History, Memory, and Forgetting Part 1: Deconstructing History in The Underground Railroad

“Yesterday, when asked about reparations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a familiar reply: America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible … This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance, that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations … But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach.”

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Congressional Hearing on Reparations, 20 June 2019
Thuso Mbedu as Cora in The Underground Railroad

I’ve been slowly working my way through Barry Jenkins’ ten-episode adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad. I’ve been a huge fan of Whitehead’s fiction ever since I got pointed towards his debut novel The Intuitionist; I read The Underground Railroad when it was still in hardcover, and I’ve included it twice in classes I’ve taught. When I saw it was being adapted to television by the virtuoso director of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, I knew this was a series I wanted to watch.

I was also wary—not because I was concerned about the series keeping faith with the novel, but because I knew it would make for difficult viewing. Whatever liberties Whitehead takes with history (as I discuss below), he is unsparing with the brutal historical realities of slavery and the casual cruelty and violence visited on slaves. It is often difficult enough to read such scenes, but having them depicted on screen—seeing cruelty and torture made explicit in audio and visual—can often be more difficult to watch.

For this reason, for myself at least, the series is the opposite of bingeable. After each episode, I need to digest the story and the visuals and think.

The Underground Railroad  focuses on the story of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a teenage girl enslaved on a Georgia plantation whose mother had escaped when she was young and was never caught, leaving Cora behind. Another slave named Caesar (Aaron Pierre) convinces her to flee with him. Though reluctant at first, circumstances—the kind of circumstances which make the show difficult viewing—convince her to go. She and Caesar and another slave named Lovey (who had seen them go and, to their dismay, tagged along) are waylaid by slave-catchers. Though Lovey is recaptured, Cora and Caesar escape, but in the process one of the slave-catchers is killed. They make it to a node of the Underground Railroad and are sheltered by a white abolitionist with whom Caesar had been in contact. He then takes them underground to the “station,” where they wait for the subterranean train that will take them out of Georgia.

Because that is the principal conceit of The Underground Railroad: that the rail system spiriting slaves away is not metaphorical, but literal, running through underground tunnels linking the states.

More than a few reviews of the series, and also of the novel on which it is based, have referred to the story as “magical realism.” This is an inaccurate characterization. Magical realism is a mode of narrative in which one group or culture’s reality collides with another’s, and what seems entirely quotidian to one is perceived as magical by the other. That’s not what Colson Whitehead is doing, and, however lyrical and ethereal occasionally dreamlike Barry Jenkin’s visual rendering is, it’s not what the series is doing either. In truth, the literalization of the underground railroad is the least of Whitehead’s historical tweaks: The Underground Railroad is not magical realism, but nor is it alternative history (a genre that usually relies on a bifurcation in history’s progression, such as having Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh win the presidency in 1940 in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America). The Georgia plantation on which The Underground Railroad begins is familiar enough territory, not discernable from similar depictions in Uncle Tom’s Cabin or 12 Years a Slave. But then as Cora journeys from state to state, each state embodies a peculiar distillation of racism. Cora and Caesar first make it to South Carolina, which appears at first glance to be an enlightened and indeed almost utopian place: there is no slavery, and the white population seems dedicated to uplifting freed Blacks, from providing education and employment to scrupulous health care to good food and lodging. Soon however the paternalistic dimension of this altruism becomes more glaring, and Cora and Caesar realize that the free Blacks of South Carolina are being sterilized and unwittingly used in medical experimentation.

In North Carolina, by contrast, Blacks have been banished, and any found within the state borders are summarily executed. The white people of North Carolina declared slavery a blight—because it disenfranchised white workers. Since abolishing slavery and banishing or killing all of the Black people, the state has made the ostensible purity of whiteness a religious fetish. Cora spends her time in North Carolina huddled in the attic of a reluctant abolitionist and his even more reluctant wife in an episode that cannot help but allude to Anne Frank.

Whitehead’s vision—stunningly rendered in Jenkin’s adaptation—is less an alternative history than a deconstructive one. As Scott Woods argues, The Underground Railroad is not a history lesson, but a mirror, with none of “the finger-wagging of previous attempts to teach the horrors of slavery to mainstream audiences.” I think Woods is being polite here, using “mainstream” as a euphemism for “white,” and he tactfully does not observe that effectively all of such finger-wagging attempts (cinematically, at any rate) have tended to come from white directors and feature white saviour protagonists to make liberal white audiences feel better about themselves.

