Monthly Archives: October 2020

The Black Body and The Dream in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.

Amber Pollock

Between the World and Me portrays Coates’s struggle through life in his black body. He presents this journey in the form of a deeply emotional memoir to his son. Coates begs the teenager to not excuse America for the atrocities it has committed against black bodies and to remain both vulnerable and sceptical of white America as he endeavours on his own journey in his black body. The deep-rooted fear that Coates feels not only for his own body and for his sons, but also for all the black bodies in America radiates from the text: 

“Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream…”

(Coates, 2015, p29).

We have all heard of the American Dream. It is a national ethos of the United States promoting the idea that hard work and perseverance will bring all Americans the freedom to be successful. Coates is directly debunking this dream as myth and replaces it with the White Dream: a fantasy that enables white Americans to believe that they are living in a post-racist world. Coates describes the Dream as “perfect houses with nice lawns” (Coates, 2015, p11) and as being a world that he wishes he could escape to. But the Dream does not have a place for the black body even though it was black bodies that made the Dream possible for white people. This constructed Dream removes any negative feelings of white guilt or responsibility; Consequently, it complacently allows the continuation of the destruction of the black body.

What triggered Coates to produce a narrative of protest when he did? At the time he was writing there were several violent assaults on African Americans at the hands of those who ironically, are employed to protect them (Williams, 2016, 151). Coates exposes the American police force by listing examples of police brutality on the black body. He begins with Eric Garner, then Renisha McBride, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and finishes with Marlene Pinnock. Coates then warns his son that “the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body… The destroyers will rarely be held accountable” (Coates, 2015, p9). His defiant criticism of the Dream which ignores police brutality and protects white supremacy is unapologetic. Simultaneously, Coates exhibits a detailed history of the atrocities of the slave trade leading Abramoqitsch (2017, p464) to note that “Between the World is a kind of mixtape of violence”. I interpret this placement to force a comparison between slave owners, traders, and catchers with 21st – century American police officers. Both were given the power to harm or destroy the black body as they please. Coates is reminding his audience that the horrors of the past are very much still lingering in the present. Violence against the black body is an established part of American society (Williams, 2016, p151).

Image 2: The Black Lives Matter banner.

Between the World and Me does not provide the resolute ending that the reader naively hopes for. Coates does not answer the critical questions on black lives which he asks throughout the book and he does not offer a solution to the systemic racism that engulfs America (Williams, 2016, p181). In the closing lines of the memoir, Coates’s tone is despairing as he speaks directly to his son: ‘I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves’ (Coates, 2015, p151). This tone mirrors Coates’s expression of feeling disheartened and hopeless at the beginning of the book when describing his conversation with a white television host. The host’s response to his attempt to explain the history of American institutionalised racism causes him to feel “an old and indistinct sadness” (Coates, 2015, p6). He realises that all of his attempts to make white America empathise with the black body are at a loss.  Ultimately, although Between the World and Me is primarily directed to his son, Abramoqitsch (2017, p456) agrees that the secondary audience is white Americans living in the Dream. As Williams (2016, p182) notes “Black people know the horrors being narrated. Therefore, as a public text the default reader beyond young Samori is white people”. Coates is making a final appeal to white America to remove themselves from the Dream and to look directly at the reality of the abuse of the black body. The only hope of a positive change is in the hands of those who caused the destruction in the first place.

Coates looks back to the Civil Rights Movement with disappointment at the lack of progress that has been made since then. Looking forwards from the publishing of Between the World and Me, I struggle to not imagine the pain and helplessness that Coates must be feeling as violent attacks on the black body resume. The murder of George Floyd by the white police officer, Derek Chauvin, triggered a series of national protests around America. Floyd was killed for using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. This unjust killing is now grouped with others such as Eric Garner who Coates informs was “choked to death for selling cigarettes” (Coates, 2015, p9). The formation of the Black Lives Matter movement which has an international reception appears to be a step in the right direction to remove systemic anti-black racism from America. However, as Pierce (2020, p261) notes “Somewhat predictably… it [the movement] provoked a reactionary response, insisting on the alternative slogan “all lives matter”’. This indicates that the white Dream is still prevalent with ‘All lives matter’ supporters fundamentally denying the existence of oppression of the black body.

