There’s this line toward the very end of Colson Whitehead’s book, The Underground Railroad: “She trusted the slave’s choice to guide her—anywhere, anywhere but where you are escaping from.” This is a realization that comes to Cora, the protagonist and a runaway slave who is seeking lasting deliverance. Cora’s realization is a reminder to the self, a lesson in survival. She’s been on the run from Georgia to South Carolina, then to North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana. Yet, she’s still fleeing: to go anywhere, any other place that’s an escape from the present condition. But that “anywhere” is only a transient state before it reminds a runaway slave that he/she is on the hunt again. And he/she has to seek a new refuge, a new “anywhere.” The unifying thought that holds together Whitehead’s novel is this question: where does, if at all, that “anywhere” exist for an enslaved person?
Cora’s survival is dependent on finding an answer to this question. Her search leads her to different states: from Southern to Midwest. In each state, she unearths an endemic (insidious or openly savage) system of subjugating the black body. When the horror of one state’s brutality toward black people is revealed to her, Cora assumes her “slave’s choice,” which is no choice at all. She escapes thinking may be her next destination will free her from her bondage.
Cora’s quest becomes a vehicle for Whitehead to expose the barbarity of slavery and how the racism that it fueled and sustained came to be the consolidating force behind the white civilization in US. The bane of racism has left no state untouched. How could you protect one part of a nation from the evil it practices in another? A slave is infected with one festering hope that beyond his/her master’s territory things are better (in Cora’s case the slavery that afflicts Deep South does not trespass to the rest of the country). But Cora in her search for refuge finds out what a myth such a notion is. Cora’s quest and her subsequent disappointment translates to the thematic and structural continuity in Whitehead’s narrative. In his mission to answer the question, whether for a slave “anywhere” has a name to it, Whitehead finds a potent means to illuminate the obstacles and the complicity of the agents behind those obstacles. By the end of the book, it’s an open question if Cora could ever be secure about her future. Would she ever find permanent deliverance? This open-endedness allows for a temporal continuum to the contemporary times. Have the black people stopped fleeing the oppressive conditions of slavery? Have they found a true sanctuary?
A precise and tightly-woven narrative needs a unifying thought. Staying true to it at all times allows the writer to shed fluff. The Underground Railroad is a highly cohesive narrative in that regard. It probes richly the central question it poses for itself to illuminate why and how black people’s escape since enslavement hasn’t found closure in America.
There’s one scene in the book that stood out for me. For me, it encapsulates how psychologically scarring slavery is. Not just for the slaves but for slavers too. The very monstrosity and animus that animate the white slavers and their henchmen leave them so thoroughly dehumanized.
The slave catcher got into the wagon for the first time since he picked up Cora. He held Boseman’s pistol in his hand and shot Jasper in the face. The blood and the bone covered the inside of the canopy, splashing Cora’s filthy shift. Ridgeway wiped his face and explained his reasoning. Jasper’s reward was fifty dollars, fifteen of that for the tinker who brought the fugitive to jail. Missouri, back east, Georgia—it would be weeks before they delivered the man to his owner. Divide thirty-five dollars by, say, three weeks, minus Boseman’s share, and the lost bounty was a very small price to pay for silence and a restful mind.
Homer opened his notebook and checked his boss’s figures. “He’s right,” he said.
The cold brutality of the scene. Chilling and shocking. Whitehead pushes the reader into the dark world of slavery and does not allow the reader to look away. Deep immersion is necessary to come face to face with the savagery of slavery. Be it the Freedom Trail of North Carolina (where battered and eviscerated lynched bodies sway from the tree branches for unending miles) or the horror show of the cold-blooded execution that happens in the Randall plantation, there’s no end to the turpitude of slavers. What differentiates one oppressor from another is the method and the deranged logic inherent in it, as if it were a competition. So in the above scene, Ridgeway , a manic and notorious slave catcher, breaks down his killing to pure economic merit.
Cora’s observations and thoughts are profound as well as a severe indictment of a society/nation. At one point she contemplates what’s justice? After witnessing so much human cruelty she wonders where is the providential justice? She thinks:
Tennessee was cursed. Initially she assigned the devastation of Tennessee—the blaze and the disease—to justice. The whites got what they deserved. For enslaving her people, for massacring another race, for stealing the very land itself. Let them burn by flame or fever, let the destruction started here rove acre by acre until the dead have been avenged. But if people received their just portion of misfortune, what had she done to bring her troubles on herself? In another list, Cora marked the decisions that led her to this wagon and its iron rings. There was the boy Chester, and how she had shielded him. The whip was the standard punishment for disobedience. Running away was a transgression so large that the punishment enveloped every generous soul on her brief tour of freedom. Bouncing on the wagon springs, she smelled the damp earth and the heaving trees. Why had this field escaped while another burned five miles back? Plantation justice was mean and constant, but the world was indiscriminate. Out in the world, the wicked escaped comeuppance and the decent stood in their stead at the whipping tree. Tennessee’s disasters were the fruit of indifferent nature, without connection to the crimes of the homesteaders. To how the Cherokee had lived their lives.