White women

A Reading Note

There are twelve chapters in The Underground Railroad, and their titles alternate in a pattern: the first is named after a character, Ajarry, the grandmother of the protagonist, Cora. The second chapter is titled after a place: Georgia, the plantation where Cora is born and from where she escapes. The chapters follow that alternating pattern throughout the book: person, then place, as Cora moves north.

Three of the chapters are named after women. Ajarry is kidnapped from her home and taken across the Atlantic, barely surviving the passage. She’s then sold several times over, branded again and again. She has five children, but only one of them, Cora’s mother Mabel, survives past the age of ten.

Mabel also gets a chapter, late in the book. Mabel disappears off the plantation when Cora is a young girl; despite the efforts of a concerted slave catcher, she’s never found. It isn’t until her chapter that we learn her fate: she attempts escape, but turns back to get Cora and is bitten by a snake. It’s with Mabel that we understand the only real escape from slavery is death.

Then there’s Ethel, and it’s her chapter I want to dwell on for a bit: Ethel is the wife of Martin, a white railroad station agent in North Carolina. Martin is a reluctant abolitionist, having inherited the job from his late father, who made him promise he would continue the work. Martin has none of his father’s courage, and Ethel is an unwilling partner.

In Ethel’s chapter we learn of her childhood fantasies of bringing Christian values to Africa:

Ever since she saw a woodcut of a missionary surrounded by jungle narratives, Ethel thought it would be spiritually fulfilling to serve the Lord in dark Africa, delivering savages to the light. She dreamed of the ship that would take her, a magnificient schooner with sails like angel wings, cutting across the violent sea. The perilous journey into the interior, up rivers, winding mountain passes, and the dangers escaped: lions, serpents, man-killing plants, duplicitous guides. And then the village, where the natives receive her as an emissary of the Lord, an instrument of civilization. In gratitude the niggers lift her to the sky, praising her name: Ethel, Ethel.

Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, page 191

Ethel’s parents have other ideas for their daughter, however, and Ethel turns to a life of school teaching and motherhood instead.

When Cora arrives unexpectedly, Martin sees fit to talk with her, to treat her as a guest (albeit one with very poor lodging). Ethel refrains. Martin tells Cora that Ethel is rightly scared, that she didn’t sign on for this railroad business. It isn’t until Cora takes ill that Ethel’s attitude toward her changes.

Everything had been denied Ethel her whole life. To mission, to help. To give love in the way that she wanted. When the girl got sick, the moment Ethel awaited for so long had finally arrived. In the end, she had not gone to Africa, Africa had come to her. Ethel went upstairs ... to confront the stranger who lived in her house as family. The girl lay on the sheets, curved like a primeval river. She cleaned the girl, washing the filth from her. She kissed the girl on her forehead and neck in her restless slumber with two kinds of feeling mixed up in those kisses. She gave her the Holy Word.

A savage to call her own, at last.

Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, page 195

In a book replete with violence, including many terrifying enemies, it’s still Ethel’s story that leaves me cold. She’s only willing to extend a hand to Cora if in doing so she can simultaneously elevate herself. Cora is a means for her to exercise her own racial superiority. In some ways, Ethel is as vile as the hated slave catcher who chases Cora throughout the book.

Eventually, Martin and Ethel’s housekeeper becomes suspicious and reports them to the night riders, who barge in and discover Cora recuperating in bed. As Cora is carried off, she sees Martin and Ethel tied to a tree, the townspeople surrounding them, arms raised, rocks in their hands. Ethel’s savior complex, fulfilled.

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The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead

The most talked-about feature of Whitehead’s novel of the underground railroad is the railroad itself: reimagined as an actual railroad, with tunnels and tracks and steam engines and crazed conductors, it makes for stunning, cinematic imagery.