When Colson Whitehead came up with the premise for The Underground Railroad 15 years ago, he unearthed one of the several misunderstandings that many of us have had, if only momentarily, about the American slave trade. The spark of the premise – what if the Underground Railroad was a literal train that ran underground? – has flared in the imagination of every student in every history class, before most of us learned otherwise.
But other misunderstandings, stubborn and pernicious, have managed to warp much of white America's perception of slavery – that it was a matter of wage theft, that slaves were mostly treated and fed well by benevolent masters, that the Irish were treated in a similar fashion to black people. Whitehead's novel is both speculative fiction and an inversion of these comforting fables. One in which the United States' crimes against the Black body are revealed and compressed into the narrative of a young woman's escape from bondage.
The story follows Cora, a 16 or 17 year old born into slavery, on a cotton plantation owned by brothers James and Terrance Randall. Her grandmother, the last of an African village abducted by raiders, died of a stroke in the cotton field. Cora's mother ran away from the plantation many years before, leaving the young woman with a lingering resentment of the woman who abandoned her. Ostracized by most of the other slaves, and having witnessed the horrific maiming and executions of captured runaways, Cora declines the first time another slave named Caesar asks her to run away with him. But after a savage beating from the sadistic Master Terrance, and the promise of even crueler punishment, Cora accepts the offer.
The events thereafter are a flight through the slave-holding South, powered by locomotives through an elaborate network of rail tunnels. The Underground Railroad's stations, located underneath trapdoors in barns and safe houses, range from ornate and wondrous tunnels to dilapidated caverns. The first station Cora encounters "must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark- and light-coloured stones in an alternating pattern." At another station, Cora is forced to feel her way around the blackness with a broomstick, and is harried by rats and insects as she waits for the train to arrive. Despite the promise held by the prospect of flight, each stop in Cora's journey across the slave states is a glimpse into the panoply of horrors inflicted on the Black body in American history.
Whitehead's prowess when it comes to speculative fiction isn't just a matter of imagining different Americas. Though the physical makeup of his worlds are vastly different from our own, the culture and social order remain strongly tethered to reality. (His last novel, Zone One, was a zombie story that dispenses with microsocieties built in prisons, islands, and walled-off suburbs. A world infested with the undead would still be managed by bureaucrats, and pressed back into order by the mediocre; one imagines the Rick Grimeses and Peter Washingtons have long been consumed by zombies, or shot dead by the living.) Cora's travels through the Underground Railroad's reshaped United States might be inspired by Gulliver's Travels and perhaps Dante's Inferno, but the atrocities she encounters are ripped directly from American history.
In one state, Cora encounters a society that passively accepts eugenics as a natural measure in the pursuit of emancipation. A doctor among them muses on the possibilities at length, "What if we performed adjustments to the niggers' breeding patterns and removed those of melancholic tendency? Managed other attitudes, such as sexual aggression and violent natures?" He later concludes, "America has imported and bred so many Africans, that in many states the whites are outnumbered. For that reason alone, emancipation is impossible." In this allegory, Whitehead is referring explicitly to inhumane medical experiments carried out on Black Americans. These range from the Tuskegee study (in which Black men carrying syphilis were secretly denied treatment in order to observe the disease's progression), through the gynecological and birth control experiments conducted in Puerto Rico (which were also conducted on Latina women), to the involuntary sterilization of Black women conducted well into the 1970s.
In North Carolina, Cora is hidden in the attic of a sympathizer, huddled in the hot, humid dark and watching the town square through a hole bored in the wall. Nighttime entertainment in the village comes in the form of coon shows – white men painting their faces and hands black with burnt cork, and performing in buffoonish caricatures – followed by the hanging of a captured runaway from the tree in the centre of the square. The same tree under which white children play the next morning. Across the county, putrefying Black bodies were hanged from trees in a grotesque display dubbed "The Freedom Trail." Lynching displays in Florida (after the Rosewood massacre), Oklahoma (after the Tulsa pogrom) and New York (after the draft riots) remove the possibility that Whitehead is exaggerating for effect.
At a time when television commentators are angered by Michelle Obama making the true claim that the White House was built by slaves and when a children's book published in 2016 features smiling slaves baking a cake for George Washington, The Underground Railroad is a necessary read. Whitehead's imaginings push the story beyond the slave narrative, and beyond the hero's escape from indomitable pursuers. He collects long-shattered myths and reshapes the shards into a mosaic of the country's original sins. Though this novel is fiction, it is also one of the truest works ever produced in the genre.
Andray Domise is a Toronto-based writer and activist.