Whenever one of her students finished, my graduate school advisor took everyone out to dinner and paid for the meal. These were expensive meals, too – between San Francisco’s culinary culture and Silicon Valley’s sudden money, many restaurants near Stanford turned very pricey.
I wouldn’t eat. I’d order a glass of water, no more. If it were lunchtime, I’d say that I planned to go running early in the afternoon. If it were dinner, I’d murmur that K & I had eaten already. My advisor would frown, but after the first few times this happened, she stopped arguing. She probably thought I was anorexic, or deranged.
Nope. But I’d read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. In his words:
Gift exchange must … be refused when there is a real threat in the connections that it offers. In ancient tales the hero who must pass through hell is warned that charity is dangerous in the underworld; if he wishes to return to the land of the living, he should lend a hand to no one, nor accept the food offered by the dead.
Gifts from evil people must also be refused lest we be bound to evil. In folk tales the hero is well advised to refuse the food and drink offered him by a witch.
We often refuse relationship, either from the simple desire to remain unentangled, or because we sense that the proffered connection is tainted, dangerous, or frankly evil. And when we refuse relationship, we must refuse gift exchange as well.
If I’d nibbled an eight dollar plate of french fries, I probably wouldn’t have been trapped in California. But it wasn’t worth the risk. That was a world with which I hoped to maintain no ties.
The stakes for Cora, the hero of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, are higher. I was miserable during graduate school, but Whitehead writes of a world in which innocent people are routinely tortured and murdered in all variety of grotesque, horrifying manner.
When Cora stumbles to the road after trekking for days through a secret subterranean tunnel, she sees several wagons trundling westward. The first two wagons are driven by white men – she ignores the first, and, when pressed by the second, turns down his offer to help.
The third wagon was commanded by an older negro man.
“You hungry?” the man asked. He was from the south, from his voice.
“I’m very hungry,” Cora said.
Despite her hunger, Cora could not accept aid from the whites. Although her escape was facilitated by several white people (most of whom were then tortured and murdered for having aided her), she cannot trust strangers with pallid skin.
Indeed, a minor character, another survivor of the final massacre that Cora fled, gives a pithy summary of this distrust in her old age:
She lived on Long Island then, after roaming all over the country, in a small house with a Shinnecock sailor who doted on her to excess. She’d spent time in Louisiana and Virginia, where her father opened colored institutes of learning, and California. A spell in Oklahoma … The conflict in Europe was terrible and violent, she told her sailor, but she took exception to the name. The Great War had always been between the white and the black. It always would be.
Several pages earlier, Whitehead proffers a speech from a character highly regarded for his intellectualism; this speech delineates the sides in this war:
“Our ancestors came from all over the African continent. It’s quite large. … They had different ways of subsistence, different customs, spoke a hundred different languages. And that great mixture was brought to America in the holds of slave ships. … We are craftsmen and midwives and preachers and peddlers. … The word we. We are not one people but many different people. How can one person speak for this great, beautiful race – which is not one race but many, with a million desires and hopes and wishes for ourselves and our children?
“For we are Africans in America. Something new in the history of the world, without models for what we will become.
“Color must suffice. It has brought us to this night, this discussion, and it will take us into the future. All I truly know is that we rise and fall as one, one colored family living next door to one white family. We may not know the way through the forest, but we can pick each other up when we fall, and we will arrive together.”
The world in Whitehead’s novel is stark and brutal. What’s worse, the most horrific elements of the story are real.
The Underground Railroad is a blend of historical fiction and Man-in-the-High-Castle-esque sci-fi. The novel is set in a world that resembles the 1800s United States, but it is not our world. Underground tunnels crisscross the country, secretly built by a coterie of technologically-advanced, presumably African-American citizens (when asked of the provenance of the tunnels, a character gnomically replies “Who builds anything in this country?”). And a century’s worth of racial injustice has been condensed into the several years that Cora spends fleeing the torturers who claimed to own her.
Personally, I felt that this speculative re-imagining of America weakened the story. By picking and choosing various injustices throughout history and shifting them into the past, Whitehead creates the illusion that these sins all pre-dated the Civil War. After all, the passage about the “Great War” quoted above implies that Whitehead’s world experienced a similar abolition of slavery toward the turn of the century, else how could “colored institutes of learning” be opened in the south?
But the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, as with many of the abuses documented in Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, is so chilling because it transpired long after the Civil War – the syphilis study did not officially end until the 1970s.
And Whitehead imagines a region that has outlawed the presence of any human with too much melanin in his or her skin (perhaps even European immigrants living here stayed indoors, or routinely smeared themselves with thick swaths of titanium dioxide, lest they be mobbed & murdered for a tan). But, within the context of a sci-fi alternate history, readers might believe that the violent enforcement of a “whites only” district ended long before it did in this country.
A few years later, in 1987, the civil rights legend Hosea Williams … took marchers … into Forsyth County [outside Atlanta]. It wasn’t a fair fight. Men, women, children and Klansmen, proudly waving the Confederate flag and a noose, overwhelmed law enforcement and hurled stones, debris, and epithets as they surged at the nonviolent protesters. “Keep Forsyth white!” scraped through the air like fingernails on a chalkboard. The only thing that finally broke Forsyth County open was the pressure of Atlanta’s sprawl and the onslaught of economic development.
Especially at this moment in history, when millions of young black men are ensnared in our nation’s incarceration crisis, when dozens have recently been murdered by the law enforcement officers sworn to protect them, it feels strange to condense horrors into a small sliver of long-ago time. Slavery itself in many ways continued into the 1940s, as documented in Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name. If you read the Thirteenth Amendment, you’ll find that slavery is still constitutionally legal even today, as long as a mockery of justice is enacted first. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander documents how egregiously unfair these mockeries of justice often are in the present-day United States.
Some of the violence in Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is thankfully confined to the past. The unpunished multi-day torture-cum-murder of re-captured fugitives, for instance. And the Underground Railroad itself is an idea firmly rooted in the pre-Civil-War United States.
But I worry that, by linking these ideas to more recent examples of injustice, Whitehead’s novel won’t draw this violence into the present, but rather make contemporary injustice seem long past. After all, we humans are adept at forgetting the suffering we cause. After the slave catcher in Whitehead’s novel asks Cora whether she feels bad about having killed a boy during her escape, the slaver summarizes,
“Of course not – it’s nothing. Better weep for one of those burned cornfields, or this steer swimming in our soup.”