In The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, he depicts the idea of slavery and racism through the creation of Cora’s journey to freedom. Whitehead expresses the importance of ones’ identity with the use of imagery in order to describe the impact an identity can have. One’s character and physical traits uniqueness can be a determining factor of how an individual is treated by the majority.
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Whitehead is able to utilize his skill of imagery to create scenes in the reader’s mind to describe the hardships a slave has to go through. To show the struggles of a slave, in this case the point of view of Cora, Whitehead takes the audience on an adventure using The Underground Railroad as a metaphor to make it seem as a literal form of transportation showing Cora’s gradual progress towards freedom. Each state represents a new chapter filled with oppressing obstacles that she has to overcome. Some of the many discriminating barriers Whitehead describes are the experiences of medical unfairness and genocide due to the uncontrollable identity Cora has as a black woman.
Although the Underground Railroad’s concept itself was real, the physical train was nonexistent. The idea behind secret codes, rendezvous, and private organizations was used in the process of helping the slaves, as a unique twist, Colson Whitehead decided to have a different take on the aid of the escapees and implement the additional representation of an operating train. Respectively, the horizontal journey Cora chose between train routes allowed her to get to her goal and pave her pathway to where Cora finally arrives, freedom. The Underground Railroad was successful and helped approximately 100,000 slaves escape, “The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables — this was a marvel to be proud of.” (Whitehead, 68). The slaves would not have been able to escape if it wasn’t for the help of the morally good people who stood up for what they believed in and participated in the operation of the Underground Railroad. People who aided the slaves were also heavily at risk with punishment identical to what slaves would have received if caught, which includes torture and death. This was because “The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 also outlawed the abetting of fugitive slaves.” (Eastern Illinois University). If a slave were able to escape to a different state, but was eventually caught, slave catchers would have the right to be able to bring them back to their master’s plantation, backtracking and halting a complete stop to their getaway. The uncertain destiny of the slaves taking each train route represented the risk the slaves took being dependant on a line that was unsure of their outcomes.
In South Carolina, Whitehead is able to express a homey feeling and sense of settling for Cora that she may have found her forever home. “…they had gained a few pounds, earned wages, and begun to forget the daily sting of the plantation.” (Whitehead 104). The image of her having a daily monotonous life of going to work and having a home to go back to gives us a sense that Cora has warmed up to and found comfort in South Carolina. Whitehead proceeds to illustrate the continuous separation between whites and blacks, but specifically in the medical aspect of society. With the daily medical checkups Cora receives, she proceeds cautiously and questions some of the doctor’s recommendations. Later, Whitehead reveals the real intentions of the doctor’s, which is to gain research and knowledge to use against black people; “What if we tempered those bloodlines carefully overtime? The data collected on the colored pilgrims… will prove one of the boldest scientific enterprises in history… the perfection of new surgical techniques on the socially unfit.” (Whitehead, 122.) It shows that the whites can never wholeheartedly trust the blacks and feels the need to keep an eye on them, let alone change and mold them into something they aren’t.
Whitehead’s concept of medical ethics such as beneficence is out the window when it’s regarding black people, the whites intend to use the blacks as a practice subject for their own malicious reasons. In addition to whites wanting to change blacks, they wanted to ensure that the black population stops growing. Cora is specifically targeted for “strategic sterilization” (Whitehead, 122.) because she is a woman minority, capable of reproducing and adding to the continuous “overflowing” of blacks. Whitehead illustrates the strength doctors have over patients because of the ethical trust placed upon them. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment is a prime example of how past doctors had an ulterior motive and selectively choose who they wanted to help, “The subjects were not informed about their disease and were denied treatment even though proven cure in the form of penicillin was available by the 1950s.” (Thiele). Although whites were treated, low-income African Americans were denied in order to be monitored and used as “human experimental subjects” by the doctors reasoning to “to observe the ‘natural’ course of the disease.” (Thiele). People tend to believe that doctors have a high standard to live up to and to have professionalism when doing their jobs which is why they seek guidance, but instead, the reliability upon doctors can actually backfire as they take advantage of the opportunities that the uninformed patients give them in order to be in control and do what is beneficial for themselves.
The ending of each chapter has a cliffhanger that keeps you on your toes wondering what will happen next. The buildup Whitehead produces gives the audience a suspenseful reading, he again creates a thriving environment, but this time on the Valentine farm in Tennessee. Instead of the medical aspect of society, this chapter focuses more on the revenge and hatred of blacks that leads to genocide. Uniting as one, blacks can become extremely powerful, and when they do work together, they can overpower the slave catchers. Escaping the threshold of Ridgeway, a notorious slave catcher, through the help of fellow escapees, Cora retries to build a life on the farm. Overtime, she becomes more hopeful towards the Valentine community, “She’d been adamant about staying ever since the talk of resettling started.” (Whitehead, 281). As she lowers her guard, she can actually see herself living a life there. Just when Cora is slowly able to ease in, Whitehead inserts the plot twist downfall of it all, the annihilation of the farm community. The slave catchers sought revenge and barged into the farm shooting and killing everyone on sight, “No one knew where best to run, and no reasonable voice could be heard above the clamor. Each person on their own, as they ever had been.” (Whitehead, 288).
The rescued slaves grew comfortable on the farm and had their guards down, allowing the slave catchers to seize this moment and kill anyone they got their hands on. Genocide occurs when perpetrators go to an extreme extent to get rid of their problems, in this case the conflict between the slave catchers and escapees. Slaves offered an economic system for their masters and when they did not provide or hindered the product of money, they were punished; “… the “inferior” races were associated with unwaged labor, while the “superior” race, and indeed whiteness itself, was linked with wage — as well as with institutional power within colonial administration.” (Nemser, 6). The use of blacks as labor to work for whites shows the impact of ones identity, inferior groups are categorized because of the differences from the main population. The conflicting beliefs or morals contribute to hierarchy and positioning in society; it is due to the identity of a person, in those times, focused on race as the determining factor.
Colson Whitehead’s characterization of Cora allowed the train to come through as a a progressing adventure of her goal to freedom. Often times, he builds a pleasant community by the use of imagery in order to get his point across that not everything is what it seems on the surface. This was proven in both South Carolina and Tennessee showing Cora’s struggles regarding medical ethics and genocide. Cora is experiencing these barriers due to her identity as a black woman. The majority, white people, focuses on the discrimination of people who are different. It gives them a sense of superiority to put down minorities and gives them an opportunity to selfishly do what is beneficial for them. Overall, Whitehead’s take on the Underground Railroad allows the audience to get a sense of troubles such as medical and social discrimination a woman slave had to go through.
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