Perhaps undeniable as it is, there is a certain uneasiness when it comes to slave narratives in America, especially when taken in the context of white guilt that one inevitably feels reading such stories. Such was my reaction while powering my way thru the simple and yet expansive novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which had me begging myself to put down the book at times when I felt my own silent uneasiness reading about torture in a bigoted south at a time when the very idea of being free was in and of itself a danger to one’s life, whether one was black or white, whatever those racial terms imply.
And yet to admit guilt for something beyond the scope of my own control and time is limited view of something far more complex than simple morals and lectures. Alas, nothing new seems to be said by Whitehead’s tale of escape told from the 3rd person point of view of it’s black female protagonist, Cora, who is both headstrong and resilient, silently pushing her way thru the heart of the southland towards a dream that seems unattainable and yet necessary, that of freedom to pursue one’s dreams of a life unassailed by ownership and ingratitude, a life marked by the freedom to pursue and education and entertainment, and perhaps even love. A life marked by what we take for granted here in America, at least in our limited white culture, which is freedom to live one’s life free from persecution and the threat of discrimination based on what’s own skin color and to a larger extent identity. For that I’m thankful and yet reminded of how much our country is still haunted by a past soaked in bloodshed of people who died providing free labor to fuel an economy built by slave owners looking to further their own profits and ownership.
At heart of the novel is a simple and limited metaphor: what if the underground railroad, instead of being an invisible network of houses and trails leading towards a path of freedom for American slaves, was an actual railroad built and sustained underground and unknown to captures waiting to catch any slave that dared to attempt to escape? The idea is simple enough to grasp, and perhaps that is enough to question why I struggled with such an important detail that seems to almost be unnecessary. As I read the novel I asked myself repeatedly why the need for such a simple device when the whole idea of the underground railroad from a realistic perspective is sufficient?
And yet to question the metaphor is to miss the point of magic realism and imagination at play in the novel. By making the railroad a literal track criss crossing the country, we as the reader are provided a simple explanation for how all of these states and lands are connected and yet separated. By allowing Cora the speed to make her journey by train, we are alleviated of the mundane tracking of her story thru paths and patience and allowed a quick read that jumps from state to state without much pause save for interludes describing what seem to be both minor and major characters in the novel.
But ignoring the main question of why the use of magic realism in the first place, much attention must be brought to Whitehead’s choice of using the old narrative device of telling, rather than showing. For the novel is rich with expository prose that elaborates on the backgrounds and history of our characters and their own futile attempts at survival, detailing dates and events in their lives as if this was nonfiction and intended for historical documentation of a time that has been all too well documented.
And yet Whitehead still manages to keep the tale fresh in our minds, filling in the mundane prose with just enough action and intrigue thru the form of a fugitive story, complete with our own villain in the form of Ridgewater, a white bounty hunter hot on the trails of Cora as she escapes her plantation for a life she knows is all but out of her grasp.
Ridgewater is a simple symbol of the hatred and desire to bring justice to a population of people on the verge of extinction thru the form of bondage and torture, a man driven by ego and his own personal vendetta of getting back at Cora’s mother, another slave who attempted to escape her own plantation. Ridgewater reveals late in the novel that Mabel was the one who got away, and that the memory of allowing her to slip thru his fingers is enough to motivate his own thirst for seeing Cora now suffer for the wrongdoings of a woman she admits she has hatred for herself.
And thus lies the crux of the narrative. Tho compared to Gulliver’s Travels on the opening flap of the dust jacket, aside from the literal underground railroad, Cora runs into towns and people that could be cut out of any slave narrative told from that period. She runs into hostile white people who lynch other white abolitionists, a doctor who wants to find a cure for syphilis but secretly injecting unwittingly escaped slaves with the disease, and eventually finding love with another escaped slave on a farm in Indiana. And here we see how whenever Cora goes, danger seems to be waiting just around the corner.
At times remote and distanced from our heroine, we never really get a good grasp of Cora’s own internal processes or how she views the world other than small snippets of dialog and the occasional reminder that she is a fighter and new reader. We’re told that she once tore down a doghouse after a white man destroyed her own small patch of farm, and that people call her crazy. But what real idea that we want to posses of her is rarely seen. Maybe in lesser hands that would be a slight against the author, but Whitehead seems content on allowing his story to remain just on the surface of our own imaginations, allowing our own unease at the suffering of people long dead to remind us all that perhaps the biggest crime that America faces going forward is our failure to recognize just how easy it really was to allow slavery to exist at all in the first place. And yes, even today we still can’t believe a network even existed that allowed these tortured people to escape, even if the real railroad was in our own neighbor’s backyards. Perhaps to all of us looking to our past, that network might as well have been a real underground train. And yet, we still must fight on and pursue our own network if we are to escape the bondage that all of us face, for that train does exist if we can imagine it, even if it is a simple metaphor.