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Reconstructed and Repackaged Displays of Antebellum History: The Problematic Structure of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

“What do you say, Skipper John. . . Is this the truth of our historic encounter?” Whitehead, The Underground Railroad   Saturday morning trips to the Museum of Natural History, a hot summer week spent exploring Williamsburg, and an eighth-grade trip to the mock Salem Witch Trials–similar to many others, my childhood was filled with outings […]

“What do you say, Skipper John. . . Is this the truth of our historic encounter?”

Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

 

Saturday morning trips to the Museum of Natural History, a hot summer week spent exploring Williamsburg, and an eighth-grade trip to the mock Salem Witch Trials–similar to many others, my childhood was filled with outings proclaimed to enhance my understanding of United States history. However, after taking a U.S. history course in high school that focused on analyzing primary sources from various eras, I began to realize that museums do not (and perhaps cannot) preserve history in its purest form, but rather present a prepared history designed to attract visitors. While there are elements of truth to the exhibits and reenactments I visited, I have come to believe that these displays compromise visitors’ education. When prepared for display, the parts of our history that are hardest to face (especially the enslavement of African Americans) are often strategically minimized, or even omitted.

Similarly, historical fiction often presents a prepared or selective history, mixing  fact and fiction in a way that satisfies particular aesthetic interests, often omitting crucial details or omitting others in order to convey, for example, palatable versions of history, cleansed of complications that may test or trouble status quo historical understandings, or conversely, exaggerate descriptions in order to emphasize drama or increase tension. The danger of such novels is that many readers mistake historical fiction for historical fact, so moved by the narrative that they may forget that they have been immersed in a genre that, by nature, takes liberties with fair representations of historical reality.  A similar partiality is evident in museum displays and historical reenactments which draw upon the conventions of exhibition and pageantry to establish a sense of history. In my childhood visit to Williamsburg, for instance, I recall actors and architecture projecting effects designed to immerse visitors in an aura authenticated time travel to a sanitized world of happiness, safety, and good will where slavery was simply taken for granted.

In Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, history is reconstructed to create powerful emotional effects as the experience of slavery is linked to deep trauma, absolute precarity, and unrelenting torture for enslaved African Americans. Because the narrative both draws directly from the historical record but also elaborates upon these facts and invents episodes detailing the attempt to flee northward, the novel challenges readers’ abilities to discern fiction from fact, one often collapsing into the other in order to create a fresh perspective from which to assess slavery’s human damage. This is no act of trickery on Whitehead’s part.  He seems fully aware of historiography as a representational phenomenon so much so that he constructs an elaborate episode staged in a museum of U.S. history not wholly unlike history museums one finds across America. Cora, the novel’s protagonist, is at one stop on the novel’s Underground Railroad forced to work as an actor in the Museum of Natural Wonders, an institution that includes several diaramas staged to depict aspects of slave life. One of these is a scene from the Middle Passage, where Cora (costumed as a sailor) stands on deck beside a wax figure of the ship’s captain. At one point, Cora “speaks” to dummy, and asks: “What do you say, Skipper John?. . .Is this the truth of our historic encounter?” (Whitehead 118). Cora then describes how the paint “flaked from his cheek, exposing the gray wax beneath,” hinting at the artificiality of the exhibit and its superficial (and woefully incomplete) view of a slave ship (Whitehead 118).  The admixture of human actors and dummies, Cora in “white face,” other figures modeled from wax, suggests significant moral and political problems buried under the trappings of illusion, both whites and blacks rendered invisible for the purpose of the audience’s amusement.

After reading this scene, I was drawn to consider further how we prepare historical displays to best satisfy a target audience. Particularly, I became interested in our practice of reconstructing history to benefit white persons, both by glorifying European-American accomplishments and by minimizing the severity of white wrongdoings and crimes. In many museums, the history of U.S. slavery is minimized behind glass boxes to include ephemera such as farming implements, dishware, or quilts, items which carry, to be sure, an aura of the past, but extracted from their original context, too easily become objects to be gazed upon rather than fully comprehended. Perhaps ironically, I have come to believe that the structure and content of The Underground Railroad ultimately propagates many of the problems characteristic of historical displays. As with many museum exhibitions, the information presented in The Underground Railroad can easily be interpreted as factual, leaving readers unaware of significant historical truths that Whitehead has chosen to exaggerate, minimize, or omit altogether, each an act of poetic license, but in the hands of unknowing readers, troublesome nonetheless.

