Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, chronicles the life of a teenage slave named Cora, who flees the Georgia plantation where she was born, enduring unremitting hardship in search of freedom. The first time she had been approached by fellow-slave Caesar she had said no. Three weeks later they ran, pursued by a fanatical slave catcher named Ridgeway, determined to hunt them down and destroy the abolitionist network that has aided them. In flight, Whitehead’s narrative evolves into something both unexpected and surreal as he conjures scenes that fracture the distance between America’s past and its present.

To ease her restlessness she crept out to her plot and sat on her maple and smelled the air and listened. Things in the swamp whistled and splashed, hunting in the living darkness. To walk in there at night, heading north to the Free States. Have to take leave of your senses to do that.

Whitehead begins with a harrowing depiction of life on a Georgia plantation around 1850, the place where Cora was born after her grandmother, purchased on the Gold Coast by a slaver out of Liverpool, had been brought there after years of being sold and swapped and resold, her price fluctuating, by the men who needed slaves to sow, weed and harvest their cotton, indigo or tobacco. In this opening section, Whitehead conveys the daily brutality of life on the plantation, where Cora is gang-raped, and where whippings (accompanied by scrubbings in pepper water to intensify the pain) are routine.

Cora has seen ‘Men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft.’ She decides to run after another slave,who escaped and made it about twenty miles before being hunted down, is whipped for the entertainment of guests – men and women – of the plantation owner, before being castrated, doused with oil and roasted.

So far, so conventional slave narrative: reminiscent, perhaps, of Steve McQueen’s magisterial film Twelve Years a Slave based upon the story of Solomon Northup who wrote one of the most detailed slave narratives in 1853. Northup’s was just one of at least a hundred American slave narratives published between 1750 and 1865, with even more following after the end of the civil war.

But, the first sixty pages of Whitehead’s novel form a prelude to the suspenseful story of Cora’s flight through several different states via the Underground Railroad which, in his telling, becomes a literal network of underground tracks, tunnels and trains with its own stations and station agents. It’s quite startling to read this description of the place to which Cora and Caesar are brought after their escape:

The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. … Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden cross-ties. The steel ran north and south …

Like many readers, I struggled at first with the strange dichotomy between the brutal realism of certain scenes, and the metaphorical, almost dreamlike sequences in which the underground railroad is portrayed as being literally underground. I asked myself whether it added anything to the story for Whitehead to have chosen to write about the railroad in this manner.

But, then I thought – what if it’s a metaphor for the idea of living underground, always in darkness, never certain of one’s direction or destination? Or – what if it’s a metaphor for America as a land of darkness? Whitehead seems to imply this in these words, spoken by the station agent at the first station where Cora and Caesar wait for their train:

If you want to see what this 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.

Later, Cora herself decides that his words point to the whole idea of an escape to freedom having been a joke from the start: ‘There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.’

But the strangeness in this story’s telling doesn’t end with trains and stations that are literally underground. As Whitehead’s chronicle of Cora’s flight progresses, he injects more elements that lend certain scenes the surreal, dreamlike quality of science fiction (a favourite genre of Whitehead’s) or a book like Gulliver’s Travels. Like Gulliver, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey. So, for instance, when she and Caesar leave the underground and step into the sunlight, ‘they were in South Carolina. She looked up at the skyscraper and reeled, wondering how far she had travelled.’ Skyscraper? 1850?

What Whitehead is attempting is an odyssey through time as well as space. As well as frighteningly recreating the terrors that African Americans endured under slavery, he seamlessly weaves into his saga elements from other pages in the story of black Americans. Speaking to NPR last year, he said:

The technology, culture and speech is from the year 1850. That was my sort of mental cutoff for technology and slang. But it allowed me to bring in things that didn’t happen in 1850 – skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And it’s all presented sort of matter-of-factly.

