Thursday, November 14, 2019

Colson Whitehead: Shredder of Illusions

Author Colson Whitehead. (Photo: Chris Close)

Most of us do not harbour a benign view of slavery, namely the belief that the owners of slaves were reluctant masters who generally cared for the well-being of their human property. There are, however, egregious exceptions. In 2016 a curious children's book appeared, A Birthday Cake for George Washington , that portrayed happy slave children baking a cake for the first president; it was a whitewash of slavery that produced a swift and sharp backlash, prompting the publisher to withdraw it. More disturbing is that Roy Moore , the Republican Senate candidate for Alabama in the 2018 election – who subsequently lost in one of the America's reddest states – publicly stated that America was great when slavery prevailed because black families were kept together, a grotesque misrepresentation of the historical reality, which was that slave families were frequently and viciously torn apart.

Instead, we are likely to view slavery as harsh, ruthless, even tragic, though these adjectives do not fully capture the systemic cruelty visited upon slaves by sadistic overseers and psychopathic owners. That gritty reality is viscerally evoked in Colson Whitehead's 2014 The Underground Railway, which earned both the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards, and Esi Edugyan's 2018 Washington Black, which won the Scotiabank Giller award. The trajectories of the two novels are vastly different but the opening chapters bear a striking resemblance: a harrowing captivity narrative illustrating the Hobbesian adage that life (in this case on a slave plantation) was "solitary, poor nasty, brutish and short."

While Washington Black is set in the early 19th century on a Barbados sugar cane plantation, Underground takes place at the same time on a cotton plantation in Georgia. In the former, a slave has his tongue cut out for backtalking; in the latter, a slave is blinded for attempting to learn to read. The thrashings and mutilations are so common in Washington that the eponymous young protagonist is encouraged to enter into a suicide pact. Cora, the protagonist of Underground, has seen a "woman carved open to the bones with cat-o'-nine tails" and is so severely whipped herself that she is willing to attempt an escape while fully realizing the punishment awaiting her if she fails: a severe lashing followed by a vicious rape, hanging or being doused with oil and roasted for the amusement of visitors.

The opening chapters in both novels that meticulously catalogue the horror resemble Steve McQueen's film adaptation of Solomon Northup's 12 Years a Slave, including a slave's longing to die, the persistent wail of a mother separated from her children and the depiction of increasingly unhinged slave owners. But Edugyan and Whitehead decamp from the plantation relatively early on in their narratives. Cora is tenaciously pursued by an obsessive slave catcher still seething over the fact that he has never apprehended Cora's mother, who fled years earlier. At any rate, these novels are more imaginative and insightful than 12 Years a Slave in exploring in their different ways the legacy of the slave experience with both its visible and its invisible scars. One of those differences resides in the structure: Edugyan allows her narrative to develop chronologically, whereas Whitehead frequently interrupts it and circles back to follow through with the aftermath of what occurred on an earlier occasion.

On a personal note, I find mindless brutality, especially with prolonged close-ups of vicious beatings, portrayed by actors less palatable than reading about it. Although neither author ever shies away from exposing the grisly violence, both avoid sensationalizing or offering horror porn. Instead, the violence is frequently expressed in deadpan language or left to our imagination. One brief example: Whitehead, in effect, pulls the camera away so that Cora, as well as the reader, is spared the agony of witnessing the plight of two her apprehended white benefactors.

It is not my intention to discuss Washington Black further except to mention that the main character escapes the plantation hell by a hot-air balloon under the protection of a kinder, scientifically inclined owner. By contrast, Whitehead's protagonist flees with a fellow slave on an underground railroad, not the metaphor for a network of secret societies as exemplified in the award-winning history of one couple's successful escape to Canada, I've Got a Home in Glory Land, or the recent film, Harriet, but an actual locomotive. To reach a new destination Cora descends through trap doors beneath homes and barns into caves before accessing a locomotive, thrashing about in the darkness to avoid critters to one endowed with spacious comfort.

