The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Hey Book Friends! 

Hope all is well. Did you have a nice weekend? I did. Relaxed, saw some friends, ate and worked out. It was productive, yet chill at the same time. 

So I finished “The Underground Railroad” on Friday night. I actually stayed up until 1 a.m. Saturday to finish it; getting through this book took much longer than usual because I don’t like reading slavery stories. They’re very hard for me to read. Visualizing how colonizers and white terrorists treated victims is difficult, especially with the knowledge that it was all legal. However, I did finish and walked away with a deeper understanding of law enforcement in general. 

Did you know law enforcement officials were originally slave catchers? Yup. (Side note: Although it has nothing to do with current feelings, “The Underground Railroad” offers a funhouse mirror view on modern-day interactions between communities of color and law enforcement.) 

One major takeaway from this read was more symbolic of how the Black American has been working towards—and chasing— freedom for years. A freedom that hangs openly like a dangling carrot in front of a cartoon rabbit. It’s within reach, but the playing field isn’t fair. 

The story centers on Cora, a runaway slave who escapes her plantation in Georgia using the Underground Railroad. Whitehead had some literary fun by adding an actual locomotive to the Underground Railroad. Cora, and other slaves, would wait at underground station stops for the next available “train” that would carry them North towards freedom and away from slavery. Along the travels, you (the reader) feel the anxiety build. They stop in South Carolina for some time. The runaways settle for what is understood as a few months, but it could be weeks. Here the reader learns that South Carolina, in comparison to other Southern states, had a “progressive” attitude towards Black people. Progressive in that they provided better opportunities for Black people, but still wanted the cheap labor and felt Blacks should be controlled, and in separate housing. While things may be okay for a short while, slave catchers are working towards the runaways and Cora, once again, must get a ride on the Underground Railroad.

I don’t want to give away all the spoilers, but this book is deeper than I anticipated. It covers so much and nothing is black and white. There are good people in the world. There are bad people in the world. And then there’s a whole bunch of people who fill in the middle spectrum. There are relationships between people that complicates certain understandings for me, such as brotherhood. For example, the main slave catcher, Ridgeway, has a black teenage companion. Whitehead writes that Ridgeway felt sympathy for the boy and paid for his freedom, but Homer, the boy, never left the man. Homer works with the White slave catcher to return other black people to slavery. I couldn’t understand why Homer did this or why he was okay with returning slaves to plantation owners. There was a brief moment when I was “reading between the lines” and thought there may have been a romantic connection between the two, but I’ll leave it as just a thought.

I can’t rate this. It was super tense and very devastating for obvious reasons. This is a really smart read, but incredibly potent. 

Have you read “The Underground Railroad”? What were your thoughts?

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