When Cora and Caesar emerge in South Carolina, they find a seemingly progressive administration concerned to provide modest housing and paid work for its free black citizens. But, as time goes by they discover it’s a facade behind which lies patronization and exploitation. Cora ends up working as a living exhibit in something called the Museum of Natural Wonders, in tableaux that represent scenes from ‘darkest Africa’, on a slave ship (where Cora is presented as working on deck rather than below and in chains), and on a plantation (where she’s quietly sewing rather than being whipped in the fields). Writing in the Journal of the Civil War Era, Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, explains the history behind what British readers might find a puzzling portrayal of this southern slave state:

The insidious reality soon emerges–the good teachers and doctors in the state are ardent eugenicists and scientific racists, trained in the best universities and hospitals of the nation and interested in preventing the propagation of an ‘inferior race.’ This literary device in fact accurately evokes historical reality. Not only was South Carolina the birthplace of renowned antebellum scientific racists such as Dr. Josiah Nott and J.D.B. DeBow, but it was in Carolinian plantations that Louis Agassiz, the Swiss naturalist and president of Harvard, collected specimens, photographs of enslaved people, to prove his theory of polygenesis, or the multiple origins of man. Whitehead’s surreal portrait of the slave state of South Carolina allows the average reader to discover with Cora, how the pseudo science of race acted as a handmaiden to racial slavery.

The next stop along the railroad for Cora is North Carolina, where she finds no such false front. In order to solve the problem of slavery (blacks come to outnumber whites), the state has cleansed itself of all black people. So if you’re black and you’re found in North Carolina, you will be lynched. In the NPR interview, Whitehead explained that he based his portrayal of a white supremacist state on the history of towns in Oregon settled on similar white supremacist lines: taking aspects of American history and then pushing them to a certain extreme.

In the North Carolina section, Cora is sheltered for months in a tiny attic that overlooks the town park where every Friday the townsfolk gather to hear racist songs and speeches before watching the latest black person to be caught by vigilantes abused and hung from the branches of the park’s great oak tree. The section was was inspired for Whitehead by Harriet Jacobs’ slave narrative, Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl which told of her flight from an abusive slave master, and hid for seven years in an attic in North Carolina until she could get safe passage out of town on the underground railroad.

Charles T. Webber, The Underground Railroad, 1893
Charles T. Webber, The Underground Railroad, 1893

Oh go down, Moses,
Way down into Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

Last year for New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz wrote an informative and critical review of Whitehead’s book which also discussed the origins of the underground railway term:

No one knows who coined the term. Some ascribe it to a thwarted slave owner, others to a runaway slave. It first appeared in print in an abolitionist newspaper in 1839, at the end of a decade when railways had come to symbolize prosperity and progress, and three thousand miles of actual track had been laid across the nation. Frederick Douglass used the term in his 1845 autobiography – where he laments that indiscreet abolitionists are turning it into ‘an upperground railroad’ – and Harriet Beecher Stowe used it in 1852, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when one slave-catcher cautions another against delaying pursuit of a fugitive ’till the gal’s been carried on the underground line.’ By the following year, the Times was reporting that the term had ‘come into very general use to designate the organized arrangements made in various sections of the country, to aid fugitives from slavery.’

Schulz went on to describe the work of Wilbur Siebert, a historian at Ohio State at the end of the nineteenth century, who began contacting surviving abolitionists or their kin and asking them to describe their efforts to aid fugitives from slavery.

The resulting history, published in 1898 and entitled The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, depicted a network of more than three thousand anti-slavery activists, most of them white, who helped ferry largely anonymous runaways to freedom. That history has been diffusing through the culture ever since, gathering additional details along the way and profoundly shaping our image of the Underground Railroad. In that image, a clandestine organization of abolitionists – many of them Quaker or otherwise motivated by religious ideals – used covert methods (tunnels, trapdoors, concealed passageways) and secret signals (lanterns set in windows, quilts hung on laundry lines) to help convey enslaved African-Americans to freedom.

But that version of the railroad’s history tends, Kathryn Schulz argues, to place too much emphasis on the part played by white abolitionists. She notes that this ‘lopsided awareness’ has resulted in many Americans knowing of William Lloyd Garrison, one of the leading white anti-slavery activists, while almost no one knows about the black abolitionist William Still – ‘one of the most effective operators and most important historians of the Underground Railroad, whose book about it, published a quarter of a century before Siebert’s, was based on detailed notes he kept while helping six hundred and forty-nine fugitives onward toward freedom.’ Allocation of credit, she writes ‘is inversely proportional to the risk that white and black anti-slavery activists faced.’

It took courage almost everywhere in antebellum America to actively oppose slavery, and some white abolitionists paid a price. A few were killed; some died in prison; others, facing arrest or worse, fled to Canada. But these were the exceptions. Most whites faced only fines and the opprobrium of some in their community, while those who lived in anti-slavery strongholds, as many did, went about their business with near-impunity.

Black abolitionists, by contrast, always put life and liberty on the line. If caught, free blacks faced the possibility of being illegally sold into slavery, while fugitives turned agents faced potential re-enslavement, torture, and murder. Harriet Tubman is rightly famous for how boldly she faced those risks.

