Throughout elementary school, every year February would roll around and teachers would focus on the Civil Rights movement, but only as part of Black History month (I’ll spare you my rant on this). I found all the leaders of the movement inspiring and was sad that their words and knowledge were sequestered to a few moments out of the year.
Slavery, on the other hand, was barely talked about, which is understandable. Try explaining this evil concept to eight year olds.
But what about high school? When the Civil War was talked about, slavery was pushed to the side. Slavery was talked about in terms of reasoning behind the war, but the horrors of the institution were glossed over. My education about this dark chapter of American history came from books and movies. Twelve Years a Slave taught me more than my entire public education.
“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.” (pg.102)
A couple months back, the buzz for The Underground Railroad was getting thick and I realized that I knew next to nothing about the real underground railroad. The subject was usually brought up with Harriet Tubman (aka a mother fucking badass), and I just knew it was a system that escaped slaves used when slavery reached its height.
I was excited to read The Underground Railroad, but starting was difficult. I knew cruelty and frustration awaited me. I finally decided to take the plunge when the book won the National Book Award (NBA) for Fiction.
Similar to other books about slavery, the brutal violence is painful to read about, but it’s the breaking down and belittling of a whole race that punches me in the gut. It’s hard to believe in the best of humanity when faced with our vast capacity for cruelty.
The novel follows Cora, a slave in Georgia, who’s asked by another slave, Caesar, to escape with him via the underground railroad. Cora eventually agrees when their gross vicious owner starts paying her unwanted attention.
Their time in Georgia is not unlike Twelve Years a Slave and other slavery stories set on a plantation, but when Cora and Caesar find the underground railroad the story takes an interesting turn.
To my surprise… there’s an actual train.
Wait, what? I mean, I know my public school education wasn’t the best…
*Goes to read the book summary* Ohhhhh. I guess once in awhile I should actually read the summary on the back of the book, but to be honest it was fun discovering this by surprise.
I went into this book thinking I was getting a straight historical fiction about the underground railroad, but I stepped into an experience.
Transforming the metaphor into reality is outstanding, but using a real train also allows Whitehead to play a little fast and loose with history. I’m not saying that Cora gets to South Carolina and there’s spaceships. Everything Whitehead adds is still in the realm of possibility.
Even though Cora is still in the pre-Civil War South, the train takes her on a Gulliver’s Travels type journey, where each state is its own world. In each state the relationship differs between white and black people, exploring an array of terrors whites inflict upon blacks. A couple of states seem near Utopia after Georgia, but the cruelty of people just manifests in different ways.
No matter how far Cora runs, slavery is always on her heels. Whether in physical form as Ridgeway, the slave catcher, or just white society trying to break her body and spirit.
One negative I heard from other reviewers (oh Goodreads…) is Cora herself, and complaining about her being a two-dimensional character. Personally, I thought Cora was the perfect character for this type of surreal book. She has just enough personality to be interesting and have her own story arc, but open enough to work with all these different alternate histories.
Honestly, I feel like that’s the only legit concern, because this book was amazing, as long as you don’t mind a little alternative history. I had no problem at all with how history was handled because it made the novel feel bigger than this time period.
Whitehead’s story paints a complete picture of the African American experience, and if the past year has taught us anything, this book arrived at the right moment. Because it’s horrible that a hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, racism is still alive and well.
How quickly we forget.