Morgan Maddock ‘23
I’ve always been a big reader. When I was around two or three my babysitter would sit there stunned while I “read” my own bedtime story to her. Only when my parents got home would she learn that I wasn’t actually reading, I had just memorized the words to my books and even knew when to flip the page so it looked like I was actually reading. So, I’m not exaggerating at all when I say I’ve ALWAYS been a big reader. In high school and especially college, I’ve found it much harder to find time for pleasure reading; I’d rather spend all my free time sleeping or zoning out to a screen to give my brain a break. As an English major, I get a pretty solid mix of books I literally fall asleep reading, and books I get excited about ripping through and writing essays about. One of those books I got excited about recently was The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. It doesn’t sound super exciting, but this was a book I talked about to all my friends. I got real nerdy over this book, so here are a few reasons I love this book so much.
The main character in The Underground Railroad is Cora. She’s an African American girl born into slavery and the book follows her throughout her escape attempt. However, Cora is not the only person telling the story. The first chapter is told by her grandmother, Ajarry. We learn about how Ajarry was kidnapped from Africa, of her hellish journey to the U.S. and her separation from her family, and of how she quickly learned her worth in dollar amounts due to her multiple sales. The next chapter is told in “real time,” by Cora. The third is told by Ridgeway, the slave catcher who is on the hunt for Cora. This pattern continues throughout the book, alternating between “current” chapters about what’s going on with Cora, and flashbacks from different characters she meets along the way. It gives the reader a really interesting perspective into the other characters’ motivations and ideals as well as carefully shaping the world Cora lives in.
This curation of Cora’s world is important because it’s essentially made up. The Underground Railroad is historical fiction. Although it’s clear Whitehead put a lot of research into the book, the fictional aspect gives him a lot of artistic license to carefully mold the story to see it as he wants you to. It was these fictional aspects of the story that made me love the book. I think a pretty common childhood misconception I had the first time I learned about the Underground Railroad was that it was an actual train. Of course I learned that it was rather a series of secret passages and safe houses managed by abolitionist guides that quietly and efficiently moved escaped slaves towards free North states. Train terminology was used to describe safe houses (stations) and guides (conductors) because trains were the popular mode of travel at the time. In The Underground Railroad, the path to freedom is literally on an underground train. There is no metaphor; it’s just a train that runs underground. This is not the only creative liberty Whitehead takes.
I think the most important part of The Underground Railroad is the way that it shows not only what it was like to be black in the 1850s, it shows a broad span of the African American experience in the United States. In each state that Cora travels through (and I’m not spoiling don’t worry the chapters are literally called “Georgia,” “Tennessee,” and “Indiana”) she finds a different “flavor” of racism. One state she travels to very obviously draws inspiration upon the Tuskegee Experiment of the mid-late 20th century, as well as the forced sterilization of women of color that still goes on today (I’m no joking, look it up. I found a news article from three weeks ago). Whitehead forces us to acknowledge that although chattel slavery is no longer legal in the United States, that doesn’t mean we’ve completely absolved ourselves of our racist past. Whitehead not only shows what it might have been like to be a fugitive slave, but illuminates life for African Americans at many different points in U.S. history.
The Underground Railroad is certainly fast-paced, but heavy. I was almost glad that I could only read a chapter or two a night because there seems to be little hope for Cora no matter where she goes. However, I think her hopelessness is a difficult though important lesson. Whitehead doesn’t let us forget that there is still more work to be done. Although Cora is able to flee the realities of slavery for moments during her escape, her life doesn’t necessarily get better. There are more historically accurate books you can read to educate yourself on America’s racist past; nonetheless, I think this is an important and powerful read.
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