In the novel, a literal railroad, complete with tracks, trains, and conductors, constitutes the scaffolding of the novel. Of course, nearly all readers know a physical train did not exist in history. Yet, I believe Whitehead’s use of a literal railroad has dubious implications that impair our understanding of slavery and the antebellum era. Like the “Scenes from Darkest Africa” museum display that Cora critiques, Whitehead’s mystification of the Underground Railroad portrays slavery in a manner that alters and simplifies complex issues. Not only is the portrayal of the route to the north factually inaccurate, but the structural division of the novel into random railroad stops across several states compartmentalizes far-reaching and multi-dimensional aspects of racism across the country into unique and highly-differentiated states of behavior and attitude, diminishing the magnitude of racism and its shared characteristics across the nation. By presenting Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Indiana as embracing behaviors unique to each region, systemic racism disappears in favor of an invented regional racism, foregoing commonalities in favor of peculiarities. Additionally, the novel focuses on only two escaped black slaves who encounter an enormous cast of white characters, thereby cultivating historical myths of escape facilitated mostly by whites.

One of the defining features of the novel is that each stop on the Underground Railroad establishes a separate section of the novel. This structure creatively mimics the directionality and core function of a northern-leading railroad. However, this structure also creates a series of museum-like “stops,” in each state that altogether mirror the spatial configuration of exhibitions arranged in a museum space. In Whitehead’s treatment, each state has its unique way of operationalizing racism, so that readers glimpse U.S. racism as a patchwork of attitudes, traditions, and practices each contained within the confines of a particular state. Like Cora, readers are taken on an Oz-like journey, its suspense sustained by not knowing what each stop portends. Their experience of each stop/state is brief, highly-orchestrated, much like an amusement park ride. In South Carolina, Cora is prepared by the authorities to undergo forced sterilization, echoing historical moments like the Tuskegee experiments and other race-based research. Though Cora averts the procedure, we are told that the state has become a site for invasive surgery: “Controlled sterilization, research into communicable diseases, the perfection of new surgical techniques on the socially unfit–was it any wonder the best medical talents were flocking to South Carolina?” (Whitehead 125). Similarly, Whitehead awards other states special permutations of racism, easily encapsulated in some procedure, tradition, of celebration unique to that state.

While Whitehead creates a fascinating array of social and cultural manifestations of racism, the way that medical abuse is confined to Cora’s stop in South Carolina ultimately distorts the significance and history of the practice. Asserting that the “best medical talents were flocking to South Carolina” is misleading, as the description compartmentalizes medical abuse to that state alone. In reality, scientifically-sanctioned abuses were widespread, occurring in both the South and the North. Moreover, once Cora boards the train to North Carolina, medical maltreatment is never again mentioned. It might be argued that Whitehead’s compartmental structure allows representative instances of several racist practices to be highlighted, but such apportioning diminishes readers’ understanding of racism’s scope and systematicity. Not only may readers misinterpret his assigning issues to specific locales, but the presentation of racism in the form of isolated events tends to diminish its severity and magnitude.

The museum-like character of the railroad’s several stations is again exemplified in Tennessee, where the exhibit focuses on the mistreatment of Native Americans. When traveling through the state, Ridgeway (the slave catcher) explains to Cora that Tennessee’s land used to belong to the Cherokees, and proceeds to describe the Trail of Tears.  As with South Carolina, Whitehead tags Tennessee with a particular brand of racism that readers then associate as particular to that state. For Cora, “Tennessee was cursed. Initially she assigned the devastation of Tennessee–the blaze and the disease–to justice. The whites got what they deserved. For enslaving her people, for massacring another race, for stealing the very land itself” (Whitehead 219). But phrases like “Tennessee was cursed” and “the devastation of Tennessee” both confine such racism to a single state, and make it appear that the state’s boundaries somehow foster a culture of Tennessee racism, which facilitates a dramatic staging of the novel’s action, but is wholly inaccurate. The isolated state-by-state structure of the novel’s central journey tends mostly to misrepresent systemic racism rather than to expose it.

It is essential to consider the misconceptions that the isolation of cultural practices to particular states fosters. Most readers of The Underground Railroad will acknowledge the deep immorality of racism that Whitehead addresses, including the medical abuse of African-Americans, the regular practice of lynching as a form of public murder, and the mistreatment of Native Americans. In contrast, as a nation, we struggle to fully understand that racism is both particularistic and structural, and that systems of racism that crisscross the United States share essential features. The mere acknowledgement of systematicity is long in coming; avoiding such recognition allows racism to be misunderstood as an individual cognitive failure, a feeling housed in individuals rather than structured into nearly every economic accomplishment in our nation’s history.  By assigning certain problems to individual states, Whitehead (perhaps inadvertently) allows white readers to displace racist practices, ironically by placing them within the confines of state boundaries.

