Book Review: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad


“The Underground Railroad is bigger than its operators–it’s all of you too. The small spurs, the big trunk lines…It goes everywhere, to places we know and those we don’t,” pg. 267.

“Why do this,” she asked. “For all of us?” “Don’t you know? White man ain’t going to do it. We have to do it for ourselves,” pg. 278.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad reimagines the escape route as an actual line, which includes conductors and stops. In what amounts to nothing less than a brilliant cosmic convergence, Whitehead’s book provides intellectual cover for Porsha Williams’ iconic scene during her first season on the The Real Housewives of Atlanta. For those readers who do not watch Peak Reality TV, a short recap: her co-stars and viewing public loudly derided the then Mrs. Williams-Stuart for stating that the underground railroad was a real-world entity. (Ed note: It would be fun to know that Whitehead also watches this particular tv show. I imagine, however, the genesis of the book project predates the airing of the episode in 2012). The protagonist, Cora, must navigate the unpredictability of different stops on the underground railroad in an epic search for freedom.

Whitehead’s book achieves the transcendence of my favorite novel, Beloved by Toni Morrison, by humanizing and personalizing the experience of slavery. My one critique is that Cora’s interior life is not as deeply explored. That particular story, however, is not the project of this novel. Whitehead recounts her journey and its obstacles. Cora is an enslaved person who experiences the horrors of residing in Georgia: the casual cruelty of a physical and sexual nature. She achieves a very limited and deeply circumscribed level of autonomy initially by being labeled a crazy person and placed in an area of the plantation for those deemed insane.

One of the clear strengths of the book is that he personalizes the flat, terse descriptions contained in the runaway notices that begin each chapter. Cora embarks on her journey, is eventually caught for a time, but manages to escape again. One of the final places of refuge is an Indiana farm, where the slave catchers raid, kill or capture its inhabitants. The novel also includes short chapters about the white people who populated the southern antebellum milieu: a slave catcher, grave robber, abolitionist. He puts them in conversation with the clear narrative arc of Cora’s story.

In the course of reading fictional and nonfictional accounts  of slavery, I do not have the professional distance that the training dictates of a social scientist. As a child, I learned from the Richmond family oral tradition that my great grandparents were sharecroppers and their parents were slaves. I, therefore, identify with Cora. I know slavery was awful but the experience of reading thousands of pages recounting the gruesome details is shocking. To be an American historian is to be deeply acquainted with the chapters and verses of its horrors. It makes me feel some type of way when I emerge from my office and get on the train with the masses of humanity. Ultimately, Cora’s story is linked to my family and the story of America. It is a necessary one.

In the end, Cora receives some semblance of justice. Terrance Randall, the owner of the plantation, dies ignobly. He is unable to recapture her, despite increasing the award money and advertising for her return all over the south. She finally makes it to a stop where she can then travel to California. To be sure, slavery is a bad, brutal institution. Whitehead reminds us there is sacrifice and beauty as well in the search for freedom. The historical field has also established that there was agency in not only running away, but in the everyday acts of resistance that created living space for millions: breaking tools, feigning sickness, learning to read, and reshaping religion into a liberation theology. This is a good read.

What to the Woke Historian is the Fourth of July?

July 4th

For those who consider themselves woke citizens, Independence Day gives us pause. Instead of automatically celebrating the awesomeness of that day, it is a time of reflection on the long and difficult history of race. To be sure, there was freedom for some, but not for all living in America in 1776. As an activist historian who lives in Harlem and teaches college in Connecticut, that fact leads to the valid question: can those in my very liberal circle of friends and students also celebrate that day?

The masterful speech by Frederick Douglass asks a variation of that question, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, which was delivered to the Rochester, New York Ladies Anti-Slavery Society on July 5, 1852. The choice of the day was deliberate and fully communicated it was not a day of celebration for enslaved people. Douglass’ speech, along with the entire abolitionist movement, proclaimed that the business of creating a free American society was unfinished.

Slavery was the law of the land on the first Independence Day. It is also important to note that it existed in both the north and south in 1776. New York State, for example, passed the Gradual Emancipation Act in 1799 that freed children born after July 4th of that year but kept them in indentured servitude until adulthood. Slavery was finally abolished in New York with the passage of an 1817 law that gave freedom to all enslaved people by 1827.

