REVIEW: Colson Whitehead Brilliantly Reimagines the Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Doubleday Books 320 pp.

By Kimberly Fain

In his latest literary tour de force, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead reimagines the network of routes and hiding places for escaping slaves as a literal railroad under the ground. He also returns to a narrative with a daring black female protagonist — something he has not undertaken since his first novel, The Intuitionist, which introduced Lila Mae Watson, a barrier-breaking elevator inspector.  In his new work, set in the antebellum South, the heroine, Cora, escapes slavery and searches for freedom, in a society that presents considerable obstacles.

One of the primary reasons for those obstacles was financial. The southern currency and economy of the time were, unbeknownst to Cora and other slaves, highly dependent on battered black bodies as assets. There was simply too much money invested in owning, breeding, lending, and renting blacks to allow them to escape without rendering violence upon their capture. If they were apprehended, they faced barbaric mental and physical humiliation, up to and including a gruesome death. Black bodies were worthless as human beings, but highly valuable as property.

Whitehead paints a grim portrait of a slave world in which liberation was rarely sought.  The Randall Plantation, on which Cora was enslaved, had an almost irresistible power over Cora’s destiny.  The whims of her master, James Randall, and the overseer, Connelly, determined the contours of her work and her life.  The inclinations of James and Connelly decided whether she and her fellow slaves would be whipped or otherwise abused.

James, a temperamental man, generally preferred to leave Connelly in charge — in many cases he was off pursuing his favorite pastime, visiting sadomasochistic prostitutes in New Orleans. After James died, his more vicious brother, Terrance, took charge — and Whitehead powerfully describes just how terrible things got.  In one darkly Gothic scene, after townsfolk arrived at the Randall plantation in carriages, they enjoyed turtle soup and sipped spiced rum, as an escaped slave named Big Anthony, was roasted on a bonfire. The torrid smell of burning flesh crushed the hopes of most of the slaves who were forced to witness the horrible spectacle, but Cora’s will to flee was strengthened.

Cora does flee, with a man named Caeser, from a life she could no longer tolerate.  She boards an underground train and finds work in South Carolina. There, she discovers a benevolent and paternalistic atmosphere toward free blacks. But things are darker beneath the surface: the intermingling of races in the public sphere hides a perverted interest in medical experimentation that poses grave danger to blacks, and to any hope of genuine racial uplift. Determining that this superficial haven does not offer the freedom she seeks, she moves on.

Cora’s next stop on the train is North Carolina, a center of white supremacy and black lynching. Since it is illegal for blacks to set foot in North Carolina, she hides in an abolitionist’s attic. From a hole in the attic wall, she notices a mutt gorging on treats from citizens on the street. The contrast is clear to her: the dog’s treatment is so much better than is accorded to black people like her.

Pressing her face to the wall, she sees outside a white band playing colored songs in a Friday Festival — and she encounters a minstrel show.  Even in their leisure activities, North Carolinians traffic in white dominance.  For their entertainment, the identity of black people is stolen, misused, and mocked.

The minstrel show is a racist spectacle that presents slavery as an almost benign institution, suggesting that blacks would go hungry without the generosity of their slave masters.  A well-respected judge introduces a blackface act with a white man wearing burnt cork on his face. Playing a fugitive, he begs his former master for mercy after encountering hunger, frigid weather, wild animals, and a ruthless Northern boss on the run. At the conclusion of the minstrel performance, an astounding applause ensues from the crowd.

Nightriders then bring a terrified former slave, named Louisa, on stage. As Cora turns away, the spectacle ends with a throat-clenching, breath-stealing haunt for celebratory eyes. In choosing not to witness the finale of this Friday Festival tradition, Cora exercises a freedom that did not exist for her on the Randall plantation. As a semi-liberated black woman, she now has the right to look away from black death.

Underground Railroad is auspiciously timed.  It arrives at a moment of resurgent interest in slavery, and its enduring impact on our nation. In the public discourse, there is still considerable disconnect between slavery and the current condition of the African-American community.  The history of slavery, blackface, and racial mockery continue to have a powerful effect today.

Whitehead captures the dissonance of this white indifference to black life with his intentional, matter-of-fact tone, which is magnetic and chilling. Whitehead's style picks at the chains of slave history like the haunting rendition of the national anthem Jimi Hendrix performed at Woodstock. Artists like Whitehead and Hendrix, somewhat incongruously, tell the story of freedom best — by inflecting it with an undercurrent of remembered bondage.

Trailblazing artists, whether in literature or music, challenge us to reconfigure familiar notions, such as freedom, in innovative ways.  In telling the story of the Underground Railroad, Whitehead has fixed on something as symbolic to African-American freedom as the Star-Spangled Banner is to American freedom. He is speaking to the evolution of black citizenship and the capricious nature of blood-stained American promises, in our anthems, and in our amendments. Both black and white American liberation is rooted in slavery’s haunts. Freedom for all Americans still remains a fleeting concept.

Whitehead has long been drawn to the subject of race and technology.  In The Intuitionist, he explored the possibilities of racial uplift with revolutionary elevator technology — a precursor to the railroad in his new novel. But until now, he has not addressed the subject of slavery and its accompanying brutality. By reconstructing the slave narrative to include a literal underground railroad, he offers a fresh and provocative new way of thinking about American history and the possibility of African-American freedom.

In interviews, Whitehead has said that the idea for Underground Railroad came to him sixteen years ago. It may well be that at that point in his career as a writer, he was not yet ready to take on the worst atrocity in America.   Now that he is a mature writer — with the bestselling books and literary awards to prove it — he clearly has the insight and writerly skill to tackle slavery, a subject he has now given revolutionary treatment.

It is no exaggeration to say that The Underground Railroad — which has chugged its way to the top of the bestseller lists — is destined to be a classic.  The world has no choice but to listen to Whitehead’s insightful, imaginative, and lyrical vision of what it means to be legally bound and then legitimately liberated in a country where black bodies have never, ever, really been truly free.

Kimberly Fain is an attorney, and teaches African American literature at Texas Southern University. She has two published books: Colson Whitehead: The Postracial Voice of Contemporary Literature and Black Hollywood: From Butlers to Superheroes, the Changing Role of African American Men in the Movies. Follow her on Twitter at @KimberlyFain