Additionally, many of Whitehead’s minor characters come off more as caricatures of racist persons rather than white citizens who bear moral responsibility systemic racism. As a child, when I visited the Museum of Natural History, I mistook the depiction of Sacagawea as wise and highly-respected by European-Americans as representative of a typical attitude among whites. Whitehead’s characterization of the railroad conductors is particularly problematic in this regard, as the majority of them are white, including Martin, Sam, and Lumbly. Other characters, such as Martin and Ethel, whites who assist Cora, are murdered for their transgression, an exaggeration of typical punishment meted out to white enablers. When Martin and his wife Ethel are caught hiding Cora, they are publicly humiliated: “They had been tied to the hanging tree. They sobbed and heaved at their bonds. . .a segment of the town laughed at Ethel’s piteous shrieks. Two more children picked up rocks and threw them at the couple” (Whitehead 119). While this horrific scene may likely grasp the attention of readers, the couple’s punishment exaggerates the actual risk whites faced in assisting fugitive slaves.

Journalist Katherine Schulz explains, “Most whites faced only fines and the opprobrium of some in their community, while those who live in anti-slavery strongholds, as many did, went about their business with near impunity” (4). Whitehead’s use of Martin and Ethel is not completely false, but it magnifies a rare occurrence that misrepresents the facts of slavery. Such a distortion is problematic because readers are likely to take the information presented to them at face value, not knowing how to differentiate factuality from fictional depiction. In an era in which white voices often overpower the public representation of African American achievements,  inflating the white support of fugitive slaves is particularly destructive. An accurate understanding of white involvement, as significant but partial defines the Underground Railroad as a vital example of biracial collaboration rather than a white achievement.

Moreover, the novel focuses on a handful of slave catchers rather than depicting the nationwide opposition to escape, codified in the Fugitive Slave Laws. Ridgeway first captures Cora in North Carolina, and even after she escapes to Tennessee, he manages to capture her again in Indiana, where her discovery is portrayed in shocking terms: The windows of the library shattered and Cora saw the books burning on the shelves inside. She made two steps toward it before Ridgeway grabbed her. They struggled and his big arms encircled her, her feet kicking against the air like those of one hanging from a tree” (Whitehead 294). Ridgeway’s determination to return Cora captures the relentlessness with which many slaves were pursued. However, Ridgeway is simplistically villainized is uniquely monstrous, diminishing the opposition to escape emblazoned in 1845’s Fugitive Slave Law. Schulz echoes this sentiment: “White Americans also feature as villains in Underground Railroad stories, of course, but often in ways that minimize overall white responsibility” (Schulz 8). The demonization of Ridgeway tends to provide the novel’s readers with a scapegoat for bearing the responsibility for racism, a sole perpetrator on whom one can project responsibility. Ridgeway is akin to the wax dummies in the Museum of Natural Wonders. One-dimensional, flatly depicted as simply cruel and obssessed, he occupies a stock role as the “slave-catcher,” already familiar to most readers, historical reality distorted to dramatic effect. But what, we might ask, are the costs and consequences of that transformation?

It is obvious that relying solely on historical fiction to discern historical fact is troublesome. But so is turning to museum displays and narratives that easily lull visitors into a sense of objective characterizations of historical realities. To be fair, many museums now work to make their selections and intentions more transparent.  With the help of professional historians, the public is coming to understand that any museum’s display is partial (in both senses of that term), just as the creators of historical narratives (both fictional and factual) select some events for our attention and omit others. Even slave narratives, primary sources of the antebellum era, were strategically prepared for abolitionist purposes. Just as Cora encounters a different element of racism at each railroad stop, Frederick Douglass presents events that highlight some evils of slavery, but discounts others. Harriet Jacobs adjusts her diction and selection of detail in order to appeal to white abolitionist women. To become savvy consumers of history, we must not only consider the information presented to us, but ask why certain facts, scenes, and stories are displayed, while others are not. Although we may never be able to fully understand the full truth of an issue as deep and complex as slavery, a careful analysis of the motives that shape novels, museums and primary sources alike, brings us one step closer.

 

 

Works Cited

Schulz, Kathryn. “Derailed: The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad,” The New Yorker, 22 August 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/22/the-perilous-lure-of-the-underground-railroad.

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. New York: Anchor Books, 2016.

 

 

 

 

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