Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad details the journey to freedom of a slave girl named Cora. Whitehead analyzes the recurring theme of the depravity of slavery. He emphasizes familial relationships and in doing so, he shows that slavery strips slaves of forming those relationships.
First and foremost, slavery took away Cora’s relationship with her mother and left her as an orphan. She grew up without the love and care of a mother, knowing full well as a child, she needed the love and guidance of her mother towards her journey in life. This had devastating effect on Cora as a young woman as she had to take care of herself, even at her young age. Her mother’s running away made Cora detest her mother for abandoning her and for not being strong enough to fight the injustices meted on the black folk by the slave masters. Cora saw her mother as a coward instead of a heroine (many children seen their mothers (parents) as heroes). Cora completely refused to accept that her mother’s abandonment was a way of showing her means to get away from slavery. The short time that mother and child shared before Mabel’s abandonment was quickly forgotten by Cora as she felt it a waste of time to hold on to the memories of someone who opted to abandon her child other than running away with her. Cora’s rage towards her mother was enormous, and all through her journey, she lay blame on her mother, for the harsh life that she faced.
The only consolation that Cora had is that her mother left her at an age that was not so young, as she was allowed to work in the plantations!
Whitehead shows how slavery deprived Ethel of relationships by illustrating in the book is how institutions of slavery have distorted the ways of kinship, heritage and general family. The chapter that is about Ethel describes her as a child who did not understand how enslaved people connected with their white captors. Ethel mistook the relation to be familial, whereas it was slavery, thus Ethel thought that a slave was someone who lived in your house like family but was not family (71). Ethel believed that slaves lived in their houses like family, but in the true sense were not family. Her father then explained the origin of the Negro to remove the colorful idea that Ethel had about slaves living in her house.
When Edgar Delany explained the origin of the Negro as cursed descendants from Africa having survived a flood by clinging to mount Africa, Ethel in her naivety thought the slaves needed Christian guidance to be freed from the curse. By discussing dispersed slave families, Whitehead shows how slavery changes relationships. Throughout the book, many scenes depict the traumatic separations that families have gone through, including how children have been separated from their mothers, the most brutal manifestation of slavery. This brutal separation of mothers and children made it possible for erasure of the African identity, as well as African language where the black people in America were forced to cut ties with their heritage and were unable to trace their African or even family lineage.
This form of violence allowed for the formation of a new type of family as Whitehead narrates in the book, where the black people felt a sense of kinship and solidarity amidst themselves while living in the United States. Through this kinship and solidarity towards each other, John Valentine felt obligated to assist runaways because he saw them as his family(those who were tormented and bound by slavery. Cora had to navigate through this difficult path, while keeping kinship and solidarity with others, while at the same time looking out for what would benefit her as an individual, in other words, survival of the fittest. The slave masters believed that if they allowed kinship within the slaves, then they would grow strong, and in the end form groups which would be able to fight for their rights to liberation. As such, families were separated(children taken away from their mothers, husbands away from their wives and children, and so on.
Without a family figure to lead the children, it was very difficult to trace their lineage and the slaves remained to be confused without any sense of belonging. Another illumination in the book is seen by the way in which slavery makes black people homeless, even in a country that they have only come to know and embraced as their own. Cora’s experience of home includes where she was born( the plantation, her ancestor’s home back in Africa and lastly the unknown home which she seeks to find by going through the Underground Railroad. The plantation does not depict any form of home according to Cora, what with the harsh conditions of survival and the slavery attached to it. The endless suffering, and even deaths experienced in the plantation do not mirror a home and Cora wishes to run away from this type of home, as she feels the least safe. However, irony is displayed when Ridgeway captures Cora and assures her of taking her home from another home in Randal.
He assures her with the words
You don’t have to be afraid, Cora. You’re going home (89). Another home that Cora has held close to her heart is her ancestral home back in Africa. Africa has provided her with a sense of hope and solace, free from slavery and captivity. Still, Africa as Cora’s home had its share of imperfection, since Cora did not have any access to it. Apart from never being to Africa, she does not have any idea the part of Africa where her ancestors originated from. The only feel of Africa for Cora was her acting part where she was stereotyped into a scene at the museum, for the sole benefit of entertaining white voyeurs. Her final search of a home takes her to the north with the hope of finding a happy and free life. Valentine’s farm can be defined as the closest place that Cora experiences as home. But not long after, she is forced to leave and continue with her running. This concludes that Cora’s home is nowhere in particular, but the act of running to seek freedom. In comparison with Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, with Nadia and Saeed transporting to different locations through the doors, Cora isn’t on an actual train, and like Nadia and Saeed is fleeing to find a better life.
This parallel between the two novels shows how it’s not about the physical journey, but about character development.According to Ta-Nahesi Coates, the history of American democracy has been premised upon a few foundational myths, such as that black people are outsiders without the capacity for citizenship (Muhammad). Coates argues that this myth is America’s democracy’s animating force, thus American myths have never been colorless, and They cannot be extricated from [slavery], which holds that an entire class of people carries peonage in their blood (Muhammad).
Racism has always been part of American society as it stems back to slavery and how black people are seen as inferior to whites. Whitehead shows how the slave owners stripped the slaves of their humanity and wouldn’t even allow for familial relationships to form. Coates and Whitehead both show how black people are seen as less than human, simply because they aren’t white. It is no secret that today America faces the issue of racism. To think that one day this will be an insignificant category for the American civic life is naively utopian. For instance, rural areas in the South, the black underclass is getting worse. Black people have continued to be stereotyped, isolated and stigmatized with limited access to community networks for assistance.
There is a glaring rift between the black and whites in the US, with the whites thinking that blacks are obsessed with race, while blacks see race as a fundamental importance. It is difficult to repair the wrongs of slavery, as slavery remains a ghost of America’s past. What America needs is to ensure that blacks and whites are equal, racism becoming a non-factor. As slavery remains abolished in the US more than a century ago, all are now free. Leaders of both races should now focus on improving the lives of poor blacks, not through incarceration, but through equal opportunities and education.
Muhammad, Ismail. “Ta-Nehisi Coates” Uneasy Hope. The New Republic, 26 Oct. 2017, newrepublic.com/article/145525/ta-nehisi-coatess-uneasy-hope.Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.