The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

All Posts Contain Spoilers

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad‘ is Cora’s story.  Cora is a slave on Randall’s Plantation in Georgia.  An outcast even among her fellow slaves, she has been a “stray” ever since her mother successfully escaped when she was a child, leaving Cora behind.  When her master dies and she is inherited by his sadistic younger brother, Cora is approached by Caesar, a fellow slave, with an offer to escape with him on the Underground Railroad.

The pair accept the help of a white tradesman from town, a station master on the Underground Railroad.  A thing of whispers and myth among slaves in the American South, Cora and Caesar are surprised to discover that it is a literal railroad, built underground, a network of tunnels under the slave states.  They take their first ride, emerging in South Carolina to the sight of skyscrapers (and our first clue that this is not a two hundred year old story).

Everyone loves ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  It won the Pulitzer Prize.  It reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.  It received magnificent reviews; the four blurbs on the front of my copy are by the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, NPR, and Barack Obama.

Oprah loved it.

But I did not love ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  It’s quite good – good enough that there isn’t much point in trying to discern whether it is great, or merely very, very good.  It’s well-written and spare, effective and persuasive.  It has a novel premise, well-executed, stark and not overdone.

I appreciated these things.  But, when I put the book down, I found that it had left me cold.  I did not connect with it.

At least, I did not connect with it…at first.

Sometimes, you are the smartest person in the room – sometimes you are the only person brave enough not to drink the Kool-Aid.  But usually, when everyone around you likes something and you don’t, you’ve missed something.

I sat around for a long time, in bits and pieces over weeks and then months (I finished this book in September), staring at my computer and struggling to figure out why I didn’t love this book.  I was plagued by a sense that I was missing something, and I dreaded having to say out loud (in writing, no less) that I did not like it.  I tried to understand, to explain, why it is that the goodness (greatness) of a book isn’t enough to make us love it.  It isn’t fair that a book can be excellent and unloved, even by one person.  What more can we ask of a book, than that it be good?

And, in all that muddling, the book started to get to me.

Fictions which use alternative realities (science fiction, for example), rely on altered context for their effect.  By placing their moral or human conundra into totally unfamiliar contexts, or by radically changing one aspect of the environment, they throw the problems at the hearts of their stories into sharper relief.

But slavery is not a problem – it was a reality, an atrocity.  Rather, it was a long, unmeasurable series of atrocities, horrors visited upon real people, people just as real as you are.  These things happened.

The essential premise of ‘The Underground Railroad‘ is, what if slavery had not ended?  But slavery does not need to have been permanent to be overwhelming.  If you have already connected, on a visceral level, with what slavery was, then the fantastical extension of it into the present doesn’t teach you much.  And so, at first, ‘The Underground Railroad’ underwhelmed me.  It was jarring, upsetting, but, by being unreal, it lacked the monstrosity of actual slavery.

Alternative reality fictions work best when they show you something you would not have seen without them.  That slavery is was an abomination, that I had already seen.  The depiction was masterful, wrenching and beautiful, but I would have preferred to see something that I had not seen yet.

But, as thought more about it, my emotions started to catch on something.

In Whitehead’s imagination, the American South is not frozen in time; it has evolved, and each of the states of the South has also evolved, differentiated, developed their own brand of slavery to accommodate the particular needs of their economy, their people.

Georgia is brutal, primitive, indistinguishable from its antebellum self.  South Carolina has evolved a sinister, “progressive” state-run program wherein the state owns slaves and educates, houses, and pays them, all while secretly sterilizing them.  North Carolina has decided that it prefers an all-white world, and has outlawed blacks completely, lynching any that are found within state lines.

This was fascinating to me – this drew me in.  Perhaps because this aspect of the novel, more than any other, challenged to me to think more deeply about my own conception of American slavery.  Like many Americans, I have a life-long mental picture of slavery, taught to me when I was very young and shaded with depth and context as I got older, but never essentially re-imagined.  Now, partly that is because a re-imagining was unnecessary: what I was taught about slavery, that it was an atrocity perpetrated by Americans on Americans, an indelible stain on our history and a foundational sin of our nation, is correct.

