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SHI REVIEWED | Underground Railroad Part II

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This review continues where the first one left off. The protagonist Cora arrives in North Carolina, where she hides in the home of Martin, an abolitionist, awaiting word to continue travel on the Underground Railroad. Cora’s home is a nook of a false ceiling in Martin’s attic. In the heat of the North Carolina summer, she sits and waits until midnight when Martin feels that it is safe enough to bring her food and allow her time to stretch in the attic. Her solitary confinement continues for months, with no word about the railroad. Then, this:

“Their footfalls were loud on the attic stairs. They navigated around the junk. One of them spoke, startling Cora—his head was inches below her. She kept her breath close. The men were sharks moving their snouts beneath a ship, looking for the food they sensed was close. Only thin planks separated hunter and prey.”

The picture of “night riders” conducting an inspection for fugitives in Martin’s home immediately led me to think of home searches in the era of Nazi Germany. The resemblance is not coincidental. I do not doubt Whitehead crafted this chapter—and this scene in particular—with this nightmarish history in mind. It is as if the author wants us to revisit American history. For what is history but a narrative some have constructed and many more have accepted about our past? By relating the horrors of slavery to the Holocaust, I believe Whitehead challenges the reader to consider that the systematic hunting and killing of human beings was not first invented in totalitarian Germany but was present—dare he say common practice—in America’s own past. That this story is a work of fiction need not diminish the weight of his message: no society is immune to creating its own monsters to slay.

It is from a pinhole in Cora’s hideout that the reader observes the town park: a public space during the week where children play and an execution stage for runaways during the town’s weekly Friday Festival. The park brings the town together. Families come out and sit on the lawn, enjoying each other’s company and the entertainment on stage. Musicians play music. But the finale is always a hanging of a runaway—with the town judge and night riders present—as a demonstration of the rule of law and the order that holds the town’s life together. The audience is both jury to the exercise of justice and spectator to the performance of an act. It is as if there must be a tribute offered to appease the gods, in order that the town and all of its economic development may continue to prosper. Whitehead observes that these rituals bind the executioner as well as the executed:

“But they were prisoners just like she was, shackled to fear…The town huddled together on Friday nights in the hope their numbers warded off the things in the dark: the rising black tribe, the enemy who concocts accusations; the child who undertakes a magnificent revenge for a scolding and brings the house down around them. Better to hide in attics than to confront what lurked behind the faces of neighbors, friends, and family.”

Whitehead’s evaluation of the consequences of slavery questions the basic definitions of freedom and slavery. Is anyone in this town not shackled? “No one,” Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “is free until we are all free.” Whitehead eloquently brings that truth to life in this book.

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