Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad Invites Us to Commune with the Past

This book will break your heart

            then mend it

                       and break it again.

The history of slavery is a loaded cannon but Colson softens the blow without diminishing the cruel realities of that era by converting the metaphor of the “underground railroad” into tangible existence, thus providing pockets of hope and reimagining a possible vision of escape for Blacks in a horrifying world where the word freedom is a foreign country.

This book is very important and recommended reading because of the following: 225x225bb

  1. Organic character development
  2. Innovative narrative structure
  3. Lack of authorial intrusion
  4. The creative potential of the imagination to liberate what history has damned, discarded or dismissed.
  5. Clear, precise prose.

Amidst the harrowing scenes of the book are luminous moments which make one realize that communing with a violent past, however discomforting, need not be difficult. The Underground Railroad invites us to sit with that discomfort, to relive it through the terrifying experiences of the characters and hopefully emerge on the other side kinder, tender and more compassionate, aware of what humans are capable of, both good and terrible.

Here’s a brief extract into the character of Mabel while fleeing:

…the sky scrolled before her, new constellations wheeling in the darkness as she relaxed. No patrollers, no bosses, no cries of anguish to induct her into another’s despair. No cabin walls shuttling her through the night seas like the hold of a slave ship. Sandhill cranes and warblers, otters splashing. On the bed of damp earth, her breathing slowed and that which separated herself from the swamp disappeared. She was free. This moment.

Rather than provide closure, the book reopens the wound so that we may examine the fleeting moments of beauty and freedom, the kinds of conditions that imprison and pit humans against each other, the failures from our history and present, and a faith in humanity that survives like liquid light transforming us into conscious witnesses and inspiring us to work towards a better, informed future.



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