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The Underground Railroad Reveals America’s Racist History

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Here are seemingly-incompatible terms: slavery and alternative history. The two appear to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. Slavery, specifically the enslavement of African Americans in the United States, is the most unfathomable of evils, immortalized through memoirs, photographs, novels, and films as one of the greatest crimes against human dignity. Alternative history is exactly as it sounds: a category of literature in which the author relies on changing fundamental facets of history to create their story. Putting the two together almost sounds insulting, and it could very well be, if done incorrectly. The masterful combination of writing a neo-slave narrative that doubles as alternative historical fiction is the first in a long list of accomplishments achieved by Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the novel has received praise across the board, from major reviewers like The New York Times and The Boston Globe to pop culture icon Oprah, all hailing the novel as a groundbreaking addition to the neo-slave narrative genre. The praise is rightfully deserved: it’s a novel that grips the reader tight, stays with them in between readings, and manages to maintain period accuracy while feeling eerily applicable to the twenty-first century.

Beginning in pre-Civil War Georgia, The Underground Railroad centers around Cora, a young enslaved woman living and working on a plantation ruled by a pair of ruthless brothers. Already battling the trials and immense dangers of everyday life for a slave, Cora is an outcast, ostracized by the escape of her mother Mabel and her showdown with a bullying male slave in her early teenage years. Brutal punishments against fellow slaves, the strain of ceaseless labor, and Cora’s own gang-rape are explicitly detailed, in a narrative style that makes the reader feel the oppressive Georgia heat and more oppressive hand of bondage as if they were there. Whitehead’s impressive descriptions, often punctuated with brief sentence fragments at the end of paragraphs that bring hard-hitting truths, create the impression that, while well-written and captivating, this is a slave novel, and a slave novel only. This is proven incorrect almost immediately. The shift into alternative history begins with Caesar, the enchanting, courageous slave who implores Cora to join his escape route. When the two finally make a break for it, their mission is compromised by the tagging-along of Cora’s friend Lovey. Attacked by a slave-catching mob, Cora is forced to kill a young boy, which allows her and Caesar to finally reach the famed Underground Railroad and begin their ascent to freedom

The very operating system of the Underground Railroad itself is the first example of the novel’s foray into alternative history. It is not merely a connected system of safehouses and footpaths but instead a real, working train system, similar to a subway, beneath the ground. The symbolism is not lost; through the trajectory of his story, Whitehead makes it obvious that black resilience against prejudice is embedded in our nation’s soil as well. As Cora travels from state to state, ultimately losing Caesar in the process, the bending of time and historical liberties taken are apparent. Cora and Caesar’s blissful time in South Carolina is abruptly cut short when Cora learns that she may become the victim of the state-sanctioned sterilization of black women and Caesar is at risk of being used to track the spread of syphilis in black men. If this sounds familiar, it’s for good reason: the unconsented sterilization of black women and the similarly-unethical Tuskegee Syphilis Study were both major violations of civil rights that occurred in the early to mid-twentieth century. Perhaps this is why the term alternative history is misleading for this book. The liberties taken are by no means fictional, but instead utilized in such a way that ensures readers understand the continued mistreatment of African Americans. Cora’s flight from this historically-hybrid South Carolina kickstarts a rapid spree of escape, hiding, settlement, and capture that continues long after she has reached the mystical “North”. At the end of the novel, Cora’s fate is still ambiguous; when considering the pattern her life has taken, it seems as if she will never truly be safe.

This final sentiment has led The Underground Railroad to such immense success. Whitehead’s refusal to give Cora a clean, happy ending is not just a testament to the lives of escaped slaves but a blatant recognition of the messy state of race relations in a society that claims to have eradicated racism with the civil rights movement. The constant abuse and lapse in luck for his black characters, despite their selflessness and ultimate innocence, is a love letter to his race, an acknowledgement of their immense contributions and necessity to society while simultaneously receiving no credit. As Cora embarks on the very first leg of her journey, she is told, “Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll see the true face of America”. This is a direct nod to Whitehead’s twenty-first century readers. Through his masterful storytelling, command of language, creativity, and historical commentary, he has crafted a superb novel that exposes the true face of modern America, both the best and worst of its people and institutions. Rather than becoming too preachy or self-aware, Whitehead takes a step back, leaving our story just as he leaves Cora’s: broken down by our past, uncertain, and in hopeful yearning for a better tomorrow.

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The Underground Railroad Reveals America’s Racist History