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.