Lucas Morel on Teaching Colson Whitehead’s "The Underground Railroad"

On May 23, 2017

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, which won the 2016 National Book Award for fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, presents teachers of American history and literature an opportunity to immerse students in the harsh reality of slavery, but it also presents pedagogical challenges. The Pulitzer committee called the novel “a smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America.” Not an ordinary historical novel—some have called it an example of “magical realism”—it aims at symbolic rather than literal historical truth. Whitehead invents an actual subterranean railroad, with a variety of trains, train stops, and conductors, to dramatize the varied and threatening social terrain an escaping slave had to cross before attaining freedom. This is only one of many liberties Whitehead takes with history as he tells the story of Cora, a young woman fleeing a Georgia plantation with a savagely cruel owner.

Professor Lucas Morel taught the novel to students at Washington and Lee last fall. We asked him about guiding students through the fantasy aspects of the novel toward the historical reality it depicts.

  1. We expect historical novelists to vividly evoke a time period. Whitehead seems to lift incidents and trends from across three centuries and transplant them all into one decade. Why does Whitehead depart from fact in this way?

Historical novelists face a problem. The closer the history depicted is to the facts, the greater the challenge to keep the reader suspended in his disbelief and to let the plot, characters and dialogue do their work. Instead of just following the story, the reader wonders if this or that episode really happened.  (Just as with Spielberg’s Lincoln movie, in which Daniel Day Lewis acted his way to a record 3rd Academy award for Best Actor, every historian is asked, “Did Lincoln really say that?”)  The reader begins to treat the novel as a documentary rather than a tale that uses a mixture of fact and fiction to tell a larger truth. Colson Whitehead actually has a character say, “Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth.” No clearer statement of the grand aim of his novel could be made!  This remark occurs near the end of the book, as if to answer an objection in the mind of the reader who knows the story has played fast and loose with American history. It’s just one of several heavy-handed statements put in the mouths of characters to make sure the reader gets a lesson Whitehead wants them to learn. These statements depart from the usual rule of fiction-writing: “Show, don’t tell.” Still, Whitehead’s novel—even though I disagree with some of its teachings—raises questions about such important issues in American history and political development that I believe it’s worth reading.

Regarding his compression into a decade historical events and incidents that actually took place across a few centuries, I’m guessing Whitehead wanted to deal with race and America in one fell literary swoop.  Race still matters, still infects how Americans relate to one other socially and especially politically, even after the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th-15th Amendments, not to mention the achievements of the modern Civil Rights Movement and the election (and re-election) of a black president. Whitehead must think that it needs to remain a subject of discussion that extends beyond the domain of politicians.  He does present events of which most Americans are probably not aware.  One wonders whether his readers will be shocked more by his depictions of these events or by the subsequent discovery that they actually occurred!

Does this work as a story?  For the most part, yes.  That’s due to Whitehead’s craft, e.g., the way he gets the reader to invest in his protagonist, Cora, who attempts to escape from a plantation through an actual underground railroad—the greatest conceit of the book, but one I also believe works.  It invites discussion and reflection upon the nature of the American regime and how an individual or society can move from expressing mere will, self-interest, and force to pursuing justice, self-government, and civilization.  The great political question of right versus might is a central theme of the novel.  Although I disagree with Whitehead’s rendering of the meaning and significance of America and her development as a nation, he does prompt readers to ponder these things.

  1. How might teachers deal with the historical background of the novel?

In interviews, Whitehead indicates he researched extensively American slavery and the slave trade. He wouldn’t need to draw much from outside the long American experience with slavery and accounts of what the worst enslavers and overseers did to maintain control over large numbers of slaves.  One particularly garish event of torture in the beginning of the novel struck me as almost beyond credulity. But perhaps the author meant to convey that, because the law and social practice sided with the enslaving class, there was little that a master could not do when it came to enforcing his will. It’s true that slave owners occasionally set ghastly examples to ensure the strict obedience of the rest of their slaves. Whitehead depicts a contest between the brutalization of human beings and the spirit of freedom, showing how the humanity of the enslaved expressed itself in the most trying situations, even in the pecking order slaves imposed upon themselves—a semblance of culture—and in Cora’s resistance to injustice even in the slaves’ internal affairs.

Whitehead gives the devil his due, that’s for sure, but he also shows the tremendous ingenuity, improvisation, and agency of human beings subject to the near-absolute control of legal masters.  Here he has learned from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which illustrates how those treated as second-class citizens and considered inferior by nature display their humanity in ways that are misunderstood or simply overlooked by those in power. For example, Ellison’s invisible man is able to power 1,369 light bulbs in his apartment without the Monopolated Light and Power Company tracing that current drain to his hole in the ground! In a very similar way, Whitehead shows us an incredible underground railroad, an engineering feat accomplished apparently by the black slaves themselves. In this Whitehead asks the question, “Has this country been built by hands and minds that we don’t have a clue about—or deliberately left out of our histories?” And this work is heroic. As free human beings, they risked their lives to build something they themselves may never have gotten the chance to use.