There are no white saviours in The Underground Railroad; there is, in fact, very little in the way of salvation of any sort, just moments of relative safety. As I still have a few episodes to go, I can’t say how the series ends; the novel, however, ends ambivalently, with Cora having defeated the dogged slave-catcher who has been pursuing her from the start, but still without a clear sense of where she is going—the liberatory trajectory of the underground railroad is unclear and fraught because of the weight of the experience Cora has accrued over her young life. As she says at one point, “Make you wonder if there ain’t no real place to escape to … only places to run from.” There is no terminus, just endless flight.

When I say The Underground Railway is a “deconstructive” history, I don’t use the term in the sense as developed by Jacques Derrida (or at least, not entirely). Rather, I mean it in the more colloquial sense such as employed by, for example, chefs when they put, say, a “deconstructed crème brûlée” on the menu, which might be a smear of custard on the plate speared by a shard of roasted sugar and garnished with granitas infused with cinnamon and nutmeg. If the dish is successful, it is because it defamiliarizes a familiar dessert by breaking down its constituent ingredients in such a way as to make the diner appreciate and understand them anew—and, ideally, develop a more nuanced appreciation for a classic crème brûlée.

So—yes, odd analogy. But I’d argue that Whitehead’s novel is deconstructive in much the same manner, by taking a pervasive understanding of racism and the legacy of slavery and breaking it down into some of its constituent parts. In South Carolina, Cora and Caesar experience the perniciousness of white paternalism of the “white man’s burden” variety—the self-important concern for Black “uplift” that is still invested in the conviction of Black culture’s barbarism and inferiority, and which takes from this conviction license to violate Black bodies in the name of “science.”

Thuso Mbedu as Cora and William Jackson Harper as Royal.

Then in North Carolina, we see rendered starkly the assertion that Blacks are by definition not American, and are essentially seen as the equivalent of an invasive species. This, indeed, was the basis of the notorious 1857 Supreme Court ruling on Dred Scott v. Sandford, which asserted that Black people could not be citizens of the United States. Though that precedent was effectively voided by the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments—which abolished slavery and established citizenship for people of African descent born in America, respectively—the franchise was not effectively extended to Black Americans until Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights act a century after the end of the Civil War. The delegitimization of Black voters continues: while the current Trumpian incarnation of the G.O.P. tacitly depicts anyone voting Democrat as illegitimate and not a “real American,” in practice, almost all of the legal challenges to the 2020 election result were directed at precincts with large numbers of Black voters.

Later in the novel when Cora finds her way to Indiana to live on a thriving Black-run farm, we see the neighbouring white community’s inability to countenance Black prosperity in such close proximity, especially when Black people flourishing reflects badly on their own failures. The pogrom that follows very specifically evokes the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, when a huge white mob essentially burned down a thriving Black part of town.

What’s important to note here is that Whitehead’s deconstructive process is less about history proper than about our pervasive depictions of history in popular culture, especially by way of fiction, film, and television. Or to be more accurate, it is about the mythologization of certain historical tropes and narratives pertaining to how we understand racism. One of the big reasons why so many (white) people are able to guilelessly[1] suggest that America is not a racist nation, or claim that the election of a Black president proves that the U.S. is post-racial, is because racism has come to be understood as a character flaw rather than a systemic set of overlapping cultural and political practices. Think of the ways in which Hollywood has narrated the arc of American history from slavery to the Civil War to the fight for civil rights, and try to name films that don’t feature virtuous white protagonists versus racist white villains. Glory, Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi, A Time to Kill, Green Book, The Help[2]—and this one will make some people bristle—To Kill a Mockingbird. I could go on.

To be clear, I’m not saying some of these weren’t excellent films, some of which featured nuanced and textured Black characters[3] with considerable agency; but the point, as with all systemic issues, is not the individual examples, but the overall patterns. These films and novels flatter white audiences—we’re going to identify with Willem Dafoe’s earnest FBI agent in Mississippi Burning against the Klan-associated sheriff. “That would be me,” we[4] think, without considering how the FBI—at the time the film was set, no less!—was actively working to subvert the civil rights movement and shore up the societal structures subjugating and marginalizing Black Americans, because in this framing, racism is a personal choice, and therefore Dafoe’s character is not complicit in J. Edgar Hoover’s.  

Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe in Mississippi Burning (1988).

