Tag Archives: slavery

Thoughts on “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

This is a book that was selected to read for the book club to which I belong. Because it’s a book that deals with slavery, the subject matter is disturbing, as well it should be. It is a disturbing topic and demands a brutality in language in order to capture the horrors of slavery.

She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft. She had seen boys and girls younger than this beaten and had done nothing.

(p. 34)

At one point in the book, Cora, a runaway slave, is hidden by a couple in their attic. The scene reminded me of Anne Frank. But the internment in the attic space is used to  explore the question of what constitutes freedom.

What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from the outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.

(p. 183)

Shortly afterwards, Cora considers the Declaration of Independence, and how it relates to her concept of freedom. She comes to the conclusion that freedom in America is an illusion, based upon the shadow of an idea that existed in the past.

… the Declaration of Independence was an echo of something that existed elsewhere. Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the document described anything real at all. America was a ghost in the darkness, like her.

(p. 184)

The last thing I want to mention regarding this book is the symbolism of the underground railroad. On the surface, it represents the possibility of freedom from bondage; but it also symbolizes something deeper. The underground railroad is a metaphor for the private self, the deeply personal aspects of your story that remains hidden from view. Additionally, it symbolizes the black collective consciousness, a collective story of a people forged from the individual stories of those who struggled from their freedom.

“We’re not supposed to talk about what we do down here,” Royal said. “And our passengers aren’t supposed to talk about how the railroad operates—it’d put a lot of good people in danger. They could talk if they wanted to, but they don’t”

It was true. When she told of her escape, she omitted the tunnels and kept to the main contours. It was private, a secret about yourself it never occurred to you to share. Not a bad secret, but an intimacy so much a part of who you were that it could not be made separate. It would die in the sharing.

(p. 272)

Overall, I really liked this book. It was disturbing, thought-provoking, and inspiring. While I sadly considered how much has remained the same, I also had to acknowledge that much has changed too, which provided me with hope. We still have a lot of healing to do as a society, and that healing has to start by honestly looking at the problems we face and not forgetting the darker aspects of our collective past.

5 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain

I was in the middle of reading another book when I received a request from my daughter’s school asking if I would be willing to participate in a book discussion with the students. I was provided with a list of books, so I chose A Clockwork Orange. The teacher organizing the discussions said they had two people already for that book, but would I be interested in doing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Since it was on my bucket list of books to read before I die, I agreed.

Overall, I liked the book — a lot. Although, I must admit, the last part of the book where Tom Sawyer makes his appearance got to be a little tedious. I think it was because I just didn’t like Tom. Personally, I thought he was a poseur more interested in putting on a show than in actually trying to help Jim. But, as I think about it, Twain probably intended this. Since the book is clearly a social critique on slavery, he was using Huck and Tom as symbols of the two types of people working to abolish slavery: Huck representing the people who genuinely cared about the plight of the black man, and Tom representing the ostentatious people who cared less but made a big show of wanting to help.

Regarding the language, I loved Twain’s use of the vernacular. He really captured the cadence of the language from that region, which I think brought the book to life. It also made it more believable, since it was written in the first person perspective of Huck, who lacked a formal education. I don’t think I could buy into Huck’s narratives written in grammatically “correct” English.

I suppose any discussion about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would have to include some discussion about why this book graces the list of banned books. I took a quick peek online to see what the stated reasons were and see if they lined up with my thoughts. I wasn’t surprised to see that the main reasons for pulling the book were the coarse language  (particularly the abundant use of the word “nigger”) and because it was deemed inappropriate for young readers. Now, I can’t help but be cynical, especially since the do-gooders often claim morality and the protection of our kids as the reason to censor art, when really it is something else. My feeling is that some people couldn’t stand the idea of a friendship between a black man and a white youth, a friendship that, in my opinion, also had homosexual innuendos. Although the relationship between Huck and Jim seems platonic enough, there are subtle hints at possibly something more, such as the way Jim frequently calls Huck “honey,” the way Huck describes how he and Jim would  just lay around naked all day on the raft (pp 98 – 9), and how Huck cross-dresses before sneaking off to the Illinois side of the river. So while Huck and Jim’s friendship was probably innocent, the possibility for intimacy is there.

I could certainly keep writing, but my coffee is running low, so I’ll conclude with one last thought about the book. As I reached the end, which finds Huck planning to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” and avoid being “sivilized,” I came to see Huck as the embodiment of America at the time: young, bold, adventurous, uncivilized, and moving west. Now that we have grown up into a country of chain stores, strip malls, and gated communities, I admit that I miss the adventurous American spirit that is Huck Finn.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature