Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was one of the most famous novels of 2016. In this novel, a young slave Cora escapes from Georgia on the Underground Railroad, and eventually...does she make it? I won’t spoil the ending. But in this novel the Railroad is really a railroad, with railroad cars on tracks running through tunnels.
One impression is inescapable, and intentional. The amount of deliberate suffering inflicted by slave owners and slave hunters on the slaves, and even on other whites, is almost infinitely brutal. In this novel, slave hunters would kill and rape white abolitionists. Slave owners would put the eyes out of a slave who tried to learn to read. A white daughter turned in her parents to be hanged for hiding a fugitive slave (Cora), in return for an elevation of her social status. One slave hunter wore a necklace made out of human ears. One slave owner tortured his male slave by cutting off the slave’s manhood, stuffing it in the slave’s mouth, and sewing it shut.
Remember, this is fiction. Many of these things did not actually happen. For example, it makes no economic sense for slave owners to torture and kill their slaves for minor infractions; slaves were expensive to buy and maintain. Slave owners would, in the real South, treat slaves like animals, but not usually worse. But Whitehead achieves the novelist’s purpose, to make the reader hate slavery, and to see how it turns slave owners into devils.
And then I realized that this was the point. Most of these brutal things occurred at some point in history, but not all at once. During the lynchings after the Civil War, whites would indeed torture blacks. In doing so, they were not losing any money, the way slave owners would have. Whitehead took actual events from the lynching period and stuck them into the time of slavery. Whitehead also created a superficially nice-looking South Carolina, where black escapees were treated nicely, but it turns out that they were being sterilized in the name of scientific eugenics, and being used in scientific experiments. These things actually happened in the first half of the twentieth century. By placing the brutalities of fictional Georgia and North Carolina alongside the superficial niceness of the fictional South Carolina, Whitehead was inviting us to compare them. Were eugenics and scientific experimentation (as in the Tuskegee experiments), any less brutal than slavery? We usually don’t ask that question, because they occurred separately in history. Whitehead lines them all up during one brief time in Cora’s life. He performs an experiment with history. Hypothesis: eugenics is less brutal than slavery. Conclusion: No, they are both brutal.
I tried this kind of literary experiment when I was in junior high. I wrote a short story in which I divided England into two counties, Rupertshire and Spratleyshire, and I gave them two different forms of government. I set them side by side and allowed a traveler to directly compare them. That’s all I remember about this story, which might be in a box somewhere.
The Underground Railroad will certainly stir your fury. The young escaped slave Cora did not take every opportunity for revenge that came to her. I found myself wishing she had tortured and slowly killed the slave catcher in Indiana, rather than leaving him alive and tied up. That is, Whitehead stirred my desire for revenge then confronted me with mercy. This literary theme will never grow old.
Colson Whitehead broke up the timeline of history in a way that is forbidden in most historical fiction: he altered the historical context. But he made this broken timeline into parallel segments and compared them, as in a scientific experiment.
I published this essay on my evolution blog earlier this fall.