The white saviour tacitly absolves white audiences of complicity in racist systems in this way, by depicting racism as a failing of the individual. It allows us to indulge in the fantasy that we would ourselves be the white saviour: no matter what point in history we find ourselves, we would be the exception to the rule, resisting societal norms and pressures in order to be non-racists. Possibly the best cinematic rebuke to this fantasy was in 12 Years a Slave,[5] in the form of a liberal-minded plantation owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who recognizes the talents and intelligence of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a formerly free Black man who had been dragooned by thugs and illicitly sold into slavery. Cumberbatch’s character looks for a brief time to be Solomon’s saviour, as he enthusiastically takes Solomon’s advice on a construction project over that of his foreman. But when the foreman violently retaliates against Solomon, Cumberbatch’s character cannot stand up to him. In a more typical Hollywood offering, we might have expected the enlightened white man to intervene; instead, he lacks the intestinal fortitude to act in a way that would have brought social disapprobation, and as a “solution” sells Solomon to a man who proves to be cruelly sociopathic.

Arguing for the unlikeliness that most people could step out of the roles shaped for them by social and cultural norms and pressures might seem like an apologia for historical racism—how can we have expected people to behave differently?—but really it’s about the resistance to seeing ourselves enmeshed in contemporary systemic racism.

Saying that that is Whitehead’s key theme would be reductive; there is so much more to the novel that I’m not getting to. There is, to be certain, a place—a hugely important place—for straightforward historical accounts of the realities and finer details of slavery, even the more “finger wagging” versions Scott Woods alludes to. But what both Whitehead’s novel and Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of it offer is a deconstruction of the simplistic binarism of decades of us vs. them, good vs. bad constructions of racism that give cover to all but the most unapologetically racist white people. The current backlash against “critical race theory”—which I’ll talk more about in the third of these three posts—proceeds to a great extent from its insistence on racism not as individual but systemic, as something baked into the American system.

Which, when you think about it, is not the outrageous argument conservatives make it out to be. Not even close: Africans brought to American shores, starting in 1619, were dehumanized, brutalized, subjected to every imaginable violence, and treated as subhuman property for almost 250 years. Their descendants were not given the full franchise as American citizens until the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, respectively. Not quite sixty years on from that point, it’s frankly somewhat baffling that anyone, with a straight face, can claim that the U.S. isn’t a racist nation. One of the greatest stumbling blocks to arriving at that understanding is how we’ve personalized racism as an individual failing. It shouldn’t be so difficult to recognize, as a white person, one’s tacit complicity in a long history without having to feel the full weight of disapprobation that the label “racist” has come to connote through the pop cultural mythologization of racism as a simple binary.

NOTES


[1] I want to distinguish here between those who more cynically play the game of racial politics, and those who genuinely do not see racism as systemic (granted that there is a grey area in between these groups). These are the people for whom having one of more Black friends is proof of their non-racist bona fides, and who honestly believe that racism was resolved by the signing of the Civil Rights Act and definitively abolished by Obama’s election.

[2] The Help, both the novel and the film, is perhaps one of the purest distillations of a white saviour story packaged in such a way to flatter and comfort white audiences. Essentially, it is the story of an irrepressible young white woman (with red hair, of course) nicknamed Skeeter (played by Emma Stone) who chafes against the social conventions of 1963 Mississippi and dreams of being a writer and journalist. TL;DR: she ends up telling the stories of the “help,” the Black women working as domestic labour for wealthy families such as her own, publishes them—anonymously of course, though Skeeter is the credited author—and thus gets the traction she needs to leave Mississippi for a writing career.

I can’t get into all of the problems with this narrative in a footnote; hopefully I don’t need to enumerate them. But I will say that one of the key things that irked me about this story, both the novel and the movie, is how it constantly name-checks Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird as Skeeter’s inspiration. Lee might have given us the archetype of the white saviour in the figure of Atticus Finch, but she did it at a moment in time (it was published in 1960) when the subject matter was dangerous (Mary Badham, who played Scout, found herself and her family shunned when they returned to Alabama after filming ended for having participated in a film that espoused civil rights). By contrast, The Help, which was published in 2009 and the film released in 2011, is about as safe a parable of racism can be in the present day—safely set in the most racist of southern states during the civil rights era, with satisfyingly vile racist villains and an endearing, attractive white protagonist whose own story of breaking gender taboos jockeys for pole position with her mission to give voice to “the help.”

[3] Though to be fair, in some instances this had as much to do with virtuoso performances by extremely talented actors, such as Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher in Glory. And not to heap yet more scorn on The Help, but the best thing that can be said about that film is that it gave Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer the visibility—and thus the future casting opportunities—that their talent deserves.

[4] I.e. white people.

[5] Not coincidentally helmed by a Black director, Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen, this Steve McQueen).

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s