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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

December 27, 2016

I don’t want to do a disservice to either of these books by lumping them together just because they have similar titles and subjects, but I think it’s interesting to compare these two well-publicized 2016 novels and consider their significance at the moment. I hope this doesn’t detract from either—they’re very different books, each successful in its own right.

The Underground Railroad is the nickname for the network of people and safe places that helped slaves escape captivity and reach freedom in pre-Civil War America. According to James A. Banks in March Toward Freedom: A History of Black Americans (1970), the Underground Railroad helped an estimated 100,000 slaves escape to freedom. Traffic on the Railroad peaked in the 1840s and 1850s. To give this context, though, slave traders kidnapped Africans and sold them as property in the New World for over three centuries—from 1525 to 1866. In that time, an estimated 12.5 million Africans were taken, with 10.7 million surviving the voyage. So the Underground Railroad, while it sparked the imaginations of reporters and engendered fear in slave owners, actually did little to ease the overall suffering.

I remember hearing about the Underground Railroad when I was in elementary school. Possibly because of the image it evokes, or maybe it seemed exciting to imagine a fugitive on the run, it always captured my imagination. There was a house in the town I grew up—the “house with seven chimneys,” we called it—that was rumored to have been a stop (According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, “The house has numerous ties to the Underground Railroad through James D. Conrey, a Methodist minister, who owned the house in the 1840s.”).

We once took a field trip to a camp where we took part in an Underground Railroad reenactment. I’m not sure what to make of this, thinking back on it. I know the intentions were good, but the thought of a bunch of white kids running around in the woods, pretending to be escaped slaves makes me cringe. What I do remember, what I’m sure we all took away from it, is that it was fun to run and hide. I’m not sure what they could have done, short of literally dragging one of us into the woods for real lashings, or tying a friend in a canvas bag and throwing them in the river, for us to really comprehend what we were simulating.

That is, I think, the danger of the Underground Railroad as a subject. It seems exciting. It is shrouded in mystery and intrigue. It’s ripe for an exciting story, but an exciting story can’t be told outside of the context of immense, incomprehensible suffering. The Underground Railroad was an act of desperation, and many people died on it and in service of it. But even that death toll is dwarfed by the human toll of slavery as a whole.

In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act (a part of the Compromise of 1850) fundamentally changed the Underground Railroad and raised the stakes for those participating. By law, any citizen of the United States was required to return any escaped slave to his or her owner. Stiff penalties were enacted for anyone aiding escaped slaves. Furthermore, any black man or woman even accused of being a slave bore the burden to prove that they were not a slave, lest they be shipped off to the south as well. As a result, the destination of most escaped slaves was no longer just north of the Mason-Dixon line, but all the way to Canada.


Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

The time of the Fugitive Slave Act is the backdrop for Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, which takes place during the 1850s, the peak of the actual Underground Railroad. But he quickly departs from historical accuracy, creating instead a world in which the Underground Railroad is literally a railroad that runs underground, with tracks and stations and benches and conductors. Two escaped slaves, Cora and Caesar, make their way across the south, pursued by a ruthless slave tracker named Ridgeway.

Cora flees state to state, each state an episodes infused with magical realism that inevitably draws comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but each state presents its own form of nightmare. Early, we find a plantation that is like what one might expect. But later, we find a place where skyscrapers rise impossibly from the rural landscape, where burned bodies hang in grotesque displays, where museums about the lives of slaves are populated with actual slaves forced to act out those lives, where all the forms of racism are on display, from the brutal to the more insidious “racist who is not a racist.” Many of the inversions are drawn from history. Not literal 1850s history, but from other periods when some of the world’s most racist ideas were put into action. It’s as if Whitehead has chosen to scrape history of its greatest atrocities and heap them upon his protagonists, one after the other.

It is a terrible landscape, unsettling not just for its violence, but for its ability to disorient, to skew perspective. Historical truth is bent in service of a message about historical “truth,” as if Whitehead is conducting an illusion to teach us something about how easily we can be fooled. It has the feel of a carnival act with no escape. We just go deeper and deeper underground.

