Daily Book Review: ‘The Underground Railroad’ is an unflinching look at slavery

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 - 5:57pm

Colson Whitehead pulls no punches in “The Underground Railroad.” There are accounts of suicide and rape on the second page, and elucidations of the danger of loving another person while enslaved three pages later. None of these experiences, nor the emotions that accompany them, are enunciated in so many words, but as in other slave narratives, there don’t need to be many words to get the ideas across. Whitehead stares unflinchingly into the past, reaching in and pulling out the stories which we most need to hear, the ones we often pretend we don’t see right in front of us.

“The Underground Railroad” follows Cora, a slave girl from a cotton plantation in Georgia, as she makes one of the hardest decisions for a slave: to stay on a plantation, stripped of humanity and subject to a white master’s depraved and cruel whims, or run away and risk facing torturous punishment if caught. She makes her decision when Caesar, another slave, tells her about a possibility for escape that she’s never heard of before. Following in the footsteps of a mother who left her behind to flee, Cora agrees to accompany Caesar on his endeavor. Caesar’s escape route is not just a network of free Black people and sympathetic white people, but literal railroad tracks humming beneath the earth.

The escape doesn’t go as planned. Cora’s friend Lovey is captured and Cora badly hurts a young white boy. Cora and Caesar escape their would-be captors the first time, but the sense of being hunted by overly invested slave-catcher Ridgeway follows them for the rest of the novel, as does Ridgeway himself. Their first stop seems too good to be true — South Carolina, contrary to intuition, feels safe. But the smooth surface of the town — filled with white people who seem willing to help and house them — is revealed to be a scummed over veneer hiding the true intentions of those people. Cora, upon learning that these people just want access to Black bodies, feels trapped all over again. The former slaves in this community have no idea that their bodies are being used for studies of sterilization and syphilis.

Part of the power in “The Underground Railroad” comes from the variety of stories that Whitehead is able to eloquently braid together, stories that one might not expect in a book about slavery — there are characters who are not heterosexual and even a possible reference to a pre-Civil War BDSM community. He complicates the stories of the white people implicated in slave narratives: some of the slave catchers have weirdly stringent moral hang ups about what they will and will not let their men do to slaves, and some of the people who are helping runaways have a voyeuristic enjoyment in watching the desperation in their eyes of the people they’re helping.

Whitehead’s use of description touches the deepest chords of sympathy within us. There are description of the tiny manacles used to chain the wrists of children. There is a description of a slave who is roasted alive; you hear his screams in your head, despite the fact that part of his anatomy was cut off and sewed into his mouth. The white guests drink spiced rum as they revolve around his burning body, which serves as the main entertainment. But Whitehead also describes the joy that comes from playing music as a freed slave and the inherited trauma of lost languages.  

“The Underground Railroad” might be based on a literalized metaphor, but it doesn’t require suspension of disbelief. The railroad feels just as real as the rest of the wrenching heartache that accompanies the stories. The history of chattel slavery in America will never be easy to talk about. But Whitehead has found words that offer us a glimpse into a window of the grimmest part of our history. He makes it impossible for us to look away.