The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

In this magnetizing and wrenching saga, Whitehead tells the story of smart and resilient Cora, a young third-generation slave on a Georgia cotton plantation where she has been brutally attacked by whites and blacks. Certain that the horror will only get worse, she flees with a young man who knows how to reach the Underground Railroad. Everything Whitehead describes is vividly, often joltingly realistic, even the novel’s most fantastic element, his vision of this secret transport network as an actual railroad running through tunnels dug beneath the blood-soaked fields of the South, a jolting and resounding embodiment of heroic efforts and colossal risks. Yet for all that sacrifice and ingenuity, freedom proves miserably elusive. — Donna Seaman, Booklist (June 2016)

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Literature History


The Underground Railroad (2016), is closely modelled on the nineteenth-century slave narrative, and as such elicits central concerns for notions of “race” and history. Like the original slave narratives, Railroad is characterized by a deep-set ambivalence toward the American motto of the Pursuit of Happiness. Slavery is seen as both a precondition of America’s material well-being and one of the original blemishes on its moral and spiritual contentment. At each of the stops on the runaway slave protagonists’ flight, happiness may appear as a trap, a temptation to stay in a comfortable place, which soon sours and turns into its opposite. …

The initial words of the American Declaration of Independence state that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are natural rights stemming from the essential unity of mankind, since “all men are created equal.” This stands in total contradiction with the institution and practice of slavery in the South; black disenfranchisement there was predicated on a supposed inferiority, which made Africans unfit for freedom, and happier in their state of minority. The image, widespread in the press and popular culture, of “the happy plantation and the contented slave who sang and danced and loved Massa” helped justify this inequality (209). By contrast, the world of slavery in The Underground Railroad is one of fear and trauma. Cora was raped by other slaves, which makes her shy away from intimacy in the rest of the novel. All slaves are always on their guard: the smallest mistake, like spilling a glass of wine on the planter’s immaculate shirt, can trigger a savage beating (33), and an escape attempt bring about spectacular refinements of torture (47). Yet slaves can develop small attachments, providing them a modicum of happiness, which is also a form of resistance to dehumanization. Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother, cultivated a garden on a small plot of land, which the three generations of women in her family have inherited and defended tooth and nail as if their very identity depended on it. The many parties, feasts, and “socials” featured in the novel debunk rather than bolster the myth of the happy slave. Like Jockey’s birthday on the Georgia plantation, they are a necessary safety valve for the tensions that threaten to split the community, but also allow the owners to better control their workers.

Whitehead’s novel is very critical of the American tenet of “the pursuit of happiness.” Slavery is seen as an offshoot of white America’s pursuit of material ease. The various apocryphal States’ solutions to the racial problem are attempts to contain or eliminate the racial other, to avoid questioning the ideology of white supremacy: happiness is then identified with freedom from uncomfortable self-doubt. For the slaves, happiness may appear as a luxury, freedom being the first object of their quest. Yet, if one defines happiness as the exercise and enjoyment of our human faculties, it is closely interdependent with liberty. Cora’s flight and quest, therefore, like the slave narratives and neo-slave narratives on which it is modelled, stands in paradoxical tension with the national ethos. It both denounces the partiality and hypocrisy of denying a universal right to certain human beings and fulfils its promise by broadening its field of application. But the same desire not to be imprisoned in the strictures of pre-determined identities also applies to self-definitions of African-Americans, whether in political discourse, or in fiction.

Michel Feith. “Tracking the Slave Narrative in Colson Whitehead’s. The Underground Railroad,” Revue française d’études américaines (2016)


The novel depicts the underground railroad as a literal rail transport system in addition to a series of safe houses and secret routes. In reality, the Underground Railroad was a secret network of abolitionists, which included Christians, Indigenous peoples, former slaves, and free blacks. It set up routes that escaped slaves could travel to free states in the US, Mexico, British North America (now Canada) or abroad. The Underground Railroad was the largest anti-slavery freedom movement in North America and assisted in the escape of between 40,000 and 50,000 slaves. Some scholars estimate more. Listen to Whitehead´s description of coming up with the idea for this alternative history and writing the novel here.

Contemporary scholarship has shown that most of those who participated in the Underground Railroad largely worked alone, rather than as part of an organized group. There were people from many occupations and income levels, including former enslaved persons like Harriet Tubman, who led at least 70 people to freedom and William Sill, who assisted around 800 in Philidelphia and is the subject of a new oratoria. According to historical accounts of the Railroad, conductors often posed as enslaved people and snuck the runaways out of plantations. Due to the danger associated with capture, they conducted much of their activity at night. In mythologizing the railroad, Whitehead turns Cora´s journey north into a journey through some of the most famous incidents in African-American History – the Tuskegee experiments, Harriet Jacobs´ autobiographical retelling of hiding in an attic for seven years, W.E.B. DuBois´s and Booker T. Washington´s different visions of progress, lynchings, and Maroons.