Big Shop of Horrors 

Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad fills in some gaps in U.S. history

In classrooms, "King Cotton" and the "peculiar institution" of slavery are terms used to describe the political and economic wedges that split the Union in the bloodiest war on U.S. soil. Idaho Black History Museum Director Phillip Thompson said Americans still avert their eyes from the human cost of millions living in bondage.

"I think we have a romanticized and self-fulfilling vision of slavery," Thompson said at the Feb. 1 kickoff of Read Me Treasure Valley, a community-wide "big read" comprising discussions at libraries, after-school activities, film screenings and more. This year, RMTV organizers selected as the recommended title The Underground Railroad (Doubleday, 2016) by Colson Whitehead, who will speak at The Egyptian Theatre on Tuesday, Feb. 13, as part of the Readings & Conversations series put on by The Cabin literary center. (The event is sold out.)

The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a Georgia slave girl who escapes the plantation she lives on to get to a literal underground railroad built and managed by sympathizers and former slaves. Her trip to the free states initially stalls, and her journey becomes a guided tour of the Big Shop of Horrors that was antebellum America.

The idea of depicting the network of abolitionists who shepherded people to freedom as an actual train came to Whitehead about 18 years ago. Over time, he innovated, drawing from history to make every "stop" on Cora's journey an illustration of a different event or period.

"Since each state is a different world with its own rules, with white supremacy or a black utopia...the structure allowed all kinds of cool things that a novel does," Whitehead told Boise Weekly. "Before I knew who Cora was ... there was a structure that allowed me to explore a different dynamic of American history."

This literary device allowed him to aggregate scenes to show how slavery has chased its victims, however far they may go.

After escaping from Georgia, where slaves are regularly beaten and killed, Cora first settles in South Carolina. There, social workers teach her to read and give her a job, but the dioramas in the natural history museum where she works are illustrations of the stories white people tell themselves about their superiority. Her first trip to a hospital recalls instances of unethical, often fatal experimentation on black people, like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Other stops evoke brutal exclusion laws and the Tulsa race riot.

The Underground Railroad issues a challenge to the way Americans talk about slavery and its legacy, and organizers of RMTV expect the novel to spark conversations about justice and equity. According to a January 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, U.S. history teachers scarcely cover key concepts of slavery, such as its magnitude and centrality to the American economy, as well as the experiences of slaves based on location, gender or burden. Instead, the report reveals the period is with a focus on the economic and political ramifications of slavery—at the expense of the lived experiences of people affected by the practice.

The SPLC study showed many textbooks cover slavery in a just a few paragraphs, often in the context of how central it was to economies on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Few students learn about how a siege mentality in the South led to vicious population control efforts and contributed to stereotypes about African-Americans that persist to this day.

Whitehead is acutely aware there are dots connecting the Middle Passage to the present. He brings them close together so readers can't help but see the relationships between them.

"People read the book and wonder, 'When did those forced sterilizations happen? Who were these scientific racists who developed these eugenics theories in the 19th century that influenced the Nazis?'" Whitehead said.

The imaginative feat of The Underground Railroad is, in Whitehead's words, "treat[ing] American history in a different way from the way it's taught," showing how the most gruesome and unjust facets of bondage can live side by side with ideas of freedom, civility and justice. His characters are beaten, raped, lynched, starved, whipped and more; their freedom is hard-won and often illusory. Even in freedom, Whitehead depicts black people as refugees from a world where their rights are hotly debated by politicians and their labor is stolen by people who could kill them with impunity. At no point are black people allowed to have the same expectations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as white people.

The Underground Railroad lays bare the violence of slavery and unmasks the many faces of white supremacy with an immediacy that will leave readers feeling the events it describes could be happening today. Whitehead said if there are echoes between the book and the present day, it's because the story of African-Americans' flight from slavery isn't over.

"If you write about race and racism in 1850, you end up with what's going on now, because obviously we've made some progress, but obviously we have a lot further to go," Whitehead said.

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