Book Review: The Underground Railroad

June 28, 2017


The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. 


In Colson Whitehead’s ingenious novel, the underground railroad takes on physical form: tunnels dug by slaves where steam engines run on iron rails toward freedom and the north. Engineers and station managers, both black and white, guide runaway slaves on a journey through a strange and curiously re-imagined South.


Cora is a runaway, fleeing a cruel master on a Georgia plantation. If you’ve read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or watched Twelve Years a Slave or Django Unchained, there will be nothing new here. Kidnappings, whipping, rape, families torn apart, the systematic degradation of human beings… Whitehead chronicles the brutality in imaginative understated language, but you’ve heard it all before. It is only when Cora boards her first underground train that the author’s brilliance begins to shine.


At each stop along the journey, Whitehead constructs an imaginary culture, guiding the reader through space and time on a tour of race relations in the United States and the many faces that racism has worn.


If Georgia represented the raw brutality of slavery, South Carolina is an apparent paradise. Runaway slaves are openly welcomed, clothed, housed, educated, and given jobs and free medical treatment. They are encouraged to leave behind the diction and manners of slavery. Cora sleeps on a real bed for the first time. There are overtones of paternalism, but hints of an underlying darkness only begin to emerge when Cora takes a job as an actor in a museum. Flocks of school children parade by to ogle Cora as she stands behind glass in sanitized dioramas of three phases of African American history: Scenes from Darkest Africa, Life on the Slave Ship, and Typical Day on the Plantation.


It is only later that Cora discovers South Carolina’s darkest secret: the free medical treatment is a cover for experimentation and eugenics. Here Whitehead brings to life the infamous Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service between 1932 and 1972—long after emancipation) and the forced sterilization of black women, known in the old South as “Mississippi Appendectomies.”


“What if we performed adjustments to the niggers’ breeding patterns and removed those of melancholic tendency?” a doctor asks. “Managed other attitudes, such as sexual aggression and violent natures? We could protect our women and daughters from their jungle urges… With strategic sterilization,” he explains, “first the women but both sexes in time—we could free them from bondage without fear that they’d butcher us in our sleep.”


When Cora learns the truth, she runs again and takes the underground train to the next station: North Carolina. In this state she is forced to hide in an attic from which she watches weekly hanging parties that echo the lynchings of the Jim Crow era. Decomposing bodies hang from trees for miles along “Freedom Trail.”


After some time, Cora is captured by a slave catcher who carries her west through a Tennessee landscape that has been scorched and blackened by fire and ravaged by yellow fever. Here she is rescued and spirited north across the Mason Dixon line to Indiana where she settles on a black-owned farm that has become home to about a hundred other freeborn blacks and runaway slaves. 


“Why do all this,” Cora asks the farmer one night. “Don’t you know?” he replies. “White man ain’t going to do it. We have to do it ourselves.”


The farm prospers and Cora settles down to enjoy freedom, giving herself up to work and education (a continuing theme throughout the book) and the possibility of love. Then one night a mob of neighboring whites attacks the farm with guns and torches. “White towns had simply banded together to rid themselves of the black stronghold in their midst,” explains one survivor later. “That is how the European tribes operate, she said. If they can’t control it, they destroy it.”


Once again Cora’s hopes crumble as a society that appeared to offer peace and safety and a future is undermined by the persistent specter of racism. But the book ends with hope as Cora escapes to the underground railroad station and pushes on once again, driven by the belief that this time the next station will be better.


Hope. Always there is hope. We have moved past slavery and Jim Crow laws, but the twenty-first century continues to grapple with disparities in income, education, and employment that fuel a combustible racial divide. But Whitehead’s grand invention inspires us to believe along with Cora: the next state could be better. Let us press on.


Verdict: Highly recommend

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