Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.

Summary of Work
Cora is a slave girl on the Randall plantation in Georgia. Her mother, Mabel, ran away and was never found, and she had been left alone as a young girl. Her grandmother, Ajarry, had a plot of land that she used to garden and had passed on to Mabel. Cora determined she should keep that space as well, and when a man tried to put a doghouse on it, she tore it down with a hatchet. She was considered pariah there from then on, and placed in the Hob, the lodging cabin for the women who were considered odd or wrong in some way.

On a celebration for a slave man’s birthday, a slave named Caesar approaches her and asks if she will make a run North with him. At first she thinks he’s crazy or trying to trick her, but after being beaten for protecting a slave boy from the plantation owner’s drunken brother Terrance and then learning that her master is dead and Terrance has taken over running the plantation, she agrees to go with Caesar. As they try to leave, Lovey, a young slave girl, runs after them and insists on going. They make it through the swamp and are in the woods when they are ambushed by slave catchers. Lovey is caught, but Cora and Caesar escape, critically injuring a young boy of 12. When they get to town where there is a station master for the Underground Railroad, they learn that the boy they hurt is likely to die, and there is a mob looking for them.

They escape to South Carolina, where they are given new names and life stories, and Cora, now Bessie, first works for a family and watches the children, and then is hired to work as an actor in the museum for American History. She acts out African life, then the passage on a slave ship, and finally plantation life. She feels awkward and ashamed over it, but learns that she has the power of staring and forcing white people to realize that she can look at them just as they can look at her, but perhaps her gaze has more power. Caesar works at a factory, and they get to where they are comfortable with life and decide to stay, even though there are many trains that would take them farther north. Cora enjoys learning to read and having her own money and a bed to sleep in as well as a black community to enjoy. However, soon after making that decision, Sam, the barkeep who is also the station master, warns them that they shouldn’t get too comfortable: there is talk of forced sterilization of black people. Cora knows this, having gone to the doctor previously and felt like she was going to be forced to choose their “birth control” method.

Not long after Sam’s warning, Cora overhears that there is a slave catcher named Ridgeway searching for a pair of runaways who murdered a boy. This scares her, as she knows who Ridgeway is: he’s a famous slave catcher who wasn’t able to catch her mother, and he has a vendetta against her because of it. She runs to Sam, who is at the bar, and he tells her to go hide in the house at the platform, and he’ll try to get to Caesar. However, before Sam gets home, the slave catchers get there first and burn his house down, leaving Cora trapped. She doesn’t know how long she starves for before there is a small train coming down the line. It passes without stopping and she runs after it until it stops. It is a maintenance train, and she learns that the Georgia line is shut down and that the trains to this station have been cancelled, so he cannot help her more than drop her off at the next station, which is in North Carolina.

That station is technically closed as well, and black people are being hunted and lynched and placed on the “freedom trail” to rot in the trees for miles and miles. The station master hides her in his home for months because there is no way to get her out. She witnesses a lynching and it sickens her, and every week there is a town picnic with this ritual. Watchers regularly check houses, but she is well hidden in the attic. She spends time reading and gets better at it, and although she has read the Bible, she prefers almanacs. Then, one day, she accidentally tips over her chamber pot and she worries that the housekeeper, who is not one of the abolitionists, might have heard her. Nothing happens. Then she gets sick, and the man’s wife brings her down into a bedroom to help her get better and they send the housekeeper away, claiming that the husband has a disease that’s very communicable and they can’t have her getting it or being in the house, doctor’s orders.

That Friday when the picnic comes, the wife of the station master tells her that she can stay in the room and rest as long as she stays away from the window. She is grateful until their home is unexpectedly raided by watchers and she is discovered hiding under the bed. Ridgeway has led them. The station master and his wife are tied to the tree and presumably burned to death, and she is plunged into bondage again. They are going to Missouri to catch another slave before they head back to Georgia: Ridgeway hadn’t expected to find her but had just wanted to capture whoever was there with the Underground Railroad. He talks to her, and when they get another slave man, Jasper, they are constantly hitting him because he won’t stop singing. Ridgeway ends up shooting him and splattering Cora with his blood.

