Book of the Month: The Underground Railroad

Let's just pretend like I didn't just abruptly stop this book of the month thing for a while, shall we?

I hate slave movies; slave T.V. shows; slave books even. I don't like them; which is why I refuse to watch movies based on slavery, even those that have won all the awards. I think they are really horrible, and while I appreciate the need to tell these stories and remind people of America's horrible past, I'm also uncomfortable with the fact that the black movies that win the awards are specifically those that depict black folks as subservient. The ones that depict us a defiant; as math nerds; as extraordinary, are snubbed.

So the book, "The Underground Railroad" was not really my first choice in the list of books for my book club for that particular month--September. Yes, I'm only just getting to write about it.  But my first choice, Hilary Clinton's What Happened was removed from the list. So I went with this and I don't regret the decision. I think it's necessary for this society we live in to see the atrocities black people were exposed to. I include excerpts from the book at various points in this post to give you an idea of the monstrosity I'm talking about.

It's written by Colson Whitehead and is an alternative history novel that tells the story of two slaves in the 1800s as they make their way to freedom from a Georgia plantation through the Underground Railroad. In real life, the Underground Railroad was a series of safe houses and a network of secret routes that black slaves used to escape to into free states.  In the book, the underground railroad was actually a subway system.

The book focuses on Cora, a black slave, but devotes single chapters to other characters like Cora's grandmother; Caesar, who was also on the run with Cora; and a slave-catcher, Ridgeway. We are first met with Ajarry, Cora's grandmother, who was snatched from West Africa and dragged across the ocean on a slave ship.The book proceeds to tell us about Cora who has been excommunicated on the plantation, after her mother ran away and abandoned her. Later, Caesar approached Cora with the idea to run away from the plantation; an idea she wasn't first welcomed to. Eventually, she had no choice but accept Caesar's proposal, given the situation on the plantation with the slave owners. So the bulk of the book is about their long journey to freedom. They also had to question their own morality on the way, after being faced with a series of hard choices that depended on their survival.

"Lucy and Titania never spoke, the former because she chose not to and the latter because her tongue had been hacked out by a previous owner." (p.47)

I think it's a great book. I also think it's traumatizing and very infuriating that people in that century, some ancestors of white folks, were that inhumane. While reading, I often had to pause for a while just to catch my breath, and be thankful for my freedom. In the book, we also see how black women were being sterilized and black men were used as experiments to track the spread of syphilis. To say this book demonstrated the horrific and monstrous actions during the slave era would be an understatement. The humiliation, the fear, the sexual and physical abuse. It was a lot.

"...they gathered on the front lawn. Randall's visitors sipped spiced rum as Big Anthony was doused with oil and roasted. The witnesses were spared his screams, as his manhood had been cut off on the first day, stuffed in his mouth, and sewn in. The stocks smoked, charred, and burned, the figures in the wood twisting in the flames as if alive." (p. 63) 

But even then, we see some white people, who stood on the right side of history, by helping the slaves escape into freedom, even if it meant risking their lives and their families. We also see bravery and courage in Cora, who risked her life for the ultimate prize of freedom.  I wonder, if Cora had known the horror that was ahead, would she still have embarked on that journey?

The truth is, the book was painful to read. But perhaps it will help people further understand the anger in the African-American community. The fact that centuries after, black people are still being oppressed and racism is still pervasive is unfortunate. Perhaps, people will understand that although slavery ended a while ago, the legacy was still passed on from generation to generation.
You know, sometimes, people say:

African-Americans complain too much

Or express similar sentiments.  It actually sounds like Well, better be grateful for the opportunities you're given; As though they are still visitors, when the truth is their ancestors built this land. Not to mention the generational privileges they missed out out. People often forget that even if it's just knowledge your parents were able to pass on to you; or if it's that one house that has been passed from generation to generation; it's still some sort of privilege. Up till very recently, blacks did not have the same access to loans, mortgages etc. that whites did. These are inherited traumas that still affect lives of black people. And this is just scratching the surfacing. There are way more, but first things first is acknowledgement.

Anyway, the book of this month is poignant, it's necessary, it's worth every minute.



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