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On Reading Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad in the Aftermath of George Floyd's Death

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

How meaning is affected by current events

How Reading is Affected by Current Events

Reading Colson Whitehead’s 2016 Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad was a different experience now than it would have been two months ago. I felt the pain more acutely than I would have before. I saw the long-term injustices and the diverse range of atrocities perpetrated based on skin color more clearly.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the belated wake-up call for America to fight prejudice, Whitehead’s novel seems prescient.

The Plot of The Underground Railroad

The novel interweaves the history of American slavery with a fictional underground railroad operating real trains to help slaves escape. It recreates documented scenes of brutality toward slaves at the hand of their masters and then intertwines them with examples of human compassion from those who see the institution of slavery as abhorrent.

Whitehead’s main character is Cora, a fifteen-year-old slave born onto the Randall estate. Cora is abandoned by her mother, brutalized by men, and isolated from others. When Caeser, another slave, asks her to escape using the Underground Railroad, she agrees. What begins is a perilous journey toward freedom, often ending in captivity and bloodshed. At the beginning of their journey, Cora and Caesar are attacked by a group of slave traders and Cora kills a young man with the hunting party. Now, she’s not only a runaway but a murderer.

The runaway slave, Cora, is hunted by the slavecatcher, Ridgeway, who goes after her with the same intensity that Ahab demonstrated toward Moby Dick. He never lets up. He pursues and captures, goads and torments Cora.

As her trek toward freedom continues, Cora must hide from Ridgeway and any officials. In many states, aiding and abetting a slave is a punishable crime. In North Carolina, it is punishable by death, and almost everyone who helps Cora is killed because of it. The cruelty and bloodshed that occur are balanced by the humanity demonstrated by people giving their lives to help Cora escape captivity.

The balance between the oppressors and the Underground is a delicate balance, and Cora knows that it will have to be upset before she can gain freedom. While hiding in an attic, she reflects on the state of the nation and her captivity.

“One day, the system would collapse in blood…She smiled for a moment, before the facts of her latest cell reasserted themselves. Scrabbling in the walls like a rat. Whether in the fields or underground or in an attic room, America remains her warden.”

Prescient. Painful. Powerful.

Predictions of the Future

The Underground Railroad presents a pleasant alternative reality to slavery. On the fictional Valentine farm in rural Indiana, runaway slaves work and live side by side with the white community, happily coexisting and contributing to each other’s wellbeing. When the nearby white agitators decide the blacks are too numerous and the community is too prosperous, Ridgeway and other bigots rush in to destroy them.

In writing The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead seems to predict the future events of America. Reading the novel AFTER the death of George Floyd brought home to me — a white woman living in a small city in the Midwest — that like Cora, many black people in America feel trapped and threatened. Rightfully so.

It was as if Colson saw the coming upheaval of the flawed old system, a sea-change accomplished only when the oppressed rise up. When Cora asks old Valentine, a black who passes as white, why he’s helped so many people, he says,

“Don’t you know? White man ain’t going to do it. We have to do it ourselves.”

Cora’s journey takes her to different states. No national authority exists. Each state governs on its own and handles its own problems. Lumbly, one of the “conductors” on the underground says it this way:

“Every state is different…Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and a way of doing things. Moving through them, you’ll see the breadth of the country before you reach your final stop.”

We haven’t made our final stop. We’re on a journey through separate and disjointed states toward a new and improved state of the union. We are marching to better days ahead, much as Colson Whitehead portrays Cora’s tortured journey to freedom.

Maybe — state by state, march by march, person by person — we’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe someday, complete, utter, and equal freedom will be granted to everyone.

Like Cora, we’ll keep moving to new lands, not just hopeful, but certain that liberty and justice will exist for all.


Want to know more about how contemporary culture is reflected in literature? Read articles in Book Talk.

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