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.

Of Afros and Culture Wars

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Michael Vick has walked back his previous statement criticizing Colin Kaepernick’s afro. My sports intelligence is admittedly pretty low, but I do know that Kaepernick’s protest has raised the ire of many in the football community. His bravery and direct action has broken into my corner of sky. I like and whole-heartedly support him. He is my favorite #wokebae.

There is a long history of sports as a vehicle for expressing civil rights protest. There is a pretty straight line from Jackie Robinson’s desegregation of baseball in 1947 to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black power salute at the 1968 Olympics to Kaepernick’s action of kneeling during the national anthem. The idea that somehow sports should be apolitical arena is a fallacy.

Another important historical note is that it has been a means of entrepreneurial advancement, from Madam C.J. Walker in the early 1900s to the present. Styling black hair has been a lucrative and on-going element of the black business world. The opening of barbershops and hair salons are a cornerstone of the community. It is a key element of African American achievement.

Vick’s initial statement about the afro invokes a long-simmering culture war over presentation of African American hair. The idea that somehow it is outside of a professional realm to wear an afro is somewhat baffling. It has been a long struggle to win the argument that natural hairstyles are acceptable in the business world. I suppose this is another flashpoint in the national conversation about what is and what is not acceptable.

The cool thing about hair, particularly for people of color, is that there is a diversity and dynamism of styles. I have, in no particular order, have worn the following hairstyles: bantu knots, cornrows, box braids, French braids, flat-ironed straight, and flat ironed and curled. I have also worn my hair in a big, beautiful afro.

I am team afro. Let those natural curls shine.

The Once and Future Queen


Beyoncé has given us such a moment of pop culture transcendence with the release of the picture of her twins on Instagram early this morning. Her crown remains intact. She is the breaker-of-the-internet. She is our reigning pop queen. It is a visually stunning and quite sunny portrait of a mother and her two children, Rumi and Sir Carter. It is an unmitigated celebration of life. The birth of children is not only an essential rite of humanity, it is also a universal experience that connects us all.

By way of full disclosure, I am a full adherent of the Beyhive. It has been a long time in the making. I liked her as a member of Destiny’s Child and definitely bopped to Crazy in Love, which was her solo debut. I lost track of her career as I entered into my doctoral studies and did not pay attention to the next couple records that she released. Yet with Beyoncé and Lemonade, she seized my attention and converted me to a full-fledged fan. With those last two albums, she started to explore the thematic elements of society that I care deeply about: gender, race, and politics in a more mature and artistically creative manner. I will follow her career and it’s attendant personal updates as an enthusiastic supporter of all things Beyoncé.

Long live the Queen! May she ever reign.