The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Review

Sunday, 29 October 2017

TW: Racism
Contains Spoilers.

In 2017, we live in a world where white supremacy is not only very much alive but making itself known in a very public manner. We all saw the images and footage of neo-Nazis marching along Charlottesville, we heard about Heather Heyer who lost her life protesting against hatred and just yesterday you may have seen footage of white men screaming “white lives matter” in Tennessee. We’ve watched the President of the United States refuse to condemn white supremacists, we’ve watched him attack black NFL players again and again and we’re all too aware of the fact his supporters are very much the ones spewing the racist venom.

I can voice my disgust and hatred towards the acts of these pathetic excuses for human beings but my disgust is purely superficial in comparison to the anger and fear any person of colour will experience in their day to day life. I can’t relate because I’m white and sit firmly in my privilege; the only thing I can do is educate myself on past racism and the current racial climate and I chose to begin that educational journey with *The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad tells the tale of Cora, a motherless slave girl who escapes a Georgia cotton plantation and her owners with her friend and fellow slave Caesar. Their escape begins with them fighting their way through a swamp when they discover fellow slave Lovey has followed them. Cora, Caesar, and Lovey continue through the swamp in hopes of reaching the first station of the Underground Railroad. Lovey’s story ends abruptly after all 3 slaves are cornered; Lovey is captured but Cora and Caesar make it out alive and it’s at this point where we’re introduced to the Underground Railroad and the people willing to help slaves escape.

Throughout the story, Colson Whitehead uses the Underground Railroad as a fully operational legitimate railway. I think some people will argue that this was to make things convenient and speed up Cora’s and Caesar’s escape but I personally loved this added touch. Up until recently, I believed the Underground Railroad was, in fact, an actual railroad with old-fashioned passenger trains so seeing my silly idea being used as a premise for a book amused me while simultaneously making me cringe at my own ignorance.

Their first stop of the Underground Railroad is South Carolina; a state that presents itself as progressive and willing to help integrate former slaves into society. Cora is given a job, a place to stay and an education. She lives a fairly happy life but the worry of a slave catcher named Ridgeway being hot on her tail is always at the back of her mind. While everything seems great on the surface it becomes apparent that South Carolina’s progressive nature isn’t as it seems.

The white people of South Carolina are conducting forced sterilization on the black people they’re pretending to help and are also carrying out inhumane things such as the Tuskegee experiment. While The Underground Railroad is set in the 1800s, Colson Whitehead uses a broad timeline to tell the story. The Tuskegee experiments, for example, happened between 1932 and 1972 but Whitehead has manipulated the dates to make the story more horrifying than it already is. Admittedly, I found the story became disjointed in places as a result of the mismatched timeframe but it does make for a good starting point if you’re looking to do further research into past racism.

There is a distinct lack of description of the brutality slaves experienced on a daily basis at both the hands of their slave owners and after they’ve escaped if they ever manage to do so. There is enough to make your mind wander and explore what else could have possibly happened to all of these people but I personally don’t believe the human mind can truly comprehend these atrocities without a little guidance. I wanted The Underground Railroad to make me uncomfortable and it didn’t quite manage it. I know enough about slavery and historical racism to put the pieces together myself but I feel like Colson Whitehead missed an opportunity to really drive home the horrendous nature of white people.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

One of the few descriptions of brutality comes in North Carolina. After Cora escapes the illusion of South Carolina, she finds herself in a state that has begun the process of eliminating black people. The road from the North Carolina Underground Railroad station is lined with rows of black people hanging by their necks, there is a lynching in the park every week which draws in huge crowds of white people looking for cheap entertainment and raids on houses are carried out on a regular basis as the locals search for abolitionists and Underground Railroad operators harbouring escaped slaves. If there is ever a point where you really hope Cora escapes, it’s during her stay in North Carolina. You fear that the fate instilled upon the unfortunate people who are caught will be placed upon her but instead, Cora meets a different kind of fate. The slave catcher named Ridgeway finally gets a hold of her.

As Ridgeway takes Cora back to her slave owner in Georgia, another part of history is intertwined in the form of yellow fever that gripped Tennessee in the second half of the 1800s. You plead for yellow fever to strike down Cora’s captors or for her to somehow find a chance to escape but it never happens, she’s chained up and forced to listen to Ridgeway as he slowly takes her back to meet her death. It’s at this point where we discover what happened to Caesar. He has of course been tortured and killed in a disturbing fashion but that wasn’t what caught my attention. I had completely forgotten Caesar was even in the story at all as he is an extremely underdeveloped character. His only real contribution to The Underground Railroad is that he gets the ball rolling on Cora’s escape but even then, Cora could have muddled her way through that without him.

Cora eventually escapes Ridgeway and then escapes Ridgeway again. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find her multiple escapes from him to be convenient. There are points where I just don’t believe the things Cora is capable of as she is presented as an uneducated 15-year-old girl na├»ve to the world outside of her own plantation. She seems to have an inordinate amount of strength both physically and mentally and I personally just don’t buy it. It makes her a true heroine but it doesn’t feel like an entirely accurate depiction of a girl who, up until Caesar’s suggestion to escape, never ventured beyond the borders of the plantation she was forced to work and live on.

There is also the additional issue of Cora’s mother Mabel. She is often referenced throughout the story as Cora tries to come to terms with her abandonment. Mabel is presented as a woman so desperate to escape the plantation that she leaves her daughter behind and runs into the swamp. You believe Mabel escaped and is living somewhere in the north or made it to Canada but in reality, Mabel never made it beyond the swamp. She got a few miles away from the plantation in the dark before having a change of heart and went to make her way back but was bitten by a snake and died. Mabel was so focused on through The Underground Railroad that the truth of her demise seemed rushed and forced. I believe that her escape should have ended with her coming across a variation of the Great Dismal Swamp as this would have set up another good point for further research and would provide the reader with a glimmer of hope for any future runaways.

You’re probably thinking while reading this review that I didn’t enjoy The Underground Railroad and in a small way, you would be correct. There are a few things I would change about this book but that doesn’t take away from the fact I think it’s a brilliant piece of literature and something worth reading. There are very few people who can tackle a subject matter like slavery, intertwine it with other historical events from different periods and make a captivating and worthwhile story out of it but Colson Whitehead managed just that. I do believe there would be more emotion and urgency to the entire story if it was written in Cora’s voice but there is also a chance I am looking for a way to relate to her as a character when in reality, I can’t.

Admittedly, I think it would be an ignorant move on my part to present The Underground Railroad as an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours. This isn't entertainment, this is a fairly accurate insight into a life that should never have happened and I would urge anyone, whether you have an understanding of racism or are adamant racism doesn't exist, to read The Underground Railroad. It's not without its flaws but it's a flawed book worth reading.

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