The Civil War represents the final push to end slavery in America. In addition, it has come into the popular consciousness that Abraham Lincoln’s reputation as the Great Emancipator is bit more complicated. The Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 abolished slavery in the states that seceded from the north. The border states of Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri still had legalized slavery throughout the war. The Proclamation was nevertheless important because it changed the stated purpose of the war from one to preserve the union to one that ended slavery.

Nearly 100 years after the first Independence Day, we corrected the Great Wrong of slavery. As a historian who considers herself unapologetically woke, I have concluded that it is a day both too late and right on time. American history contains a dystopian tale of the highest and heartbreaking caliber: a country founded on the self-evident truth that all men are created equal contained a population of enslaved people. Yet that truth will out. The Declaration of Independence contained the idea that was realized eventually, with much sacrifice and suffering by millions of people.

Thus, Juneteenth is a day in Harlem and many other communities to celebrate that long overdue victory. The Union army arrived in Galveston, Texas and informed the population that the war had ended and enslaved people were free on June 19, 1865. Juneteenth occurred during the push to adopt the amendment in the House of Representatives, Senate, and the state legislatures. With the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865, legal slavery was formally abolished throughout the land.

There is often a misperception that fighting for racial equality is a dour undertaking. From the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s celebrations of a beloved community in the 1960s to the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement today, there is an undeniable vitality contained in the long struggle for civil rights. There must also be times like Juneteenth when we can acknowledge both the victories and the battles still ahead. I enjoy the annual Harlem parade where friends and families in the community can gather and celebrate our shared history. These events are critically important in the formation of the public memory of the battle for racial equality.

For the woke among the citizenry today, we can also celebrate July Fourth precisely because of the more complex historical tale of the United States. There is a strong progressive tradition that also began in 1776. My love for America comes from being part of the great sweep of history that contains the loyal opposition to oppression in all its forms. I support the struggle for equal rights for people of color, working class folks, women, and those in the LBGTQ community. In addition, I will engage in a bit of holiday fun and silliness by eating tons of barbeque, wearing red, white and blue, and singing along to Katy Perry’s Firework. It is a joyous day. I know what gives me great purpose is that the fight continues the next day.


White Sneakers and Narratives of Declension


When the weather starts getting warm in New York, I start thinking about what pair of white sneakers that I may want to purchase. It can be a sturdy canvas pair of Keds or Supergas or a shiny patent of a pair of Puma Baskets. This year, I have settled on leather Stan Smiths with three Velcro straps. I choose them because they look vaguely retro and thus serve as a testament to my current tribal status as a hep cat denizen of Harlem.

I especially appreciate the Stan Smiths because they invoke a definite 1980’s nostalgia. I remember when I got my first pair of sneakers with Velcro and delighted in the crunching sound of opening and closing the straps. I grew to prefer old school sneakers while living in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn and attending classes at NYU during my time as a doctoral student. I had to carry my laptop as well as a couple of books while making the commute to campus each day. I needed to wear comfortable shoes. My graduate stipend limited what I could afford to purchase. I like the look and price point of classic sneakers to this day.

I would not call myself a fully committed sneakerhead. I am more low key and frankly scattershot about my shoe purchases. My major key is history. As a professor who field is African American history and education, I own way more books than sneakers. In fact, I have given more books away to charity than I own today. Yet I like retro sneakers a lot. Sneakers invoke a range of things—for some, they are purely utilitarian and for others they are a signifier of status. For me, they are a mix of practical and ephemeral. I will learn about the intricacies of sneaker culture as I continue to write this blog.

As I think further about white sneakers, I feel that they also represent historical narratives of declension. The Stan Smiths will follow a pretty linear path of decline. They will start shiny and new and will eventually become totally beat up. In this respect, white sneakers are an emotionally fraught purchase because they never stay super nice for super long. As a kid, I used various intervention methods to stop the ravages of normal wear and tear: carefully monitoring and scrubbing all scuffs with a toothbrush, using white shoe polish, and even tossing the canvas ones into the washing machine. I do not have the time or inclination to clean sneakers these days.

Declension narratives are generally frowned upon in the field of history because the discipline values nuance and context. My Stan Smiths, however, will tell a pretty uncomplicated tale. They will go from pristine, fresh and clean to not any of the above. I took the shoes out of the box today, gave them one last look and know the minute I step out into the New York sidewalk, the scuffs, scrapes, and dirt will tell the story of my travels throughout the summer. And, in this instance, that is a very good thing.

What sneakers are you wearing this summer? Sound off in the comments below.