The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead. Shockingly Raw But Totally Necessary

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My chosen read for Black History Month was “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead. Before downloading this book onto my Kindle from my local library’s online catalog, I never heard of this book or its author. However, after doing some research, I found out that this book was highly acclaimed and awarded, including a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. 

The novel captured my attention almost immediately, proving background on the main character Cora, and life on the Randall plantation. In my lifetime time, I’ve read so many different fictional and non-fictional slave narratives, but what I’ve come to learn and appreciate is that although these characters and historical figures shared a collective experience- the travesty of slavery- each narrative is unique to the person. I’ve read narratives where these enslaved ones were only introduced to the idea of freedom later on in their lives, while others like Cora, always craved freedom from a young age. 

Every time I read a slave narrative or a historical fiction novel based on the experience of a slave, I always come out with the same feelings. Horror, for the difficult and disgusting treatment our ancestors had to endure. Rage – rage at the thought that this nation was built on the backs and blood of African slaves and Native Americans and the fact that it remains under-acknowledged to this day. And gratitude for the immense sacrifices and prayers that were made so that my peers and I can have a fighting chance in a nation that has exonerated itself. 

This brings me to two of the most mind-altering (in my opinion) quotes from this book. Both of these I had to read more than once to fully grasp and receive the underlying message. 

“Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.”

“My father liked his Indian talk about the Great Spirit,” Ridgeway said. “All these years later, I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription—the American imperative.”

The American Imperative

These two quotes were spoken by a slavecatcher named Ridgeway. Although he was born as a working-class citizen, his skill at catching runaway slaves and bringing them back to their owners earned him much fame and wealth. The complexity of Ridgeway’s character was this: his father was a blue-collar ironworker who made an honest living- yet at a young age, he decided that “hard-work” wasn’t for him. Instead, he found a sick in twisted joy in hunting slaves seeking freedom, returning them to torture or execution. His reasoning? “The American Imperative” as he described it. This “American Imperative” much fascinated Ridgeway, the rise of a nation and the means which the nation acquired its land, wealth, and foundation – through the blood, sweat, tears, and lives of millions of Africans and Native Americans. 

Ridgeway is Still Alive Today

Ridgeway may have been one of the most interesting characters in the novel to me. Although he was a disgusting, deplorable excuse for a human being, he was the exact personification of the true American spirit that still permeates the nation to this day. Ridgeway’s disposition was unapologetic and proud of his part in the “American imperative.” Ridgeway’s character could be considered a metaphor for the proud Americans today who aren’t ignorant of the violent foundations of our nation and who are aware of the systemic racism and capitalism that promotes classism, xenophobia, and social injustices. Those who benefit from the American Imperative that Ridgeway took pride in don’t care about the individuals at the other end of the spectrum, considering these humans a “means to an end” and elevating themselves to a status of privilege and entitlement. 

While “The Underground Railroad” details many tragic events in the daily life of Cora and other slaves, Whitehead managed to intertwine moments of beauty and happiness into the story. Do not be mistaken, being a slave was not a happy nor desirable existence, however, these oppressed people found ways to weave a bit of happiness into their lives, with a birthday celebration here or there, food, and their music which gave birth to African American culture as we know it today. 

Love, an experience that many of us take for granted, was rare and beautiful for Cora, who experienced much pain and tragedy in her life. As I mentioned earlier, Whitehead didn’t dramatize or romanticize anything about Cora’s experience; instead, he wrote it so that the reader could understand the raw, beautiful, and rare nature of any love, kindness, and happiness Cora may have experienced. 

“The Underground Railroad” is a novel that will last through time – it has left a lasting mark on my mind and heart, and I look forward to reading other works by the ingenious Colson Whitehead. 

I enjoy long naps (when I can sneak one), cheesy books, and I'm fueled by the smiles of my son.

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