My first finish of 2017 was an incredible one. I started The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead at the end of December, confident that I’d finish it before 2016 ended given that it’s just over 300 pages. This book had a strange push/pull for me. I was captivated by the story, but I had to put it down so many times. Sometimes it was because of the pure brutality that the characters experienced. Other times it was because Whitehead included a sentence that was so thought provoking and could still be applied to America today, that I was just floored.
The storyline in a nutshell: Cora is enslaved in Georgia and is approached by a man who asks her to escape with him. While her first instinct was one of fear and incredulity, she eventually agrees to do so after a particularly heinous incident. We follow Cora and her journey on the Underground Railroad, which is an actual railroad that runs between stops that are all underground.
Cora’s escape takes us many places throughout the south and we meet many brave people who risk their lives to help those that make the dangerous choice of searching for freedom. This book is incredibly suspenseful and it felt like Cora was suddenly ripped from safety so many times. A major appeal of this book is its suspense, so I won’t go into any of the details of her journey, but it is heart wrenching and terrifying.
One of the blurbs on the back of my hardcover copy from the library says: “A large and vibrant talent… This is the voice of a writer who is watching America carefully.” – The New York Observer. And this is so true. His ability to draw parallels between now and the overt enslavement of the past is incredible. One quote that really drove home for me was:
“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 that the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and that crop grew fast. The whites were right to be afraid. One day the system would collapse in blood.” –page 172
And I couldn’t help but think how so many in America today believe that racism is over, when it only changes what it looks like from the outside. These seeds were planted when people in this country purchased others that they believed to be inferior in every way and staked their livelihood on the labor that this group of people provided. And then, in order to maintain power and control over their slaves, they did whatever it took it to keep them in their place.
Over time that belief and fear morphed into Jim Crow. The Jim Crow era taught us to fear our physical safety around black men, especially. And as time crept on, I truly believe that is what has led to our current crisis of killing innocent black men as we watch the news in horror. There have been so many murders of black men by police in the last couple of years. We watch and we see that most of these men aren’t doing anything that is truly threatening to the police officer. But a police officer has to work on his or her gut instinct and this society has been conditioned to see a black men and think “fear!”
I kept thinking about what it must have been like to be a mother and a slave. It seemed so terrifying; you never knew when you were going to be sold and have to leave your child behind to fend for himself. Children died at an astonishing rate – either of illness or at the hands of the slavedriver. And then I think of being a black mother in America now, which is also terrifying. We see how black mothers have to teach their children – a police officer isn’t someone to trust, he or she is a potentially harmful person. Black people in this country continue to have to “submit” to those in authority – if a black person comes off as a threat in anyway to a police officer, they could potentially lose their lives. So black mothers teach their children to always keep their hands in view around a police officer. To always speak in an over-the-top respectful manner. Don’t run in public, someone might think you’ve stolen something. Don’t wear a hoodie, someone might think you’re up to something. A black mother in America can have her child or her husband taken away in a moment, just like it was in the plantation days. It is gut wrenching and terrifying to see some of my very close friends from school react when there’s been another homicide by a police officer. There are so many people in this world who live their lives terrified of losing someone because our instant reaction at the color of their skin is “danger!” when there is no real evidence to support that belief.
I am rambling, but one other quote that really had me thinking was:
“He even posed as a slave catcher named James Olney, prying slaves from jail on the pretext of delivering them to their masters. The stupid constables and deputies. Racial prejudices rotted one’s faculties, he said. He demonstrated his slave catcher voice and swagger, to Cora’s and Sybil’s amusement.” –page 269
And this passage made me think of the election of Donald Trump. White America voted for Donald Trump because he knew how to play on their fear. He’s done nothing in his past that would indicate that he has any desire to help the common man, but he knew what to say and he knew how to act, and millions of people voted for him out of fear and desperation to maintain their perceived superiority. I am still shattered by his win and cannot fathom how people believed what he said, but the fact is that they did.
There is so much to unpack in this novel and it’s impossible for my little brain to comprehend it all. But it’s brilliant – so if you get the opportunity to read it, please do! I am sure that every single passage in this novel speaks to a different person in a different way. But it reminds me how power and control founded this country and how it continues to prevail. I don’t know what to do to help change this. All I know to do is to be a voice that calls out hate and fear when I see it. And that is exhausting and leaves one vulnerable, but what other choice do we have?