Bibliography:

Primary Text:

Coates, T. (2015) Between the World and Me, London: The Text Publishing Company.

Secondary Texts:

Abramowitsch, S. (2017) ‘Addressing blackness, dreaming whiteness: negotiating 21st-century race and readership in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me’, CLA Journal, 60(4), pp. 464-456 [Online]. Available at: https://eds-a-ebscohost-com.liverpool.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=109b5bd9-e883-4114-9694-6e58c809bd99%40sdc-v-sessmgr02 (Accessed: 20th September 2020).

Pierce, Andrew J. (2020) ‘Whose Lives Matter? The Black Lives Matter Movement and the Contested Legacy of Philosophical Humanism ‘, Journal of Social Philosophy, 51(2), pp. 261 [Online]. Available at: https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.liverpool.idm.oclc.org/doi/full/10.1111/josp.12305 (Accessed: 20th October 2020).

Williams, D. A. (2016) ‘Everybody’s protest narrative: ‘Between the World and Me’ and the limits of genre’, African American Review, 49(3), pp. 151-182 [Online]. Available at: https://eds-b-ebscohost-com.liverpool.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=5ee2e7e9-e549-42f0-8dba-b06530b2d833%40sessionmgr103 (Accessed: 20th October 2020).

Black Bodies/ White Spaces: Invisibility and Hypervisibility in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen consists of a series of aggressions against the Black body; both microaggressions and the macro. Microaggression, as I am using the term here, does not earn the prefix ‘micro’ because of their (lack of) impact or significance, but rather because of the frequency and environments that they happen in; occurring often, in passing, in any number of interpersonal situations.

Whilst the microaggressions of Citizen all navigate language and emotional response or bodily effect, most also deal with the collision of Black bodies in white spaces; in a predominantly white Catholic school, outside a therapist’s office, or in the world of elite tennis. In these racialised spaces the Black body may become invisible and/or hypervisible. At school, the speaker becomes invisible; “Sister Evelyn must think these two think a lot alike or she cares less about cheating and more about humiliation or she never actually saw you sitting there.” (Rankine, 2015, p.6). This manifests again in “the “all black people look the same” moment”, and again in the most literal sense in a shop, 

Oh my God I didn’t see you.


You must be in a hurry, you offer.


No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.

(Ibid. p.7, p.77)

These moments of invisibility and hypervisibility are all mediated by the white gaze, how the white subject views (or doesn’t view) the Black object. George Yancy (2016, p.xxxiii) outlines that “[w]ithin the context of white racist America, whites inherited the privileged status of being the “lookers” and gazers, with all the power that this entailed.” White people adopt the status of the gazer, and inflict assumptions upon the black subject, assumptions that are intrinsically caught up in the history of America, and the history of slavery (Ibid. p.3). We see these assumptions played out in Citizen as Piers Morgan informs Serena Williams that yes, she does look “like a gangster to him” (Rankine, 2015, p.34). This is a history that is figured into the construction of the Black body and of white spaces.

American concepts of race can be considered as oppositional. Rankine, quoting Frantz Fanon, reminds us that “It is the White Man who creates the black man.” (Ibid. p.128). The Black, African, slave body, is one that has been possessed, objectified and displaced and Hume (2016) highlights that under these conditions, the connection to the land is a violent one, because “America as we know it is constructed out of the instumentalization of and violence against black bodies.” (Hume, 2016, p.96). She continues; 

Rankine suggests that… the effects of discrimination accumulate in the body. History is like a tumour or a tree with roots and limbs, one that continues to grow and spread… African Americans cannot see nature without also seeing a history of incarceration and violence.

