Winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Literature, Colson Whitehead‘s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is a gruelling reminder of the indignities, the ignominious inhumanity heaped upon African slaves that fed the cotton industry – the money making monster – of America in the 19thcentury.
I hope the big, white, current President of the United States doesn’t mean to devolve to that period when he talks about making America great again. America became “great” on the back of dispossessed Native Americans and people stolen from African shores. America is a nation built on thievery – stolen land and stolen people and Colson Whitehead doesn’t let you forget it.
One of the towering characters in THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is Ridgeway, who rounds up runaway slaves and makes a chilling statement, “My father liked his Indian talk about the Great Spirit. All these years later, I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilise. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription – the American imperative.”
This is the unholy spirit visited upon the imported and the indigenous, distilled in this book to visit Cora, a fugitive from Georgia who takes the underground railway North with crucial stops in her passage in South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana. The great kindness she encounters is curdled by the even greater cruelty she endures.
Yet THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD refuses to yield to the negative, the hopeless, surfacing again and again with the tenacity of triumph over the most appalling adversity.
“ ..the men and women who made the underground railroad. The ones who excavated a million tons of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them….Who are you when you finish something this magnificent…On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light. The up-top world must seem so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart.”
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is a true modern epic with an unforgettable heroine – “Cora, of ordinary height and dark brown complexion, possessed of a spirited nature and devious method. She has stopped running. Reward remains unclaimed. She was never property.”
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead is published by Fleet.