They stop in Tennessee, which has been largely destroyed by yellow fever and fires, and Ridgeway and his black freeman, Homer, make her put on a new dress and go to dinner with Ridgeway. A black man sees her in chains and in the nice dress and shoes and won’t stop staring. After they eat and she uses the outhouse, they go back and travel again, because their other companion refuses to stay where he thinks there is yellow fever. That night, the man grabs Cora out of the cart and cage in order to have sex with her, but Ridgeway is on to him and stops him. During the fight she considers running, but doesn’t. Then, three black men show up with guns and a fight ensues to set her free. Homer escapes, the other man dies, and Ridgeway is badly beaten and chained in the forest.

She escapes again on the Underground Railroad to Indiana, where she works on the Valentine plantation: Valentine is a biracial man who looks white and was able to inherit land from his father, which he sold and then moved further West to buy another plantation where he could harbor fugitive slaves and work with the Underground Railroad to ferry people further north if they desired. Cora stays there, asking people if they have seen her mother. No one has, and Cora goes on hating her mother for leaving her. She also feels guilty about all the people who have died for her: station masters, the 12-year-old boy, Lovey, Caesar, and possibly Sam. Meanwhile, she learns how to read and write much better than she had, and she lives a very free life in comparison to what she had done previously. Sam shows up one day, and she is thrilled to learn that he is alive. He is going to head West after one last job for the Underground Railroad. She falls in love with Royal, one of the men who saves her. One evening, he takes her to an old house and they go into the cellar; he shows her the old station there that is no longer in use. He doesn’t even know where it leads. He wants to show her because she has been on the railroad so much and had such a complicated journey. Royal is always helping with the Underground Railroad, and he brings her almanacs when he can. His last gift to her is the next year’s almanac. She lets him kiss her and she tells him about her life, apologizing when she gets to the part where she was gang raped. He tells her she shouldn’t be sorry for anything, but that those men who have done these things to her should.

One evening during a plantation debate meeting (they are regularly held with special guests and feasts), there is a raid. The white townspeople, who have built around the plantation, hate that there are prosperous black people next to them, and they hate them more because they know that there are fugitive slaves there. The white people combined with many slave catchers start shooting into the church and first kill the speaker whom they hate, and next Royal when he goes to aid him. Cora holds Royal in her hands as he dies, and he tells her to run to the station he showed her and live free. One of the Valentine sons tears her from Royal’s dead body to get her out of the gunfire, and when she gets out, Ridgeway and Homer catch her. Homer was dressed like a plantation worker, and had been in the meeting. She fights them but is put in chains again, and Ridgeway forces her to tell him where the Underground Railroad station is. She shows him, ashamed that she is revealing the secret to a slave catcher. Thinking of Royal’s trust in her, she grabs onto Ridgeway and shoves them both down the stairs, to the dismay of Homer. The fall breaks Ridgeway’s femur bone and has it sticking out of the leg, and his head also cracks his head open. Cora also is injured, but nowhere near as badly. Homer goes to Ridgeway and forgets about Cora as Ridgeway asks Homer to write down some things.

Cora gets the cart going and rides away down the line until she can go no further and has to sleep. In the morning she is too sore to maneuver the cart and so walks the rest of the way. She comes out in the woods, but she isn’t sure where she is. She cleans herself in the river and takes some water, and then sits by a road. There, three carts pass her, and a black man is in the last one. He offers to take her with him to the West, and she accepts.

This novel also has vignettes throughout it that tell about the lives of individual characters, including Mabel. Mabel made it through the swamp before she felt guilty about leaving her daughter. She knew she could make it back before the alarm sounded, and she determined to head back, happy with her little taste of freedom. But on the way back she gets bitten by a poisonous snake and dies on a patch of moss in the swamp.

Discussion of Work
This novel is a form of abolitionist narrative: a commentary on slavery and on white supremacy, but also a commentary on the courageous and honorable acts of a few white people and what good that it does. Cora, the main character, spends a lot of time wondering why white people who have good and prosperous lives would risk everything for her and other black slaves: everyone she asks tells her that she should know.

Whitehead also refuses to eliminate historically accurate language from his novel, using racial slurs and other oppressive and racist epithets in his work as dialogue: the linguistic choices may seem unnecessary to some, but it adds an important layer of authenticity to the work to display the horrors of the slave trade and plantation life as well as the extreme dangers and fears that came with being a fugitive slave. It allows for a more historically accurate novel, as this may be said to be historical fiction as well as abolitionist.

