At first glance, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad seems to be a simplistic, if freshly published, tale of the well-known and frequently romanticized journey that led escaped slaves of the nineteenth-century United States to the freedom commonly associated with the northern half of the country. As Julian Lucas describes in “New Black Worlds to Know,” the title of the novel is reminiscent of a childish “pictogram past,” a functioning gross oversimplification of what is historically known to have been a collection of horrific trials that those who were brave and desperate enough to run away encountered more times than not. Beyond the title, Whitehead weaves a tale that is almost familiar; in many ways, the basic details of the story seem to be possessed by the ghosts of slave narratives past. In comparing The Underground Railroad to the “conventions of slave narratives” prescribed by renown critic James Olney, the vague familiarity of the narrative makes sense.
One example is in relation to Olney’s insistence on a character’s specification of “a place but not a date of birth” (50). The birthplaces of Cora, her mother, and her maternal grandmother are all described within the first two chapters of the novel; Ajarry “had never seen the ocean” before being kidnapped from her home village in western Africa (date unknown), and Mable was the only surviving child of five who were “each delivered in the same spot on the planks of the cabin” on the Randall plantation (Whitehead 3, 7). Cora was likewise born in a cabin on the plantation, but hers is the only birth close to being dated—during her conversation with Lovey on the topic, readers are shown that she “was born in winter,” during a “rare frost” (Whitehead 12). No day, month, or year is available to give any further information. Several other items from Olney’s list of conventions also resonate within The Underground Railroad; there are numerous “description[s] of a cruel master…[and] overseer,” and the topic of “slave literacy and the overwhelming difficulties encountered in learning to read and write” is visited multiple times (Olney 50).
What becomes increasingly obvious as the narrative moves on (and Cora moves further away from the Georgia plantation) is that this slave narrative is not all of one time period. The titular concept is no longer a romanticized one; it becomes a series of locomotives that travel to and from underground stations, a literal subterranean railroad escorting former slaves to freedom. After her first encounter with this system, Cora is shocked when she sees Whitehead’s first obvious anachronism—a skyscraper described as “one of the tallest buildings in the nation,” towering over everything with its twelve floors (86). From near the top of the Griffin Building, Cora can see “the configuration of the town and the verdant countryside for miles and miles;” the window she views this from is in a medical examination room, which nods to the building as a symbol for what Cora eventually realizes is happening in South Carolina (Whitehead 100). Under the guise of freedom, the South Carolinian government is closely monitoring the former slaves and essentially manipulating them in ways that did not historically occur until much later; Lucas compares these “eugenic horrors” to the infamous “Tuskegee syphilis experiments” and the forced sterilization of “tens of thousands of black women” over the course of the twentieth-century. In a similar fashion, Whitehead’s Caucasian North Carolinians took their disproportionate population issues into their own hands; using methods like those of the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 (or, as Lucas calls it, the “1898 Wilmington insurrection”), colored people are slaughtered, usually lynched for everyone to see.
Though I could spend a significant amount of time dissecting how these temporal collisions play out within the novel, I do argue that each individual anachronism is slightly less important than their collective contribution to the novel and the question of contemporary race more broadly. In “Speculative Fictions of Slavery,” Madhu Dubey claims that the subgenre named in the title “attempt[s] to know the past as something other or more than history” (780). Whitehead’s method of mashing different eras of the past together indicates a perceived need to move beyond the history of slavery that is so frequently romanticized and made distant from the modern day. By breaking from the realism arguably exhibited in the novel’s early plantation scenes, the narrative of The Underground Railroad “discredits the objective truth-telling claims of modern historiography” (Dubey 783).
I find that Whitehead is not breaking from the historical style of slave narratives just for the sake of invoking tension with other literatures; his method is used to reconcile readers to the fact that there are clear connections between the historical period of American slavery and all of the atrocities that have followed, arguably up to and including modern occurrences of “the police killings of unarmed black people, the rise of the carceral state, and the return of explicit white supremacy to national politics” (Lucas). The novel itself supports this connection to the twenty-first century. In the final chapter, Cora finally seems to be rid of everything that had tied her to slavery—the Randalls are all now deceased, Ridgeway is no longer capable of pursuit, and she is in the free state of Indiana. Instead of feeling relieved, Cora is haunted by the losses she endured; she also does not stop in her journey. While the last sentence of the novel shows Cora wondering of her new companion “where he escaped from, how bad it was, and how far he travelled before he put it behind him,” this sense of personal history is again mingling with the fact that Cora’s journey forward is ongoing, and never comes to an end for readers (Whitehead 306).
Dubey, Madhu. “Speculative Fictions of Slavery.” American Literature, vol. 82, no. 4, 2010, pp. 779-802.
Knight, Kassi. Alligator at Magnolia. 2017, photograph, Art Institute of Charleston.
—. Slave Dwellings. 2017, photograph, Art Institute of Charleston.
—. We have Power. 2017, photograph, Art Institute of Charleston.
Lucas, Julian. “New Black Worlds to Know.” The New York Review of Books. N.p., 29 Sept. 2016. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
Olney, James. “‘I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.”Callaloo, no. 20, 1984, pp. 46–73.
Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Fleet, 2016. Print.