This train car­ries no one but gam­blers

Sherbrooke Record - - FRONT PAGE - Len­noxville li­brary

In Col­son White­head’s Pulitzer Prize win­ning novel The Un­der­ground Rail­road (2016) the pas­sen­gers are all bet­ting their lives that the trains will take them some­place safer than the slave life they are flee­ing on the cot­ton plan­ta­tions in the ru­ral South of the 1850s. Ev­ery­one in­volved in the rail­road – en­gi­neers, me­chan­ics, con­duc­tors and sta­tion agents - are risk­ing their lives too. This rail­road is not a metaphor for a se­ries of safe houses on the routes from the deep South to free­dom and safety in the North or in Canada. There are real lo­co­mo­tives, real tun­nels and tracks, a mot­ley col­lec­tion of cars, and sta­tions with plat­forms. There are, how­ever, no sched­ules, no tick­ets, and no maps. The sta­tion agents don’t know where the trains are com­ing from or where the tracks lead. The less they and the pas­sen­gers know, the less they can re­veal if they are ex­posed or cap­tured.

The prin­ci­pal char­ac­ter in the story is a teenage slave named Cora. White­head be­gins her his­tory two gen­er­a­tions ear­lier. Her grand­mother Ajarry had been cap­tured near the Gold Coast of Africa. Af­ter be­ing traded sev­eral times, she was fi­nally sold to a ship cap­tain from Liver­pool. She was put into quar­an­tine out­side Charleston, be­fore be­ing cleared for sale. Bought and sold sev­eral more times by own­ers who went broke, she even­tu­ally wound up on a plan­ta­tion in Ge­or­gia, which is where we meet her grand­daugh­ter.

Cora is go­ing to travel to sev­eral states on the rail­road. Each state is a metaphor for an in­sti­tu­tional ap­proach to how black peo­ple might be treated if the abo­li­tion­ists were suc­cess­ful in leg­is­lat­ing an end to slav­ery in Amer­ica. Martin, a white man who shel­ters Cora in North Carolina, ex­plains the prob­lem to her.

“As with ev­ery­thing in the south, it started with cot­ton. The ruth­less en­gine of cot­ton re­quired its fuel of African bod­ies. Criss­cross­ing the ocean, ships brought bod­ies to work the land and to breed more bod­ies...more slaves led to more cot­ton, which led to more money to buy more land to farm more cot­ton. Even with the ter­mi­na­tion of the slave trade, in less than a gen­er­a­tion the num­bers were un­ten­able...whites out­num­bered slaves two to one in North Carolina, but in Lou­i­si­ana and Ge­or­gia the pop­u­la­tions neared par­ity. Just over the bor­der in South Carolina, the num­ber of blacks sur­passed that of whites by more than a hun­dred thou­sand. It was not dif­fi­cult to imag­ine the se­quence when the slave cast off his chains in pur­suit of free­dom – and ret­ri­bu­tion.”

White­head’s Ge­or­gia is the slave world that we have learned about from sto­ries like Un­cle Tom’s Cabin and, more re­cently, Ten Years a Slave. De­bauched and abu­sive own­ers sup­ported by sadis­tic and vi­cious fore­men re­gard their black cap­tives as prop­erty that they can ex­ploit in what­ever man­ner they see fit. It is from this world that Cora’s mother Ma­bel had es­caped, never to be seen or heard of again. Cora re­sents her mother for hav­ing aban­doned her as a child in such a hos­tile and cruel en­vi­ron­ment. Arnold Ridge­way, the slave catcher, who will play a big role in Cora’s ad­ven­tures, re­sents Ma­bel too as a blem­ish on his pro­fes­sional record. White­head will even­tu­ally ex­plain how Ma­bel was able to elude Ridge­way’s clutches for so long.

South Carolina ap­pears to be a place of rel­a­tive en­light­en­ment: blacks live in dor­mi­to­ries, eat in a din­ing hall and go to school. But it turns out to be an ex­per­i­ment in sci­en­tific racism where the or­ga­niz­ers are at­tempt­ing to prove that blacks truly are in­tel­lec­tu­ally, emo­tion­ally and morally in­fe­rior to whites. And the whites are also eu­geni­cists, ad­vo­cat­ing a pro­gram of ster­il­iza­tion for black women.

North Carolina has abol­ished slav­ery, and also black peo­ple. The state has bought up all slaves and sold them to own­ers in other states. All blacks caught in the state are to be ex­e­cuted, along with any white peo­ple who har­bour them. This is a so­ci­ety that has the fea­tures of Nazi Ger­many or Stal­in­ist Rus­sia where neigh­bours spy on neigh­bours and sell them out to the au­thor­i­ties. But even the Nazis and Com­mu­nists did not make the ex­e­cu­tion of their cit­i­zens a form of pub­lic en­ter­tain­ment.

Ten­nessee is a night­mare for ev­ery­one, black and white. Those places that have not been burned to a crisp by wild­fires are be­set by a yel­low fever epi­demic. Even In­di­ana, which ap­pears to be a place of peace and tran­quil­ity for the blacks who have man­aged to make it that far, turns out to be an il­lu­sion.

White­head is not just writ­ing his­tory. The ques­tions he raises about whether black peo­ple can ever find a place where they can be­long in a so­ci­ety dom­i­nated by white racism are ap­pro­pri­ate for to­day’s Amer­ica too. All of the free­doms that blacks do en­joy have been bought at an enor­mous price in both blood and money, high­lighted by the Civil War, but by no means start­ing or end­ing there. Vin­cent Cud­dihy

Read­ers should note the change in the Len­noxville Li­brary’s open­ing hours. Start­ing this week, it will be open from 10am to 5pm on Tues­day and open at Noon and close at 7:45pm on Fri­day.

-Vince Cud­dihy

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