The Underground Railroad is a book about myth, about representation. There is a line that Ridgeway, the slave catcher, says to Cora about what the two of them represent: “For every slave I bring home, twenty others abandon their full-moon schemes. I’m a notion of order. The slave that disappears is a notion too. Of hope.” Ridgeway is telling us exactly what his role is, not just in this story, but in the grand story. He realizes he is a symbol.

Later, an abolitionist explains to Cora that, “Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth.” It is a notion that resonates, particularly in 2016, that hope is based not necessarily on what is true, but what one believes to be true. In the final scene, Whitehead adds a final plot piece that both brings this point home and punches the reader in the gut.

The Underground Railroad is an excellent book. It took a bit for me to understand what Whitehead was doing, and I think I would benefit from a second reading. But it would be well worth it.


Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

In Underground Airlines, we find ourselves in another kind of alternate reality, but in this case the world is modern. For a reason I won’t divulge, the American Civil War never happened, and the legal right to own slave still exists in four of the U.S. states. Those states are pariahs to the rest of the U.S., where trade in any goods produced from slave labor has been banned. But the Fugitive Slave Law is still in effect, requiring that escaped slaves be returned to their rightful owners.

It’s in this world that we meet Victor. He’s an African-American, an escaped slave himself, but like a criminal-turned-informant, he has been coerced by the U.S. Marshalls to work as a bounty hunter specializing in capturing escaped slaves. He’s monitored by a transmitter implanted in his body and has never met his boss in person, only over the phone. He’s on a particularly opaque case that, as he begins to unravel it, points to a much larger conspiracy.

If this all sounds like science fiction meets hard-boiled detective novel, it’s true. Winters owes as much to Phillip K Dick and Walter Mosley as to Ralph Ellison. It’s a meditation on race and racism, but it’s couched in a plot juiced by propellant genre contrivances. This is, I think, the weakest part of the novel. It borrows from these conventions and thus owes to them—while the plot arc isn’t exactly predictable, it at times feels familiar.

What is truly compelling about the novel, though, is the world Winters imagines. The implications of modern slavery raise questions about our current economy. On the Slate Audio Book Club, Jamelle Bouie makes the point that the novel imagines a very realistic transition of the slave economy from agriculture to industry as the country shifted. There’s no reason to think this wouldn’t have happened. Instead of picking cotton, slaves would have been put to work making clothes and cheap furniture in factory jobs. In Underground Airlines, those goods are exported to the handful of countries that don’t have embargoes against the slave states.

The details of this imaginary universe make it convincing and uncomfortable, because it’s easy to see connections to today’s world, our consumer culture, our industrial practices, our surveillance programs and our criminal justice system. Even more uncomfortable, it’s easy to see how the racism of some of the characters in the book is not that far removed from the racism of some of the characters who populate our news feeds. The legacy of slavery has ended, the book seems to suggest, because the laws say it has. But how much have the attitudes evolved? If the laws had never been changed, if the Civil War had never set us right through so much violence and death, where would we be? Would slavery have been broken, or would it have just dwindled, been pushed out of sight, and tolerated as a necessary evil?

*     *     *     *     *

What strikes me about these two books, when considered together, is that both authors encase the topic of slavery in different genres, as if that allows them to poke and prod it, stretch and twist it, to see where it can go and what it can do. Whitehead relies on his expansive imagination, leaving slavery in its chronological place but using magical realism to distort the world into something abstract, fantastical and horrifying. Winters uses a character we’re familiar with, the morally compromised hard-boiled hero, to sprint through a dystopia. We ride along to see if Victor can solve the case, can avoid the dangers, but in doing so we put our own moral certitude in danger. These are very different approaches, admirably ambitious. And both authors succeed in creating brave, provocative worlds. Both books are well worth reading.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Margaret permalink
    February 2, 2017 3:21 pm

    Hi, nice analysis, but you might want to correct the fact that you twice refer to Ben Winters as “Whitehead” in your review of “Underground Airlines.”


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