(Ibid, p.99)

Under these conditions, in which the trauma and memory of instututional racism remain present in the body throughout generation, then all space in America is subject to become racialised, and all public space may be considered white space, claimed through colonial genocide and made profitable and prosperous through the labour and violent subjugation of Black bodies. 

Image 1 and 2: Rankine, 2015, pp.52-53

Rankine, in this hybridised lyric form, employs visual imagery and artwork. This piece, by Glenn Ligon, repeats a quote from Zora Neale Hurston “I do not always feel colored. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” highlighting this concern of hypervisibility in white spaces. When defined in opposition, it is that very difference that draws attention to the Black body. Mary-Jean Chan (2018, p.148) suggests that Rankine is calling “attention to the materiality of black bodies,” here, and I see this exemplified by the repetition of this statement in this piece. The words become increasingly unclear and ill-defined as they become less distinct against their background, they become camouflaged among the black. This piece both brings to the forefront the affective qualities of race and the racialised, and also how Blackness and ‘colored-ness’ is constructed and reconstructed in white spaces, rendering the Black body hypervisible. 

This hypervisibility can be experienced from both the white gazer and the Black body turned subject as the Black body is “othered” by and in white spaces (Yancy, 2016). The Black body can be rendered hypervisible and invisible simultaneously in racialised space; 

And you are not the guy and you still fit the description because there is always one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.

(Rankine, 2015, p.108)

Here, Black men end up a monolith, indistinguishable from one another, their individuality and personhood made invisible in the view of the state. Concurrently, they are made hypervisible, targeted and brutalised by the state who can only ever view them as threats, through “white ontological assumptions about Black bodies,” (Yancy, 2016, p.3). Their existence in the white space becomes unsafe under the white gaze.

Image 3: Rankine, 2015, p.91

Hypervisibility can also transform the Black body into spectacle. Rankine subverts this using an edited photo, removing the Black corpses, redirecting the gaze onto the white spectators.  This is an important contemporary distinction when increasingly images of collective Black mourning and remembrance are turned into “a spectacle for white pornography”; pictures and videos of Black bodies brutalised at the hands of the state are readily available and easily shared (Rankine, 2016, p.149). This voyeurism once again transforms the Black body into subject. Under the continued racial trauma, living alongside the trauma inherited, inherent to Black living, Black personhood, citizenship and humanness are also pulled into question. This is only disorientated further when we look beyond the physicality of the Black body, with Fred Moten (2008) characterising blackness as a location and Rankine (2016, p.146), in a later work, suggests that there is, in fact, “no living while black.”. The bodily remains only one small aspect of the ‘citizen’  at the centre of this work; theorising and conceptualising the whole Black personhood is a much more complex task.

Bibliography

Chan, M.J. (2018) Towards a Poetics of Racial Trauma: Lyric Hybridity in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Journal of American Studies, 52(1), pp.137-163. 

Harney, S. and Moten, F. (2013) The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions.

Hume, A. (2016) Toward an Antiracist Ecopoetics: Waste and Wasting in the Poetry of Claudia Rankine. Contemporary Literature, 57(1), pp.79-110. Available at: doi:10.3368/cl.57.1.79 [Accessed 19 October 2020]

Moten, F. (2008) The Case of Blackness. Criticism, 50(2), pp.177-218. 

Rankine, C. (2015) Citizen. London: Penguin Books.

Rankine, C. (2016). The Condition Of Black Life Is One Of Mourning. In: J. Ward, ed. The Fire This Time. New York: Scribner. pp. 145-155.

