The Dark Side of American History – Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The winner of National Book Award 2017, Pulitzer Prize 2017, esteemed as the great novel, the great story, the great portrait of the dark side of American history – slavery. Is it honestly that good? Or maybe a part of its greatness results from the context of the times when it was published?



C olson Whitehead’s “Underground Railroad” is a story of the dark side of history – slavery, the costs people had to pay for being “alive,” the longing for freedom of those who imagined this possibility, and eventually of escape from the South northward to freedom of one’s dreams. The underground railroad in the novel is an actual one, a real path to one’s liberation from the chains of slavery. Established by the white activists, risking their own and their families’ lives in the name of their beliefs.

The main axis is the escape of the two protagonists Cora and her friend from the plantation Ceaser for the North by underground railroad. Desperate for freedom and quality of life they decide to take their future into their own hands. Well, at least regarding the making of the decision.

Their path to freedom turns out to be rather a bumpy one. Following the protagonists, we encounter, as they do, all the horrific, humiliating and terrifying reality of those times. Further, Whitehead interposes in their journey passages about Cora’s grandmother Ajarry who was brought to America on the ship with other slaves. He begins with portraying the context and the impotence of enslaved to find their way out of it. First, by erasing their identity and heritage, they could have brought to American soil.

They had been stolen from villages all over Africa and spoke a multitude of tongues. The words from across the ocean were beaten out of them over time. For simplicity, to erase their identities, to smoother uprisings.

Those raised already in the slavery don’t know any other world. They were born into the white men’s world. Since they are illiterate, with no other heritage than slavery and subjection to the white race, that obviously (in their views) is the superior one, the plantation was the only known world. The world where the rules and boundaries are more than clear and probably, regardless of how ridiculous it might sound, thus the only “comfort zone” to live.

Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principle of your existence: impossible.

Since the characters of Whitehead’s novel, at least most of them, have no other experiences outside the plantation, no knowledge of words, have never made any significant decisions in their lives they naturally become incapacitated, incapable of not only making any change but even thinking of it.

“I can’t decide for myself,” Cora said. “Why can’t they? On the plantation, master decided everything for us. …”

Cora and Ceaser while moving northward with the underground railroad, eventually become aware of how deceptive is their liberation. On the one hand, as a result of Ridgeway, slaves hunter, desperate to seize the two fugitives, following their every step. On the other, by confronting with the dissonance of their vision of what they would encounter on their way to the North with the reality they have to face: racism, hatred, disgust with black people and in a result brutal and barbarian murders. Whitehead portrays the brutality with a precision giving us all the horror and repugnance that the events could arouse in us.

The endeavor for freedom seems to be in the novel unattainable for the protagonists. Wherever they go and try to settle within the groups or communities that are in favor of equality, they eventually have to leave and start their chase for freedom once again. There is always some tension, some boundaries that make their liberation quite illusory.

“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 brother. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

“The Underground Railroad” takes on fundamental issues that have never been dealt appropriately. As I see it, it is crucial nowadays to dedicate literary novels to matters that are critical in our history.¬†We all shall learn a lesson from stories like this one, told by Colson Whitehead. Although I find this novel of a great importance there is this thought that I had, reading the book, that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Is “The Underground Railroad” honestly that good as almost everyone praise? Is it that innovative and literary master crafted?

As far as I am concerned, no, it’s not. When I was reading it, I couldn’t help myself thinking “well, I’ve already read that.” Obviously, one can say that there is nothing wrong about it. Eventually, that’s how it all happened. Thus you can’t rewrite the events. However, as I see it, it’s rather a case of how you portray those events. I found the novel quite schematic and repetitive concerning the states of characters, the problems and the emotions Whitehead presents. Then again, it’s more about how you do it than what you do. Let me invoke here just three great novels for my argument.

First, “The Known Wolrd” by Edward P. Jones, who amazingly portrays the longing for freedom, the absurdity of slavery as well as its brutality. When I read the first part of Whitehead’s novel, I had in my mind pictures that rendered from Jones’ book and honestly couldn’t resist thinking that the latter one is much more emotional, innovative regarding the way it represents feelings, characters, and their struggles.

Second, “The Black Boy” by Richard Wright that takes a stance on how important and essential role in one’s freedom plays words and knowledge of them. The book also portrays the journey that the protagonist takes toward freedom in the North of America and how illusory it actually is on the way. Then again, personally, I find Wright’s novel much more credible and sensitive and further, much better regarding literary art.

Third and the last I want to invoke is “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. Most of the reviews say that Whitehead’s novel is so moving, so emotional that you sincerely can’t resist it. It definitely is repulsive concerning all the brutality and horror it describes in the lives of its characters. However, is it honestly as profoundly moving as Morrison’s passages in “Beloved?”

“The Underground Railroad” is a good book, but it’s not, in my opinion, an extraordinary one. Whitehead took on a complicated task – to write a novel that would not only tell the story that has already been told so many times (and I’m not saying too many times!) but would be able to stand in line with some great pieces of literary art like Morrison’s or Wright’s. The way I see it, he did not quite manage to do this.

One Comment

  1. kenyanbibliophile

    I love this review. It’s refreshing to read a different opinion when a book has received such rave reviews. I don’t have much to contribute but I’ll reach out to you with my thoughts once I read the book

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