The Underground Railroad

the-underground-railroad“She never got Royal to tell her about the men and women who made the underground railroad. The ones who excavated a million tons of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them. The station masters and conductors and sympathizers. Who are you after you finish something this magnificent – in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side. On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light. The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart. – Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Continuing my post-election reading and holiday gift suggestions, I just finished The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which won this year’s National Book Award and many say is destined to become an American classic.

The Underground Railroad was an Oprah Book Club selection. In fact, Oprah Winfrey was so excited about the novel that she persuaded the publisher to release it over a month early so she could feature it as her next book club choice.

As Oprah says, there is “no better book for our times,” given the Black Lives Matter movement and our divisive political landscape.

Cora is a young, orphaned slave whose entire life has been spent on a Georgia plantation. She decides to run and is hunted by Ridgeway, a slave catcher, as she makes her way north.

At first blush, The Underground Railroad reads like historical fiction, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Cora is caught in a dystopia with many dimensions, depending on which state she happens to be in. The underground railroad is a literal tunnel built beneath the ground with secret way stations. Each state that Cora passes through embodies a unique, nightmarish vision of slavery in America.

Colson Whitehead has said that he had the idea for this novel some sixteen years ago, but didn’t feel he had the chops as a writer to pull it off until his mid forties.

I think The Underground Railroad is a masterpiece but, scanning the reviews on Goodreads, I noticed that, while most readers gave it five stars, others were lukewarm or disappointed. A common complaint was that Cora is one-dimensional; readers had a hard time feeling an emotional connection with Cora and some of the other characters.

For me, this wasn’t a problem, maybe because I view the characters as mythic, and so my expectations were different. In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani says the novel is “almost hallucinatory,” and that is what I felt, too. Rather than at an emotional distance, I was trapped along with the desperate characters in The Underground Railroad and the people trying to help them. I have a much greater appreciation for the intergenerational strength and resilience of blacks in America and the enormous risks taken by abolitionists and later by activists in the civil rights movement.

Nonetheless, I can see how this novel may not appeal to some readers. I would say it’s well worth picking up: at the very least, you’ll be reading the novel everyone is talking about.

“Cora ran her hand along the wall of the tunnel, the ridges and pockets. Her fingers danced over valleys, rivers, the peaks of mountains, the contours of a new nation hidden beneath the old. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.”

I’m not fond of the network morning shows, but here is a quick introduction to Colson Whitehead and his novel:

Have you read The Underground Railroad? What did you think?

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me

 

“We should seek not a world where the black race and white race live in harmony but a world in which black and white have no real political meaning.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me, winner of the National Book Award, is written as a letter by Ta-Nehisi Coates to his 15-year-old son.

“You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.”

I read this book together with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle, a coming of age memoir about growing up black in West Baltimore, and the two are excellent read back to back. If you want to see what Ta-Nehisi Coates is all about, I recommend reading the memoir first, so you’ll have background about Coates’ childhood and family, and then follow up with Between the World and Me so you have some context.

Fair warning, though, I found neither book an easy read emotionally, and you may not either if you are a white American. (Or, as Coates would say, if you think you are white. Coates believes race is a falsehood.)

“Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable reality of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.”

There is plenty of uncomfortable truth in these two books, and Coates does not mince words. Between the World and Me, especially, is meant to awaken America from its false Dream.

I grew up in a somewhat racially diverse town outside of Cleveland and attended public school alongside African Americans, but there was de facto segregation, with blacks in their own neighborhood not far from where I lived. In retrospect, and especially after having read Coates, I see how absolutely separate and different our lives actually were.

When I began reading The Beautiful Struggle, I found myself baffled by the words and phrases Coates used and many of his cultural references. I was reading a different language, the language of urban black America. The language is perhaps deliberately exaggerated in the first pages, and not decoded, maybe to act as a kind of culture shock or wake-up call to the reader.

A senior writer at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in one of the toughest, most marginalized and deprived communities in America. His father was a Black Panther who later became a librarian; his employment at the Howard University library enabled his children to attend school there tuition free.

I’m not going to summarize too much about the books, because I can’t do justice to Coates’ eloquent, powerful prose as he describes how the African American body has been violated through slavery, segregation, incarceration, and death at the hands of our criminal justice system. His words are sometimes hard to take, and both books are unfailingly hard to put down. I was especially struck by these aspects:

  • How very terrifying it is to be pulled over or questioned by a police officer if you are black in America. I think the only thing more powerful than Coates’ words are the videos we’ve seen of incidents gone wrong these past few years. I respect the bravery of police officers doing incredibly challenging work, but I’ve also been following the news in Cleveland, where I grew up, and how the police department there has been investigated by the US Department of Justice. My son attends the U. of Cincinnati, where this past year an unarmed black man was killed by a campus security officer for no apparent reason. (The officer has been charged with murder.) When the video went viral, I was chilled by what I saw, frightened for my son and anyone who might be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • Coates recounts the first time he visited Paris, France. Growing up in West Baltimore, he could never have imagined such a gracious and beautiful place or that he would ever go there. It was moving to read Coates’ description of how easy it was for him to walk the streets of Paris, how differently he was treated, and how for the first time he wasn’t afraid.
  • Coates concludes that the fate of all of us is in the hands of those with power who think they are white – he believes many, though not all, African Americans are still too disenfranchised to change the system. But he fears that we as a country will reap what we’ve sown; that our hunger for power has also meant the abuse and destruction of the earth. He fears that in the end the earth will prevail, likely at great cost to humanity.

Here is one more quote from Between the World and Me, an example of his powerful use of language that some may see as divisive or offensive:

“The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”

(And from “Whitey” Tim Kreider, read this. I happened to discover this link on my Facebook page the day I wrote this post.)

Have you read Between the World and Me or The Beautiful Struggle? What do you think of the final quote above? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

 

 

The Beautiful Struggle

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