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  • Anti-Narratives of Slavery in Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad
  • Carra Glatt

For seventy-nine pages, Colson Whitehead's novel The Underground Railroad (2016) offers what appears to be an unflinchingly realistic narrative of the enslaved Cora's attempt to escape a brutal Georgia plantation. On page 80, it takes an abrupt, surreal turn to the fantastic. Having resolved to risk the horrific punishment that awaits her if she is captured, Cora seeks out the famous underground railroad from the slave South to the free North. In reality, this railroad comprised an abolitionist-run network of hideaways and safe houses set up to shelter runaway slaves; its 'conductors' organised groups of escapees and shepherded them–on foot–from stop to stop on these clandestine paths to freedom. Cora and her friend Caesar, however, find something very different awaiting them at the first station: an actual steel-and-iron subway system concealed beneath the earth.

What follows is a journey into an alternate-history version of antebellum America. After boarding the train to freedom, Cora's first stop is a South Carolina dotted by skyscrapers; the state serves as a seemingly progressive haven for ex-slaves, who are treated to a series of social welfare programmes that, it turns out, double as a front for a sophisticated programme of medical experimentation and forced sterilisation. Next, she must hide in a North Carolina from which all blacks have been expelled, a decree enforced by regular public lynchings of any black person found within the state's borders. Tennessee, destroyed by wildfires, is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, while Indiana boasts a utopian community run by free-black intellectuals.

Although The Underground Railroad is unusual in its delayed introduction of its fantastic elements, the blending of slave narrative and fantasy or speculative fiction has a long history. Reviewers and critics of The Underground Railroad have identified the novel with the neo-slave narrative,1 [End Page 38] a term coined in the 1970s to describe an emerging body of fiction about American slavery. While some of these–Margaret Walker's Jubilee (1966), Alex Haley's Roots (1976)–were realist attempts to revive the tropes and recapture the power of the classic slave narratives, others (Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada (1976), Octavia Butler's Kindred (1979), Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987)) drew on the genres of magical realism, science fiction, and fantasy to suggest the representative limits of these foundational slave testimonies. Yet despite The Underground Railroad's obvious kinship with this latter group of texts, Whitehead's novel, I will argue, is finally as much a subversion of the neo-slave narrative as it is of that genre's nineteenth-century counterpart. In place of the neo-slave narrative's implicit advocacy of alternative ways of knowing and telling, The Underground Railroad offers a more radical rejection of not only the traditional slave narrative, but narrative itself.

Revising the Slave Narrative

First appearing in the late 1960s, the neo-slave narrative was an attempt both to reclaim the tradition of the classic slave narrative from white appropriators–most notably William Styron, whose Confessions of Nat Turner became a best-seller in 1967–and to repurpose antebellum history for the present political moment.2 Strictly speaking, the term neo-slave narrative, as popularised by Ashraf Rushdy's landmark 1999 study of the genre, refers to first-person novels written in the voice of an enslaved or formerly enslaved narrator. Other contemporary critics, however, have found that definition to be alternately too broad or too narrow for their purposes. Arlene Keizer preferred to write of 'contemporary narratives of slavery', a term that included both fictions of slavery narrated in the third person and novels dealing with slavery but set well after the antebellum period,3 while Timothy Spaulding proposed distinguishing between neo-slave narratives (in the expanded sense of Keizer's revision of the term) [End Page 39] and 'postmodern slave narratives',4 which employed anti-realist strategies and often affiliated themselves with the genres of speculative fiction. More recently, Margo Natalie Crawford has made a more conceptual and less genre-driven distinction between neo-slave narratives, which attempt a reparative historiography that fills...


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