Whitehead’s Brilliance in Telling Slavery in America.
Sometimes ago when Kanye West made the controversial statement saying ‘slavery is a choice’, the world went afire, directly linking the pop star’s opinion to his unpopular political indulgence of the present President of the United States of America.
President Donald Trump deserved all the resentments that greeted his election as the 45th United States of America’s president in 2016, owing to his incessant false statements in public, his making racial slurs, and his accusations of sexual misconduct among other moral shortcomings. The president’s victory at the polls was a rude shock, not only to the America people but to the entire world politics — except Russia perhaps. And so the world was hot on the President’s heels in revoking the omen that was him sitting in the Whitehouse. America’s sociopolitical and ideological debates then became strictly severed into pro and anti-Trump. There was no way West’s statement could be interpreted outside America’s present political dilemma. If he had an explanation to back up his view, the people refused him a platform. If he accidentally came across a platform, the people lent him no ears. In the end, the iconic pop star had to take back his words and apologize.
However, having read the Underground Railroad, a richly historified narrative of people making an array of choices in America’s slavery era, one could revisit West’s statement and try to make a sense of it; one would like to hear Whitehead Colson’s take on the tweet as well.
The Underground Railroad is an astonishingly detailed story of a slave girl named Cora. The novel starts with Cora being presented a choice — “The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.” — and went on to the end with people making difficult choices in the thick of those very troubled times; choices between life and death; between enslavement and freedom. If this was the choice West talks about, could he not be right?
The Yoruba people have a saying: “Iku ya ju esin lo.” To take one’s life is far better than living in inhumane mortification. The Igbos, too, must have a version of the saying, such that provoked an eerie reaction from a band of slaves. The novel records a historical fact of how slaves from the Igbo tribe in West Africa overcame their captors, took over the ship, burnt it down and walked into the sea in their chains, singing in one tongue and making a choice to die rather than to be enslaved.
One could read this book as a paean to the White abolitionists, too; people who absolutely didn’t have to take the risk they took for the sake of humanity — but took it anyways; people like Fletcher, Sam, Donald, Ethel, Martin…; whose unwavering relentlessness initiated a grandiose project like the underground railroad; “The ones who excavated a million tons of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them.” If their generations still live to this day, this book, among all other things, is to commend their bravery. It’s still unbelievable how the Underground Railroad came to be. How it functioned is still inconceivable to this day.
The quest to be free is a fundamental human right; it is as natural as the forces of nature; as the force that pushed one out of a womb at birth. Even when the slaves don’t have an idea how to go about it, or how to conceive it in their mind, they still dream of it, they make folklore of it, preach it, and make euphoria of it. As to what happens when one is denied freedom? The cost of reclamation may be as ultimate as life itself. This is the price Cora sets to pay when Caesar eventually convinces her to flee up north with him. Here, Whitehead plays subtly on myths: It might be true Cora has some sort of luck around her circumstances; in the chapter Mabel, Whitehead makes us understand it isn’t because her mother is the only one who ever escaped the vicious encampment of Randall’s farm and the savagery of Ridgeway’s chase, but despite it.
The bigger unspoken myth Whitehead plays with is the idea that Cora possesses a ravenous spirit, one as insatiable as a wildfire. Caesar’s approach at her with a plan to run off the Georgia cotton plantation is like igniting a blade of dry grass in a forest. Cora would consume everyone in her path — good and bad; black and white. Lovey is the first victim. Cora would eventually ravage a whole black community in Valentine.
But just about the time a keen-eyed reader gets into the rhythm of the narrative; of figuring out who Cora really is, the novel ends. Olley, her last rescuer is next in line to meet his misfortune, somehow. Whitehead rides on Cora’s abominable spirit to dive into the very depth of the horror of slavery in the 18th and 19th century America, its heinousness. When Cora describes Homer as being innocent in his looks, it is a metaphor of who she is, she unconsciously describes herself: beautiful, innocent and meek, but the spirit embedded in her is as dangerously potent as the poison of the cottonmouth from which her mother died in a forlorn swamp.
Sometimes one relies on humor to drive through a narrative. Whitehead’s train conveys no humor — at least not one that sets out to achieve such a purpose. Yet the writing is as enjoyable as reading a nursery rhyme. Reading the book is like being pulled in a long tunnel of the Underground Railroad itself, inviting, each paragraph a curiosity.
Whitehead is a minimalist writer. The alluring sensation the book gives is basically on the style of the writing: short sentences that allow for poetic interpretations. “Her mouth was an old dustpan after the rain of flying grit in the tunnel.” Whitehead writes. In another: “Chained head to toe, head to toe, in exponential misery.” And yet another: “In North Carolina the negro race did not exist except at the ends of ropes.” …and so many more. In a paragraph, Whitehead talks about the three men in Ajarry’s life in a way a narrative couldn’t have been better told — in just one short paragraph!
Through generational narratives, one is meant to see how individuals of different generation perceive the notion of freedom: Ajarry believes it is utterly impossible, can only happen in dreams; Mabel considers it an ephemeral, she goes ahead to prove it; Cora, whose story the novel chronicles, believes she can run and never look back. And she does.
In The Underground Railroad, power is the culprit of America’s crimes to humanity. Not race, not age, not gender, but Power; be it in the hands of Homer, the little, innocent-looking black boy who was with Ridgeway; or in the hands of Moses the Monster, the grown black man who tormented his ilk; or in the hands of James, the more lenient Old Randall’s son; or Fiona, Ethel’s house help; whoever it is who holds power in America, where “…the white race believes — believes with all their heart — that it is their right to take land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers…a country where its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty.” …whoever holds power uses it in a society devoid of justice.