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.

Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”

Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” 1926. Modern

American Poetry,

http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/mountain.htm.

Summary of Work
Langston Hughes discusses his belief that black poets should not be ashamed of themselves as black people or strive to be white in any way in order to be a successful poet. He speaks of a young poet with much potential who told him that he didn’t want to be known as a “Negro poet,” and it made him incredibly sad because he knew what type of upbringing this man had had. Hughes states that people like this grew up in affluent black homes and had parents who were constantly striving to be white, using examples of black people who enjoyed jazz and dancing and clubs as the worst sort of people, the type of people that this young man should stay away from. Yet, it is precisely this desire to get away from one’s own culture that is so problematic in Hughes’ mind, especially if a black person wants to be a good writer. For him, culture is a large part of writing, and so the desire to be white and to rid oneself of one’s culture is antithetic to being a great poet or writer. Instead, a writer should embrace their culture, learn that “black is beautiful,” and pursue writing about what they want within that black cultural framework.

Discussion of Work
I find that this work is very indicative of the times it was written in, and yet is still prescient today. The idea of “black is beautiful” is important, particularly in the circumstances Hughes outlines: shame about one’s skin color, race, and culture is never a good place to come from as a writer, and acceptance of oneself is necessary in order to live a full life. And yet, the piece itself seems to impose restrictions upon writers, restrictions that we in fact see historically during the height of the Harlem Renaissance: the rule of insisting on creating “black” art means that if a writer decides to write about a topic that is not about African American life, they will not be considered an artist or a quality writer by the black academic and literary elite.

Yet this idea of African American writers embodying their culture so much that it becomes the sole focus of their writing has certainly had staying power in the academy and in the general literary world. The African American writers who seem to have staying power or are popular are writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Colson Whitehead, to name a few. These people are writing about black history, black experience, and black culture, and are finding ways to represent silenced voices. Writers who choose other topics, like Ishmael Reed, are often missing from African American literature course reading lists, precisely because of this idea that black writers must write about black subjects in specific historical, oppressed or deteriorating positions where their characters must overcome violence and injustice. But writers like Reed write quality literature which encompasses stories not specific to black historical and current representation. Indeed, Reed is one of those authors who would have bothered Hughes because he insists that his racial identity should not be indicative of his writing choices and quality.

Certainly, the idea of writing about what you know is an important one, and yet it is also detrimental when it does not allow for writers to break the boundaries of what other groups, including subgroups of the same race, set for our writers. It becomes exclusionary of different types of experiences, excluding even the groups of black elites or white-skinned black people that Hughes discusses in his essay. It speaks directly to what bell hooks stated about the importance of allowing multiple experiences, because when we only allow for specific stories to exist about a culture and people, we isolate large groups of people and lose their voices in the conversation.

bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End P, 1992.

Summary of Work
In her work, bell hooks discusses how image plays a large role in determining how a group of people are represented, and that because of that fact, images and representations are inherently ideological. She discusses how loving blackness is an important and underrepresented part of bringing about social equality, and how loving blackness becomes a dangerous position when put in opposition with white supremacist social structures. She also posits that reverse racism doesn’t exist because while racial prejudice certainly does exist, minorities are not in positions of power to use that prejudice to oppress other ethnic groups. She discusses how this rears its head when white people decide to become friends with black people, and yet they still refuse to let go of their learned racist habits. She also analyzes Nella Larsen’s novel “Passing” in this context, suggesting that it is because Clare Kendry decided to love blackness that she was murdered: both her white husband and her black friend could not accept the fact that it was possible to love blackness, that there wasn’t something inherently wrong with a darker skin color.

hooks also examines how blackness has been commodified, making it a selling point of pop culture: white men want to sleep with as many darker skinned women as they can; movies and stories offer blackness as a primitivism that can appease disgruntled whites in a post-imperialist society; cultural appropriation makes up for a perceived or real lack in white dominate culture. Fashion magazines and other advertising industries utilize blackness as a backdrop to sell their products. She discusses this commoditization within the context of a couple of films including Heart Condition, a film about a black man and a white man in love with the same woman; the black man wins the love of the white woman, but he is dying, and when he donates his heart to the dying white man, the white man is then able to win the love of the white woman. Thus, there is a physical transfer or appropriation that labels blackness as erotic, able to provide sexual pleasure and presence that whiteness cannot. The taking is problematic for not only the images it creates, but for the lack of credit it gives to people of color when the things taken are art forms or non-stereotypical representations.

