Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

*This review contains spoilers so read with caution!* 

“Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.”
When I set out to read all of Whitehead’s books in order for this edition of my Author in Depth series, I had only read one previously: The Underground Railroad. I cannot remember when I read it, though it was published in 2016, so not long ago. I recall liking it, but remembered almost none of the details. When I plumbed my memory, I don’t remember it being a challenging novel to read; rather, a well-written literary fiction novel that was frictionless in its appeal. I wondered if that would be true on revisiting it, because as I’ve read through Whitehead’s books, I’ve noted that they are not always easy reads. Sometimes it’s the ideas he presents that take thought to parse out; but more often it is the way he plays with different literary forms (most notably in John Henry Days); or his dense, lyrical writing that can take pages to develop an idea. It pays off, but it’s not a page turner type of thing.

Revisiting The Underground Railroad reaffirmed my impression: this seems Whitehead’s most accessible, mainstream book thus far. We are introduced to Cora as a girl on a plantation in Georgia. She is a slave, with her grandmother Ajarry dead and her mother Mabel recently escaped. She is alone in the world, fighting for a small patch of ground near her cabin where she grows sweet potatoes; the only thing that belongs to her, and that only through sheer determination to fight off those who want to take it from her. She also escapes from the plantation and alights on the underground railroad. Here, Whitehead introduces a magical realism element: the railroad is an actual underground, functioning railroad. And Whitehead’s America is not the America we know.

Aha, or is it?

Here, for me, was the crux of the novel and what made it great: The America that she escapes into is not the literal America of the 19th century, but an America that stands in for all of the types of racism that exist both then and today. It is a railroad into colonialism and its myriad forms.


Cora is a slave on the Randall plantation, the only place she has known. Cora’s grandmother Ajarry was kidnapped from her home in Africa and eventually lived on the Randall plantation, where she died. Cora learned from her to stay put, because Ajarry had come to believe that escape was not possible.
“Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like the whitecaps on the brute ocean. The last of her village, keeled over in the rows from a knot in her brain, blood pouring from her nose and white froth covering her lips. As if it could have been anywhere else. Liberty was reserved for other people…Since the night she was kidnapped she had been appraised and reappraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale. Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible.”
This impossibility frames the whole novel. But Cora’s mother Mabel escapes; Cora never knew what happened to her and was left alone on the plantation to make her way in life. When Cora faces an untenable situation, she decides to escape in a bid for freedom from slavery.

South Carolina:

This seems like a utopia after the plantation, where there are white and colored folk living together, and education and “rehabilitation” for former slaves is zealously pursued. Freedom is suspect, though: Cora and her fellow escapee are given new identity papers. “‘It says here we’re property of the United States Government,’ Caesar pointed out. ‘That’s a technicality,’ Sam said.”

So what’s going on? Why is this wonderful vision of freedom tainted? Black people are subject to medical testing without consent, and Cora eventually gleans that almost-forced sterilization is pushed on Black women. Perhaps more subtly, but just as troubling, a cultural assimilation program is paramount. I think Whitehead is commenting on cultural genocide under the guise of “improvement.” More bluntly, it is back to the idea of “civilizing” non-White people. This is so approximate to my learning about what happened to Indigenous people in Canada and the residential school system, among other institutional harms.
“She slept poorly. In the eighty bunks the women snored and shifted under their sheets. They had gone to bed believing themselves free from white people’s control and commands about what they should do and be. That they managed their own affairs. But the women were still being herded and domesticated. Not pure merchandise as formerly, but livestock: bred, neutered. Penned in dormitories that were like coops or hutches.”
Everyone has a job, and Cora’s job is to pose in a natural history museum display as a character in a diorama showcasing the African journey to America. The three displays are Scenes from Darkest Africa, Slave Ship to Darkest Africa, and Typical Day on the Plantation. “Her recent installation in the exhibition returned her to the furrows of Georgia, the dumb, open-jawed stares of the patrons stealing her back to a state of display.”

In the end, this is not a place where Cora can stay. She’s forced to move on.

North Carolina:

Here, racism is on full display, and the government of North Carolina, feeling threatened by what it sees as a possible uprising by the vast number of Black people in the state, simply outlaws Black people. They are bought and sold to other plantation states, and any freemen who don’t leave are killed. Any Black people found in NC are killed, their bodies hung for display. Cora spends her time in an attic, watching this through a peephole.
“On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.”
And she observes, watching the townsfolk, that everyone, Black or White, is a prisoner:
“...they were prisoners like she was, shackled to fear…The town huddled together on Friday nights in the hope their numbers warded off the things in the dark: the rising black tribe; the enemy who concocts accusations; the child who undertakes a magnificent revenge for a scolding and brings the house down around them. Better to hide in attics than to confront what lurked behind the faces of neighbors, friends and family.”

A brief, scorched wasteland where everyone loses: nature’s indifference, random cruelty, arbitrary destruction and suffering. It had been Cherokee land once.
“Plantation justice was mean and constant, but the world was indiscriminate. Out in the world, the wicked escaped comeuppance and the decent stood in their stead at the whipping tree. Tennessee’s disasters were the fruit of indifferent nature without connection to the crimes of the homesteaders. To how the Cherokee had lived their lives.

Just a spark that got away.

…If Tennessee had a temperament, it took after the dark personality of the world, with a taste for arbitrary punishment. No one was spared, regardless of the shape of their dreams or the color of their skin.”

This may be the answer, in a land where Black and White folk live alongside, getting along, friendly if not friends. Cora and new friends live on a working farm, gaining economic security and developing kinship. Lander, a mixed-race travelling speaker, symbolizes the ideal:
“‘I’m what botanists call a hybrid,’ he said the first time Cora heard him speak. ‘’A mixture of two different families. In flowers, such a concoction pleases the eye. When that amalgamation takes its shape in flesh and blood, some take great offence. In this room we recognize it for what it is–a new beauty come into the word, and it is in bloom all around us.’”
However, education and economic advancement creates power, and in Whitehead’s Indiana, this is too much for conservative minded locals who see Black autonomy and partnership as a threat. Indiana is a stand in for what is happening today in a polarized America: what looks like a new racism is just old racism rearing once again.

The North:

Serving as an epilogue, Cora must travel again, taking the underground railway to an unknown future. On foot, following the underground tracks:
"Her fingers danced over valleys, rivers, the peaks of mountains, the contours of a new nation hidden behind the old. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America. She could not see it but she felt it, moved through its heart. She feared she'd gotten turned around in her sleep. Was she going deeper in or back from where she came? She trusted the slave’s choice to guide her–anywhere, anywhere but where you are escaping from. It had gotten her this far. She’d find the terminus or die on the tracks.”

This was a novel that on one level was a compelling story of a young woman’s search for liberty. If not freedom, then perhaps autonomy or self-determination. Her grandmother started the novel, having learned from traumatic experience that, “To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principle of your existence: impossible.”

Cora escapes the plantation in Georgia, but perhaps she never actually escapes the plantation as an idea. The plantation just changes and envelops us wherever we are. All of us, no matter what our skin colour, have been ensnared. This harkens back to Tessa McWatt’s book Shame on Me, and her discussion of a figurative plantation that slave, owner and indigenous persons were a part of but never escaped from psychologically, even generations later.

Whitehead’s America is not a good place to be, and this book could be taken as very pessimistic. But I think that Cora is the hope here, she has no illusions about reality as she learns the faces of persecution, but she also will never give up the fight.
"She’d find the terminus or die on the tracks.”