Sharma, M. (2014) ‘On Blackness as the Second Person’ Guernica. 17 November. Available at: https://www.guernicamag.com/blackness-as-the-second-person/ [Accessed 19 October 2020]

Yancy, G. (2016) Black Bodies, White Gazes : The Continuing Significance of Race in America. Lanhan: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Images

Image 1 and 2:
(Rankine, 2015, pp. 52-53)
Ligon, G. (1992) Two of four etchings. In: Untitled: Four Etchings, Available at: https://mcachicago.org/Collection/Items/1992/Glenn-Ligon-Untitled-1992 [Accessed 19 October 2020]

Image 3:
(Rankine, 2015, p.91)
Lucas, J. after Beitler, L. (1930) Public Lynching . Hulton Archives. 30 August. Available at: https://www.oxfordamerican.org/magazine/item/1813-great-american-press-release [Accessed 19 October 2020]

Too Far or Not Enough? Satire as criticism in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout

Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a work that uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and or criticise prevailing immorality or foolishness’, satire is a common literary device used to comment on political issues in society. I would argue that, particularly in today’s political climate, it is hard to see Paul Beatty’s novel, The Sellout, as anything less. In the opening chapter of the novel, the words of our narrator, who we know only as BonBon or Mr Me, weigh heavily in the argument that the writer was intent upon showing a scathing criticism of modern society and the place systemic racism holds within it;

‘I understand now that the only time black people don’t feel guilty is when we’ve actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief’ (18).

An image of the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020

An African American man, who has been raised in a Los Angeles neighbourhood known as Dickens, the novel’s protagonist wittily offers us his version of events as they took place. Seemingly unscarred by systemic racism until his father’s death at the hands of two white police offers – an image that is all too familiar in today’s society – BonBon appears apathetic to the notion of systemic racism and privilege in his society. His throw-away yet jarring comments about his own life and his newly re-established Dickens, ‘a community-cum-leper colony’ (109) leave us as a reader unsettled and uncomfortable. Delmagori offers, ‘the novel provides a more effective lens for exploring the critique of privilege because it illuminates the larger social order and the ways in which privilege is actualised at the individual and systemic levels’ (417). Subverting the role Rosa Parks played in the American Civil Rights movement, BonBon begins to reinstate segregation through his sign on the bus, ‘Priority seating for seniors, disabled and Whites’ (128). The notion that this is Hominy’s birthday present confuses the reader. I regularly found myself uncertain if I should be finding humour in Beatty’s playing on important events of history or if abject horror at the context of these situations is the only acceptable reaction.

The cast of the 1930s sketch show Little Rascals

Irony is the thread that stitches this novel together, but none so much as the character of Hominy Jenkins, who establishes the role of a modern-day slave. Desperate to take on this role, he appeals to BonBon, ‘I’m a slave. That’s who I am. It’s the role I was born to play’ (77)). It is important to note Hominy’s rhetoric here, he himself was a child star in the 1930s sketch show Little Rascals, – a role he has clung to for his entire adult life – and so suggesting he was born to play the role of a slave is a loaded statement. On one hand it shows his desire for a theatrical purpose, to ‘feel relevant’ (77) within BonBon’s social experiments, but the statement also suggests that Hominy – as a black man – was literally born to be a slave. In a 21st century society, where many would hope to be abhorred of this idea, the starkness and brevity of this suggestion reinforces Beatty’s using satire to criticise modern society’s entanglement with systemic racism and privilege. The irony of the situation being BonBon’s emphasis on Hominy’s poor work ethic stating, ‘slaves don’t do what you tell them to do’ (81) and exclaiming, ‘human-bondage is an especially frustrating undertaking,’(82). Hominy desires to be recognised as a slave, but he is not required to work.

Beatty’s ridiculing of modern society owes in part its success to how the narrative is interspersed with prophetic metaphors that illuminate the failings of current society, and how we interpret history. ‘That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book – that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions and song. History is the things that stays with you’ (115). However, the coarse language amongst such lyrical text is jarring for reader, forcing us to focus our attention on what is being written. We are living history at this moment. With the protests following the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the loss of countless other lives to police brutality, privilege based on the colour of one’s skin undermines the wish that society has progressed beyond the days of slavery.

