Saturday, April 1, 2017

Completed: Underground Railroad

Dear Jenny,

We kind of struggled to find the right Bitmoji for this one because... oof. Heavy. In the end, we're sad and drinking... together:
"So, we're reading Underground Railroad."
We have both had this book on our TBR shelves for quite some time, but just have not been able to get into it. For me, every time I started it, I just... couldn't. You know, the slavery.

We should also say that this post is FULL ON SPOILERIFIC, if anyone stumbles across this that isn't us!

For you, it was about the author -- you liked Sag Harbor a lot, but have struggled with Whitehead's other books. The thing you were dreading about this book was readability. Turns out, it's extremely readable. I've only read The Intuitionist, which I remember being very readable, but it was also his debut novel, so perhaps before he developed his more impenetrable style? Like Underground Railroad, that book took some liberties with reality (I guess I would call it "magical realism"), which I do tend to enjoy.

This book is masterfully written and we both agreed that "accessibility" is good -- more people will read it (hopefully!) We compared that to Beloved, which was often so difficult read.

I am cleaning up our notes to publish this blog post, and I found this quote. I think it's from you, but we feel the exact same way about this:

"I want every fucking person in the universe to read this. Especially the section on Georgia [the terrifying plantation where Cora begins her journey]. This was terrible. Every person in this country should read this book -- if you wonder why we're in our current state, read this and see how we haven't faced this history."

As you put it, "This book is 'hunting for big game'" -- by showing that each state with a different treatment for slaves, it shows the many facets of slavery and that not every horror is the same, but still horrific. Slavery was terrible. In this book, Whitehead used each state/stop on the Underground Railroad to a illustrate different way that we repressed slaves. We discussed each state separately, talking not only about Cora's life, but also the history it uncovers.

Georgia -- Plantation 
I don't really have a ton of stuff to say about this. I mean, it's a plantation. Her owners are horrible. It's all horrific. We get some graphic descriptions here and it's a good setup for why Cora decides to GTFO. And yet, one of the things that is most interesting about her character is that the reader sees how hard it is for her to imagine freedom. We both admired the bravery it would take to believe that there could be something better worth risking her life to find.

You noticed that the "good" people at the plantation were named "Garner" -- that had to be a call out to the Sweet Home Plantation in Beloved.

South Carolina -- Eugenics
Cora seems to get off to a good start here, as her life is far better (it seems) than on the plantation. She considers staying here, but we both felt the impending sense of: "Look out! Keep running!" while reading this. The dread at what is to come is thick in this chapter.

When she gets put on display as the museum, I wanted to throw up. I actually had to stop reading for a bit. As you said, it's just as bad as any other form of work for a slave. Being on display is dehumanizing. I thought that some people might think "Oh, this isn't so bad..." when they read this and that's part of what made me sick. It's wrong and terrible.

But wait! There's more! The text turns to describing the eugenics movement, which here was about forced sterilization. Jenny, you mentioned being moved by how this grim history is made so poignant when Cora says that taking away people's babies takes away their future. In this way, Whitehead shows that racism steals both the past and future from slaves.

North Carolina -- Unwilling abolitionists
Cora spends and unbearably long period of time in the attic of the the unwilling abolitionists with a horrific view of the Friday night hangings. The people who house her are white people who help in the most perfunctory way possible. They fall into it accidentally, then don't really know how to get out of it with their lives intact. Which, of course, they don't.

You said this: "The maid is a Trump voter. She fucks herself over, but she doesn't care because she fucks over someone else." Exactly. I found that scene to be so horrible -- as she accuses her employers, I thought, "But wait -- you will also lose your job. That's not good for you, either!" But you nailed it. Seeing someone else get fucked is worth it. Ugh.

You also noticed that this is a pretty damning portrayal of the abolitionists. These white people think they know better, are still steeped in racism, and are demanding and unkind. It's impossible to not think of today's struggles where white people always want to "be the voice" for people of color.

Tennessee -- Scorched earth
Looking back on this section, there's lots of clear and specific references in the text to the Trail of Tears. This section seems far more metaphorical, but it reminds me of how after slavery, white people wouldn't allow freed black slaves to own any land. We're reading more about that now in Stamped from the Beginning. I think it's just so clear that the sins of slavery have been sown into the land, making it toxic for generations.

This is also where she and Ridgeway (the slave catcher hunting her) actually speak and talk. She gives him a lot of flak and he takes it. It's clear that Cora would rather die than go back to the plantation and have them kill her in front of everyone as an example.

One thing you particularly remembered about this part was when Cora is rescued by some other black men. She sees one with a gun, and her mind literally can't comprehend. She had never even contemplated such a thing before. It reminded you of Cora's flight from the plantation: everything is new, her whole way of seeing the world has been changed. It's a small moment of character development, but an important one.

Indiana -- the illusion of freedom
Cora is now a black community, which seems ideal. Of course, that cannot possibly stand. Even though she has found love, it's hard not to feel so much dread. The book hammers home again that any prosperity or freedom will be seen as a threat to white people, and they will crush it. It's interesting Ridgeway's own comrade, a boy he'd freed, is the one who betrays them. This book really does take on everything, including internalized racism!  The boy ruins someone else's life but it doesn't matter because he protects himself, or thinks he is avenging Ridgeway. Which, in many ways, reminded me of the maid in North Carolina.

One of our biggest surprises was how many people in the ToB commentariat this year found Cora to be cold, unknowable, or distant. Neither of us felt that way at all! She wasn't just a character in service to the task of telling the story. As hard as the book was to read because of the content, caring about Cora is what kept us going.

Let's take a look at this response from the Commentariat related to this "Cora was distant" topic. Because it's basically perfect.

Even though it wasn't an intimate character sketch, there were so many small moments that show us Cora. One example that we discussed is when a white abolitionist hugs her and she thinks "This is what it is now? I have to allow white people to hug me?" As you said -- it seems unlikely that a white author could have written that! It's this perfect moment in the text where black readers might think of a time they felt like Cora did, and we hope white readers will put themselves in the shoes of the abolitionist and think about when they were insensitive and careless. It really cuts one way. And it's one reason the book is so brilliant overall -- there's all the big things he's doing, but the best books also have these perfectly formed insights. Here, in this single moment, Whitehead tells us about Cora, but also about ourselves.

In some ways, I likened the Commentariat's judgment of Cora to that scene: "It's not enough that you're reading my horrific story? I also have to be super likeable and knowable to you?"

Finally, we find out about Cora's mother, which was just devastating. After Cora spends her whole life believing that her mother abandoned her, we, the readers, find out the truth: her mother died of a snakebite while she was on her way back to get Cora. And Cora will never know that. That's one more horror of slavery: not knowing what happened to your loved ones. Even worse: being separated from your family is what happened when you were a slave, and it's also what happened when you were free. This book. Even after escaping slavery, they were still in danger. Cora blames herself for not running when her lover thinks that they should. She should be able to stay where she is free. She ends up on the run. There's no rest.

Wrapping it Up
It was almost impossible not to read the book in light of where we are now as a country. Never facing up to the truth of slavery, still not being able to face up to the truth of slavery, not being able to see how racism just readjusts and finds a new path for itself has left us a broken country.

I thought that this quote summed up the "what was true then is still true now" situation:
And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes — believes with all its heart — that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn't exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are. [285]
We both agreed that this book was brilliant. I'm not sure this "review" did it justice, but as we've discussed... our brains are like sieves these days. There's a constant stream of "FUUUUUUUUUUUUCCCCKKK!!" running through our heads that is, at best, distracting. So.

Read this book, America. You'll be better off for it.