Whitehead's decision to incorporate subterranean trains lends the novel a touch of magical realism, allowing him to explore the plight of runaways as an allegorical fable akin to Gulliver's Travels, which he specifically cites. Despite the mode of narrating an alternative reality, he remains tethered to historical reality, if not always the antebellum reality. As one example of the depth of his historical awareness, he rightly asserts that the underground railroad never ventured as far south as Georgia.
Each state that Cora arrives at is vastly different. In South Carolina, she is initially grateful that its denizens appear to possess a more enlightened, albeit paternalistic, attitude toward blacks so she is able to sleep in a bed for the first time in her life and learn to read without fear. Yet she is pressured to volunteer for a kitschy "Museum of National Wonders" in which she is asked to re-enact, before white viewers, in glass-enclosed dioramas a sugar-coated version of life on a slave ship and a "typical day" on a plantation in glass-enclosed dioramas, tableaux that enable Whitehead to satirize museums that sanitize slave realities. Much more sinister is what occurs in hospitals where doctors administer sugar water to participants who are suffering from the tertiary stages of syphilis, a stark (though unnamed) reference to the notorious twentieth-century Tuskegee study that took place in Alabama for over forty years. Whitehead also acknowledges the pseudo-science of eugenics when one doctor muses, "What if we performed adjustments to the niggers' patterns and removed those of melancholic tendency?" The author is clearly alluding to the forced sterilization of both black men and women (as well as others) that has frequently transpired over the years.

A doctor draws blood from one of the Tuskegee test subjects. (Via National Archives/Wikimedia Commons)

In North Carolina, the mask of white gentility has been ripped off as a brazenly white-supremacist government dispenses cruelty. It is a capital offence for blacks to enter the state and for any whites who shield them. And forget any illusion of due process. In one episode that carries an unsettling resonance for a Canadian given the recent revelations about our Prime Minister, Cora, hiding in an attic of white sympathizers, watches the nightly entertainment in the town square. There she observes coon shows as white men with painted black faces perform cockamamie caricatures followed by the hanging of captured runaways, a Friday ritual that is enacted in every town. And what is the end goal behind the so-called "Freedom Trail" lined with "corpses hung from trees as rotting ornaments?" One character puts it succinctly – to "abolish niggers." In this section, Whitehead's subtext is the draconian race laws, the derisive stereotypes of its cultural life and the thousands of lynchings that disfigured primarily the South during the Jim Crow era, a reign of terror from the late nineteenth century well into the 1960s, in reality slavery by other means.

Even in Indiana where Cora joins a prosperous all-black Utopian, apparently safe, community, the spectre of danger looms. What ensues is reminiscent of the 1921 massacre of blacks that occurred on an equally prosperous Greenwood Ave. in Tulsa, Oklahoma and perhaps the worst massacre in American history a century ago in the plantation region of Elaine. (The Tulsa massacre is the starting point of the intriguing HBO series, Watchmen, which explores race relations primarily in an alternative reality.)

Years earlier the founder and patriarch of the community observed that "racial violence becomes more vicious in its expression"; he might have added, especially when black people advance. The sentiments expressed also hint that the author is thinking about what later materialized at Ferguson and other places where police have killed unarmed blacks without any accountability or the acquittal of a white man who killed an unarmed Trayvon Martin. Later, when another member wonders whether all former traumatized slaves can become productive members of society, he could be speaking for those today who similarly question the future of the equally traumatized urban underclass.

In sum, a fugitive slave narrative à la Frederick Douglass transcends the genre as it morphs into an allegorical odyssey of the troubled race relations that thread through American history down to the present. Yet despite the savagery, the novel is animated by hope, especially in the Indiana community where the spirited conversations about the future foreshadow the political differences among African Americans that have punctuated the twentieth century. And we must not forget Cora, whose indomitable spirit remains alive at the conclusion even though her future remains uncertain. 

The Underground Railroad is a layered, refreshingly original novel. And while it shatters any lingering illusions about the benevolence of slavery and allows the reader to bear witness to some of the lesser-known episodes in American history, Whitehead’s readers will likely know something about the subject matter. The same cannot be said for Whitehead's latest novel, Nickel Boys (Double Day, 2019), which is based on a so-called reform school which few will have known about. As he writes in his acknowledgements, he never heard about the reign of terror at the Dozier School for Boys in Florida – which operated for over one hundred years and was only closed in 2011 – until 2014, when he read about it in The Tampa Times. According to the article, archeology students at a Florida university were digging up and trying to identify the remains of students at Dozier who had been mutilated, murdered and buried in a secret graveyard "erased from history."

