Colson Whitehead, Cora, DNA, Emotional Detachment, Escape, John Blassingame, Joseph Heller, Pitt, Ralph Ellison Octavia Butler, Slavery, Slavery Studies, Sterling Stuckey, Teaching and Learning, The Underground Railroad (2016), Toni Morrison, UMUC
Colson Whitehead is a genius. I am absolutely convinced of this truth. I’ve read other things by him. But his novel The Underground Railroad is one part Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and two parts Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man mixed with the macabre and mystical in Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison. Every sentence in Underground Railroad was written with precision, especially the first 120 pages. It was as if Whitehead put every word through a metal acid bath, every phrase was pored over with an electron microscope. I was hooked by page 24, and didn’t stop to put the book down again until page 160. I finished the book in eight hours over two days, not a record, but pretty close.
The Underground Railroad is all about escape, of course, but not just the obvious, physical escape from slavery’s asphyxiating grasp. It was a need to escape the post-traumatic stress of having been a slave. It was finding ways to use the mind and spirit to cope with torture, whippings, rapes, mangled bodies, demonic rhythms of an existence in which humans are little more than broken toys. It was escaping inhumanity to find humanity and the divine, even in the most minuscule of proportions.
I loved the main character Cora. That Whitehead made his main character female, a third-generation slave from a plantation in Georgia during the antebellum period wasn’t lost on me. As with all of his characters, Whitehead developed Cora with a full sense of imperfection, making her a nearly perfect lens for me to view the novel. She and Mabel and Ajarry fully embodied kidnapping and slavery in all its horror. Folks, if you want anyone to come close to the actual experience of what slavery was for Africans in America, Whitehead got as close as any writer I’ve read in my lifetime.
I could nitpick about Whitehead a bit, too. That Cora’s femaleness wasn’t fully explored, with everything from not having periods to how she may have experienced her development as a woman prior to her first escapes or her one almost romantic moment. Or about the mystical mashup of the last twenty to thirty pages. Or about the railroad going on to infinity, in this case, Missouri, as Cora never really escapes.
My biggest criticism, though, isn’t really a criticism at all. It’s an admission. I really didn’t want to read The Underground Railroad. I made no plans to buy it or to check it out from a library. I would’ve been content in life to have never read this masterpiece.
Why? I’m sick and tired of talking about slavery, about the physical, mental, psychic, and spiritual torture of millions of Africans so that a few Whites could profit financially and many more could profit psychologically. It feels like I’ve been talking about slavery my whole life, even though I’ve only been aware of it since Roots and its television debut in February 1977, or for 41 of my forty-eight years.
I studied slavery with deliberate disembodiment in my teens and twenties. It might’ve been through reading books by Alice Walker or Morrison. But by the Fall Semester 1989 at Pitt, I was reading and writing about slavery and American racism in earnest. I wrote my undergraduate readings paper about the slavery studies literature for my professor Larry Glasco’s class. The next semester, I took a grad course in Comparative Slavery, reading about the differences between slave systems in Brazil, Cuba, the US, and for my 34-page paper, slavery in South Africa before 1838.
Having done that, nearly every course I took through my master’s program in 1991-92 had a slavery studies component. So I read White paternalists like Ulrich B. Phillips. Racist historians like him contended that Blacks in the US should be on their knees and thankful that Whites stole them, sold them, and slaughtered their ancestors during slavery, such was the civilizing effect. I read slavery studies by not-so-obscure authors like Sterling Stuckey and John Blassingame, who made the living hell that was slavery come alive in stories and statistics. I also read White apologists like Fogel and Engerman in their Time on the Cross. I remember saying in my US history grad seminar in 1991, “so they’re saying that slavery wasn’t so harsh because the average slave received 21 lashes per year versus the standard 39?.” It was my translation of their multiple regression analysis.
By the time I started my PhD work in September 1992, I was through with studying slavery. It was too painful to be in class with White students who at their best could never really understand slavery beyond statistics and ideology. Even if it was in their DNA via an unknown African ancestor (some estimate that as many as one in eight Southern Whites carry recent African DNA, and about four percent of Whites in the US overall). That any person could and did regularly argue that slavery was a “necessary evil” or “saved” Africans in the US from “savagery” helped me move into twentieth-century US and African American history as a field of study. Still brutal, still mind-destroying, but not the complete horror show of slavery.
Whenever I touch the subject of slavery in the courses I teach these days, I still get that sense of outrage and indignation when I see students unable to deal with the bitter, devastating truth. “C’mon, slavery wasn’t that bad. They were fed and clothed. And wasn’t there White slavery for the Irish, too?” That’s what one of my White students said in a world history course I taught a couple of years ago, in response to a discussion of the differences between the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions. The latter was the first fully successful slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere, leading to the founding of Haiti as an independent nation in 1804.
I don’t know how Whitehead could write this novel and not go through hours of emotional torment at the end of each day. In my own experience, writing about any trauma has left me dazed for minutes or even an hour or two at a time, unable to sleep, and wondering why I’ve never smoked weed. I’m thankful Whitehead did, and I hope that he’s healing.
I was so uncomfortable reading Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad because I knew that the horror and pain of slavery was literally encoded in my DNA. I was uncomfortable because I knew that people like this one UMUC student would never get it, even if he did read the novel. Whitehead didn’t write the novel for him, though. I think he wrote it for me, freeing me from my discomfort with the horrible.