Breonna Taylor Mural

To conclude, in a society where the Black Lives Matter movement is increasing its visibility despite a pandemic, and there is increased public outcry at police brutality, does Paul Beatty go far enough with his satirical trope in order to criticise a society? I would argue that yes, he is successful in projecting a distrustful and disenchanted critique of our society and privilege. In an unstable political climate such as the one we are currently facing, novels such as Beatty’s serve as important vehicles to educate the privileged and illuminate the voices of those less recognised.

WORKS CITED

Beatty, Paul. The Sellout, London: Oneworld Publications, 2016. Print

Secondary Sources

Delmagori, Steven, Super Deluxe Whiteness: Privilege Critique in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, University of Nebraska Press, 2018. Online

Cross, William E, The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience, 1971. Online

Race and the Legacy of Segregation in The Sellout

From Cairo to Moscow: how the world reacted to Ferguson | US news | The  Guardian

Gary Boal

Paul Beatty’s 2016 novel The Sellout, is a satirical novel depicting race relations in modern America through the perspective of the narrator, a black man known as Bonbon, whose real name is never given and is brought before the Supreme Court for charges of segregation and enslavement. Despite the satirical nature of the text however the book poses serious questions about race relations and the legacy, which slavery, Jim Crow and segregation has had on America as a whole. It is this depiction of race and segregation, which I feel is the cornerstone of the text, especially as it relates to Bonbon’s relationship with Hominy Jenkins and his struggle to ensure that his hometown of Dickens does not succumb to the annals of time and the indifference of American society.

From its opening pages The Sellout portrays a humbling image of race in America as Bonbon confronts social strife, discrimination and police brutality. These problems are prevalent throughout the novel through popular culture references such as the Little Rascals, a serial of short films from the 1920’s and 30’s, which although featuring coloured actors portrays them in racially stereotypical ways ultimately representing the racist views of Hollywood during the era. This is reflected in the portrayal of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving member, of the gang, who seems to be a call back to Jim Crow, calling Bonbon master, wanting to be punished and whipped like a slave and will purposefully wait for a white person to come so he can give up his seat on the bus to them, juxtaposing him with the Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks.

Despite the legacy of racism as represented by Hominy and The Little Rascals Bonbon largely is initially largely unaffected by racism, only facing discrimination once in his life when his father took him to a gas station where he was charged an inflated price for a bottle of coke based on his skin colour, but he still considers systemic racism as a thing of the past. However he ultimately finds this idea challenged by the killing of his own father at the hands of two white police officers, an event that is largely implied to be because his father was black, which I feel to be a scathing indictment against modern day America on the part of the author, especially in light of recent events such as Ferguson riots and more recently the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor among others.

George Floyd street art in Berlin

Additionally when considering the depiction of race I feel that the relevance of the town of Dickens to the plot is important as it reflects a pseudo-history of the United States being that its original charter was set up to exclude minorities but has since become in effect the “last bastion of blackness” (Beatty, 150) However Dickens is ultimately a failing community and Bonbon sees its decline as something that he must stave off to hold back the white world that he feels was determined to crush them. It is this fear of being supplanted that encourages Bonbon to reanimate Dickens and to resist his community’s destruction at the hands of the American authorities, which do not seem to care about the lives of the largely black and Mexican inhabitants. This seeming indifference perhaps bordering on hostility to the minority population of the fictional community is in many ways reflected in the issues facing American society today.

This mindset is especially important to the crusade, which Bonbon takes upon himself to try and save Dickens, which leads him to the conclusion that the only way to save Dickens from obliteration is to reintroduce segregation as he feels the cultural decline he is witnessing is directly tied to the dispute on whether “integration is a natural or an unnatural state.” (Beatty, 168) This decision to implement a segregated system leads Bonbon to “putting ‘whites only’ signs on bus seats near the front, supporting an all-white school, and painting a boundary line along Dickens’ border,” (Delmagori, 417) measures with Hominy believes will make Dickens more appealing to future white resettlement.

