Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway was a winner of The National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017. There’s not a lot of room on the front cover for namedropping, but Barrack Obama describes the book as ‘Terrific’ and the New York Review of Books, ‘Dazzling’.
I guess it resonates for a number of reasons. In some ways the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia in the nineteenth century, before the American Civil War is a Bildungsroman. It deals with her formative years and that of the American nation. A Hobbesian world in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. It’s six years, for example, since her mother left, when the novel begins Cora’s narrative, which makes her around sixteen. Jokey, the oldest slave in the plantation, possibly the world, is fifty-two he said, but negroes birthdays aren’t kept track of, and it’s two years since she had been ‘seasoned’, which is another way of saying held down by young black bucks and gang raped. This isn’t a kind of black Jane Eyre, although issues of class are overwritten by issues of ethnicity and race which provide a kind of moral justification for actions. The white man was the devil, but the black man was the devil too.
‘This was a world there was no place to escape to, only places to flee from.’
The cotton crop was as important to the American South as oil is to Saudi Arabia and was built on the back of the genocide of the Indian nations and the labour of Africans stolen from across the seas. To be black was not to be a person, but a thing. There’s a cruel joke here that a black man is only treated a person when dead and his body sold to medical schools for student dissection. And Cora’s nemesis, the slave tracker, Ridgeway, never referred to a slave as a person but as an ‘it’.
Ridgeway’s eugenic ideology is the kind of the thing trumpeted by Trump supporters. Cora is a suitable test of his skills because she dared to escape, as her mother did before her. The only slave Ridgeway never returned to his master. The Fugitive Slave law allowed him to cross state lines and he had a legal right, much like bounty hunters and bond bailsmen have today, to return property to its owner. Where Cora ran, Ridgeway followed.
But here we have what a writer’s conceit, in that the Underground Railway that helped slaves escape from their brutal masters was not figurative, but actual. A railway network ran underneath the state lines of America, much like the subway system runs underneath London. We have moved from traditional narrative to something more surreal, bordering on science-fiction.
Lumbley’s words returned to her [Cora]: If you want to see what the nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.
Cora, like many of the hobos of 1920s and 1930s rode the lines, trying to find a better and more forgiving place. A utopian world, predating John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ were Okies could not make a living or find freedom and were black people were invisible.
This then is also a novel that holds a different kind of mirror up to America. Cora’s America is a place built on genocide and slavery which sells fear as a panacea and people as things. A free black man walks different from a slave. The distant pass isn’t that far whatever way you travel. Trump that?