The story of the underground railroad, argues Schulz, ‘like so many that we tell about our nation’s past, has a tricky relationship to the truth: not quite wrong, but simplified; not quite a myth, but mythologized.’

James Michael Newell, Underground Railroad (mural study for Dolgeville, New York Post Office, 1940
James Michael Newell, Underground Railroad (mural study for Dolgeville, New York Post Office, 1940

James Michael Newell’s mural, Underground Railroad, was commissioned as part of the The Federal Art Project, the New Deal programme to support the visual arts in the United States during the Depression. Newell made it for the new federal post office in Dolgeville, New York, opened in 1940, after researching the history of Dolgeville and the Mohawk Valley. He decided to paint a scene of an abolitionist farmer helping escaped slaves as day breaks at Brockett Farm, one of the two Underground Railroad stops near Dolgeville.

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

What is most striking about Whitehead’s novel is the way in which it eschews the conventions represented by Newell’s mural and the hopes embodied in spirituals like ‘Swing Low’ which transliterated the idea of the underground railroad. Cora’s progress across America suggests that freedom is illusory, and iniquity may be found in all places. Whitehead presents the story of slavery as fundamentally the story of America, and makes the scenes Cora witnesses at the stations on her way relevant for these times. There are fine passages in which effort she must make sense of a new place – whether observing a murderous North Carolina town through the tiny window of her attic hiding place, the politics of survival on a free Indiana plantation established by a liberal white abolitionist, or on the strange, almost apocalyptic wagon ride makes, shackled and chained by the slave catcher Ridgeway, through a Tennessee landscape devastated by wildfire. (The latter brought to my mind Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.)

Indeed, in her New Yorker review, Kathryn Schulz argues that the literalization of the Underground Railroad is not the only dreamlike touch in the novel. Several surreal elements, she suggests, seem to indicate a deliberate intent to inject the narrative with a mythic dimension:

The most effective liberties that Whitehead takes are not with Cora’s mode of transport but with the terrain through which she travels. Station by station, he builds a physical landscape out of the chronology of African-American history. Cora’s northward journey first lands her in South Carolina, where what initially seems to be a policy of paternalistic benevolence toward blacks turns out to mask a series of disturbing medical interventions: a kind of early, statewide Tuskegee experiment. From there, she moves on to North Carolina, which has implemented, to genocidal ends, the ideals of the American Colonization Society – a real organization and social movement, evoked but unmentioned by Whitehead, that sought to end slavery and return all blacks to Africa, not least to make real the enduring fantasy of a white America. In Whitehead’s fictional version, new race laws forbid blacks to enter the state, and those caught within its borders are tortured, murdered, and left hanging on trees as a warning to others. North Carolina, one character observes, has succeeded in abolishing slavery. ‘On the contrary,’ another corrects him. ‘We abolished niggers.’

As all this suggests, Cora is trying to escape from much more than a plantation. In the temporally elastic landscape through which she flees, it is slavery, as much as the slave-catcher, that is pursuing her, and anyone alive in today’s America knows that she will never entirely outrun it.

These scenes are built on the strong foundation of the book’s opening section in which Whitehead paints a terrifying picture of the southern plantation system in which men, women and children become ‘breathing capital, profit made flesh’. Later, introduced to the Declaration of Independence, Cora observes that:

The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others.

Captured by the slave catcher Ridgeway, as their wagon trundles back south Cora hears plenty philosophy from the mouth of this rebel son of a blacksmith, who twists his father’s belief in the virtues of vocation into a savage faith:

When his father finished his workday, the fruit of his labour lay before him: a musket, a rake, a wagon spring. Ridgeway faced the man or woman he had captured. One made tools, the other retrieved them.


If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.

Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.

Cora is freed from Ridgeway’s clutches during an armed ambush by free blacks who support the railroad. She journeys on to a utopian black farming community in racist where fugitives like Cora find shelter, receive a practical and political education, and debate the future of black people in America. A climax comes with the arrival of Elijah Lander, a black abolitionist leader to give a lecture. Once again Manisha Sinha’s review provides a helpful guide to the sources that Colson Whitehead drew upon in portraying this character, commenting that Lander ‘does not just represent the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, as many reviewers have speculated, but the entire interracial abolitionist movement.’

