How stories work

A Reading Note

The Underground Railroad follows Cora, who is born enslaved on a Georgia plantation. Along with Caesar, another slave, Cora escapes on the railroad, first to South Carolina, where she and Caesar briefly live as free people, then on to North Carolina when they are found out. In North Carolina, she arrives at the railroad station to find the station agent in the midst of leaving a message saying the station must be shut down: it has become too dangerous to ferry slaves through the state. Cora is an unwelcome surprise. The agent, a nervous man named Martin, manages to bring Cora to his home, pausing along the way to show her the Freedom Trail—a long tree-lined road lined with hanging black bodies. They continue on to his small house, where Martin hides her in the attic; there she has to wait for a sign from the railroad.

The house sits on the edge of a park, and each Friday the town gathers in the park for a festival of performances and speeches. On her first week there, Cora watches the event from a hole in the wall.

Two white men, their faces blackened by burned cork, capered through a series of skits that brought the park to exhuberant laughter. Dressed in mismatched, gaudy clothes and chimney-pot hats, they molded their voices to exaggerate colored speech; this seemed to be the source of the humor. A sketch where the skinnier performer took off his dilapidated boot and counted his toes over and over again, constantly losing his place, generated the loudest reaction.

The final performance, following a notice from the judge regarding the chronic drainage issues at the lake, was a short play. From what Cora put together from the actor’s movements and the bits of dialogue that traveled to her suffocating nook, the play concerned a slave—again, a white man in burned cork, pink showing on his neck and wrists—who ran north after a light rebuke from his master. He suffered on his journey, delivering a pouty soliloquy on hunger, cold, and wild beasts. In the north, a saloon keeper took him on. The saloon keeper was a ruthless boss, beating and insulting the wayward slave at every turn, stealing wages and dignity, the hard image of northern white attitudes.

The last scene depicted the slave on his master’s doorstep, having once again run away, this time from the false promises of the Free States. He begged after his former position, lamenting his folly and asking for forgiveness. With kind and patient words, the master explained that this was impossible. In the slave’s absence, North Carolina had changed. The master whistled and two patrollers ushered the prostrate slave from the premises.

The town appreciated the moral of the performance, their applause resounding through the park. Toddlers clapped from the shoulders of their fathers, and Cora caught Mayor [the dog] nipping at the air. She had no idea of the size of the town bult felt that every citizen was in the park now, waiting.

Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, page 157

As it turns out, they are waiting for the finale: when a young black woman, her face bloodied and her hair shaved, is dragged on to the stage and then hung from an oak tree.

What’s especially damning about the way this scene plays out is the straight line from the performances—with their explicitly racist perspective—and the lynching that follows. The plays depict black people as dumb and foolish, emphasize the capricious violence of northerners, and of course present the slave master as a generous fatherly figure. Those stories depict a world in which lynching a wayward slave is an appropriate way to cap off a friendly town gathering. Whitehead’s choice to have the plays precede the violence is telling: the stories create the conditions for the murder to take place. They will it to happen. That’s how stories work.

Related books

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.