If forced to classify Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, I would call it historical fiction with a dash of magical realism. Whitehead tells the story of Cora, a runaway slave who escapes from a plantation in Georgia via the underground railroad. The novel does not pull any punches and some of it is incredibly hard to read. The book includes horrible accounts of physical abuse and unethical medical practices imposed by local authorities. Although the book is a work of fiction, these are fictional accounts of actual events and they are appalling and terrifying. One of the things that keeps the reading from being mercilessly painful is the whimsical element of the underground railroad as an actual underground locomotive. That and the brilliantly crafted characters. Whitehead intersperses backstories and asides that are not strictly necessary, but serve to take some of the sting out of the reading by allowing us to immerse ourselves in the story and characters before being jarred back to reality by a brutal reminder of the harms inflicted on people by people.
Cora’s journey is full of difficulty and loss. Throughout she is helped by whites and blacks, but ultimately it is the ownership of the Underground Railroad movement by other black people that is most instrumental in her liberation.
This week Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher’s names got added to the long list of black men gunned down by police. This is slavery’s legacy. More than 150 years after its abolition, black people are still seen and treated as lesser. And most white people either deny this fact or are complicit with our silence. The underground railroad is the great grandmother of the Black Lives Matter movement and like BLM it needed white people to get on board. In the novel, the underground railroad needed white people on board, but it also needed them to take a back seat. The stations were manned by white men, but the trains were driven by black men. I don’t know how to help the Black Lives Matter movement, but I know that I need to and I know that I need to do it in a way that doesn’t allow white people (like me)to commandeer the movement. I need to involve my sons, who will grow to be white men in a world that values white men over other people. I need them to know that black lives matter.
I started this year with a resolution to be a more mindful reader and I am glad that I did. For the last quarter of this year I have another resolution – to be an active participant in the most important movement of our time, the modern day equivalent of the underground railroad.