And ‘The Underground Railroad‘ does not challenge this conclusion.  And, in fact, Cora’s story is this story, and that, I think, was why I did not emotionally register it, at first.  Here was another person ground under an evil system – there are only so many of these narratives we can meet before they feel familiar.

But the story of the states, each sickened and twisted by the continued existence of the institution, each elaborating on the essential evil in its own way – this was a new story.  And as I sat and stewed about the book, as the effect of the new story slowly took hold, Cora snuck in after it.

Colson Whitehead

I hadn’t connected with Cora because I was thinking of her as fictional victim of a real system, and what would be the point of connecting with her when there were so many real victims to grieve for first?  But, of course, I had completely missed the point: Cora is the fictional victim of a fictional system, the catastrophic future we avoided, but only just.  I needed to grieve Cora because of easily she might have existed.

And so, months later, I understood: the point of ‘The Underground Railroad‘ wasn’t to teach me that slavery was terrible – I know that, anyone who has morally developed past the level of a tadpole knows that.  ‘The Underground Railroad’ was trying to tell me that we cannot comprehend the institution of slavery if we negotiate with it as an evil that was – we must instead understand it as an evil that might still be, but for the narrowest of escapes.  Chance, the accumulation of millions of tiny historical accidents, pulled us away from evil – it was NOT our robust moral good sense, and so we must understand the evil as, in some sense, on-going.  Slavery was not given up unanimously and voluntarily, but had to be crushed by force of arms, and so, in some sense, it continues in the heart of our citizens.  

Which means that, in some sense, it continues.

Cora isn’t fictional, exactly – she just doesn’t happen to be real.  

I don’t know whether I love ‘The Underground Railroad: A Novel‘ now, but it has slowly hollowed me out over the past few months.  I have come around and stand a little in awe of it now – I feel as though I have been tossing around a toy grenade and someone just told me it was active, like I was being careless with something very powerful.

So ‘love’ isn’t the right word – ‘fear’ is.  I am afraid of ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  I sat and thought for months and discovered that I had been afraid all along.

The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michelle Alexander

There are some books so good, so coherent and persuasive, and so morally urgent, that I don’t really feel comfortable reviewing them.  They speak better for themselves than I ever could, and I am tempted, in these cases, to simply quote them at length, to put their most powerful passages forward verbatim and stand next to them, with humility.

The New Jim CrowThe New Jim Crow‘ is that kind of book.  There is absolutely nothing I can write about this book that will be more effective, or affecting, than something like this:

‘…it is nearly impossible to imagine anything remotely similar to mass incarceration happening to young white men.  Can we envision a system that would enforce drug laws almost exclusively among young white men and largely ignore drug crime among young black men?  Can we imagine large majorities of young white men being rounded up for minor drug offenses, placed under the control of the criminal justice system, labeled felons, and then subjected to a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion?  Can we imagine this happening while most black men landed decent jobs or trotted off to college?  No, we cannot.  If such a thing occurred, “it would occasion a most profound reflection about what had gone wrong, not only with THEM, but with US.”  It would never be dismissed with the thought that white men were simply reaping what they have sown.’ (p. 205)

Or this:

‘The profile [the drug-courier profile used by law enforcement during drug sweeps] can include traveling with luggage, traveling without luggage, driving an expensive car, driving a car that needs repairs, driving with out-of-state license plates, driving a rental car, driving with “mismatched occupants”, acting too calm, acting too nervous, dressing casually, wearing expensive clothing or jewelry, being one of the first to deplane, being one of the last to deplane, deplaning in the middle, paying for a ticket in cash, using large-denomination currency, using small-denomination currency, traveling alone, traveling with a companion, and so on.’ (p. 71)

Or this:

