The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The closest I ever came to first-hand knowledge of slavery in the US was a station on the underground railroad in Milton, WI where we would take elementary school field trips. Suffice to say, I don't know too much about the human details of the system of slavery: terror as a economic model and an organizing principle.

Colson Whitehead’s novel the Underground Railroad is certainly eye opening on the level of day-to-day existence of slaves: living on the economic whims of agriculture (especially cotton) and the barbaric and impetuous impulses of slave holders. But that’s not the power of Whitehead's book. It’s making these personal stories so universal and modern.

Take this — from the novel's main character Cora as she hides in an attic in the home of Martin and Ethel, very reluctant (and they thought, former) members of the underground railroad in barbarous North Carolina (which used to be a popular stop, the underground railroad conductor told Cora, “from what I’m told. Not anymore.”). The North Carolina of the novel tried to outlaw not slavery, but African Americans.

“In North Carolina the negro race did not exist except at the ends of ropes.”

Riding in a carriage, Martin pulls back the blanket covering Cora to show her what the locals call ‘The Freedom Trail,’ corpses of African Americans hanging from trees, signs of torture apparent, going all the way to town.

Cora spends months hidden in Martin’s and Ethel’s attic, across the street from the town park where every Friday the town meets for a concert, the production of a play and the hanging of an African American:

Cora hadn’t left the top floors of the house in months but her perspective roved widely. North Carolina had its Justice Hill, and she had hers. Looking down over the universe of the park, she saw the town drift where it wanted, washed by sunlight on a stone bench, cooled in the shadows of the hanging tree. But they were prisoners like she was, shackled to fear. Martin and Ethel were terrified of the watchful eyes behind every darkened window. The town huddled together on Friday nights in the hope their numbers warded off the things the dark: the rising black tribe; the enemy who concocts accusations; the child who undertakes a magnificent revenge for a scolding and brings the house down around them. Better to hide in the attics than to confront what lurked behind the faces of neighbors, friends, and family.