The Underground Railroad: Toni Morrison to Colson Whitehead, how writers chronicled the resistance to slavery

The Underground Railroad has come to epitomise the abolitionist movement in the American consciousness, as writers compel the country to confront its darkest chapter.

Prahlad Srihari May 13, 2021 12:57:58 IST
The Underground Railroad: Toni Morrison to Colson Whitehead, how writers chronicled the resistance to slavery

Still from The Underground Railroad | Amazon Prime

Under the cover of darkness, the enslaved people of America fled further North in search of freedom. Slave owners, bounty hunters and white authorities hot on their heels, they had to navigate treacherous terrain by day and night to set back those in pursuit. Guided northward by freed slaves and abolitionists through secret routes from safe house to safe house, an estimated thousand enslaved people found freedom each year. On account of the way this resistance movement functioned, it was referred to as the “Underground Railroad.” Though it was neither underground nor an actual railroad, it spoke to its clandestine nature and its hierarchy. "Conductors", the most storied of them being Harriet Tubman, were the guides. The runaways en route were called "passengers", and "cargo" on arrival at safe houses. Those who sheltered them were referred to as "station masters". They were all often dressed in disguise and communicated through code.

And the metaphor sure caught on. The Underground Railroad has come to epitomise the abolitionist movement in the American consciousness, as writers compel the country to confront its darkest chapter. Colson Whitehead, in his 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, literalises the metaphor. A whole subway system, operating below farms and houses, ferries young Cora from state to state. Through her journey, Whitehead surveys the dehumanising experiences under slavery in the antebellum South.

The Underground Railroad Toni Morrison to Colson Whitehead how writers chronicled the resistance to slavery

Compiled from "The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom" by Wilbur H Siebert, The Macmillan Company, 1898. Image via Wikimedia Commons

History suggests the Underground Railroad primarily operated in slave states that bordered the free states. The Ohio river, which ran right through this border, thus served as a vital milestone in the path to freedom. Sethe, the runaway protagonist of Toni Morrison's Beloved, escapes from Kentucky to Ohio, ferried across the river by the Underground Railroad agent Stamp Paid. Whitehead, by contrast, sets his novel in the southern states, where running such an operation was far more dangerous. Raising the stakes thus makes Cora's odyssey to freedom — and those who helped her realise it — far more stirring.

Though The Underground Railroad is a work of fiction, Whitehead never discounts the truth to the lived experiences of the enslaved. The fictional, even fantasy, elements call attention to themselves in an eschewal of history's — to repurpose Michael Dummett's phrase — "colourless reductionism". Most of Black history erased, and their geography eclipsed from view, Whitehead colours his story based on what is known: the unimaginable cruelty of the oppressors and the untold resilience of the enslaved. For acknowledging the past is the only way to confront the present. Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests something similar in The Water Dancer. To remember trauma is to be free of it. Or as Harriet Tubman puts it in the novel: "To forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die...For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom."

The Underground Railroad Toni Morrison to Colson Whitehead how writers chronicled the resistance to slavery

Harriet Tubman (photo HB Lindsley), c. 1870. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Water Dancer adds to the mythology of the Underground Railroad with sci-fi elements. The enslaved Hiram discovers he has teleportation abilities which make him as asset to the movement. To master — what is referred to in the novel as — “Conduction” and magically convey the other enslaved to freedom, he is mentored by agents, including Tubman. But what sparks his ability is his true power — that of memory. Liz Spocott in James McBride's Song Yet Sung possesses gifts of her own. Prophetic visions of the future come to her in dreams. Convinced she will bring the enslaved to salvation, she is taught the Code, an intricate communication system used by agents in the network.

A small garden patch aside, the desire for freedom is passed down like inheritance from grandmother to mother to Cora in The Underground Railroad. Cora resents her mother Mabel for running away without her, but it also emboldens her to do the same. "Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn't look like it. When it was a dream of new shoes," writes Whitehead in the novel. So, what's worse than escaping to freedom, only for it to be snatched away again? Like the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act did, allowing for the capture of runaway slaves. It's what drives Sethe to kill her daughter. Like her real-life counterpart Margaret Garner, she would rather let her die than live a life in bondage. Patrick Henry couldn't even begin to grasp what "Give me liberty, or give me death" meant to the enslaved.

The Underground Railroad Toni Morrison to Colson Whitehead how writers chronicled the resistance to slavery

A still from Beloved

The Underground Railroad was a symbol of cross-racial solidarity against slavery. In Beloved, Sethe's escape is abetted by white abolitionists Edward Bodwin and his sister. Cora is helped by both white and Black abolitionists, as she escapes bondage from Georgia to South Carolina and beyond. But the contributions of the white abolitionists are often overestimated. "This allocation of credit is inversely proportional to the risk that white and black anti-slavery activists faced," Kathryn Schulz wrote in The New Yorker. "It took courage almost everywhere in antebellum America to actively oppose slavery, and some white abolitionists paid a price. A few were killed; some died in prison; others, facing arrest or worse, fled to Canada. But these were the exceptions. Most whites faced only fines and the opprobrium of some in their community, while those who lived in anti-slavery strongholds, as many did, went about their business with near-impunity. Black abolitionists, by contrast, always put life and liberty on the line. If caught, free blacks faced the possibility of being illegally sold into slavery, while fugitives turned agents faced potential reenslavement, torture, and murder. Harriet Tubman is rightly famous for how boldly she faced those risks.”

Tubman, who made several trips back and forth as conductor of the Underground Railroad, makes a cameo in many of these novels. Besides Coates’ The Water Dancer, she also features in McBride's The Good Lord Bird, alongside the white abolitionist John Brown. Tubman bestows her scarf to Onion, the runaway slave at the centre of the novel, to ensure safe passage on the Underground Railroad.

Book review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead chronicles brutality of American slavery, and the beauty of one woman’s courage

Nobody better embodied its ideals of resistance and freedom than Tubman, who is partly why the Underground Railroad endures as a powerful symbol to this day. Much like the enslaved traversed across the Ohio river, migrants escaping war and persecution cross the Mediterranean Sea in hopes of freedom. True, there are those barbaric enough to exploit the fleeing migrants' desperation, smuggling them in like contraband for profit. But there are also those who have built their own underground railroad to aid their compatriots seeking asylum in Europe. Through their work, the spirit of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad lives on.

Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad, a limited series adaptation of Colson Whitehead novel, begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video from 14 May.

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