colson whitehead underground railroad novel national book award new york slavery

I expect Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award-nominated novel, The Underground Railroad, to win plenty of kudos for its ability to convey a layered story of metaphoric Afro-mysticism surrounding Black slaves, particularly a young woman named Cora, who are pursuing freedom from the antebellum South. Abolitionists, pro-slavery supporters and the ideological permutations in-between help to frame an argument which lives today: “What does freedom (social justice) look like?”

Sure, other writers have used literary devices to illustrate the Underground Railroad as a actual mode of mass transportation, but not many of them are kicking as much azz as Whitehead is doing at the moment.

Plus, the azz-kicking is seamless. He wrote about a real railroad during the mid-1800s that runs under Southern lands, physically transporting slaves yearning to be free — plus he adds skyscrapers(!) — and I was never once prompted to question the 300-page book’s premise. Down South, we would call that trick talking the fur off a pig’s knuckle…

Underground Railroad  is also a testimonial, as well as an advocation for social justice — laden with imagery that draws out the similarities of America’s past and present racial struggles, while attaching achingly familiar justifications for oppression.

I pulled together a few parts from the book which should blow your literary mind.

1. Colson Whitehead makes a casual, drive-by sentence about oligarchs, slavery, class and race — and wrecked our brains.

Look at how the book treats slave-catcher Ridgeway, one of the story’s villains, and his father, an overworked blacksmith whose business exponentially expanded due to the growth of the cotton industry and subsequently the South — all of which were driven by the success of a certain oligarch’s cotton gin:

Eli Whitney had run his father into the ground, the old man coughing soot on his deathbed, and kept Ridgeway on the hunt.

Boom. Oligarchs clocking dollars are at slavery’s core, with the father and son serving as dispensable implements of the greater, diabolical whole. Some writers require a book to define that relationship, while others need a page. Whitehead handled the topic with an arguably equivalent impact by dropping just one sentence and keeping it moving — as if he had more important points to make.

On the way slaves figure into the bond between father, son and corporation:

When his father finished his workday, the fruit of his labor lay before him: a musket, a rake, a wagon spring. Ridgeway faced the man or woman he had captured. One made tools, the other retrieved them.

2. Slave mentality is on full display.

Reading this passage in The Underground Railroad reminds me of a knife fight at the New York Auto show, where two young men had a disagreement over taking photos of a BMW:

White men squabble before judges over claims to this or that tract hundreds of miles away that had been carved up on a map. Slaves fought with equal fervor over their tiny parcels at their feet.

The slaves’ disputed land was three square-yards. When you have nothing, you’ll fight over anything  …  except for your freedom. Homer, a black boy whose freedom was purchased by Ridgeway, works as an assistant slave catcher of sorts with an unusual sleep ritual:

“If he’s free, why don’t he go?”

“Where?” Ridgway asked. “He’s seen enough to know a black boy has no future, free papers or no. Not in this country.”

Each night, with meticulous care, Homer opened his satchel and removed a set of manacles. He locked himself to the driver’s seat, put the key in his pocket, and closed eyes.

Ridgeway caught Cora looking. “He says it’s the only way he can sleep.”

Homer snored like a rich old man every night.

3. Whiteslpaining slavery, genocide, colonialism and pretty much anything else that looks like oppression.

“My father liked his Indian talk about the Great Spirit,” Ridgeway said. “All these years, I prefer the American Spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by Divine prescription — the American imperative.”

“I need to visit the outhouse,” Cara said.


4. Or is Gulliver’s Travels a better explanation?

Cesar, another slave running for freedom who learned how to read before being cast into chains, looked to a literary classic to understand his current plight:

The white man in the book, Gulliver, roved from peril to peril, each new Island a new predicament to solve before he could return home. That was the man’s real trouble, not the savage and uncanny civilizations he encountered — he kept forgetting what he had. That was white people all over: Build a schoolhouse and let it rot, make a home and then keep straying. If Caesar figured the route home, he’d never travel again.

5. One of many ways the book served up the Underground Railroad as a metaphor.

Cora jumped on Ridgeway’s back and strangled him with her chains, twisting them tight against his flesh. Her scream came from deep inside her, a train whistle echoing in a tunnel.

6. What is freedom? Well, many things. I guess. (Including the Freedom Trail.)

Whitehead makes America’s racist history scream off the pages of his novel when he condensed real-life racial incidents from different times and places, and then positioned these events as freedom options to slaves. Eugenics, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, fake white progressivism and ethnic cleansing are among the choices. I won’t give away the story, but the Freedom Trail is one of the book’s most powerful devices.

7. The book’s ending.

Let’s just say the book closes in a way that will make you think of the present.

I believe Colson Whitehead has released an American classic to the world …

song currently stuck in my head: “diapositivisme”- serge gainsbourg

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