Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Underground Railroad – to DC

Review by Bill Doughty

(Art courtesy National Park Service)
It's on the Commander-in-Chief's summer reading list, was chosen by Oprah for her book club, and gives insights to our nation's original sin in the lead-up to the opening later this week of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

All good reasons to read this fantasy fiction by a gifted writer.

Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad" (2016 Doubleday, Penguin Random House) takes liberty in his storytelling of the sacrifices of slaves and abolitionists in the decades before the Civil War. Fantasy comes into play when he envisions an extended, actual, literal underground railroad.

Reading this novel, one can imagine a movie version produced by directors who blend the real with the unreal: Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and, especially because of the graphic violence the jumps out unexpectedly, Quentin Tarantino.

Strong characters include both resilient and resigned slaves, sadistic plantation owners, a patronizing widow, conflicted and committed railroad operators, and weird slave-catchers. Settings involve slave quarters, saloons, various hiding places, an "anatomy house," the Museum of Natural Wonders and a barn filled with shackles.
"She saw the chains first. Thousands of them dangled off the wall on nails in a morbid inventory of manacles and fetters, of shackles for ankles and wrists and necks in all variety and combinations. Shackles to prevent a person from absconding, from moving their hands, or to suspend a body in the air for a beating. One row was devoted to children's chains and the tiny manacles and links connecting them. Another row showcased iron cuffs so thin that only the thought of punishment prevented their wearer from splitting them. A line of ornate muzzles commanded their own section, and there was a pile of ball and chains in the corner. The balls were arranged in a pyramid, the chains trailing off in S-shapes. Some of the shackles were rusted, some were broken, and others seemed as if they had been forged that very morning. Cora moved to one part of the collection and touched a metal loop with spikes radiating toward its center. She decided it was intended for wear around the neck."

A display of slave shackles will be featured in the Smithsonian's new museum. For his part, Whitehead in "Underground" imagines a Museum of Natural Wonders with live-action scenes of American History acted out by people. One scene involves a sanitized look at life on a slave ship:
"The soothing blue walls of Life on the The Slave Ship evoked the Atlantic sky. Here Cora stalked a section of a frigate deck, around the mast, various small barrels, and coils of rope. Her African costume was a colorful wrap; her sailor outfit made her look like a street rascal, with a tunic, trousers, and leather boots. The story of the African boy went that after he came aboard, he helped out on deck with various small tasks, a kind of apprentice. Cora tucked her hair under the red cap. A statue of a sailor leaned against the gunwale, spyglass pointed. The eyes, mouth, and skin color were painted on its wax head in disturbing hues."
Slavery is described by the slave catchers and by the antebellum South, in general, as an "American Imperative," part of the economy, the normal way of life, based on an authoritarian patriarchal attitude where intolerance, hatred and violence were acceptable, especially when directed to "the other." Through the hundreds of years of slavery in North America we can perhaps come to grips with its legacy––segregation, racism, bigotry and Civil Rights––in the decades since it ended.

In the deep South nearly two centuries ago, Cotton is king, and cotton becomes a symbol, both in the first time our hero Cora wears soft cotton clothes and in the pivotal role a cottonmouth snake plays deep in the narrative.

And aboard slave ships, atop auction blocks (such as the one pictured at left above, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution)  and on plantations people are "cargo":
"List upon list crowded the ledger of slavery. The names gathered first on the African coast in tens of thousands of manifests. That human cargo. The names of the dead were as important as the names of the living, as every loss from disease and suicide––and the other mishaps labeled as such for accounting purposes––needed to be justified to employers. At the auction block they tallied the souls purchased at each auction, and on the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh."
From Frederick Douglass's autobiography.
But freedom is the "ultimate currency" in life. 

This book is both an indictment and an inspiration.

Whitehead gives us a poetically worded insight from a slave's perspective: "Men start off good and the world makes them mean. The world is mean from the start."

As good as this book is, could it have been better story without the fantasy of an actual railroad underground? What is blurred in strong metaphor and mythology? What is considered reality and historical truth?

For strong, passionate and contemporaneous nonfiction on this important topic, I recommend reading the works of Frederick Douglass, whose writing is strong and whose stories are powerful but true.

And, beginning Sept. 24, we can visit the Smithsonian's new wing to see why some of our national polity is still shackled to sins of the past.

World War II Sailors. 
The Second World War began just 76 years after the official end of slavery. And this year marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of WWII in the Pacific. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.)

No comments: