Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is an absolute pageturner; I read it in three days. The most immediately recognizable “oh that’s different” thing about this novel is that it posits that there is an actual, physical railroad ferrying slaves to freedom underneath the earth during the first half of the 19th century. But for me, the most notable thing about this novel is its approach to historical truth: everything written here is true, just not in the time that Whitehead writes about it.
Whitehead tells the story of black people in the United States across most of the country’s history, from their kidnapping on the African continent and brutal life on American plantations, through the lynchings and reign of terror of the KKK and other “patrols” during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, to the secret syphilis experiments on black men at Tuskegee and the forced sterilization of black women in eugenics programs in many states, to sundown towns and the violent smashing of black communities right up through the 20th century.
These aren’t named as such in the book — they’re shown as features of each state the main character, Cora, visits on her tortuous journey from slavery to freedom. South Carolina’s eugenics program as described in the book never existed in exactly that way, but it was enacted in various forms by various levels of governmental, scientific, and voluntary organizations in many states over many years. North Carolina didn’t eject all the black people in the state before the Civil War and then commit regular raids on white people’s houses to find and lynch black people — that’s a combination of the sundown laws that kept black people from living in white towns, the lynchings of the Reconstruction era up through the 1950s, and the raids and drunken lootings of black people’s homes that occurred throughout the country’s history. It’s a brilliant narrative choice, to tell the story this way.
Reading about these events through the eyes of Cora, I did feel a little bit like I was reading the Forrest Gump version of African-American history: one person there for the major events of the story, even if that’s not actually possible, in order to pull a thread of continuity through the story and have readers follow along sympathetically. We get some sense of Cora as an individual, but it still feels like she’s at a bit of a distance from the reader, whether to show us how hard it is to maintain and develop your individual self in the barbaric world of slavery, or because she fills a more metaphorical role, I’m not sure. Perhaps some of both, and if it’s the latter, she’s in good literary company as a character whose importance is more in what she helps us witness and process than in what happens in her inner life.
Early on, one of the station agents for the railroad tells Cora, “Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll see the true face of America.” It’s a joke, of course, because she’s underground and it’s dark underneath. But it’s also a good instruction for how to read this book: as the story of America across its history; it’s absolutely, irrevocably, unforgivably tied to the realities of slavery and the betrayal of black people’s freedom and pursuit of happiness after emancipation.
The story of America is also fully, shamefully tied to the story of Europeans stealing from, murdering, and subjugating the people who were already here, and Whitehead points this out over and over: “Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.”
The Underground Railroad is told in a straightforward manner, interspersed with short passages of lyricism, and it’s also a riveting read. We’re ruminating on the very existence of this country and what to do with its history and what to make of its future, but we’re also biting our lips, hoping with each turn of the page that Cora makes it.
How’s this for alternate readings on the Fourth of July: “America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty. Yet here we are.”
Here we are, indeed. Because there’s no escaping the similarities between the present day and the events depicted in The Underground Railroad. Whitehead doesn’t beat us over the head with it, because there’s no need to: they scream out at you from the page, the ghosts of the past demanding to be heard, the story of who we are coming into devastatingly sharp relief.