There is so much to say about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad that I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s start with content. Whitehead doesn’t just talk about slavery in the basic way that we’ve heard the story told before. He describes all the atrocities that came along with it – medical experimentation on black bodies, the hiding of black bodies, the selling of black bodies and the neutering of black female bodies. He makes the reader wander through plantation-era America as a black woman so effectively that the pain and humiliation you feel as a reader will make you want to either put the book down or hurry up and get it over with. For me, it was painful. It was humiliating. I experienced second-hand rage and defeat at the feelings of powerlessness in the face of savage injustice. I don’t know if I should advise future readers to gird yourselves against these emotions or to open yourselves to the rage, humiliation, and despair that is certainly still echoing in our nation today.
Stylistically, Whitehead is simple and straightforward in his writing. The sufferings and situations are quite possibly real accounts that have been transcribed into a work of fiction. There is no need to elaborate on the suffering when the suffering was already so brutal. One factor that surprised me was that Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is an actual locomotive with an underground network of rails. Personally, I think this was a smart literary tactic to draw attention away from the workings of the real Tubman-style Railroad, and instead emphasized the experiences, emotions, and fears of the runaway, not just the system.
The last part of this review has less to do with the novel and more to do with the universality of the impact that slavery and colonization had around the world. I was raised in the West Indies and as I read more literature on American slavery I’m learning that so much of what I was brought up around is a product of white supremacist Christianity and racism leftover from generations gone by. For example, the term “pickney” is used in the West Indies to refer to a child or children. The word is derived from “pickaninnies” which we now know as a racist term for a black child. Now, the English Oxford dictionary says that the word “pickney” isn’t used to be offensive or as a racial slur. However, the more I read about slavery era customs and see how they have carried over to this century, the more I disagree. As a West Indian, I can say with confidence that they don’t know that the word is derived from a racist term. I didn’t until I was in my late twenties. I hadn’t heard the term “pickaninnies” until then either. West Indian and Caribbean education was ruled by the British for so long that we continue to tell our history through the lens our conquerors. As West Indians and Caribbean people are still just trying to survive economically, what time do they have to learn about the oppression and divide imparted to them by their British and Dutch conquerors? If they did, maybe they would change their language and not refer to their children as pickney and the racism that exists between them and Afro-Caribbeans would cease.
I’m pairing this novel with a cider because whenever the slaves in the novel were able to, they drank cider. This book was such an emotional trip, so feel free to get some moonshine instead. I chose an American made cider, Angry Orchard’s Cinnful Apple Cider. It is sweet with a slight heat that will warm you even as the flames of rage engulf you from the atrocities of slavery you will be reading. The juicy apple notes are complemented by cinnamon spice so that even if you aren’t a huge fan of ciders, this one is pretty tasty. Plus the double entendre of a “cinnful” cider paired with the sinful* practice of slavery was too much for me to ignore.
*Sinful is used here in a personal, moralistic sense, not a biblical sense. The Bible approves of slavery.
“Slavery is a sin when whites were put to the yoke, but not the African. All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.”
“Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.”
“The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others.”
“Yet when his classmates put their blades to a colored cadaver, they did more for the cause of colored advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”
“If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.
Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor–if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.”
“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.”