Using Audre Lorde’s article about black womanhood as a structure, hooks talks about how black women are set in a stereotype of violence—on themselves and their children—that they play out. She believes that the narrative can be changed, but that it is hard and it first requires black women to accept that they can buck the trend. She discusses the ways that black women can change their narrative by discussing black literature and showing that simply journeying to find oneself or to escape one type of violence does not guarantee that they actually become self-agents and break the trend. She says that this is the case for characters like Celie in “The Color Purple,” where she gets away from an abusive situation but goes right back to being a dependent housewife by the end of the novel. Other women in books, like Sula, become pariahs because of their radical behaviors, and hooks does not see that as the ideal option either. What these fiction writers are doing, however, regardless of the end result of their characters, is breaking “new ground in that it clearly names the ways structures of domination, racism, sexism, and class exploitation, oppress and make it practically impossible for black women to survive if they do not engage in meaningful resistance on some level” (50). She identifies Angela Davis as a real world example of a black woman who resisted through political action and education to become a full agent and to resist the violent cycle; she also identifies Shirley Chisholm as an example of breaking the trend and resisting the cycle. However, many women are afraid to have their daughters and themselves follow in Davis’ example because of her prison sentence for political resistance, making her lack a community that is necessary to pass her knowledge and experience on to break the trend of violence. People of color, especially women of color, need to engage in feminism and in the “decolonizing of our minds” in order to center “social change that will address the diversity of our experiences and our needs” (60).

She continues the discussion of black womanhood by stating that black women in film and other mediums are objectified and seen only as objects, not as people, causing problems in white-black relations, but particularly causes problems in the way black women view themselves: they either vehemently oppose the pop culture representations or quietly absorb the stereotypes and objectification. Citing Tina Turner as an example, she states that objectification creates easy avenues for abuse and violence against black women, who must be seen as lust-driven and sexually free-spirited in order to be successful in entertainment. The conversation about black womanhood is continued as hooks discusses the racist and sexist actions of Madonna, a woman who belittles her coworkers and employees, especially if they are people of color, by saying she is a “mother figure” to them, much as white colonialists looked at themselves as saviors and parents to supposedly lesser races. In hooks’ eyes, Madonna is not only racist, but one of the worst appropriators of black culture. She also discusses this objectification and the problems it causes by focusing on the Clarence Thomas case, when a Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment. Her passive manner in which she engaged the committee, and the images of black womanhood dominating the white committee’s minds, served as a reminder that the images of black womanhood strongly influence people’s decisions about how they look at and handle harassment and assault of black women.

hooks builds a discussion of black masculinity within this discussion about gender, stating that black men are supposed to, under cultural understanding and stereotypes, be unemotional and strong and financially successful, whereas women are taught to be quiet and obey but are allowed to have a full range of emotions. She points out that much of the discourse around black male sexuality is the discussion of how black men really want to be white men, and their inability to be so makes the violent. To hold such misogynistic and phallocentric views of black masculinity is to deny men the full range of emotional and physical development that would allow them to become good fathers, loving husbands, and successful men.

