The Underground Railroad not Perfect, but May Be a Work of Genius

By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 320 pages

The Underground Railroad is an inventive work of fiction that blends elements of science fiction, horror, fantasy, and appropriated history. Please note the words "inventive" and "fiction." No one should read (or assign) this novel as if Colson Whitehead has written historical fiction, that strange hybrid genre that blends facts with invented dialogue and/or characters. His intent, in fact, is often quite the opposite; he wants to de-romanticize the way we think of the Underground Railroad by placing it outside of customary historical interpretation.

Many Northerners in the post-slavery era wish to assuage their consciences with the belief that their ancestors helped escaped slaves make their way to freedom. Hundreds of strange niches in old houses have been ahistorically labeled as hiding spots, though few of them actually were. Nor do they wish to ask the question of why escaped slaves would need hide in a cubby in, say, Amherst, Massachusetts. Sure–various fugitive slave laws meant there were slave catchers trying to reclaim human property, but their very ability to do so in the "free" North presupposes a social milieu in which many Northerners were in complicit in turning in runaways and comfortable in their racist skins. Racism was the norm in both North and South, and even many abolitionists assumed white superiority. 

Whitehead tells the story of Cora, a slave to a cruel Georgia master. She's headstrong and a bit damaged from the fact that she was left behind as a toddler when her own her mother ran away. Cesar, another slave, eventually convinces her to seek out the Underground Railroad. Up to this point, you could find parallels to Cora and Cesar in a history text, but it's also here that Colson veers us towards metaphor and imagination. He depicts the Underground Railroad as if it were a physical network of rails, steam locomotives, conductors, stations, and transport cars–something akin to an elaborate subway system crisscrossing the Deep South. It was no such thing. The actual Underground Railroad operated almost entirely in North and not at all in the Deep South–a runaway usually had to get north of the Mason-Dixon Line before having a prayer of linking with it.

Whitehead asserts that Gulliver's Travels was among his inspirations; he wanted to place Cora in different places to emphasize to "reboot" (his word) the story upon each border crossing. This makes things very interesting indeed. As a black writer, Whitehead's avenue toward appropriating (re-appropriating?) history is to collapse time. It is important that we see Cora's plight as a metaphor for a broader racist past and present. Hers is not a personal story; Cora merely floats on a surging river of cruelty, injustice, and inhumanity. Old Man River, if you will, keeps rolling along, so why be constrained by chronological time when Truth is unbound by clock or calendar?

The railroad first takes Cora and Cesar to South Carolina, depicted as semi-enlightened on the surface. They live in a biracial, if not entirely equal, community where they are surrounded by wonders and oddities: a skyscraper, a living history museum and, ultimately, a nefarious eugenics experiment. There were no skyscrapers until the 1880s–roughly 50 years after the novel's setting. (Whitehead never pins down the date. Why would he?) But to get back to the rivers of time notion, if Cora's job of play-acting a professional black person in the Museum of Wonder's "Scenes from Darkest Africa" and "Life on a Slave Ship" strikes you as implausible, check out depictions of African Americans at the 1893 World's Fair, the real-life saga of Ota Benga, or mock slave sales at Colonial Williamsburg from the 1990s into this century. Eugenics also developed later, but Whitehead sounds a futuristic bell to alert us to horrors such as the 20th century Tuskegee syphilis experiments. 

Whitehead also messes with time when Cora reaches North Carolina–with backward-looking echoes of white retribution after Nat Turner's Rebellion (which was actually in Virginia) and nods to the future when lynching was commonplace. North Carolina never outlawed black people as depicted in the book, but Whitehead suggests dreams of doing occupied many white minds, hence an avenue of butchered black corpses ironically labeled the "Freedom Trial." (Is this also a subtle dig at self-righteous Boston?)

Similar weird twists occur as Cora makes her way to Tennessee and then Indiana, all the way being pursued by Ridgeway, a relentless slave catcher straight out The Fugitive. Some of the things you read happened; others are metaphors. (The runaway slave advertisements are real.) Like the role of Mann in the John Singleton film Rosewood, Whitehead mixes history and fantasy because he wants to make a bigger point. Point made and taken, Mr. Whitehead. I won't condescend and declare this book a masterpiece–anyone taking as many chances as Whitehead is prone to a few head-scratching leaps of logic (and tonal changes). So, not a perfect book, but an important one, and quite possibly a work of genius.

Rob Weir


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