Whitehead resurrects this nearly-expunged chapter of racial terrorism, fictionalizing the boys who spent time at this house of horror as students of the Nickel Academy of Eleanor, Florida. At night the superintendent administers "punishment" with a three-foot long strap called Black Beauty at the so-called "White House." The beatings are so horrific that the ensuing screams have to be drowned out by a giant industrial fan. Beyond that site, worse things are inflicted on boys who never return but are buried in unmarked graves called "Boot Hill." Thankfully, Whitehead never takes the reader there. Unlike his earlier novel, Whitehead has stripped Nickel Boys of any trace of magical realism. Still retaining his penchant for chronological switches, deadpan language and above all restraint, his latest novel feels like a mash-up of documentary realism and a terrifying Gothic novel.

Whitehead has referred to Railroad as an Obama novel and Boys as Trumpian. Although the article cites specific illiberal changes from the last three years, I think that he is hinting at something deeper in the novel. Whereas the earlier novel exudes traces of hope, his most recent is much bleaker in tone. And indeed the current president tweets messages in language that is consistently demeaning to African Americans, and has attempted to reverse the progressive initiatives of his predecessor.

The time period of most of Boys, from the early to the mid-1960s, is one of measured optimism that includes the gradual desegregation of the public schools as a result of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, the civil rights movement inspired by the lofty rhetoric and courageous actions of Martin Luther King, among others, and the decision by Congress with the support of President Johnson to pass vital legislation to end discrimination in public facilities and voting. But these milestones of hope, which could be associated with the Obama spirit, are absent in the captivity chapters of Boys. Indeed, the novel might be viewed as a microcosm for Jim Crow, which Whitehead implies, is viciously alive and thriving.

The one hope that initially remains alive for the young protagonist, Elwood Curtis, is the speeches of King heard on a LP recording that he received as a 1962 Christmas gift. He listens to them constantly and becomes emboldened, believing that someday he could be part of the civil rights movement. We first meet him as a conscientious student attending a segregated school in Tallahassee (in violation of the Brown decision by the Supreme Court), working diligently and getting good grades. His teacher recognizes his potential and arranges for him to attend advanced classes at a college outside the city. When he hitchhikes a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car, the police arrest him, even though he is the passenger, because he is black. As a result of this miscarriage of justice, he is incarcerated in the Nickel Academy.

Arthur A. Dozier School for Boys.

Elwood's life takes a downward spiral but he is determined to make the best of it, sustained by King’s words and his belief that the rule of law will be upheld. Early on, however, his moral compass backfires after he intervenes to protect a younger boy from bullies. He is blamed, severely beaten and left with scars for life. Although the school, where in reality no learning transpires, is supposed to be for non-violent offenders, he soon realizes that "all the violent offenders were on staff." His perceptive awareness reveals that he is not a naive innocent as he struggles to maintain the hopeful optimism he imbibed from his experience prior to Nickel.

Despite the depravity that saturates the reform school, the heartbeat of the novel is the ongoing exchange between Elwood and his friend named Turner, who has no illusions about the school or the system outside. Turner is convinced that Elwood wears blinders: "You can change a law if you convince many white people . . . but you can't change people and how they treat each other."And he later comments that the only real difference between the outside and the inside that "no one has to act fake here." Elwood struggles to retain his faith that what is occurring is wrong and against the law, and that justice will ultimately prevail.

But that faith is fragile. Over time the arbitrary brutality and unrelenting abuse of power grind him down. At one poignant and pivotal moment in his life, he quotes King: "Throw us in jail and we will still love you . . . We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory." Elwood begins to question whether decency resides in every human heart and whether King was asking too much. Writing in the third person, Whitehead speaks for Elwood: "No, he could not make that leap to love." For this reader who has been buoyed by the uplifting eloquence of King, Elwood's responses are a sobering reminder that most of us never endured the hellscape depicted in this novel, and, as Elwood is acutely aware, neither did King when he spent a brief time in Birmingham Jail.

Despite his cynicism, Turner turns out to be a kind and courageous friend to Elwood for years, down to the final pages. It would be a spoiler to reveal more details but Whitehead, pulling us both forth in time several years and then wrenching us back again to the 1960s at Nickel, manages to deliver a moving and unexpected conclusion – stunning, totally unsentimental and a testament to his artistry. By the time we finish this masterful novel, we understand that the epithet racial progress should at best be used cautiously. In a time of mass incarceration and simmering racism – often fanned by the current president – we should be grateful to Whitehead for challenging us to shred any illusions we might still retain about a "post-racial presidency," given the dog-whistle racist politics that have moved from the fringe to mainstream politics.

Photo: Keith Penner
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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