This Train Carries No One But Gamblers
In Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Underground Railroad (2016) the passengers are all betting their lives that the trains will take them someplace safer than the slave life they are fleeing on the cotton plantations in the rural South of the 1850s. Everyone involved in the railroad – engineers, mechanics, conductors and station agents – are risking their lives too. This railroad is not a metaphor for a series of safe houses on the routes from the deep South to freedom and safety in the North or in Canada. There are real locomotives, real tunnels and tracks, a motley collection of cars, and stations with platforms. There are, however, no schedules, no tickets, and no maps. The station agents don’t know where the trains are coming from or where the tracks lead. The less they and the passengers know, the less they can reveal if they are exposed or captured.
The principal character in the story is a teenage slave named Cora. Whitehead begins her history two generations earlier. Her grandmother Ajarry had been captured near the Gold Coast of Africa. After being traded several times, she was finally sold to a ship captain from Liverpool. She was put into quarantine outside Charleston, before being cleared for sale. Bought and sold several more times by owners who went broke, she eventually wound up on a plantation in Georgia, which is where we meet her granddaughter.
Cora is going to travel to several states on the railroad. Each state is a metaphor for an institutional approach to how black people might be treated if the abolitionists were successful in legislating an end to slavery in America. Martin, a white man who shelters Cora in North Carolina, explains the problem to her.
“As with everything in the south, it started with cotton. The ruthless engine of cotton required its fuel of African bodies. Crisscrossing the ocean, ships brought bodies to work the land and to breed more bodies…More slaves led to more cotton, which led to more money to buy more land to farm more cotton. Even with the termination of the slave trade, in less than a generation the numbers were untenable…Whites outnumbered slaves two to one in North Carolina, but in Louisiana and Georgia the populations neared parity. Just over the border in South Carolina, the number of blacks surpassed that of whites by more than a hundred thousand. It was not difficult to imagine the sequence when the slave cast off his chains in pursuit of freedom – and retribution.
Whitehead’s Georgia is the slave world that we have learned about from stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and, more recently, Ten Years a Slave. Debauched and abusive owners supported by sadistic and vicious foremen regard their black captives as property that they can exploit in whatever manner they see fit. It is from this world that Cora’s mother Mabel had escaped, never to be seen or heard of again. Cora resents her mother for having abandoned her as a child in such a hostile and cruel environment. Arnold Ridgeway, the slave catcher, who will play a big role in Cora’s adventures, resents Mabel too as a blemish on his professional record. Whitehead will eventually explain how Mabel was able to elude Ridgeway’s clutches for so long.
South Carolina appears to be a place of relative enlightenment: blacks live in dormitories, eat in a dining hall and go to school. But it turns out to be an experiment in scientific racism where the organizers are attempting to prove that blacks truly are intellectually, emotionally and morally inferior to whites. And the whites are also eugenicists, advocating a program of sterilization for black women.
North Carolina has abolished slavery, and also black people. The state has bought up all slaves and sold them to owners in other states. All blacks caught in the state are to be executed, along with any white people who harbour them. This is a society that has the features of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia where neighbours spy on neighbours and sell them out to the authorities. But even the Nazis and Communists did not make the execution of their citizens a form of public entertainment.
Tennessee is a nightmare for everyone, black and white. Those places that have not been burned to a crisp by wildfires are beset by a yellow fever epidemic. Even Indiana, which appears to be a place of peace and tranquility for the blacks who have managed to make it that far, turns out to be an illusion.
Whitehead is not just writing history. The questions he raises about whether black people can ever find a place where they can belong in a society dominated by white racism are appropriate for today’s America too. All of the freedoms that blacks do enjoy have been bought at an enormous price in both blood and money, highlighted by the Civil War, but by no means starting or ending there.