The Underground Railroad
Award winning (Pulitzer and National Book Award) and now I see why.
Whitehead’s railroad is at once metaphorical and real. Each station along its path delivers the young runaway slave, Cora, to a different future. The places range from seemingly benevolent (at least on the surface) to outright hostile. However, danger, brutality, and death are everywhere for the slaves and those who dared to help them.
Cora is relentlessly pursued by Ridgeway, a slave catcher whose views sound eerily familiar.
“In another country they would have been criminals, but this was America.”
“…I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the new, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription—the American imperative.
Cora learns to read and educates herself with almanacs and gazettes. But she already knew the injustice of the world.
“The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of heir masters…But the ideals they held for themselves, they denied to others.”
The number of slaves grew to accommodate cotton. As their numbers grew, so did fear of an uprising.
“That was Sea Island cotton the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and that crop grew fast.”
Echoes of that hate and fear are sadly still evident today.
“Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade.”
And the author offers the teensiest bit of hope.
“The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”
You’re going to think I like everything I read. Not true. After reading this book, I dove right into Jodi Piccoult’s Small Great Things, thinking I could tie the two together. You know, racism then and now. It was so well-written, the anger and hatred so real, so visceral it was painful to read. It hurt my heart. I chose not to read after the first quarter of the book. I had a similar reaction when I read her Handle with Care. It was just too sad. I stopped reading her books.
Nonetheless, when a book is worth sharing, I will. I recommend The Underground Railroad to you.
This book is an earnest and fervent warning from Coates to his son and in reading it, I felt his urgency in trying to protect the life–“the body” — of his teen-aged son. Three long essays detail why being black in America is dangerous in ways that those who are not black can never fully appreciate.
Coates understands the reality. He could spend years educating himself, developing a career, acquiring assets, being responsible, and one racist act could end it all. He cites examples from history, the news, and from his own life.
Rather than trying to summarize his thoughts, I’ll let Ta-Nehisi (tah-nuh-hah-see) speak for himself.
The big message:
“…you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know… Indeed you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you… You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”
Race is a social, not a biological construct:
“As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissident; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”
No sudden moves:
“Each time a police officer engages us, death, injury, maiming is possible. It is not enough to say that this is true of anyone or more true of criminals… It has nothing to do with how you wear your pants or how you style your hair.”
“Should assaulting an officer of the state be a capital offense, rendered without trial, with the officer as judge and executioner? Is that what we wish civilization to be?”
“When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing.”
“We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out. …my father beat me for letting another boy steal from me. Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not escape.”
I recommend this book as a brief walk in another person’s shoes. I think you’ll find it both troubling and enlightening, as I did.