Given the choice? I’ll travel by rail, never by air.
I’ll start this dual review of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters by revealing that I don’t generally read or watch fictional slave narratives. Personally, I would rather read a nonfiction collection of slave narratives and first-person accounts than someone’s fictionalized and often sanitized story. There are three main reasons I feel this way:
- The attempt to center whiteness in the narrative and demonize fellow slaves and Black people.
- The exploitation of the pain of the slave’s experience including sexualized violence by using it to titillate the audience.
- The experience of Black women who, when they are present in such narratives, are often reduced to silent victims of assault (as in the recent film Birth of a Nation).
All three of these influence each other and are therefore hard to untangle, but I’ll try to take each point as it relates to Underground Airlines and The Underground Railroad specifically. What I mean by the first reason is that people do not often want to depict the pervasiveness and overwhelming nuanced magnitude of racism. Racism was not limited to slaveholders; it was and is a pervasive part of society. Many white abolitionists still believed that people of African descent were little more than children and did not deserve full rights. Instead of this being portrayed in narratives, white people's attitudes towards race are often presented as a dichotomy; they are either complete demons or absolute saints. This results in the white character's emotional story, their cruelty or selflessness or their journey to believing Black people are human, taking center stage. Frankly, in slavery narratives? I could not care less about white people’s emotional journey. I already understand how racism works, I face it in different forms every single day. When narratives of slavery focus on whiteness, it serves as a silent way of pushing Black Americans out of our own history.
In Underground Airlines the main character’s real name is never revealed. We’ll call him Brother, which was his slave name before he ran away from slavery and was free for a couple of years before being captured by the government and forced into three months' training to make him an expert slave-catcher. This is one of the choices that keeps the reader emotionally distant from him. It made me feel as if Brother were being emotionally disconnected from his own narrative. Brother spends most of his time putting himself in the shoes of white people, understanding their motivations and choices. In his interactions with Black people, though, he others them immediately. You see, Brother automatically categorizes every Black person he meets by a catalog of skin tones used to describe runaway slaves. So white characters get a nuanced attempt at understanding, while Black characters are immediately reduced to skin color. Despite being born a slave and escaping into a racist society it feels like Brother sees more humanity in whiteness than in other Black Americans.
Often it feels as if Brother himself has forgotten that he is Black. Brother has racism pointed out to him by white people and is a victim of microaggressions that he doesn’t seem to notice. Martha, the white woman who becomes the most important secondary character, points out a racist reaction about to occur as if he would not see it coming. He apparently has no feelings, as a former slave, in having racism whitesplained to him. Add to this the horrible way in which Martha describes to Brother her first meeting with the escaped slave that would father her child.
"He was so beautiful," she said quietly. "I don’t know what I was expecting. I didn’t know what to expect. Some, like, skinny, ignorant, bald … thing. Like, not a human. Like a monster or something. But he was …" She shivered a little, a shiver of memory, a shiver of awe. "He was beautiful."
It should be pointed out that she is looking at a scarred man with blistered fingers who has had an eye "burned out from six sun-bright weeks at sea." Neither the dehumanizing expectation nor the torture-porn aspect of finding this heavily injured Black body, the victim of years of white violence, beautiful is addressed within the text. These are only two examples of many moments of white privilege that pop up from characters in the text. I would love to believe that these are deliberate, except that Brother never reacts to them, even internally.
Cora, the main character in The Underground Railroad, is also born a slave and her attitude toward whiteness is born from this. White people are not to be trusted. She is wary even of the white characters who help her because she has experienced the cruelty and false genteelness of the plantation. In fact, each state that Cora visits has different ways of dealing with the "negro problem"—in this case referring to the fact that in many slave states Black people far outnumbered whites. Many who did not agree with slavery were still set against citizenship for Black people for this reason. In Cora's first stop, South Carolina, the government chooses to solve this "problem" with enforced sterilization and medical experimentation under the guise of healthcare. In the next state, North Carolina, the government simply makes being Black in the state a crime, selling off slaves and running off free Blacks. From that point onwards, any Black people found are killed in weekly shows. These two very different experiences crystallize Cora’s wariness towards whiteness and expand her personal knowledge of the many ways in which oppressors will try to keep marginalized folks from freedom or power.