The novel should motivate those unfamiliar with the history of race in America to learn more about its role in our social and political development. In classrooms using the book, students might research and report on incidents in the novel that appear historical. It would take a student only about 8 seconds on the Internet to discover that the Underground Railroad was not a literal railroad, and then he could research what it actually was. Other students might research incidents that did occur in our past yet not in such a short space of time.  A reminder at the outset that Whitehead’s novel is a work of fiction would be in order, and that by working upon our imaginations, the author seeks to engage us in important questions regarding the human condition—and how our founding and development as a nation may have reflected, improved, or retarded that condition.

The novel prompts us to ask: what would it take for Cora not simply to flee from oppression but also to find safety, security, and prosperity for herself and those she loves? Is true community possible? What are its requirements, and what are obstacles to it? And can these thrive generation over generation?  Lincoln addressed these questions pretty much throughout his public career, from his Lyceum Address of 1838 to his most famous speech at Gettysburg.

  1. By the end of Whitehead’s novel, Cora seems the lone survivor of the many who sought freedom and the few who tried to help them gain it. Does Whitehead think you have to be a person of extraordinary character and will to free yourself from an unjust political and social system?

Only a small percentage of slaves attempted to escape, and fewer were successful in the attempt. (Resistance most likely took other forms.) Whitehead illustrates the tremendous difficulty of escape, especially for those furthest from a free state border. In part, he’s countering those who, imagining that they themselves would never have allowed themselves to become enslaved or to remain in slavery, claim that African American slaves were somehow content with their misery (this seems a veiled form of white supremacy, analogous to those who wonder why Jews did not do more to avoid or escape their plight under Nazi Germany, a question Hannah Arendt discussed in her controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil).

Still, I think Whitehead fails to offer a completely honest account of America.  While illustrating the ways slavery contradicts America’s highest principles, he gives short shrift to the power of those principles and the individuals of various races who struggled—ultimately successfully—to bring those principles to bear on America’s development as a nation, both politically and socially.

I keep using the word “development” because America is and remains a work in progress—and this not because its principles are flawed or its people any more deficient or vicious than those of any other nation.  As President Bill Clinton remarked in his First Inaugural Address, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.” Yet for Whitehead, the distinctive aspects of America are its flaws. The character Lander, an orator, writer, and escaped slave residing on Valentine Farm in Indiana (a former slave state), seems to speak for Whitehead in observing that “America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. . . . This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty.”  He then adds, “Yet here we are,” suggesting that good happens despite America, not because of it.

For me, the most redeeming feature of America is the clearest expression of its noblest ideals and aspirations: the Declaration of Independence.  This document appears twice in the novel, first as the memorized speech of a slave (Michael) who gets trotted out to amuse the guests of the vicious slave-owner Terrance Randall. Later, a more favorable rendering of the Declaration’s principles occurs on the Valentine Farm, where Cora finds sanctuary.  But even here, its principal truths, declared to be “self-evident,” are not taken as such, but rather likened to “a map”: “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it yourself.”  In the end, Whitehead seems to say that freedom is what you make of it. President Obama liked to say, “that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing” and “while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”

But what test does Whitehead envision to prove the truth of the Declaration’s claims?  How would one refute the argument made by Ridgeway, the novel’s slave-catcher par excellence and Cora’s nemesis, that freedom is simply the will of the stronger?  “The American imperative,” Ridgeway calls it, declaring, “If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now. 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.”

  1. Would you say Ridgeway represents one pole of American thinking about liberty: that it resides in a particular people’s “manifest destiny”or that free government is simply a matter of “popular sovereignty”?

That view has been maintained by Stephen Douglass and by Southern Confederates, but it is not the view expressed at our founding. I see equality and liberty as in a way the same thing. According to the Declaration, to speak of liberty is to speak of that which we possess equally. I have no more and no less liberty than you do—that’s the meaning of American equality. The potential conflict is between equality and consent. We possess equality and liberty by endowment from our Creator, or by nature. What we are not given is the security to enjoy and exercise them. That’s where human beings have to do their work. It’s as if God says, “Here’s liberty; good luck with that!” Jefferson reflects the Lockean view: people first understand what they have by God’s endowment or by nature, then they realize they are vulnerable without a way to protect this. That’s why it is also self-evident “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from consent of the governed.”

Jefferson’s slaves had the same amount of liberties naturally as he did, yet they were being deprived by law and practice of the free exercise of it. The question is, did the Founders set us on a course where the structures of society, as well as the ideals, could work together so that over time, as Lincoln said, we could press into reality that which was true but wasn’t being respected? American political development is a long effort to get people to channel their consent to the equal protection of what we all possess.


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