- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The diversity of African America has always made diagnosing its mood a tenuous prospect. But if one were to venture at such a claim, it would be fair to say that its recent cultural expression is especially circumspect at this time. The euphoria it experienced at the arrival of an Obama presidency has waned, perhaps not so much because of who succeeded him, but because his election did not sufficiently fulfill what it seemed to augur. It was not ironic that the Obama era gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement, since the latter could point to both optimism and dissatisfaction as its causes. However, much more of the latter appears to linger in its wake. At the forefront of contemporary black commentary are documentarist Ava DuVernay, filmmaker Nate Parker, novelist Jesmyn Ward, and essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is questionable whether this quadumvirate of talent would descend as deeply into nihilism as has theorist Craig Warren who proposes, "it is impossible to emancipate blacks without literally destroying the world," but each with varying degrees of distress has turned to United States history to gain a sense of why the present seems so troubling.
Perhaps the imperative to take existential account of nation, people, and person drives Colson Whitehead's most recent fiction, The Underground Railroad. The narrative begins with Ajarry, the captured, imported, and bartered grandmother of the story's heroine measuring her prospects as a fated slave. She "made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations," equally conscious and not that the urgency of empirical self-knowledge would be a bequest to her descendants, namely her granddaughter, Cora, who with the support of enterprising and courageous abolitionists flees a Georgia plantation in search of Northern freedom. The novel is rather explicit about what Cora's flight through the plantation South, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Indiana is supposed to enact. As Lumbly, one of the railroad's conductors explains, "If you want to see what this nation is all about … you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you'll find the true face of America." The clandestine rendezvous, the aliases and disguises, the dramatic dodgings of pursuing paterollers and slave catchers, the stolen moments of tender humanity while fleeing—that Cora and her conspirators engage with their eyes, ears, heart, and mind wide open—function as a mesmerizing means, Ellisonian [End Page 183] no doubt, of taking account of the relationship between the United States and those of its citizens who are dark.
Whitehead's novel covers similar territory as Ellison, Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Octavia Butler, and Edward P. Jones, but he has more historical terrain to traverse; because of this and the enchanting prose that Whitehead brings to bear on the narrative, there is no stench of stale retreading in The Underground Railroad; rather readers are granted a renewed mythos capacious enough to incorporate developments in US racial history that reach far beyond the era of slavery. References to the Fugitive Slave Act, the vivant tableaux of the Hottentot Venus, Harriet Jacobs's slave narrative, and the celebrity of Frederick Douglass are clear, but The Underground Railroad also points to the Douglass-Dubois-Garvey debates, the hospitality of Northern factories to black male labor, the syphilis experiments at Tuskegee, the armed resistance of the Panthers, and the erudition and messianic magnetism of Obama. Like any epic work (Tennyson and Homer appear as characters, the latter though in the guise of a hauntingly eerie amanuensis), this is a tale of tribe, yet one that seems determined to rhapsodize all of the key travails and triumphs of a people.
Vivid detail holds Whitehead's mythos intact, particularly when rendering legend material. The actual Underground Railroad was composed of an array of conveyances of which engine, car, and rail were not included. The novel posits otherwise, portraying trains in varying degrees of opulence and repair, such as this one Cora encounters after a band of armed blacks rescue her from the clutches of a slave catcher in Tennessee: "It was...