When I see Colson Whitehead has a new book, I know it will be excellent and likely one of the year’s best. The Underground Railroad met my high expectations and then some.
I confess, he had me worried for a bit. It begins on a cotton plantation in Georgia where Cora is an ostracized, but feared slave, able to hold onto her precious three feet of garden through grit and determination. The Randall plantation is cruel, life is harsh and I began to fear that Whitehead was going to disappoint me because he never tells a normal narrative and this was sounding like another of the many stories of black pain that America loves so much more than black agency. However, as soon as we get to the Underground Railroad, well, then you know you’re in a real Colson Whitehead novel.
Why? Because the Underground Railroad is a real train. It’s underground, it’s a railroad, and it takes people to freedom, or to the next stop anyway. Cora and Caeser who encouraged her to escape wait in the tunnel and take it to the next stop, South Carolina, where the first thing they see is a skyscraper. Yes!
So Porsha Williams has been redeemed by Colson Whitehead. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Real Housewives of Atlanta, Porsha Williams, the granddaughter of the civil rights activist Hosea Williams, famously asked how the train got out of the church basement that was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
All joking aside, The Underground Railroad is an ingenious reimagining of America that may bite too close to the bone for some. Whitehead takes American federalism up a notch, imagining how the different states might organize their peculiar institution. South Carolina, for example, has all the slaves owned by the government, educated and provided housing and health care. They receive scrip to make their purchases locally, though the price is higher in the stores the black people patronize. It is all so very rational, scientific, and benevolent, until Cora sees beneath the surface.
Then there is North Carolina which decides to enact a law similar to Oregon’s constitutional prohibition of blacks owning businesses or property and residing in the state. They have a Freedom Road that will give anyone nightmares. But in a slave nation, perhaps death is the only freedom that exists.
There’s Tennessee benighted by fires and yellow fever and Indiana, a free state that may tolerate black people, but not successful black people and connecting them all, the Underground Railroad.
We hear from some of the white people in this story, too. The slave-catcher Ridgeway, the white woman who dreamed of ministering to people in Africa, Cora’s Africa-born grandmother and her runaway mother. They all complete this picture that perhaps gives a more honest portrayal of America than something factual can ever do. Landon, a black intellectual who speaks against slavery across the country said, “A useful delusion is better than a useless truth.” He was talking about the hope in the face of slavery and arguing that knowing they cannot succeed should not keep them from trying, but it seemed to me that it also applied to Whitehead whose exaggerated and imagined story lays bare the awful truths of our history.
Sometimes reading this you can the past as prologue, as in the description of the slave patrols, the historic origin of today’s police force, who would stop black people to see their passes, and stop people they knew to be free “for their amusement but also to remind the Africans of the forces arrayed against them.” Ah, the early days of Stop and Frisk.
There is the roots of today’s Prosperity Gospel that argues those who have, have it because they deserve it and those who do not have, are without because they are undeserving in the “racial logic” that black people are supposed to be “in chains, or they would not be enslaved,” that the Native Americans were supposed to lose their land, or they would not have lost it and white were supposed to have power, or they would not have power. That the existence of a fact was the proof that God ordained that fact. “Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor– if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave, or continent.” Manifest destiny indeed.
I have been a fan of Colson Whitehead since The Intuitionist and when I read of Landon in Underground Railroad sleeping in a closet at school because no whites would room with him, I was reminded that Lila Mae in The Intuitionist did the same thing. It makes me think this really happened to someone, one of those “first black” pioneer who broke barriers.
I loved The Underground Railroad for many reasons, but most of all because the black people who were saved, saved themselves. Yes, there were white people who helped with the Underground Railroad, who hid runaways and played the role of station masters along the route, but the real agency was in the hands of black people. Who built the Underground Railroad? “Who builds anything in this country?” is the answer. This is a story of a black woman building her future, of black people building their freedom against overwhelming odds. This is The No-Help book, the one where black people make the decisions and rescue themselves. I am sure it will be terribly shocking for some.
I recommend reading this with all your pencils and highlighters far away from you. Otherwise, you might end up with every page marked up. That’s how good this is.
“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes–believes with all its heart–that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there were any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty. Yet here we are.”
The Underground Railroad will be released on September 13th. I received an Advance Review e-galley from the publisher via NetGalley.