PJAS 13-7

Constante González Groba
Riding the Rails to (Un)Freedom: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad
Polish Journal for American Studies, vol. 13 (Autumn 2019), pp. 255-270

Abstract: This novel about US black slavery departs from realism, moving around in time and space as a means of dealing with different racial terrors in different historical periods. One of the author’s intentions is to make us think about slavery not just in the past but with reverberations for the present. Published in 2016, the novel resonates with a contemporary America characterized by acrimonious racial division.

After escaping from a Georgia plantation through a literalized Underground Railroad, the adolescent female protagonist soon learns that freedom remains elusive in states further north, even those where slavery has been abolished. The novel fuses the odyssey of Cora with the history and mythology of America, and asserts the inseparability of slavery from American capitalism and the building of empire.

Cora explores both the Declaration of Independence and the Bible, two foundational texts of the nation, in a novel that addresses some of the foundational sins of America. Hers is the all-American story of escape to freedom, but her journey takes her through ever darker varieties of depredation and oppression. She becomes an American dreamer in the sense that she never accepts her place in a system that she persists in defying, and through this process becomes a fictional representation of black people who, with their relentless pursuit of freedom, contributed so greatly to the building of American democracy.

Keywords: Colson Whitehead; Underground Railroad; black slavery; runaway slaves

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