In today’s cultural climate, Colson Whitehead’s 2016 The Underground Railroad is a difficult book to trust reviews of. Many on the left are likely to blindly champion the book simply because it addresses race, while many on the right are likely to be equally blind, but out of a desire to distance themselves from race discussion. Equally distrustful of both sides, I hope this review falls in the middle.
Cora is a young woman raised as a slave in Georgia in the mid-1800s at the start of The Underground Railroad. Owned by a misanthrope who beats, rapes, kills, sells at will, and in general mistreats his slaves as he pleases, Cora’s upbringing is about as bad as we can imagine slavery to be. And she becomes a little crazy for it. Approaching womanhood finds Cora living alone, her fellow slaves wanting no part of her personal life. But an opportunity to escape arises, and Cora jumps at it. Catching a ride on the underground railroad out of the plantation, she discovers worlds she never knew existed—for slightly better and worst.
A novel of alternate histories (emphasis on the plural), the fantastical underground railroad takes Cora to a couple of settings, with Whitehead focusing on political environment, social norms, and race perception. One setting is a semi-emancipated South Carolina circa the early 1900s (blacks are owned by the government, but given freedom in society, housing, medical care, jobs, etc.) and the other is a tyrannical North Carolina ruled by white ultra-conservatives (blacks are killed on sight and most whites are indentured by a despot). These two settings, as well as some other experiences, give Cora a coupld alternate perspectives of freedom.
But while Cora’s travels eventually take her beyond the borders of the tyrannical North Carolina, there remain only two alternate histories explored. I point this out as it’s key to contextualizing Whitehead’s agenda, namely in what isn’t presented/imagined as another setting. Firstly, there is no alternate world paralleling the 21st century socio-racial situation (i.e. nothing show how race and civil rights exist today) that could act as a contemporary comparison to Cora’s slave experience. Secondly, where Whitehead presents the worst of all possible worlds for blacks in the North Carolina setting, there is no presentation of the best of all worlds in another setting. There is no alternate world wherein equality, justice, self-determination, social harmony, and the other hallmarks of true civilization exist—the other side of the coin, as it were. Given this, it’s highly likely that Whitehead was attempting to parallel the racial situation in America today with the historical situation.
Given this, it’s difficult to argue Whitehead has accomplished his goal. Racism for certain still exists in society today, but looking at the numerous successful black entrepreneurs who have risen in business world the past half-century, the number of black civic unions, Affirmative Action, the growing number of black millionaires, the increase of interracial marriages and families, the rise of the black middle class, not to mention the election and re-election of a black president, we’re living in a situation that is not analogous to anything in American history. Again, racism still exists (Dylan Roof, Walter Scott, etc.), but there has been undeniable progression in the systemic handling of race, something which The Underground Railroad would seek to paint out of its pictures. As a result, the book makes for only a partial mirror to current reality. What the majority represents is, in fact, a backwards-looking narrative. After all, how can the novel spark discussion on eliminating what remains of racism when a contemporary analog is lacking?
From a prose perspective, The Underground Railroad is serviceable; Whitehead tells his story in straight-forward language with few frills or idiosyncrasies, nothing to praise or denigrate. And this feeds into character presentation: likewise average. Sympathy is built for Cora given the atrocities she endures, but as a character she is only partially developed. Had Whitehead kept her at a distance in the narrative, her representation of racial concerns might have had stronger impact (i.e. greater universal applicability). Or, had she been developed into a fuller, more human character, likewise she might have drawn stronger connection with the reader. By taking the middle road, Whitehead leaves both sides hanging, and fails to match story agenda with characterization. And the novel’s structure dissolves into a semi-jumbled mess in its latter third that distracts from any momentum, but I critique too much…
In the end, The Underground Railroad is a disappointing novel. Aside from reminding the current generation of the injustices and horrors of slavery, finding germane contemporary value for society is difficult considering Whitehead has approached racial issues in America today like a frog from the bottom of a well. Not unlike the penchant among some Israeli writers for rehashing the Nazi horrors of WWII to little modern, relevant purpose or some Chinese writers endlessly replaying Japanese atrocities in WWII to no constructive end, The Underground Railroad likewise feels a narrative emphasizing past horrors with little to no progressive view on the issue as it stands in the 21st century. Such fiction sells for drama, and does its job reminding society of history that should not be repeated, but from a political point of view fails to address how things currently stand. When set aside Octavia Butler’s Kindred, a novel which likewise brings to life the horrors of slavery in a sci-fi medium yet applies a progressive message regarding modern race relations, it makes The Underground Railroad look anachronistic (Kindred was written in the 80s, mind you), however. So, do yourself a favor and read Octavia Butler’s Kindred. (Then go read Noam Chomsky’s Profit over People. It should open your eyes to the fact that what is often perceived as racism in the current state of US politics and culture, is largely oppression of a grander import: the few over the many, regardless of race. Just ask Obama.)