Dorothy Counts attending a North Carolina school

Furthermore the position which Bonbon represents in the social hierarchy and the position of Dickens as a dying town forces him to conclude that the problems indicative to the black community “could be solved if we only had a motto,” (Beatty, 10) linking the struggle of the black man in America with the liberal and radical ideas of revolutionary and political movements such as those of the French Revolution. The relevance of a motto is significant as it showcases the revolutionary or militant mindset, which I feel Bonbon gradually develops during the course of the novel.

Overall I think it is ironic that the narrator wishes to reinstate a system, which the Civil Rights movement fought to abolish. However Bonbon’s desire to take this route seemingly implies that integration in American society has failed, that it is something that is broken to which the only response is a radical agenda and to undo the progress that has seemingly been made. Despite this however The Sellout is a socially aware novel that intricately “wrestles with the dialectic of racism and class inequality in a neoliberal climate” (Delmagori, 417) in an entertaining narrative to address the key issues facing modern day politics, issues which are especially prevalent with the ever deepening divide in the Democratic and Republican parties and the revival of presence of militias such as the not fucking around militia, which have taken up the battle cry calling for secession.

Primary Sources

I Am Not Your Negro. Dir. Raoul Peck. Amazon Studios, 2016. Digital.

Beatty, Paul. The Sellout, London: Oneworld Publications, 2016. Print.

Secondary Sources

Colter Walls, Seth, The Sellout by Paul Beatty review – a galvanizing satire of post-racial America https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/04/the-sellout-by-paul-beatty-review-galvanizing-satire-post-racial-america

Delmagori, Steven, Super Deluxe Whiteness: Privilege Critique in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout

Jackson, Chris, Our Thing: An Interview with Paul Beatty https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/05/07/our-thing-an-interview-with-paul-beatty/

Millward, David, Armed black militia in America issues threat to build ‘own nation’ https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/07/26/americas-race-protests-take-sinister-new-turn-show-force-armed/

Wilderson III, Frank B., Afropessimism

Genre and (Alternate?) History in The Underground Railroad

by Paddy Brennan

In The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead subverts readers’ expectations, as the titular railroad delivers Cora, the novel’s protagonist, to a number of contrasting locales. Beginning as a socially and historically realist account of plantation slavery in the Antebellum South, Whitehead dispenses of both generic limitations and of any obligation to historical veracity in the novel’s subsequent sections. Consequently, a multitudinous quality to the text resists categorisation. I, however, would argue that the scenarios that Whitehouse depicts are not “alternate histories” at all, but rather a rearrangement and recontextualisation of real history, often serving an allegorical purpose. In making this case, I will focus primarily on the North Carolina section of the novel, and on the conceit of the railroad itself.

Alternate histories, especially where they attempt to rewrite the lived experience of oppressed or marginalised groups, are prone to accusations of insensitivity or erasure. This is certainly true of Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds where, in the blood-drenched spectacle of the final act, Tarantino brings World War II to a premature end, effectively making it so that much of the Holocaust never takes place. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum damned this choice, arguing that it “makes the Holocaust harder, not easier to grasp as a historical reality. Insofar as it becomes a movie convention — by which I mean a reality derived only from other movies — it loses its historical reality.” Superficially then, Whitehead’s novel could be seen as problematic for similar reasons—that by inventing new atrocities, divergent from the institution of slavery, he erases existing atrocities. In Whitehead’s South Carolina, freed slaves are subject to a coercive system of monitoring and control, ultimately revealed to be a project of eugenics, while in North Carolina all African Americans, slaves or otherwise, have been banished from the state on pain of a violent death. In particular, the North Carolina section might fall prey to Rosenbaum’s accusation of representing historical violence through “movie conventions.”  Cora’s situation, hidden in an annex directly across the road from where black captives are lynched in a grotesque weekly festival, in addition to the multiple escalations of tension, followed by anti-climax in the lead-up to her eventual discovery, make these chapters reminiscent of the horror or suspense genres.

an illustration depicting scenes from Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery

