The Underground Railroad
“Why do people often feel so bad in good environments that they prefer bad environments? Why does a man [or woman] often feel better in a bad environment? Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?” –Walker Percy, The Message In the Bottle
It’s an ordinary Wednesday afternoon as I’m writing this, and I’ve just finished reading Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, which is 306 pages of bad, in addition to worse, terrible, and absolutely unthinkable. Some of the terrible images (including actual brandings) are branded into my mind forever. Why should you read such a novel?
I think a Walker Percy-like response is that in the twenty-first century, language is the way we examine what earlier centuries called the “soul” or “mind, freedom, will, Godlikeness.” How else but with language can we move forward from the events of the past, when, as William Faulkner says in Requiem for a Nun, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past”?
Whitehead’s novel has gotten a lot of attention for the actual railroad he invents for runaway slaves in this novel, complete with engines and passenger cars. Even this image—of an America riddled with secret underground passages—works to convey the idea of a country literally undermined by secrets of its past.
Rather than making them imaginable, the brisk and steady way Whitehead relates the inhumanities visited on the slaves makes them count in the way that pain is always counted, from one moment you believe you can’t bear to the next:
“Her last husband had his ears bored for stealing honey” (7).
“She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft” (33).
“Shackles to prevent a person from absconding, from moving their hands, or to suspend a body in the air for a beating.” (65).
Even for those who are not slaves, inhumanity is inescapable:
Mandatory sterilization for “colored women who have already birthed more than two children, in the name of population control. Imbeciles and the otherwise mentally unfit, for obvious reasons. Habitual criminals” (113).
Race laws which forbid “colored men and women from setting foot” in some states (165).
Slave catchers who ensure that “a black boy has no future, free papers or no. Not in this country. Some disreputable character would snatch him and put him on the block lickety-split” (202-203).
Whitehead’s protagonist Cora learns to read after she escapes from slavery, but she cannot use it as an escape because “poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world” (251).
The final revelation of the novel is spoken in heartbreaking circumstances by a character who we thought was “safe” in a world where no one can be: “The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse” (294).
Refusing to be mean… it’s more difficult than some of us believe, occasionally making fun of ideas like “micro-aggression” on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon. Language counts in the bad environment that we’ve created in America in 2017. To the rest of the world, I’m afraid we appear to believe in “the divine thread connecting all human endeavor—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.” So if you’re an American and interested in trying to move forward from here, you should read this novel.
I can’t imagine reading it more than once, however, and so I am willing to send my copy to someone who comments and says they’d like to read it. (Updated: Care of Care’s Books and Pie won my copy.)