Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award on Wednesday night. In his acceptance speech he told us, “We’re happy in here; outside is the blasted hellhole wasteland of Trumpland. Be kind to everybody. Make art and fight the power.”
Not only was this apt for the evening, but it also describes the landscape of his novel, which presents us with several different Americas, including the diverse, literary America he was referring to.
The Underground Railroad begins on a plantation in Georgia wherein we meet our heroine, Cora. Those first seventy pages constitute a fairly familiar, though skillfully drawn, slave narrative, depicting a bleak, vicious world in which women are raped at puberty and runaways mutilated and burned—and yet, early on, we are introduced to the possibility of escape. This alone enables us to press on amidst such despair.
I recalled bell hooks’s review of Beasts of the Southern Wild in which she critiques narratives that relied on the survival of the individual: “Of course,” she writes, “the message that only the strong survive has been and remains an age old argument for politics of domination, that determine that some folks will live and others will die…”
But after the first seventy pages or so, The Underground Railroad deviates from its genre, blending speculative fiction with the traditional slave narrative. Cora does escape, not via the actual historical underground railroad—that network of liberal sympathizers who helped smuggle slaves northward—but via an actual subterranean train lifted, it feels, from our contemporary steampunk, fantasy imagination, “springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus.”
This device teleports us between those different versions of America, and thereby offers an alternative to the individual survival narrative. Cora’s fate is now more dependent on which America she finds herself in, than on her own qualities. But what are these Americas? Whitehead shows us four, in addition to our starting point in Georgia: South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana.
At first, we imagine South Carolina as a haven in relation to the plantation, but this assumption rests on a crude, and false, binary between free and slave society. Whitehead unpicks this deftly, revealing our relief to be a temporary illusion: “It was the softest bed she had ever lain in,” he tells us. “But then, it was the only bed she had ever lain in.”
Cora finds work in the Museum of Natural Wonders, where she is required to depict the role of a slave in an exhibit behind glass for the gaze of white visitors. She is dismayed by the “inaccuracies and contradictions” the museum has no interest in correcting, and eventually says of herself and the women she boards with: “They had gone to bed believing themselves free from white people’s control and commands about what they should do and be… but the women were still being herded and domesticated.”
When she communicates her concerns to her benefactor, Miss Lucy, she meets with outrage: “If you can’t see the difference between good, upstanding people and the mentally disturbed, with criminals and imbeciles, you’re not the person I thought you were,” she is told. And she reflects that this is true: “I’m not the person you though I was.”
And so the binary is broken; liberal white America’s racism and hypocrisy is revealed, and ultimately Cora is forced to leave, emerging into North Carolina.
“In what sort of hell had the train let her off?” she wonders, for in this version of post-slavery American they had not only “In effect, abolished slavery”, but they have abolished black people too. Here, vengeful plantation owners kill blacks, whether freemen or refugees, on sight; and abolitionists are strung up too, even for merely possessing sedition literature. It is, in effect, a fascist state in which Cora has no option but to hide in an attic until she is discovered, and taken into the next version of America: Tennessee.
In Tennessee, the native Cherokee have been cleared by the white settlers who, in turn, have been rendered destitute by a lightning fire. This is the white underclass, purportedly Trump’s heartland, or at least one of them, goaded into hatred, “inconsolable and abject.” “Cora was well-accustomed to the screams of colored babies in torment, hungry, in pain… Hearing the screams of so many little white babies was new.”
Last of all, we come to Indiana, where Cora resides on a farm, a safe haven where “free men and women of color” live as equals beside liberal whites. There she is free to walk into town, and spends her days in the school house, or else working, which, she observes for the first time, “needn’t be suffering, it could unite folks.” The community makes decisions about their future democratically through organized meetings and debates, liaising with abolitionist societies in the north.
Whitehead’s description of the farm’s library is lavish and subtly self-referential; it has “the biggest collection of negro literature this side of Chicago.” Here she too reads slave narratives, “the stories of all the colored people she had ever known, the stories of black people yet to be born, the foundation of their triumphs… A beautiful soul like Caesar could be anything he wanted here, all of them could be: own a spread, be a schoolteacher, fight for colored rights. Even be a poet.”
It is to this final version of America that Whitehead was referring on Wednesday night when he told us, “We’re happy in here”: diverse, liberal, literary America that had gathered to honor this African-America writer. When he spoke of the “blasted hellhole wasteland of Trumpland” he was thinking, perhaps, of his symbolic North Carolina, the America of white supremacy, of the Ku Klux Klan and the so-called “alt-right”. The Underground Railroad reminds us that though this America is in the ascendance today, it is one of several Americas and our future, like Cora’s, is in the balance. We have to, “[m]ake art and fight the power.”