In Colson Whitehead’s historical fiction, The Underground Railroad, the story of the African slave in the antebellum south is made known to the reader in a way that sinks far deeper than any history textbook could ever hope to do. Not only is the story one that solemnly reminds us of the unforgettable transgressions of human life that took place in the country that we call home, it is also a message for the present and future of humankind. Whitehead uses the simple premise of a slave girl’s odyssey through a hellish, early 19th century southern United States and conveys his thoughts and concerns for modern-day America, specifically of the lingering effects that slavery and racism has had on Americans, and bravely paints an honest picture of the people we are.
A slave in the antebellum south was subject to absolute, endless agony in all departments of the human condition. There are countless examples in The Underground Railroad of the physical pain slaves on the Randall plantation experienced, so much so that it is important to remember the torture was in the mind as well as in the body, as the physical torture could not be more egregious, and may tempt us to think of the pain inflicted as mere wounds on the skin, that will heal over time. As Lander pointed out in his speech to the residents of the Valentine farm, “Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade.” (pg. 285)
In the novel, Whitehead makes the point that the combination of ignorance, greed, fear, and beliefs allowed for this pain to exist. Many of the events that happen in South Carolina are examples of such. For example, during Cora’s time as part of the “Living History” exhibit at the Museum of Natural Wonders in South Carolina, she makes the stark point that, “…nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world. And no one wanted to hear it.” (pg. 116) Cora understands that in the world she lives in, truth is manipulated by the powerful and greedy. The hard-working, generous plantation owners and the noble peacekeepers that most white Americans know are the traders of human life and the agents of hell that Cora knows. But Cora also understands that the root of the evil in the world is not the lies that conceal it; it is the intentional nature of the evil itself. Still in the museum, Cora thinks about the Declaration of Independence: “She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men.” (pg. 117) The point is driven home in Lander’s speech at Valentine: “And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers.” (pg. 285)
Whitehead makes the point that neither deliberate disregard of human dignity, nor passivity, are acceptable, at least, so long as we wish to claim to be the just, moral human beings that we see ourselves as. But he also contends that slavery and racism are even grimmer issues, that the simple yet often taken-for-granted acknowledgement that they are insufferable does not encompass the whole of the problem. Ridgeway, the slave catcher that plagues Cora, is a symbol of what these issues really are. The heart-wrenching moments in which Cora is captured and recaptured, when the reader thinks, “No, please no, not again, this can’t be happening again,” for Cora’s sake; this is the dark reality that Cora knows, and its essence reaches beyond the story. We live in a world where Ridgeway still exists in the minds of many people, a world where the scar that slavery left is ubiquitous. The world remains wrought with racism and hatred driven by illogical and selfish beliefs. We may feel inclined to believe that we have come a long way from the slave era, from the civil rights era. Like Cora at Valentines farm, we may feel safe, that we have finally escaped evil. But the memory of evil lingers in the minds of both the victims and the perpetrators, and failing to face this fact, Whitehead tells us, is to forfeit whatever humanity we claim to have, and become the evil ourselves.