valentine farm is revealed to be a haven for freedmen and runaways alike, where every member lives according to the founder’s motto, “stay and contribute” (Whitehead 251). Later, Royal shares Valentine’s story with Cora. She learns that Valentine’s past and his light skin allow him to use the respect and trust of white people to bring more black people to work for him. His resentment for racial violence once made his move from Virginia to Indiana, where he established a strong network of connections with other citizens.
This setting is new for Cora as she never saw people act and behave so freely. She reminisces about the people of South Carolina, thinking that they do not know true freedom. The author continues this train of thought, making a number of comparisons between the farm and the dormitories. For example, there are many children of the farm, and their education is filled with positive reinforcement and encouragement to think about their future. Nobody is restricted from having children, while black people of South Carolina are enforced to undergo contraceptive surgeries. Moreover, Valentine values other black influencers and their creations.
During her time on the farm, Cora meets various musicians, poets, and writers that show their heritage with pride. However, not everyone is happy to see her and other runaways on the farm. Some freedmen are scared of slave catchers and their interfering behavior that can ruin the peaceful atmosphere of Valentine’s territory. Thus, the conflict between members divides the farm’s residents in two. While some people believe that the farm’s workers should relocate to the north and start from the beginning, others ask to purge runaways and criminals and ensure the safety of this land.
Royal and Cora spend time together and develop feelings for each other. Affected by the assault that happened to her at Randall’s plantation, Cora is apprehensive of their relationship. Royal tells Cora various stories about the farm, his home, and the state of Indiana. Later, he shows her a special underground railroad station that is hidden under a decrepit house. Royal tells her that everyone calls it “the ghost tunnel” because of its unfinished state (Whitehead 251).
Moreover, he reveals that the origins of this station and trail are unknown, saying “it’s not made for a locomotive … the tunnel is too small … it doesn’t connect to the rest of the line … it’s from before my time” (Whitehead 254). Cora thinks to herself that this tunnel does not mark the beginning of the railroad but its ending. The symbolic nature of this tunnel is also supported by the fact that it is not connected to the mainline. However, it still leads somewhere.
At the farm, Cora meets one of her old acquaintances, Sam, who comes to bring a saved family of former slaves. He delivers the news of her old master, Terrance Randall, being dead. It seems that she is finally free from running. However, the conflict inside the farm continues to grow.
During one of the debates that discuss the farm’s future, slave catchers invade the farm and start killing its residents. Many survivors of this incident suspect one of the freedmen, Mingo, being the person to bring slave catchers to the farm. Royal and many people are shot in this massacre. Moreover, slave catchers set the farm’s buildings on fire and capture Cora. The leader of the catchers is Ridgeway, who survived and continued to search for the underground railroad. He is not driven by money anymore as he has a personal vendetta against Cora. Ridgeway makes Cora take him to the railroad.
In the next chapter, readers finally learn the fate of Cora’s mother, Mabel. The details of her escape show the situation in an entirely different light. Mabel decides to run out of fear for her life and leaves Cora behind with a heavy heart. However, after getting far enough to feel free from the control of her masters, Mabel does not move further. She thinks about Cora and realizes that she has to turn back because “the girl was waiting on her” (Whitehead 290). However, while making her way back to the farm, Mabel is bitten by a poisonous snake. It is notable that many characters are strongly affected by Mabel’s disappearance, including Cora, Ridgeway, and the Randall family. The contrast between Mabel that these people create in their minds and the real person is very striking.
The last chapter shows Cora taking Ridgeway to the ghost station. However, upon reaching the station and opening the pathway to the railroad, Cora attempts to fight Ridgeway, which leads to him losing some of his memories. While the slave catcher is distracted, Cora gets unto the handcar and rides from the station into the darkness. She exits the underground in the unknown location and catches a ride with a man that is going to St. Louis.
The open ending of this story reinforces the concept of endless running, which plagued the black society of the pre-civil war era. Many people moved through various places during this period only to be captured again (Gara 56). This story shows that one’s path to freedom was long and winding. However, many people did not lose hope regardless of what they encountered.
Fain, Kimberly. Colson Whitehead: The Postracial Voice of Contemporary Literature. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. WW Norton & Company, 2015.
Gara, Larry. The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad. University Press of Kentucky, 2013.
Maus, Derek C. Understanding Colson Whitehead. University of South Carolina Press, 2014.
Saldívar, Ramón. “The Second Elevation of the Novel: Race, Form, and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary Narrative.” Narrative, vol. 21, no.1, 2013, pp. 1-18.
Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.