History and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

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.

Plantation
A former slave dwelling on Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC stands today.

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).

 

Alligator
An alligator much like those in the swamps of The Underground Railroad can be seen swimming around Magnolia Plantation.

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.

 

Old socket
An image of disjointed history, an electrical outlet on Magnolia Plantation exemplifies how the past and present often meet.

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).

 

Works Cited

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.

15 thoughts on “History and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

  1. Hey Kayla, great job on the blog!

    I found this following section particularly interesting:

    “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.”

    Do you think Whitehead leaves the specifics of their births as a writer’s technique to keep the suspense of the story, as one that transgresses time, until later in the novel (equated with the first of his anachronisms)?

    Or do you believe that Whitehead leaves out the specifics in order to appear more historically grounded, as I’m sure there are plenty of cases of people during the slavery period that were never aware of their own history and details.

    Perhaps you see his reasoning in an alternative manner.

    Caolán

    1. Hi Caolán, and thank you!

      I think your two suggestions aren’t mutually exclusive. The more I read and look into this novel, the more it seems that Whitehead’s shift from slave narrative into speculative fiction is very intentional and meant to be obvious to readers–it fits with the idea of his beginning with history and then melting into the modern day. And just as you say, because of the nature of slavery, slaves frequently did not have access to their own personal histories.

      In Cora’s case, she seems to know more than most about herself from the beginning. We as readers are kept in suspense regarding the details that are finally shared very close to the end of the novel. In this basic sense, the withholding and subsequent revealing of her history does act as a tool to draw the reader in a bit. But it also highlights a shift in reader awareness that I believe corresponds to the chronological shift; my idea is that because we have so clearly moved past/through slavery by this point in the novel, we as readers are now able to see the full truth of the wretched situation. Does that make sense?

      Thank you for your insightful question! -Kayla

      1. Hi Kayla,

        Thanks for the response. It most certainly makes sense, and I think you make an excellent point about hindsight highlighting the distant past of slavery (but almost making it the recent past through the time travelling aspect of the novel). Well done!

        Caolán

  2. Hi Kayla, brilliant blog!

    I like the idea of Whitehead’s clear focus on the importance of remembering history, not as a part of the past, but as having a clear connection to the present. I was wondering, however, for someone who wants to make history more realistic and show that it is not the romanticised version we have come to see more and more frequently in 21st century blockbusters, why do you think he include elements of fantasy like a time travelling, underground railroad? Is this a contradiction in his argument for remembering history realistically, or is this merely a literary device to help plot development?

    Perhaps you could shed some light on this!
    Zara

    1. Hi Zara,

      My apologies for the delayed response! I actually found over the course of my research that Whitehead claims this novel was inspired by the thought of a literal Underground Railroad, as opposed to any of the contemporary racial strife that seems to shine through that. Weird, right?

      As far as genre goes, Whitehead has an almost postmodern approach–though he does clearly reject the romanticized past that you’d find in Romantic novels, he invokes the Realism tied with slave narratives initially and then goes off into the more “fantastic” realm of speculative fiction in spurts. In short, this fantasy isn’t meant as a contradiction to his argument; it’s meant as the foundation for the slightly larger argument that history as a narrative shouldn’t be tied down to a single mode of discourse, I think.

      Of course, it definitely does move the plot a bit, too, in a literal sense. Could you imagine Caesar and Cora walking all the way from Georgia to South Carolina?

      Thank you,
      Kayla

  3. Hi Kayla,

    Loved your blog!

    What caught my attention the most was your point stating:

    “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”

    For what reasons do you find that the collective contribution of these temporal collisions is more significant than the individual anachronism? And do you find that the characters in the novel always call clearly on these memories or is there a sense of repression that has resulted in a fragmentation of character?

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

    -Laura

    1. Hi Laura,

      I’m so sorry for my late response here! You have a few really good questions, and I can only do my best to answer.

      First, I remember reading at some point during my research (no idea where, sorry!!) that Whitehead uses Cora to create a witness to the aspects of African American history that are so frequently swept under the rug. In that sense, the relationship between the individual anachronisms and the bigger picture of African American history is quite like Cora’s time “working” in the North Carolina museum; the three different stations she rotated between are all unique spectacles to be observed, noted, and analyzed, but it would be difficult explaining the spectacle of the plantation scene with the contextualization of the rest of the exhibit. As such, each of the anachronisms is very important and significant reading is available on each of them individually, but they they are used here together as a symbol of an even greater marginalized history that most people aren’t aware of.

      Thank you,
      Kayla

  4. Hi Kayla,

    Really interesting blog!
    I particularly liked how you pointed out temporal dislocations in the novel, and your concluding points:

    “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)”

    Do you think then by writing against the dominant understanding of temporal linearity that Whitehead is challenging the notion of ‘progression’ itself on a larger scale? I’m thinking specifically the progression of race relations in America.

    I’m Interestied to hear your thoughts!

    Natasha

    1. Hi Tascha,

      Thank you, and apologies for the late response! In short, no. Though Whitehead does toy with linearity through the use of frequent anachronisms, I don’t think he’s specifically challenging the idea of progression in the sense that he’s expressing a disbelief in progression. I would argue that (especially considering how he packs so much history into Cora’s comparatively short journey north) he’s expressing that the progression is very, very slow. It’s only after the bits and bobs of history included that Cora is free, traveling west on a wagon as Ridgeway lay dying (or dead) behind her.

