By Chet Yarbrough
The Underground Railroad
By: Colson Whitehead
Narrated by: Bahni Turpin
It seems unreal to believe America treated human beings as property in the ninetieth century. Colson Whitehead’s story of “The Underground Railroad” shows how ingrained and ugly discrimination is, and how modern belief in ethnic or moral superiority continues to infect America. The story of Cora shows how social injustice spreads and how it can only be cured by truth and belief in human equality.
Whitehead describes Cora as an abandoned ten-year-old black slave. She is abandoned by her mother who chooses to escape a Georgia slave plantation. Cora’s mother is never recaptured and her legacy haunts her slave master, as well as the daughter she left behind. It is presumed Cora’s mother escapes with the aid of “The Underground Railroad”. Whitehead’s story suggests otherwise.
The existence of “The Underground Railroad” is a euphemistic symbol of a network of abolitionists that secretly aided slaves in escaping their bondage. What Whitehead shows is that “The Underground Railroad” is a “real thing” (a coalition of Americans) created by Americans that abhorred the institution of slavery.
At the plantation, Cora is left a small patch of ground that was cultivated by her mother. Cora’s protection of that vegetable patch, and what she endures reflect how tough Whitehead makes this extraordinary character. A black overseer builds a dog house on Cora’s plot. She takes a hand axe and destroys it in the face of a man who could crush her with his fist. Whitehead tells a story of Cora being raped by two men as soon as she reaches puberty. The story is told as though it is a “rite of passage” in an environment too evil to comprehend.
Whitehead describes some of the laws created on slave plantations. There is no penalty for rape or abuse of a slave whether it comes from owners or fellow slaves. Life’s meaning to a slave owner is what a slave can offer in labor, blind obedience, or monetary value. Slaves are property to be used, abused, or disposed of at the will of their owners.
Whitehead’s depiction of slave life in ninetieth century America is appalling. Cora escapes the Georgia plantation but at the cost of two other slave’s brutal murder. Cora experiences the terror and hope of liberation by being recaptured three times, being victimized by South Carolinian medical practitioners, North Carolinian racists, and Indiana supremacists.
Whitehead writes of an apocryphally designated “Freedom Trail” in North Carolina where blacks are hung on a byway as a reaction to slave insurrection. (There is a designated “Freedom Trail” in Boston but it represents the American Revolution.) There are credible reports of numerous black slaves hung from trees alongside roads in the south. Great fear among whites is created in the mid-1800’s because of the Turner Rebellion, and John Brown’s raid in Virginia.
Whitehead also exposes the perfidy of white masters, slave catchers, and black overseers who treat slaves as property and supervise the capture and murder of escaped slaves. Ridgeway is a slave catcher that captures Cora with the help of his obedient and worshiping black companion.
Where is America now? Have 242 years of history changed America’s penchant for overt and covert violence against those who appear different? South Carolina’s Charlottesville’ KKK rally suggests not.