Lander like the abolition movement is interracial, like David Walker he has published an Appeal, like William Lloyd Garrison he has authored a ‘Declaration of the Rights of the American Negro,’ run afoul of Maryland law, and been nearly lynched in the streets of Boston, and like Douglass, whom he most resembles, he is a skilful orator famous on the abolitionist lecture circuit.

During Lander’s lecture, a racist white mob attacks Valentine’s farm, burning it to the ground, and murdering men, women and children. Cora survives and heads west, her journey like the story of African Americans, left unfinished.

In his lecture at the Valentine farm, Lander in the story states at one point:

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 is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.

That is one lesson that Colson Whitehead intends us to take away from reading his novel. Another is that determined as Cora is to escape, on the road she learns that freedom remains elusive. Further north, she must be constantly on the lookout for slave patrollers, who had the power ‘to knock on anyone’s door to pursue an accusation and for random inspections as well, in the name of public safety.’ The slave patrollers ‘required no reason to stop a person apart from colour,’ writes Whitehead. Watching from her attic window in North Carolina, Cora hears a local politician defending the need for the vigilante night riders, telling the crowd that their ‘Southern heritage lay defenceless and imperiled’ from the ‘coloured miscreants’ who lurked in the dark, threatening ‘to violate the citizens’ wives and daughters.’

Now, in these times, such language resonates. The economic crisis that followed the banking collapse of 2008 has had a disproportionate impact on black Americans, while the killing by armed police officers of unarmed black men and boys, stop and search policies that target minorities, and the anti-immigrant language used in the Trump campaign have incited prejudice and fear.

There’s a scene in Ava DuVernay’s admirable documentary,13th, in which we see Trump respond to a black heckler at one 2016 rally. He yells: ‘In the good old days this doesn’t happen because they used to treat them very, very rough. And when they protested once, you know, they would not do it again so easily,’ In 13th, his words ring out over a montage of scenes from civil rights footage of black protestors being punched and pushed by racist mobs. ‘I’d like to punch him in the face I’ll tell you,’ Trump yells as the black protestor is manhandled from the premises.

Rather than adopting the allusiveness of Whitehead’s novel, Ava DuVernay’s film  made a direct and forceful connection between slavery and the present mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons. At the end of the Civil War the 13th amendment may have outlawed slavery, but it left a significant loophole by continuing to permit involuntary servitude when used as punishment for crime. In meticulous detail, DuVernay shows how this loophole was exploited in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War and continues to be abused to this day.

Consider these astonishing statistics. The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. One out of four of the world’s prisoners are behind bars, locked up, shackled in the home of the free. That’s the highest rate of incarceration in the world: 2.3 million souls, 37% of whom are non-Hispanic black males and another 22% Hispanic males. One in three African-American males will serve prison time at one point in their lives.

In his novel, Colson Whitehead does not draw attention these parallels. As Michiko Kakutani observed in her New York Times review:

He does not need to. The harrowing tale he tells here is the back story to the injustices African-Americans and immigrants continue to suffer, but a back story only in the sense, as Faulkner put it, that ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past.’

Bob Dylan once wrote of the ghost of slavery, and of a land ‘condemned all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem.’ Colson Whitehead conjures up the ghosts of slavery, drawing upon evidently deep historical research. But he also makes strange and surreal leaps of imagination that force us think about slavery not just in the past, but in the present. In the Indiana utopia, where she is encouraged to pray and read poetry, Cora – who has seen so much brutality – remarks with a degree of cynicism:

Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.

It’s worth recalling again the words of the station agent to Cora on the first leg of her journey:

If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.

But this railroad is underground. The only thing Cora can see as she journeys on is darkness.

Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead

If that seems like a bleak conclusion, Whitehead has stated that he sees the final scene of his book as optimistic, but also realistic. On the run once more after the Indiana community of free people has been destroyed, Cora sits exhausted at the side of a trail leading west. Wagons pass, and she finally accepts the invitation of an old negro man to join him on his wagon. Like her, he has a brand on his neck. ‘She wondered where he escaped from, how bad it was, and how far he travelled before he put it behind him.’

‘I find the last pages very hopeful,’ Whitehead says. ‘But still, wherever we go, we’re still in America, which is an imperfect place. That’s the reality of things.’

Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.

Read more

Watch this

Journey To Freedom, a film produced by the National Underground Freedom Centre, with support from the US State Dept and Google.

Dawn of Day: a documentary about the Underground Railroad in Kansas produced by the College of Education, Kansas State University.

One thought on “The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’

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