‘Examples of preconviction service fees imposed throughout the United States today include jail book-in fees levied at the time of arrest, jail per diems assessed to cover the cost of pre-trial detention, public defender application fees charged when someone applies for court-appointed counsel, and the bail investigation fee imposed when the court determines the likelihood of the accused appearing at trial.  Postconviction fees include pre-sentence report fees, public defender recoupment fees, and fees levied on convicted persons placed in a residential or work-release program.  Upon release, even more fees may attach, including parole or probation service fees…Failure to pay may warrant additional community control sanctions or a modification in the offender’s sentence.’ (p. 155)

Or this:

‘This means, for example, that a woman who knew that her husband occasionally smoked pot could have her car forfeited to the government because she allowed him to use her car.  Because the “car” was guilty of transporting someone who had broken a drug law at some time, she could legally lose her only form of transportation, even though she herself committed no crime…Courts have not been forgiving of women in these circumstances, frequently concluding that “the nature and circumstances of the marital relationship may give rise to an inference of knowledge by the spouse claiming innocent ownership.” (p. 82)

Or this:

“More African American adults are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.’ (p. 180)

I could go on all day – my copy of ‘The New Jim Crow‘ bristles with sticky notes. These passages give some small sense of the overall effect of this book: one of slow, suffocating injustice, a smothering and pervasive evil, the feeling that you are standing at the foot of a sheer and dizzying cliff, unclimbable and inescapable.  It is vertiginous and overwhelming.

It is difficult to recommend books which you know are going to be unpleasant for people to read.  It’s pedantic; you are essentially saying, ‘You ought to read this.  This is information that you do not possess and need to.  It’s won’t be fun, but it will be good for you.’  You are an adult telling another adult to eat their vegetables – it’s patronizing, and so I try not to do it very often.

And, in truth, there are very few books which I feel that all adults ought to read, as a moral matter.  I suppose that I don’t even think that all adults ought to read ‘The New Jim Crow‘, but I definitely think that all American adults ought to.  And I am confident that not a single one of them will ‘enjoy’ reading it; nevertheless, I believe that it contains information which it is morally and civically urgent that voting American adults possess.

The basic thesis of ‘The New Jim Crow‘ is: that the War on Drugs in the United States of America is a system of racial oppression, conceived and understood as such by its architects, that it is enforced in a highly discriminatory fashion against racial minorities, and has had the effect of creating and maintaining a racial underclass in this country.

Michelle Alexander
Michelle Alexander

Alexander’s logic is presented beautifully.  Her language is clear and unadorned.  Her argument is well-structured and well-sourced.  It is neither understated nor exaggerated.  She marshals an enormous amount of supporting information.  She is meticulous, and since every stage of her reasoning is credible, she is therefore wholly persuasive.  Her verdicts feel inescapable.

All of which make this book hard to read.  Her conclusion, the reality she describes, is catastrophic: painful and enraging and grim.  But what I most deeply want to communicate is that it is painful because it is true.  I believe her.  Her argument is sound; her evidence is crushing.

There are a lot of reasons why you might not want to read this book.  You might not want to sift through a lot of terrible evidence in order to reach a devastating truth.  You might reject her argument out of hand, might not wish to subject yourself to more liberal, America-hating, race-baiting, special pleading.  You might just want to read some beach fiction instead.  To these objections, I will say this:

lifetime-likelihood-of-imprisonment-by-race.png
From sentencingproject.org

We do not have the right to excuse ourselves from true information simply because it is unpleasant to consume.  And we certainly don’t have the right to avoid evidence because we do not wish it to be true.  I think we have an obligation to see the world as it is, even if it does not flatter us, or accord with our world view.  And we have no right to reject arguments we have not heard.  You may disagree with Alexander at the end of her book, but you may not disagree with her before, not with any integrity.

That’s why I read this book.  ‘The New Jim Crow‘ doesn’t show me a version of my country that I like, but that doesn’t make it a bad book, and it certainly doesn’t make it wrong.  And it wasn’t fun, but it was magnificent, and it was important, and I think it was true.  And that is all the justification it needs.