ESSAY: Notes from the Underground (Railroad): Two Novelists Take on Slavery

By Zack Graham

As race in America has come to dominate public discourse, we are beginning to see an influx of novels exploring the topic.  Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, and Ben H. Winters, author of Underground Airlines, both adopt escapist approaches to explore the legacy of American racial trauma, and use the institution of the underground railroad as a vessel for their speculative narratives.  Whitehead’s novel is proving to be the definitive novel on the subject in recent years, while Winters’ less-successful novel cautions us about the ways in which we talk about the subject.

Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which was just awarded the National Book Award for fiction, is a heavily researched historical novel about a teenage slave named Cora who escapes captivity.  It is a masterful work for a variety of reasons, the most salient of which is the level, fluid voice in which Whitehead narrates the book. While Toni Morrison’s Beloved teems with trauma and emotion, Whitehead’s clinical narration exposes the horrors of slavery while keeping the violence off stage.  Scenes of murder, torture and rape are not described extensively, but rather revealed through small, painful phrases and allusions.  Even the most tranquil scenes of dialogue chill readers. 

Take a conversation between Cora and a fellow slave named Lovey, for example, after Whitehead asserts that “everyone knew niggers don’t have birthdays:”

“If you could pick your birthday, what would it be?” Lovey asked…
“Can’t pick,” Cora said.  “It’s decided for you.”
“You best fix your mood…” Lovey said.

Accumulated moments like these magnify the power and precision of Whitehead’s novel.  After Cora decides to escape, the novel verges into magical realism, introducing an underground train on rails that takes her through the American South toward the North and freedom.  Whitehead uses this literal underground railroad to convey the state of racial oppression when slavery was legal, and in doing so exposes how little our perceptions of slave narratives and black identity have changed since slavery was abolished.  With his new novel, Whitehead has written the kind of book that provokes discussion about America’s genocidal legacy and treats that legacy with respect.  The Underground Railroad is necessary, visceral, and will sit on the shelf next to the best novels about America’s racial history.

As a reader who appreciates slipstream and genre fiction, I was eager to see how Ben Winters, a writer whose work blends mystery and science fiction, would approach the topic of race. Underground Airlines tells the story of a slave catcher named Victor’s search for an escaped slave in a revisionist modern day in which the institution of slavery still exists. Winters tells Victor’s story in the first person, narrating and dialoguing effectively.  The plot features many twists and turns, and a vaguely Pynchonesque climax, after which the reader is meant to draw larger conclusions about institutional and societal racism in America.  Although he himself is white, Winters' attempt at writing from the perspective of a man of color works, the occasional ebonic phrasing included.  Winters’ protagonist is a fully fleshed and empathetic slave catcher, a feat that few novelists of any creed or color can pull off.  Even Winters’ repeated use of the word "nigger" and its variants isn’t bothersome.

Underground Airlines becomes problematic when you consider the function that slavery serves in the novel.  The novel is a thriller in which Winters paints by numbers over this country’s defining genocide.  There are moral implications associated with turning genocide into genre fodder, particularly for a writer whose ancestors were not directly affected by the genocide he is writing about.  In the end, the novel reads like a jaunt across the #BlackLivesMatter movement by a writer whose children have black friends (which I’ve lifted from the novel’s dedication: “For my kids, and their friends”).  Underground Airlines uses slavery for the purpose of profundity, while The Underground Railroad memorializes slavery in a move toward recognition, truth, collective grief, and reconciliation.  A writer as skilled and observant as Winters should not have used slavery in Underground Airlines as he used Jane Austen in his novel Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, or as he used Leo Tolstoy in his novel Android Karenina.  

Writing about race in America has seldom been more popular than it is today, which is precisely why it is important to have conversations about this body of work and the ways in which we explore racial trauma.  I sincerely hope that more white writers take on the topic of race in this historic moment.  I have no problem with cultural appropriation.  People have been doing it for millennia. But when it comes to an issue like the harrowing institution of slavery in America, the conversation should be had carefully.  It takes a truly great writer to turn trauma into great literature.  With The Underground Railroad, Coulson Whitehead has proven that he may be one of the greats.  With Underground Airlines, we see how formidable the challenge of turning trauma into literature can be.

Zack Graham’s writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, the National Book Review, the Cobalt Review and elsewhere. He is at work on a collection of short fiction and a novel.