      Thank you,
      Kayla

  5. Hey!

    “[…] 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.”

    In response to your point shown above, I am curious as to your opinion on the temporal distortion shown through the railroad travel in Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad.’ More specifically: what are your thoughts on the intent behind this stylistic choice? Is it a structural decision–a means of fracturing the narrative, or simply a tool to show black history as a single entity?

    The text reminded me of Spike Lee’s ‘Bamboozled’–a post-modern film which includes a myriad of African American characters fitting racist stereotypes from throughout history. The film is highly surrealist, and paints an uncomfortable picture of contemporary racism through dark satire designed to keep the audience from feeling comfortable. I see similar elements in Whitehead’s text–especially in the exploration of African Americans throughout history. What are your thoughts on Whitehead’s amalgamation of various epochs of black history?

    Thanks!

    Bamboozled, 2000. [DVD] Spike Lee, USA: New Line Cinema

    1. Hey Chris,

      Good questions! First, I don’t think the trains in the novel are meant to fracture the nature; they help progress the narrative considerably, and push it along just when it feels like the main character is stuck in a place (like when she was captured by Ridgeway and traveling through Tennessee; though there doesn’t seem to be much hope for her, she is suddenly saved by who other than a group of railroad operators?).

      I would also say that the use of train travel as a tool to connect all of the histories included isn’t far off the mark, though that would also be a little limiting. By taking the Underground Railroad from state to state, Cora manages to push the accordion of history together, highlighting various aspects of black history that Whitehead has claimed don’t get enough attention (see my reply to Laura). In that sense, the history does seem to become one big entity, but the train is used for more than just making that possible. There are so many ways to read them!

      I hope this was a helpful answer!

      Thank you,
      Kayla

  6. Hi Kayla,

    Really great job on the blog!

    You mentioned:
    “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…Cora was likewise born in a cabin on the plantation, but hers is the only birth close to being dated” and I wanted to get your opinion, not on the notion of time within the novel (you have detailed that thoroughly throughout) but on place. Do you think that the thematic mingling of race, slavery, and time only function properly within their distinctly American context? Do you think that this novel is wholly American and only could be American and is its contemporaneity and popularity dependent on this fact? If the novel could exist any-when could it exist anywhere?

    Hope this makes sense and sorry for the lateness of the comment.

    Best,

    Paul

    1. Hey Paul,

      That’s a really good question, and I’m afraid I may not have the most enlightened response! As an American reader (note: I’m aware of my own bias here), I couldn’t initially imagine this novel set anywhere else. Slavery has played such a huge part of America, from its founding to the present day, that Whitehead’s choice of setting seemed to me like a no-brainer.

      But are there actually other places where this could have been set? The US is definitely not the only place where slavery thrived, and American slavery is not the only example in which race played such a huge part. Statistically speaking, more African people were transported through Triangular Trade to Central and South America than landed on the shores of the US (note: I can’t seem to find those specific statistics at this time; it’s research I dealt with briefly as an undergraduate). Could this journey be set in one of those countries? Possibly!

      I know this isn’t the best answer to your question, but you have set me off on a little hunt for more knowledge on this stuff.

      Thank you,
      Kayla

  7. Hi Kayla, I loved reading your blog! This was my first time reading a novel which explored the experience of slavery in America, and so I found your focus on slave narratives very interesting and engaging.

    Whitehead, through the novel, seems to have an inherent dissatisfaction with literary realism, and so presents us with a surreal representation of the black experience. I enjoyed your analysis of the concept of the ‘underground railroad’ as no longer being a romanticised one, rather “a literal subterranean railroad escorting former slaves to freedom”. Why do you think that Whitehead makes the railroad literal? Personally, I believe that the railroad presents us with something disconnected and ruptured, just as the lives of the slaves are. Railroads are supposed to be comfortable and stable, however Whitehead uses the railroad instead to disrupt temporality, setting and narrative. Do you think that the use of an actual railroad enhances our empathy for the characters as they struggle to escape their situations, or is it simply just a narrative strategy used by Whitehead to transcend the barriers of time and space?

    1. Hi Lauren

      Like I said to Zara above, it’s fascinating that Whitehead has claimed that the inspiration for this novel was just a random thought about what a literal Underground Railroad would be like. I know when I first read the book, I thought he’d constructed his story and then thrown the railroad and trains in (for any number of reasons), but it actually was the other way around.

      That being said, the Underground Railroad as he presents it definitely serves a myriad of purposes. I don’t actually think that it serves to enhance our empathy for Cora or Caesar; I think it allows readers a little distance from the characters. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for comparison, Eliza uses the Underground Railroad (in a much more subtle fashion) to escape into Canada, and her struggles for it not being a literal, fast-moving vehicle make her a more sympathetic character. In Whitehead’s novel, we’re usually given a scene of Cora getting on the train (with a full description of the vehicle), and then the chapter breaks and she’s next found at her destination. The journey then becomes more focused on her struggles within the social structures of each state than with the journey south-to-north, as it were.

      I hope that makes sense! You have a couple of really questions there!

      Thank you,
      Kayla

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