April Reading (2024)

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series 2024-Reads

This is the fourth in a series of posts about books I’ve read in 2024.  

April’s always rough for reading: there’s Midterm Exams to prepare, and then Midterm Exams to grade, and with six (6!) classes this semester, I have to admit I spent about half the month completely burned out. That’s not to say I didn’t read anything, but I only finished one book… and even that one, I only actually finished at the start of May. Still, I’m posting about it while it’s fresh in my memory. 

Colson Whitehead‘s Underground Railroad is an unusual novel. Is it an alternate history? Well… kind of? The story imagines an antebellum America where the Underground Railroad is literally real: an underground railway tunneling through the earth beneath the settled portions of the United States, ferrying escaped slaves northward. For me, it called to mind Emir Kusturica’s 1995 film Underground, which similarly features a subterranean tunnel system linking various parts of Europe.1 

In any case, Whitehead’s novel—a Pulitzer prize and National Book Award winner—is a really great novel. It took me a little while to acclimate to what I knew it would contain—the horrors of slavery—but once I was ready for it, I found the novel a rewarding read that is about much more than that. The book tells the experiences—sometimes adventurous, sometimes not so much—of a pair of escaped slaves from a Georgia plantation who, with the aid of many individuals along a literal underground railroad, travel from state to state, witnessing different responses to the question of what America without slavery might look like, or rather how an American with slavery responded to black slaves who, by whatever means, exited bondage. And while Whitehead does depict what chattel slavery looked like—across a range of conditions, but with a keen eye to the horrors of the quiet times in the lives of slaves—the novel is more interesting in what it has to say about the struggles of characters who are no longer living in those conditions, but are struggling with their aftereffects while also coping with the uncertainty and danger of life in America. While it’s no surprise that former slaves would suffer what we now call PTSD, I’ve never before seen such an attentive depiction of it as in many of the characters in this book. Each former slave seems to carry a legacy of their experience in a different way, shaping how they respond to the remaining dangers and dilemmas that face them.   

The story focuses on a pair of slaves, Cora and Caesar, who leave what I think of as the stereotypical plantation: a cruel, oppressive master, a populace of slaves twisted by their own dehumanized condition. Another major character is Ridgeway, a slave-hunter who pursues the pair through a series of states, each of which has responded to the so-called “Negro Question” in a different way. South Carolina, for example, seems like a decent place for former slaves to settle, with its rhetoric of “Negro Uplift,” but conceals a sinister secret that, if you know any modern American history, is none too surprising. North Carolina, on the other hand, has simply outlawed blackness, its roadways lined with the hanging bodies of murdered Blacks (freeman and slave alike) and the hunting of Blacks and white collaborationists alike turned into a statewide sport. (Shades of McCarthyism, long before Communism was a fear in America.) Tennessee, on the other hand, is “cursed”—burned black in areas, ruined and blighted—while Indiana is home to an uneasy and unstable peace where Black self-determination is briefly possible, despite the looming shadows without and within the hearts of the former slaves who shelter there. Always, the North is the promised land of escape, and the South the cursed pursuer that refuses to let go. 

To what degree Whitehead’s depiction of each state accords with anything in history is unclear to me, but that’s not the point. Obviously, these particular states are emblematic of different white responses to the question of Black emancipation—and, today, the question of what role Black people play in America. The options are pretty depressing: racist lip service covering for continued horrific exploitation, brutal repression of the very idea, self-ruination, and uneasy and temporary acceptance followed by the  inevitable and resentful change of heart. These are patterns we see played out just as much today as in the past, albeit (to a significant degree, though not completely) through different means. In the novel, the one place former slaves seem to have a hope of actual freedom—material freedom, if not instant liberation from the psychological effects of bondage—is out West, where there are fewer white settlers, but getting there is no easy feat. Along the way, Black and white characters aid the refugees, many of them paying a terrible price for doing so—and this is one of the few times I’ve seen it made evident that the maintenance of slavery prompted the wanton killing of a certain number of white subversives who opposed the system, not just Blacks who escaped from their bonds. (A small proportion of the victims of slavery, to be sure, but the point helps to drive home how brutal and monstrous institutions founded on racism manage to force the cooperation of those who do not hold with it.)  

The novel proceeds in surges as Cora and Caesar—and later, just Cora—travel along the road to freedom, fighting for their lives at times, hiding for survival’s sake at others. Whitehead surely knows how to break the reader’s heart, too: the fates of Caesar and Cora’s mother alike are especially difficult to grapple with in the flashbacks that reveal more about each character. (Cora’s mother’s fate is especially heartbreaking.) It’s telling and appropriate that at the end of the novel, Cora’s journey to freedom is not yet over: by this point in the novel, Whitehead has more than made his point that it’s not that simple, that the escape from slavery is necessarily a lifelong project, but also, implicitly, that the escape from the brutal institution of slavery and all of its poisonous aftereffects is something America collectively has not yet achieved, and that many people and places are still caught up in their dysfunctional, depressing responses to the same “Negro question” that are explored in the novel. 

I’m impressed by Colson Whitehead and I’ll be seeking out more of his work in the future, to be sure.  

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  1. Interestingly, a search for mentions of Kusturica and Whitehead together turns up nothing much beyond this seemingly incidental co-mention on a French website. I suppose that’s what being a genocide-supporting, ultranationalist piece of trash has done for Kusturica’s career, though maybe the film has been forgotten, or wasn’t well-known enough to begin with.

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