Cora’s experiences of whiteness, while central to the advancement of the plot, are not central to Cora or her story. Cora cares for the white characters she encounters only insofar as figuring out their true intentions. The only white person she has an almost uncomplicatedly good relationship with is Sam, the conductor in South Carolina. Even so, when Sam disappears from her life, she worries and is glad to see him when he reappears, but he never takes up much of her thoughts when he is not around. The same can be said for the slave-catcher hunting her. Until Cora is in his presence he takes up little space in her mind, and when free of him Cora barely thinks of him. Both characters in both novels are oppressed by whiteness, then, but Brother lets it become the center of his life while Cora searches for a place outside of racism’s insidious grasp.
Whitehead uses small interludes from white characters' POVs, allowing him to explore different levels of racism from their own perspectives. He gives them voice and space and nuance to explore their explicit racism or be ignorant about their ingrained racism; all the while neither forgiving nor excusing their beliefs—from Cora’s POV, or at all. Winters, on the other hand, allows his main character's relation to whiteness—the woman he meets, his handler, the priest who he is forced to work with in the end—to inform the reader’s view on whiteness in the narrative. The result is that Airlines has little to no sense of Black community. In the real world there can often be a feeling of understanding and community among marginalized people, but while Brother fakes this sometimes it never appears in the text in any real way. Brother doesn’t make any true connections except with white people like Martha whose personal story—which is about interracial relationships, but again, only from the white person’s POV—ends up overtaking his own. Cora, on the other hand? She finds Black community in every place she travels. Cora works with Black people, she lives with Black people, spends time with Black people, and in many ways these connections are what sustain her in the dark moments of her travel.
Here is one example of the two authors' different approaches to Black community. Both narratives contain mention of slaves turning on one another and reporting to overseers. Whitehead provides reasons for these betrayals—rewards, the lessening of day-to-day misery, etc.—while Winters does no such thing. This leaves Winters's readers to assume the actions come from cruelty or vindictiveness rather than survival. Whitehead adds more nuance to the connection between slaves by also providing instances of friendships and loving relationships between them. Winters never shows anything like this except for Brother’s relationship with his own brother Castle which ends in violence (as indeed most interactions between slaves do in Airlines). In a move that feels indicative of the character of the books themselves, at the end of their trials Brother ends up rescued by a white man that betrays him, whereas Cora first refuses help from a white character and then actively chooses a Black man, a fellow runaway, to rely on for safety.
Slavery was true horror. Families were ripped apart, sexual abuse was rampant, and many of the "punishments" that slaves were subjected to were just torture. Even so, much of the violence that appears in Airlines is perpetuated by and between characters of African descent. Brother kills a Black police officer who betrays him, is beaten by other Black people to squirrel him away, is threatened by a Black woman, and of course there’s the fact that Brother murdered his own brother Castle, who hesitated to run, when they were younger. By contrast the white violence towards Brother is faceless; it happens by committee or over the phone and is only really revealed when it has been rendered powerless. In this way are the white people we are given as named characters (like Martha) compared to a faceless, racist horde so that they look heroic by comparison. In Railroad, once Cora has escaped the plantation, never is violence directed at her by other Black people. There are arguments and disagreements because Black people are never presented as a monolith but the depiction of any Black-on-Black crime is not prominent within the story.
Whitehead does not shy away from the punishments and horrors of being a slave but neither does he linger for pages on the acts. We are told rather than shown a number of horrific acts, always with enough detail to understand the severity but without dwelling on the minutiae of emotional and physical pain. Whitehead lays out these horrors as mundane and normal in the life of a slave: a tactic which ends up giving a better overview of a life lived with no true agency. Cora has no agency but she is not ignorant. She understands what happens in certain places on the plantation like in the abandoned schoolhouse or behind the shacks where she was assaulted. These are horrible things that happen within a horrible system of racism but they are no secret. Masters do not think Black people human enough to keep secrets from; within this system they are property, and Whitehead portrays this balance between knowledge and lack of control exceptionally well.
By contrast, while Winters does not rely on extensive scenes of violence, he does rely on the revelation of past trauma and the reader’s expected surprise. The problem is that none of the acts by slave-owners or other white people in power that happen are shocking to those who live with racism every day. The horror that lives at the center of Airlines is the cloning of slaves, but the attempt to control marginalized people’s fertility is not a new tactic from those in power. The controlling of Black women’s fertility is also a plot point in The Underground Railroad when Cora arrives in South Carolina. In Railroad, Cora and her companions decide to warn their friends, but are aware that this is a statewide government initiative and that many of the Black people will believe white medical authority over them (a sad and still relevant truth).