Focusing on paths of resistance that black people can and have taken against racism, hooks talks about how the black gaze upon white people can be a powerful tool of survival and resistance. Black people were often looked at as objects owned or controlled by white people, and white people never took a second thought about the idea that black people could look at them and observe and resist; similarly, black women could look and gaze upon misogynist structures and recognize them, creating a form of resistance as they identify other parts of narratives that represented them in the public eye. The resistant gaze is a way for black people to “imagine new transgressive possibilities for the formulation of identity” (130).

hooks also believes that a discussion of black views on whiteness are important. Mentioning that black people have come a long way from viewing white people as a group of dangerous ghosts, many black people have integrated white beliefs about hating black people. They are also still terrified, even if they cannot explicitly say so, by the dangers of being labeled a “reverse racist” for discussing whiteness and their experiences with whiteness. But black people observing whiteness has also created stereotypes, and when they express those stereotypes to white people, many white people are outraged, upset that they are being stereotyped under the name of observation and data; yet white people see no correlation between what they do to black people and what is happening to them. Whiteness functions as a power source and a place of privilege, in hooks mind, only as long as white people are regularly able to insist that their race is mysterious and undefinable, that it is the neutral that everyone should accept as the base for cultural exchange.

hooks ends her work with a discussion of black-native relations, honing in on the need for interracial minority engagement to promote equality and reparations. She states that Native Americans are the only race of people that are forced to watch their genocide played out as entertainment to this very day through Westerns, games of cowboys and Indians, and other media formats. She points out the strong historical ties between black people and Native Americans, both through blood relation by intermarriage and cultural heritage: when Africans came to the New World before white people, the two cultures were able to harmoniously exist and exchange gifts and ideas. White people find that history dangerous, because their belief system functions on the idea that all people come to new worlds to conquer, and a symbiotic relationship between cultures destroys that image, and therefore white superiority and justification. Since the deterioration of black-native relations, Native Americans have had to resort to techniques of forgetting and forsaking their culture in order to live in a world that has swept their genocide under the rug other than to play it for entertainment: dealing with the history and having to try and convince both white and black people that it is unjust would destroy them. In order for all people of color to reach social equality, the two cultures need to work to “affirm the times of the past, the bonds of the present . . . relearn our history, nurture the shared sensibility that has been retained in the present” (194). Only then can domination be eradicated and society transformed.

Discussion of Work
While I agree with much of what bell hooks has to say, I wonder about the evolution of these arguments in this decade. While we still have a long way to go for proper representation of black people, and particularly black women, as agents and individuals outside of cinematic stereotypes, there are being strides made, as can be seen with films such as Hidden Figures and Black Panther. Films such as these focus on black achievement rather than black failures or trauma: women in Hidden Figures not only assert themselves as experts in rocket science in a white world, but they assert themselves as valuable members of their community who eschew violence and demand respect from their husbands; they also demand that their husbands take on multiple roles that require them to take on more feminine traits, making the men more whole and self-agents as well. Since Hidden Figures is based on a true story, it makes me wonder if there are actually many instances where this is the case, but they have simply been obscured from the mainstream discussions of history, making hooks’ arguments about image and womanhood and masculinity important, but part of a more complex historical and communal discussion. Black Panther, completely fictional, creates another space where nearly the entire cast is black, and the focus is black achievement and innovation rather than tragedy and violence. The people of Wakanda represent a society where blackness has evolved as a culture largely free (although not completely) of white supremacy and oppression. Their culture holds on to old African traditions, but also has evolved into an elite technological society. I do wonder if one concern might be that the technological ideal looks somewhat like white cultural ideals: however, the overly enthusiastic and warm reception of the film in black communities speaks to the fact that black people are actively looking for positive images and representations of them which are free from the stereotypical cliches that exist throughout our media. While there has been progress, there is still work to be done, and hooks’ work is still important in deciding upon ways to progress. However, based on film evidence (to follow hooks’ structuring of culture discussion) in Black Panther, it is fair to say that the idea of loving blackness is no longer a fringe idea, but very much centered in the public—black and white—imagination.

The discussion of Native American and black relations hit close to home, as hooks described something very painful regarding my own heritage. And yet, it opens up our eyes to a blind spot in our critical discussion: the struggle for social equality extends past racial boundaries, and must include all POC in order to make for a successful resistance and push for change. To ignore the representation of other minority groups in media is to neglect those groups of people and their needs.