Whitehead experiments with nonlinear narrative as well, putting in biographical narratives to break up the main narrative. He often does this at times when the tension is high: when Cora has just been caught or when there is rising tension about her safety. The discussions of the white plantation owner Terrance Randall is particularly jolting, because it includes detailed descriptions of how he had slaves tortured and killed for running away. These details do not come altogether directly with the biographical narrative of the Randalls, but come as a combination of the biographical narrative and the main narrative of the story. While at first the choice to break up the narrative in this way may be frustrating for readers, what it highlights is that no matter who’s story is being told, the horrors of slavery were the same everywhere, and affected everyone it touched, white or black person.

One particularly important scene is where Cora learns the power of her gaze. It is reminiscent of bell hooks’ discussion of the black gaze on the white subject; she states that it is unnerving for white people because they never think of black people as agents that can look upon them, but objects to be looked upon. When they discover that black people can look at them, it upsets their supremacist attitudes because they are forced to realize that even enslaved or without full rights, they are capable of being active agents and of asserting their power for either agency or freedom, or both. This also happens regularly throughout the novel with dance. The slaves put on a specific dancing show for the masters, which is almost mocking in its attitudes, in order to please their owners. But when the masters are away, their dancing completely changes in its form and tone, becoming a way to express their freedom to move their bodies in some small way and to engage with their community. The black dancing body has the same power, then, that the black gaze has, but with a slight difference: white people aren’t always aware of the parody or mocking going on with the dancing, meaning that it gives a momentary power reversal where they have power over their masters, mocking them and judging them and asserting freedom and agency without ever being reprimanded or punished for it.

Gloria Anzaldúa, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.”  Everett Public Schools, 

www.everettsd.org/cms/lib07/WA01920133/Centricity/Domain/965/Anzaldua-

Wild-Tongue.pdf. Accessed 2 July 2018.

 

Summary of Work
This short story is more of a biopic than short story. In it, Anzaldúa starts off by talking about her trip to the dentist and having him angrily state that they’d have to do something about her wild tongue because it was causing problems with healing in her mouth; her tongue would get the cotton out of the root hole and let it keep getting infected. She reflects on what it means to have a tamed tongue, and discusses her Chicana identity. She discusses how being Chicana means not being fully Mexican and not being fully American. She speaks eight different languages/dialects, and code switches between them based on who she is speaking to. And yet there is something about her identity that erases her as female and as equal human: she didn’t realize the word nosotras existed until she heard a Latina say it, and she discusses being ashamed of her identity when in the presence of Latinas and Mexicanos who speak Spanish as their first language, and uncomfortable with her identity in the US, where she is expected to not only speak perfect English according to American rules, but rid herself of her accent.

She also takes time to discuss the differences in the dialects and languages she speaks. The difference in dialect determines where you are from in America: Texas, California, Arizona, or Nuevo Mexico. But many of the Chicanas she speaks to, she speaks to in English, especially in California, where they do not want to be recognized as Chicana by the dialect. They have a certain understanding that to be in America and to speak this Chicano language is to admit shame. She states that if a person wants to hurt her, all they have to do is make fun of her language.

The first time she read a book by a Chicano author, written in Chicano spanish, by John Rechy, she realized that she had an identity all her own, and that her people could be writers as well. Still, she had to fight with her advisor to have her focus be Chicano literature for her PhD, and when she taught in the K-12 system, she was reprimanded and threatened with being fired for introducing her largely Chicano classroom to Chicano literature. She also discusses her experiences with Mexican cinema and border music; she was ambivalent to the music at first, preferring rock and roll and country western music, but admits that there is something very catchy about the corridos music. But, she says, there are more ways to identify than the language or music or art; food is a big cultural identifier for her.

When wondering about her identity, she discusses how she will cop out depending on who she is talking to, and say she is Spanish to refer to the linguistic group, or say Mexican-American with stress on the American. But she will always feel that Mexicana and Chicana are the best identifiers, and Raza the first term with which she ever identified. Mexicana is not someone born and raised in Mexico, but a spirit or soul of an individual. Yet she does not fully identify as American with American values, nor does she identify fully with Mexican values. What Chicanos experience is an identity or problem of borders and cultures, and they do not acculturate well, causing them economic problems as they live in either space. But they feel that they will not give up what makes them who they are; they will not give up their language, and one day when the Western European institutions fall to pieces and disappear, the Chicanos will still be there, unbreakable and malleable, going about their business.