Winters spends time holding details back—like what happened to Brother’s brother Castle, the mystery of the dark shack on the plantation property, or the truth of Brother’s mission—in hope for a shocked reveal that never truly lands. Airlines wants me to be shocked by how low someone would go in a system of racist oppression, but I already know that. Most people who belong to marginalized groups are well aware of how far others will go to harm us. That’s what made me realize that Underground Airlines, despite being about my history and culture, is not meant for me. It relies, purposefully or not, on that expected shock and revelation which relies on some ignorance of the levels on which an oppressive society is founded and perpetuated. It is a narrative meant to entertain and be praised by a white audience.
An Interlude: How can you tell if a narrative is meant for a white audience?
Some things are simply not written for me; I understand that. If I don’t enjoy the genre or the attitude or protagonist, I move on. It is different, though, when the narrative is supposed to be about a community you belong to but is written by someone outside that community. Often the narratives written about us rather than by us are the ones that garner the most praise and financial success. They become lauded and adapted and so outside perception of our reality is given more weight than the things we say about our own experiences. In the case of Airlines, it is supposed to be about modern-day slavery and race in an alternate America but ends up being about whiteness and its view on my community. Martha in Airlines functions much like the half-white character added to the film adaptation of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. They are a portal for the white people to connect with the story, as if they cannot connect to characters of color. She becomes what changes the protagonist really; in many ways she becomes his savior. This also feels very absolving of the actions of whiteness in general in regards to slavery. No one from the non-slavery US states buys products from the slave states; neither do Europe, or South America, or presumably Africa. Their main client seems to be China; yet another way to shift blame to other people of color for perpetuating slavery. (This is similar to how many will point to other cultures practicing slavery in an attempt to change the subject from an analysis of American slavery specifically.) It feels as if Winters is trying to tell a PTSD story of a former slave now forced to capture people like him, without awareness that just being a Black person in America today can lead to PTSD and a whole host of other health and emotional issues. For me, the speculative part of the narrative does more to separate Brother’s issues from real race relations in the modern day rather than illuminating the true lack of difference in the two worlds. It allows a white audience to say, "We’re obviously not as bad as all that," rather than making them question the smaller instances of racism that occur every day. That’s how I knew this slave narrative was not meant for an audience of color.
My final point for comparison is the treatment of Black women within the narrative. In slavery narratives Black women are rarely allowed to be three-dimensional characters; instead they function as silent victims of white men or silent motivators for Black men. There are only three Black women total that appear and speak in Airlines. The first to appear is a clerk at a UPS-like business who is described as having rainbow nails and "expertly woven hair." I still do not know what that means. Is Winters talking about a weave? Braids? Is it woven like a basket? I just don’t know. Second is the older Black woman who leads a criminal enterprise with her sons, in the "ghetto" majority freed Black neighborhood. Her sons are large and aggressive and described using every thug stereotype you can imagine. She herself smuggles in and smokes slave-produced cigarettes and offers to buy/steal Martha’s mixed-race child. Finally, there is the Black woman running a part of the Airlines from the plantation where she is ostensibly a slave but actually runs the place. She is strictly-business and likeable except for the fact that she allowed a fourth Black woman, one we never see but hear about as the woman who made everything possible, to die. She has some remorse for this, but in the end justifies it. All three representations rely heavily on stereotypes and have very little emotional depth, exacerbated by the fact that they each appear only once and are never mentioned a second time. Their lack of voice in the novel is especially infuriating because, as I say above, the core plot point of Airlines centers around cloning and Black women’s reproductive organs.
By contrast two Black women characters take up the most emotional space in Railroad—Cora and, even though she’s largely absent, her mother Mabel. Mabel was the only slave to escape from the Randall plantation prior to Cora herself. Even though we do not get Mabel's true story until near the end of Railroad, her existence, and more importantly her absence, affects Cora during her whole life. Cora’s experience is front and center and the ways in which her experience of slavery is affected by her gender are not glossed over. Cora, Mabel, and the other woman presented by the book all experience sexual harassment and assault but it is not detailed on the page. It is acknowledged, and has repercussions, but it feels neither eroticized nor exploited. Cora’s journey is both internal and external and the reader gets to see the different ways her travels change her. Also featured are Cora’s relationships and interactions with other Black women—her grandmother Ajarry, her mother, her friend Lovey, her friend Sybil. Cora’s world is full of Black women and though their stories are not told in full, they are allowed to have stories that intersect with Cora’s own.
In the end, both books were hard to get through for different reasons. Airlines, because I felt like I was being othered by a story that was supposed to be about something I deal with every day. Railroad took me longer because I was emotionally affected by the unflinching look at racism and slavery. I’m left with one question though. This is not Winters's first book, but as far as I have been able to find out none of his other texts include main characters of color. So why does he only seem willing to write about us when we’re in chains?