The Underground Railroad in Art and History: A Review of Colson Whitehead’s Novel

The Underground Railroad in Art and History: A Review of Colson Whitehead’s Novel

Colson Whitehead’s eerily brilliant and deceptively simple novel, The Underground Railroad, is much more than a fictional account of historical reality. Like all inspired works of art, the book, even at its most fantastical, deftly unearths the horrible truth at the heart of racial slavery in a manner that very few historical works can accomplish. In his acknowledgements, Whitehead lists the scholars of slavery, race, and the Underground Railroad, who he relied on to write this novel, including Edward Baptist, Fergus Bordewich, Eric Foner, Stephen Jay Gould, and Nathan Huggins. He acknowledges, like most good historians, primary sources such as the iconic slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and the WPA slave interviews. And it is clear from the novel itself that he is familiar with the history of slavery, escape, race, and abolition. With perfect literary license, he borrows and appropriates from history to reveal the heart of darkness of slavery and racism in this country. The result is a lyrical and imaginative novel that is chilling in its clearheaded look at that sorry story.

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Whitehead’s novel, which revolves around an enslaved woman, Cora, and her attempts to escape slavery in Georgia is not just an allegorical story of the Railroad but an extended meditation on the history of race and slavery. It starts not with Cora but her African grandmother Ajarry, and in pithy sentences conveys the horror that was the Middle Passage and the commodification of Africans through the Atlantic Slave Trade: “Chained from head to toe, head to toe, in exponential misery” and “In America the quirk was that people were things” and “Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean.”

Cora, we learn early on, descends from a long line of resistant black women. Her mother Mabel is one of the few who has escaped slavery. Cora’s memory of her veers between resentment at being abandoned by her and a reluctant admiration for making good her escape. It is only at the end that we learn of Mabel’s miserable end. But for much of the novel she acts as a talisman of resistance. The vegetable patch that Ajarry and she bequeath to Cora, is a symbol of their endurance and enterprise. In fact when a fellow slave Ceasar asks Cora to escape with him, he does so because he thinks she will bring him luck as her mother is the only slave to make good her escape from the Randall plantation. The plantation is the scene of Cora’s own private hell, she grows up a motherless child with no protectors, and the horror of her gang rape is encapsulated in one short sentence, “The Hob women sewed her up.” The Randall brothers, one cruel and one indifferent, preside over plantations, where every manner of cruelty gets full airing. This is not the paternalistic slavery of the moonlight and magnolias myth of popular culture or of the dominant historiographical depiction from U.B. Phillips to Eugene Genovese. Yet Cora resists, shielding the body of a young enslaved boy, Chester, preventing his brutal initiation into slavery. For this act of defiance, Cora must escape.

And so begins Whitehead’s tale of the Underground Railroad, where the reader gets vivid snapshots of the history of slavery, scientific racism, and abolition. The metaphor for the railroad, a literal train with unknown conductors and sporadic branches that just might lead to freedom, is itself apt and gets to the historical truth in an essential sense. This was a dangerous, secretive, botchy enterprise in which the enslaved and their allies took huge risks and were always subject to recapture and torture emerges from this fictive account rather than the mythic, heroic accounts of the Underground Railroad that Kathryn Schulz claims the novel resurrects in her dismissive article “Derailed” in The New Yorker.[1] Each chapter begins with runaway slave advertisements reminiscent of Theodore Weld’s classic abolitionist indictment of slavery, American Slavery As It Is (1839). Significantly, it is the enslaved themselves who dig through and establish the lines and stations of the mysterious railroad. Whitehead’s literal underground railroad also quite remarkably illuminates the history of slavery through the story of Cora’s escape.

Each state that Cora moves through maps the historical geography of enslavement and freedom with Whitehead taking literary license to tell a broader story. Early on, the “City of Pennsylvania,” where organized abolition took root among Quakers and free blacks, is the only source of hope for the enslaved Ajarry. As a historian of South Carolina, however, I found it jarring to have this most rabidly proslavery and secessionist state reinvented as an antislavery haven where Cora and Ceasar find shelter and education, including a museum of black history that actually demeans it. The insidious reality soon emerges–the good teachers and doctors in the state are ardent eugenicists and scientific racists, trained in the best universities and hospitals of the nation and interested in preventing the propagation of an “inferior race.” This literary device in fact accurately evokes historical reality. Not only was South Carolina the birthplace of renowned antebellum scientific racists such as Dr. Josiah Nott and J.D.B. DeBow, but it was in Carolinian plantations that Louis Agassiz, the Swiss naturalist and president of Harvard, collected specimens, photographs of enslaved people, to prove his theory of polygenesis, or the multiple origins of man. Whitehead’s surreal portrait of the slave state of South Carolina allows the average reader to discover with Cora, how the pseudo science of race acted as a handmaiden to racial slavery.