Brief note on Themes
This short story is a discussion of language as a large portion of human identity, especially for those who are biracial and speak two languages, or an intermediary form between the two languages. Being forced to adhere to another culture’s rules, they do not feel welcome anywhere, and even are taught to feel ashamed. Even Anzaldua’s mother, speaking Spanish, is upset that her daughter sounds like she is Mexican and doesn’t speak quality enough English. Language itself is fluid in the short story, with the author switching between Spanish and English throughout the work, rarely translating the Spanish words for the English speakers. All Spanish is italicized, setting it visibly apart from the English, a visual break of the languages.

Feminism is another part of the discussion, as female identity is erased in the language, with the masculine forms of Spanish words always prevailing in the Chicano dialect. What does it mean to be a woman in a world where there are not linguistic identifiers for women?

Representation is another theme. How does a person form an identity when no one is writing about them or appearing in the media or art? What happens when people start appearing in those artistic mediums to form a more national or racial identity? And what do those representations do for perceptions people outside the group have about Chicanos?

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. 1937. Penguin, 2002.

Summary of Work
George and Lennie are sitting in the brush by a small pool in the evening light. A bus driver dropped them off too many miles away from the ranch they were headed to, and so George decides they will stop and spend the night by the pool. Lennie is mentally retarded, a big burly man with the mind of a small child. He has a mouse in his pocket which he has killed and is petting, and George makes him throw it away. They have been run out of town because Lennie wouldn’t let go of a woman’s dress, and she said he raped her. They had to hide in order to save Lennie’s life. George tells Lennie that he isn’t to do any talking when they get to the new ranch and he isn’t to do anything bad again so they can get their money for a month’s work and go head out to get their dream land, where Lennie can help raise rabbits and they can put up their own crop. He tells him that if anything bad happens, Lennie is to go back to this spot and to hide until George came for him.

When they get to the ranch, the ranch hand gets them set up and the ranch owner tells them they’ll start putting up grain in the evening since they missed going out in the morning. Then Curley, the rancher’s son, comes in and is looking for his wife. He sees Lennie and gets upset that he won’t answer him when he speaks, and George defends him, but Curley is upset and then gone. Candy, an old man with an old sheep dog, tells them that Curley was one of the best welter weight fighters in the area and he’s always looking for a fight. And George tells Lennie to steer clear of him. Then, when the men come in, they meet Seth, who is the head thresher and one of the main ranch hands. They get talking, and they learn that Seth’s dog has had puppies. He had to drown four of the nine because the mother couldn’t take care of all of them. Lennie gets excited about puppies, and Seth lets him have one. He is always in petting the puppies and picking them up, and he has to be told to put his back with its mother so it doesn’t die.

Seth talks to George about Lennie and learns about his condition and what he’s done in the past. George knew Lennie from childhood through Lennie’s Aunt Clara, and had always taken care of him after her passing, even though at first he was always playing jokes and being mean to Lennie because Lennie couldn’t tell what was going on. Seth respects George. That evening, when Candy and his dog come in, Carlson, another ranch hand, tells Candy that he needs to shoot his old dog and he can get a puppy from Seth. Seth says that he can, and not seeing any way that the dog won’t be shot, he lets Carlson take the old dog outside and shoot him. He is devastated, but doesn’t let anyone see.

Throughout the day, Curley’s wife has come in “looking for Curley,” but is in fact looking for men to talk to and flirt with. All the ranch hands know she’s trouble. Curley comes in after Seth has left to tar a broken shoe on a mule, and asks where his wife is. He thinks Seth is with her, so he goes out to get him, and the other men, minus Lennie, George, and Candy, follow. George and Lennie aren’t aware Candy hasn’t left, and they start talking about their dream land. Candy asks if it is real, and offers to front over half the money to get the land. They let Candy in on the scheme, and they plan to finish the month out and then write to the owners of the land for purchase. Curley comes back with Seth, upset that Seth got the better of him, and he sees Lennie smiling and attacks him. George tells him to get him, and Lennie, after being beaten in the face and then the stomach, grabs Curley’s left hand and crushes all the bones in it. Seth tells Curley that he will take him to the doctor, but he is not to get Lennie fired.

