The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead


Fear drove these people, even more than cotton money. The shadow of the black hand that will return what has been given. It occurred to her one night that she was one of the vengeful monsters they were scared of: She had killed a white boy. She might kill one of them next. And because of that fear, they erected a new scaffolding of oppression on the cruel foundation laid hundreds of years before. That was Sea Island cotton the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and the crop grew fast. The whites were right to be afraid. One day the system would collapse in blood.

                     from  The Underground Railroad


The road to freedom winds through Hell.

We now recognize that the institution of slavery dehumanized slave and slave owner alike, if in different ways. This dual dehumanization is depicted vividly in Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad.

Receiving the National Book Award for fiction in 2016, it tells the story of Cora, a slave owned by a brutal and sadistic planter in Georgia. When Caesar, a new slave to the plantation, invites her to escape with him to the north, she sets out on a journey through the hell of an antebellum South, with the reader accompanying her every step of the way.

Through Cora’s experience, Whitehead presents the different societies and people of the times and their attitudes toward slaves. In Georgia, we witness the daily horrors and humiliations of plantation life. A slave is blinded for secretly trying to learn to read (“You don’t need eyes to shuck corn.”)

In South Carolina the treatment of black people is more “enlightened,” though the bar was never set very high, where the whites are committed to “uplifting the Negro,” providing vastly improved living conditions and a degree of freedom, but where black people are encouraged to be sterilized, and medical experiments are performed on them without their knowledge, foreshadowing the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiments in the twentieth century.

North Carolina’s approach to race relations is more basic. Fearful of the growing slave population that threatens to outnumber the whites, they banish all slaves, and hang any black person—slave or free—who ventures into their fair state.

In one chilling scene reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” Cora is hiding in the attic of a safe house, part of the underground railroad that offered sanctuary to those trying to make their way north. From her hiding place, she watches a bucolic scene unfold in the town center. The citizenry gathers in the park. A band plays, lovers stroll, children scamper about, old people sit on benches, enjoying the summer evening; then they all gather together to hang an escaped slave from the large tree in the center of the park. It’s a weekly custom the townspeople here look forward to. Like Cora, the reader is horrified at the fact that these people aren’t horrified, that this is normal for them.

The legalized crime that was slavery continues to stain our national history. In some ways the nation today reflects Cora on her journey at the end of the book: she’s come a long way; she has a long way still to go.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (February 15, 2017-March 14, 2017.) Reprinted with permission.