In Review: “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

The secret organization of the escape of slaves from the American slavery that we have heard about in history textbooks takes a commanding new form of novelty in Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” To recount history is an enormous task, but even more so to leave the event as it is without time’s forgetfulness or place’s misdirection. “The Underground Railroad” not only tells history, but a type of history that calls for the reliving of events, memorization of names, and a dedication to maintaining a present relevance.

“The Underground Railroad” impresses a narrative with the runaway journey of a slave, Cora. Cora is special because her Mother, Mabel, and Grandmother, Ajarry, were slaves before her. This generational creation by Whitehead leads the story toward an unflinching account.

Cora’s recognition of her ancestry is a trait that lays the ground work for the freedom of her and her fellow slaves. Whether Cora is to succumb or escape slavery often lies in the memories of her Mother and Grandmother. Having the knowledge that her mother escaped and her Grandmother stayed on the plantation sets up a duality that cannot evade Cora – the slave and the runaway slave. With Cora’s curiosity for the latter, Whitehead is allowed to place slavery inside the perspective of only those who thought of freedom.

There is no mistake in Whitehead’s interpretation of the horrors of slavery, and it is his acknowledgement of the escape which pronounces the horror. The Underground Railroad is on the margin of every lash on the back of skin. Within pages of slave girls being raped behind bushes, is Cora destroying the doghouse of her slave masters with all of her strength. Hands and feet are cut off in a timely fashion after they have been used, yet Whitehead traces the whole from which these parts belong somewhere between the Georgia plantation and the North Carolina sky.

Whitehead’s aspirations are clear before any chapter is read in the Table of Contents. Georgia, Ridgeway, South Carolina, Stevens, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and “The North” are aligned along selected numbers in a way that reflects a journey. The railroad-like presentation of “The Underground Railroad” allows Whitehead to fluctuate a language around its content with care. Whitehead takes us from the fight in the woods when footsteps are heard by others who should not have heard them to the train loud enough for the noise on the Georgia plantation to rest.

“The Underground Railroad” has shades of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Whitehead demands his voice on sacred matters like Faulkner. Whitehead tackles a story that we have felt was unfinished, and finishes it. Whitehead tells all about The Underground Railroad. How a single woman, Cora, on her quest to become like her Mother and Grandmother, ends up becoming the characters, Caesar, Big Anthony, and a million other slaves.

“The Underground Railroad” reminds us of The Underground Railroad. Cora reminds us of Harriet. Whitehead reminds us that on the brink of revisionist history, we are needing to learn simply about history.


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