One evening George goes to town with the men to the whore house, and he leaves Lennie at the ranch. Lennie first went to go pet the dogs but was told that he couldn’t keep doing that or they’d die. So he goes into the one black man on the ranch’s home, a man by the name of Crooks. Crooks at first is upset he is in there, but then gets talking about his situation. Lennie can’t let up about talking about the ranch and rabbits, and Crooks asks Lennie to suppose that George never came back, that George died or left. This upsets Lennie to the point where he goes to attack Crooks, but Crooks is able to calm him down. Then Candy comes in and they start talking more about the ranch and the rabbits. When Crooks realizes they are serious, he says he’d love to just be able to come work there if he could just live on the land. Then Curley’s wife walks in, and after horning in for so long, Crooks tells her she’s not wanted. But she gets upset and tells him that she has power over him, that she can get him lynched on a single word. It cows him into submission, and when Candy speaks up to say that they’d stop her, she tells him that no one would believe him either. She sees that Lennie has never stopped looking at her, and she talks a little bit to him about how she knows he is the one that hurt Curley and then leaves. George comes home and tells them to get out of Crooks’ cabin.

Then one afternoon, Lennie goes in to play with his puppy and kills it because it bit him and he threw it to the ground. He is upset because he believes that now he will not get to tend to any rabbits. He contemplates hiding the dog or telling George he was already dead when he went to see him, but knows George will know the truth. Then Curley’s wife comes in and starts talking to him, and she talks to him about the dead puppy and why he killed it. He says it was an accident and that he just likes to pet soft things. He tells her about the ranch and the rabbits as well. Then he talks about how his Aunt Clara got him a piece of red velvet and he wishes he still had it, it was so soft. She lets him touch her hair, and he keeps petting it, more and more violently, until she gets scared and tells him to stop. This scares him, and he grabs ahold of her hair and won’t let go. When she starts to scream, he covers her mouth and then starts to shake her, breaking her neck. He panics, covers her partially with hay, takes the dead dog, and runs and hides in the spot that George told him to.

Candy comes in soon after—all the men had been playing horseshoes—and finds the dead woman. He calls in George, and George says that they’ll have to either kill him or put him in jail this time, and there’s no way around it. George has Candy go get the other men and George acts like he is seeing the body for the first time as well, and Curley goes to get his shotgun to kill Lennie. Carlson also goes to get his pistol, but cannot find it. They figure Lennie has taken it. They all go out to find him, and George goes to the pond and finds Lennie there. They talk, with Lennie thinking George is mad at him, and George comforts Lennie by telling him the story of the ranch. He has him look out at the horizon so he can picture the ranch out there, and while Lennie is looking out, George takes out Carlson’s pistol and shoots him in the head, severing the spine at the neck. Then he throws the gun away. The other men come in on the scene and see him dead, and Seth walks away with George, saddened. Curley and Carlson don’t understand why George and Seth are sad.

Brief Note on Themes
Friendship and brotherhood, male bonds, are the main theme throughout this work. The main bond is Lennie and George, where George is both caretaker and friend, if not essentially a brother, to the mentally retarded Lennie. Seth and George and Candy and George also have bonds of fellowship, with Seth being the boss that is a leader and friend, and Candy being another ward of George’s. The various types of masculinity are embodied in these men: George is a strong family man; Seth is the cool and calm, but strong, leader; Curley is the fighter who embodies traditional ideas of masculinity, as is Carlson; Candy is the kind-hearted man, as is Lennie.

The American Dream, particularly the dream of land ownership in the American West, runs throughout the book. Lower-class economic life in the West is another topic that runs through this work, with the men always dreaming of saving enough money to buy land but never able to work out of their situation as it stands. The American West, always seen as wild, untamed, a place for a man to make his mark, is seen as much more domesticated, but still untamed enough for space to grow and cultivate a new life.

Race relations also feature as a theme in this book, with Crooks being the only black man on the ranch or anywhere around for miles and miles. He knows his place among white men is considered lesser, and it makes him bitter and isolated. He has been worked so hard he is arthritic and has a bad back. Those race relations are even more prominent when Curley’s wife comes in and threatens lynching when he tells her to get away from all the men.

Morality and justifiable murder are also themes, with Carlson first killing Candy’s dog because the dog is old and decrepit, and then George killing Lennie the exact same way because Lennie killed Curley’s wife. Questions arise about accountability and life: Should animals be killed simply because they are old? Should mentally retarded men who commit a crime they cannot mentally understand or be responsible for be murdered in kind for those crimes? What other ways of discipline are there, and can different modes be applied to different people according to their mental capacity?