Whitehead’s novel evokes the tropes of fugitivity and the abolitionist underground perceptively. In North Carolina, Cora inhabits the attic of her rescuer’s house quite similar to Harriet Jacobs, who describes years in her grandmother’s attic in her iconic female slave narrative set in the same state. Another escapes evokes Henry “Box” Brown, who famously parceled himself to freedom. But while Jacobs views her clueless master from her hidey-hole, Cora witnesses minstrel shows that etch racism in the popular American imagination and the dangling bodies of apprehended fugitives and those who assist them. A similar fate awaits her friend, Martin, and his reluctant accomplice, his wife, who are betrayed by their Irish maid. The state lies suspended between slavery and freedom in the novel, with gradual compensation (to slaveholders), emancipation laws, and anti-black legislation that prohibits free blacks from entering its boundaries, reminiscent of British and northern emancipation. Cora is just a step ahead and at times behind slave catchers led by the relentless and brutal Irishman Ridgeway, whose assistant Homer is rendered as a black oddity. Rich and poor, native and immigrant, young and old, are all, as Ridgeway puts it, in service to King Cotton in slaveholding America: “It’s a human tax on progress” and “Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh.”

When Ridgeway finally gets Cora in his clutches, there is a reversal of fortune quite common in innumerable histories of the Underground Railroad. A dashing free black abolitionist, Royal, rescues her in Tennessee. The state in the novel is a center of cotton, slavery, and the vast domestic slave trade. Cora is not just a damsel in distress; she has killed a young white boy attempting to apprehend her, a misgiving that keeps popping up throughout the novel, and fights back against her enslavers. With Royal she journeys to a black utopia set improbably in racist Indiana. Many free and independent black communities in fact got their start in the old northwest with their harsh black laws and proslavery politics. The utopian community is Valentine’s farm, a black man who feels himself tied to the enslaved: “As long as one of our family endured the torments of bondage, I was a freeman in name only.” Here fugitives like Cora find shelter, receive a practical and political education, debate the future of the race, where fugitives become fugitive slave abolitionists.

The figure of Elijah Lander, whose lecture at Valentine’s farm is a highpoint, does not just represent the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, as many reviewers have speculated, but the entire interracial abolitionist movement. Having just published a big book on abolition, I marveled at how deftly Whitehead constructs the character. Lander like the abolition movement is interracial, like David Walker he has published an Appeal, like William Lloyd Garrison he has authored a “Declaration of the Rights of the American Negro,” run afoul of Maryland law, and been nearly lynched in the streets of Boston, and like Douglass, whom he most resembles, he is a skillful orator famous on the abolitionist lecture circuit. It is during his lecture that a racist white mob attacks Valentine’s farm and raises it to the ground, felling Royal and Lander. But Cora survives and heads west, her journey like the story of black slavery and freedom, unfinished.

Whitehead’s novel has received many well-deserved laurels, including a choice of Oprah’s Book Club and the 2016 National Book Award for fiction. I can only give it my highest compliment as a historian of slavery and abolition. It gets at the black experience of slavery and freedom better than most history books.


[1] Kathryn Schulz, “The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad,” The New Yorker, accessed November 27, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/22/the-perilous-lure-of-the-underground-railroad.

Manisha Sinha

Manisha Sinha is professor and the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. Sinha’s research interests lie in United States history, especially the transnational histories of slavery and abolition and the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Her award winning book, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, was published by Yale University Press in 2016.

One Reply to “The Underground Railroad in Art and History: A Review of Colson Whitehead’s Novel”

  1. Brilliant review! I just finished the book, was deeply moved. I teach high school American History (including David Walker), and I wasn’t sure about some of Whitehead’s history and some of his literary licenses. You do a beautiful job of honoring both and clarifying both. Thanks!

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