The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead



Originally published

Jan 30, 2016


Historical Fiction


Jan 6, 2021


Feb 6, 2021

PurchaseExternal link
There are moments in this book where the writing alone is so calculated, intricate, and deliberate. Irregardless of the plot and intentions, Whitehead's work is a phenomenal piece of literature. He weaves in characters with their own stories tangential to the core plot. Each story sheds light on the ubiquity and power of the slave system.
Whitehead depicts the underground railroad as a literal network of underground rails and stations, some of magnificent technical scale and modernity. It's larger and more alive than any one contributor can understand. Passengers are also contributors. They are votes for a better future. In traveling on the railroad, they make it more entrenched, more real. Through this metaphor he captures the sprit perhaps more robustly than any factual retelling ever could.
As Oprah puts it dramatically in her review: "reaches the marrow of your bones, settles in, and stays forever."
From USA Today, this book is about "our country's still unabsolved original sin"
On the logistics and business of slavery
Deliberate cut slaves from their roots
"staggered his purchases, rather than find himself with cargo of singular culture and disposition" (3-4)
"chained head to toe, head to toe, in exponential misery" (4)
The horrors go beyond anything that we, as observers of history, can truly understand. We can't even understand the exponential impacts of COVID today, let alone pseudo-exponential impacts of the slave trade of the past.
"There was an order of misery, misery tucked inside of miseries, and you were meant to keep track." (23)
Slaves were commodities
"Her price fluctuated. When you are sold that many times, the world is teaching you to pay attention...Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations."
Interesting parallels here to the gig economy and to the rise of freelance/contractor work. There are levels of commodification. Some good, some utterly horrible.
"When black blood was money, the savvy businessman knew to open the vein." (23)
"Since the night she was kidnapped she had been appraised and reappraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale. Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence" (8)
How do you measure your life? For some, life is measured for them.
"There was the cost of buying slaves and their upkeep on one hand and paying white workers meager but livable wages on the other. The reality of slave violence versus stability in the long term." (167) "The engine huffed and groaned and kept running. They had merely switched the fuel that moved the pistons." (174)
Moral indifference. Focus is strictly economics. Labor is an input. Capital is the system.
"kidnapping tribe after drive to feed the cotton" (174)
"Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh. The peculiar institution made Cora into a maker of lists as well. In her inventory of loss people were not reduced to sums but multiplied by their kindnesses." (219)
Does your work value people as more than their labor?
Hard to come to terms with the scale
"The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them." (70)
"Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean." (8)
The ocean is a common theme. The ocean is among the first horrors slaves brought from Africa experience. The ocean is vast, terrifying, too big to combat. Not only is the passage over the ocean, so too is the plantation where the slaves work and die.
"Randall had a dream one night about a white sea that ranged as far as the eye could see" (13)
"Cora slept, nestled between rafters as if in the cramped hold of a ship." (171) "The men were sharks moving their snouts beneath a ship." (182) "for now their was only the bland and endless sea." (183)
As she gets closer from freedom, so too does she re-experience the horrors her ancestors did. How do you ever escape? How do you ever feel free after what you've been through? After what your ancestors for generations have been through?
Ridgeway, the slave trader has a black boy Homer work for him: "a black boy has no future, free papers or no. Not in this country...With me, he can learn about the world. Find purpose." (207)
A railroad, no matter how elaborate the system, cannot get you out of the ocean
In one stage of the leg,"...they hurtled through the underground passage, a tiny ship on this impossible sea" (271)
"The cabins (in the plantation) radiated permanence and in turn summoned timeless feelings in those who lived and died in them" (13)
A business and lifestyle which is deliberately stagnant. Growth meant a very different thing for businesses in those days.
"They bought the next plantation south and switched the crop from rice to cotton, adding two more cabins to each row, but Ajarry's plot remained in the middle of it all, immovable, like a stump that reached down too deep." (14)
You grow with the plantation. With the crop. And for many the plantation grows beyond you when you die there.
No one can escape your roots. We like to talk about the good kinds of roots. Strong communities, education, family. Inequality still today often calls from less fortunate roots. Poverty, instability, a lack of trust, racism, abuse. These are also roots. It is impossible to fully sever one's self from one's roots.
"An anchor in the vicious waters of the plantation..." (55)
"The better parts of Ajarry never took root in Mabel. Her indomitability, her perseverance. But there was a plot three yards square and the hearty stuff that sprouted from it. Her mother had protected it with all her heart. The most valuable land in all of Georgia." (300)
"There was no recourse, were no laws but the ones rewritten every day" (16)
Slaves had their own competition over limited space and common areas. Trust was hard to define, there was no third party.
One placed a dog house on her plot. It “sat right in the middle of her plot like a mansion in the center of a grand plantation”
"Once you got that old, you might as well be ninety-eight or a hundred and eight. Nothing left for the world to show you but the latest incarnations of cruelty." (25)
There is a fixed cap on life. There is a cap on the world. You are enclosed within that definition.
Within these confines you have to invent something
"Take it out on each other if you cannot take it out on the ones who deserve it. The children peeked between their elders, making bets they had nothing to back up with." (28)
"They could face the morning toil and the following mornings and the long days with their spirits replenished, however meagerly, by a fond night to look back on and the next birthday feast to look forward to." (28)
Even in such horrible circumstances and constraints, you measure your life by your experiences. By the little things. By the bits of wonder.
There are whole industries built on top of the slave trade and slave agriculture
Hog hunters also function as slave hunters: "The runaways were a different sort of beast but more remunerative" (59)
Ridgeway, the omnipresent slave hunter, has a father also building on top of the slave system: "Liquid fire was the very blood of the earth. It was his mission to upset, mash, and draw out the metal into the useful things that made society operate: nails, horseshoes, plows, knives, guns. Chains. Working the spirit, he called it." (75)
As for Ridgeway himself, "the chase was the only remedy for his restlessness...When his father finished his workday, the fruits of his labor lay before him: a musket, a rake, a wagon spring, Ridgeway faced the man or woman he had captured. One made tools, the other retrieved them." (78) "The two men were parts of same system, serving a nation rising to its destiny." (79)
This small closed loop between father and son is a microcosm for the closed loop around slavery that American society as a whole was built on. The flywheel of production, consumption, and trade. Even if you did not directly deal slaves, you almost certainly benefited from the industry.
Mable, Cora's mother, is the only runaway Ridgeway never caught. Ironically, this is because she was killed by a snake after she'd turned around and was heading back towards her daughter and the plantation.
"[Sybil, a former slave] was meticulous in her posture, a walking spear, in the manner of those who'd been made to bend and will bend no more." (248)
When Cora works for a family in South Carolina, "She had little contact with the father, as he left the house early and his office window was one of those in the Griffin that stayed lit the latest. Cotton had made him a slave, too." (110)
From atop this building, Cora asks, "Were the pyramids [also a product of slaves] as tall as this building, did the pharaohs sit on top and take the measure of their kingdoms, to see how diminished the world became when you gained the proper distance?" (121)
The world isn't as magnificent and glorious when you understand its basis
The medical industry as well and state-sponsored health initiatives were also steeped in opression
In an allusion to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, "His patients believed they were being treated for blood ailments. The tonics the hospital administered, however, were merely sugar water. In fact, the n****** were participants in a study of the latent and tertiary stages of syphilis." (124)

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