[Marxism] Review: ‘Underground Railroad’ Lays Bare Horrors of Slavery and Its Toxic Legacy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Aug 3 07:46:15 MDT 2016

NY Times, August 3 2016
Review: ‘Underground Railroad’ Lays Bare Horrors of Slavery and Its 
Toxic Legacy

The Underground Railroad
By Colson Whitehead
306 pages. Doubleday. $26.95.

In his dynamic new novel, Colson Whitehead takes the Underground 
Railroad — the loosely interlocking network of black and white activists 
who helped slaves escape to freedom in the decades before the Civil War 
— and turns it from a metaphor into an actual train that ferries 
fugitives northward.

The result is a potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the 
reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of 
slavery. It possesses the chilling, matter-of-fact power of the slave 
narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with 
echoes of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” and 
Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” and with brush strokes borrowed from 
Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift.

“The Underground Railroad,” the latest selection of Oprah Winfrey’s book 
club, chronicles the life of a teenage slave named Cora, who flees the 
Georgia plantation where she was born, risking everything in pursuit of 
freedom, much the way her mother, Mabel, did years before. Cora and her 
friend Caesar are pursued by a fanatical, Javert-like slave catcher 
named Ridgeway, whose failure to find Mabel has made him all the more 
determined to hunt down her daughter and destroy the abolitionist 
network that has aided her.

[ Colson Whitehead discusses “The Underground Railroad” ]

Traveling from Georgia to South Carolina to North Carolina to Tennessee 
to Indiana, Cora must try to elude not just Ridgeway, but also other 
bounty hunters, informers and lynch mobs — with help, along the way, 
from a few dedicated “railroad” workers, both black and white, willing 
to risk their lives to save hers.

Although the basic escape narrative will remind some readers of the WGN 
America television series “Underground” (about a group of slaves fleeing 
a Georgia plantation), this novel jumps around in time and space, 
lending Cora’s story a fractured, modernist feel and reminding the 
reader of the inventive storytelling in such earlier Whitehead novels as 
“The Intuitionist” and “John Henry Days.”

In “Underground Railroad,” there’s a kind of prologue that recounts the 
story of Cora’s grandmother Ajarry, who was kidnapped in Africa, sold 
into slavery and repeatedly swapped and resold in America; and Cora’s 
story is intercut with interludes featuring portraits of other 
characters, like Ridgeway and Caesar.

The literalization of the Underground Railroad is not the only dreamlike 
touch in the novel. And these surreal elements inject the narrative with 
a mythic dimension that lends “The Underground Railroad” more magic and 
depth of field than Yaa Gyasi’s ambitious but methodical novel, 
“Homegoing,” which recently looked at the damage slavery inflicted on 
eight generations of one family.

One of the remarkable things about this novel is how Mr. Whitehead found 
an elastic voice that accommodates both brute realism and fablelike 
allegory, the plain-spoken and the poetic — a voice that enables him to 
convey the historical horrors of slavery with raw, shocking power. He 
conveys its emotional fallout: the fear, the humiliation, the loss of 
dignity and control. And he conveys the daily brutality of life on the 
plantation, where Cora is gang-raped, and where whippings (accompanied 
by scrubbings in pepper water to intensify the pain) are routine.

Over the years, Mr. Whitehead writes, Cora “had seen men hung from trees 
and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the 
cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off 
to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft.”

A man named Big Anthony, who escaped and made it 26 miles before being 
hunted down, is whipped for the entertainment of plantation visitors, 
then castrated, doused with oil and roasted. Even the threat of such 
horrifying torture cannot squelch Cora’s determination to escape, though 
she will learn, on the road, that freedom remains elusive in states 
farther north, where she is continually on the run or on the lookout for 
slave patrollers, who had the power “to knock on anyone’s door to pursue 
an accusation and for random inspections as well, in the name of public 

In North Carolina, slave patrollers “required no reason to stop a person 
apart from color,” Mr. Whitehead writes. Defending the need for night 
riders, one senator tells an angry mob that their “Southern heritage lay 
defenseless and imperiled” from the “colored miscreants” who lurked in 
the dark, threatening “to violate the citizens’ wives and daughters.”

Such passages resonate today: the police killings of unarmed black men 
and boys, the stop-and-frisk policies that often target minorities, and 
the anti-immigrant language used by politicians to ramp up prejudice and 
fear. Mr. Whitehead does not italicize such parallels. He does not need 
to. The harrowing tale he tells here is the back story to the injustices 
African-Americans and immigrants continue to suffer, but a back story 
only in the sense, as Faulkner put it, that “the past is never dead. 
It’s not even past.”

In recounting Cora’s story, Mr. Whitehead communicates the horrors of 
slavery and its toxic legacy rumbling on down the years. At the same 
time, he memorializes the yearning for freedom that spurs one generation 
after another to persevere in the search for justice — despite threats 
and intimidation, despite reversals and efforts to turn back the clock. 
He has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past 
and the American present.

An excerpt of “The Underground Railroad” will be published as a special 
broadsheet section in print on Sunday, Aug. 7; there will be no digital 

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