Such criticisms, however, obscure the nuance of Whitehead’s postmodern approach. The representation of the Friday Festival bears many similarities to Shirley Jackson’s famous short story The Lottery in its indictment of systemic violence masquerading as local tradition, but where Jackson represents violence in the abstract, in the case of Whitehead, it is abundantly clear which historical events he is addressing. Lynch mobs, including those which took place well into the twentieth century, often attracted the same raucous crowds of white spectators as those which Whitehead depicts. This historic violence is thus only circumstantially altered—where in the novel it is written into law by “the powerful men of North Carolina,” (163) in reality it was an example of vigilante justice, yet vigilantism so rampant and unchecked that it may as well have been systemic. Whitehead’s deconstruction and recombination of multiple facets of black history, refracted through different genres, can thus be read in light of Barthes’ assertion that “a text is made up of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation”(1271). This device does not trivialise the horrors of slavery, or of racism more generally, but makes their horror more potent by disrupting familiar archetypes and ossified narratives.

The titular railroad, literally undergirding the novel’s multiple disparate settings, unites the novel into a cohesive whole, yet it too is a site of ambiguity and overlapping genres. There are similarities between this fantastical, reified representation of the historical Railroad—in reality, “a figure of speech,” (300) and the conceit of Jordan Peele’s 2019 film Us. Here the stock horror tropes which Whitehead borrowed are foregrounded to a much greater extent in aid of Peele’s social commentary, where there is revealed to exist a vast network of tunnels beneath the United States in which reside “The Tethered,”—uncanny doppelgangers of American citizens who shambolically mirror the actions of their above-ground counterparts. The film is focalised through the perspective of a middle-class African American family, the duplicates which emerge to terrorise them representing the underlying disquietude of being black in America—an unease which is implied to persist regardless of the opportunity for social advancement that the twenty-first century affords. The Tethered are said to have been created as part of a government conspiracy to control its citizens but, crucially, have long since been abandoned and forgotten. There are parallels here to the increasing state of abandonment and disrepair into which Whitehead’s railroad falls the further that Cora is compelled to travel along it, coupled with her increasing disenchantment with its capacity to offer her salvation: “as if in the world there were no places to escape to, only places to flee” (257). So too, the railroad’s quasi-supernatural qualities are undermined, as when Caesar asks who built it, Lumbly’s answer: “who builds anything in this country?” (67) would appear to ironize its very purpose. The revelation that the vehicle intended to free slaves from their toil is itself the product of slave labour leads Li to conclude that “to call it magic is to discount the reality of that labor and to take for granted, yet again, the black bodies that fueled the engine of America” (3). Conspiracies then—Whitehead’s railroad or Peele’s ‘Tethered’—by their outlandishness, make tangible, institutional injustices abstract by defamiliarizing them. As Latour writes of the increasingly blurred distinction between social theory and conspiracy theories: “in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly” (229). By the bathetic revelation of the railroad’s true nature, however, Whitehead questions the extent to which it is ever possible to escape the legacy of slavery, spatially or temporally, when it is so deeply embedded in the infrastructure of the west.

despite the toppling of his statue last summer, the foundational influence of slave-trader Edward Colston continues to hang heavy over Bristol

Works Cited

Primary sources:

  • Inglourious Basterds. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Universal Pictures, 2008. DVD.
  • Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The Granta Book of the American Short Story, Vol. 1. London: Granta, 1992, pp. 62-70. Print.
  • Us. Dir. Jordan Peele. Universal Pictures, 2019. DVD.
  • Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. New York: Doubleday , 2016. Print.

Secondary Sources:

  • Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Third Ed. New York: Norton, 2018, pp. 1268-1272. Print.
  • Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, no. 2, 2004, pp. 225–248. Print.
  • Li, Stephanie. “Genre Trouble and History’s Miseries in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad,” MELUS, Volume 44, Issue 2, Summer 2019, 1–23. Print.
  • Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Some Afterthoughts about Tarantino.” Jonathan Rosenbaum.net, 23 May 2019. Accessed 2 Oct. 2020. Web.