In the penultimate episode of the 2021 Prime Video miniseries adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Underground Railroad (2016), a gang of jealous white neighbors attacks a utopian black-owned farm in antebellum Indiana, murdering most of the inhabitants and attempting, at least, to murder their dreams. Then, as with all episodes of the miniseries, contemporary music plays over the end credits—in this case Childish Gambino’s much-awarded and much-talked-about 2018 hit “This Is America.” The message could not be clearer: as both the miniseries and the original novel demonstrate, events such as this attack in Indiana—or even such as the larger phenomenon of nearly two and a half centuries of slavery—are not shocking interruptions in the American national narrative. They are, in fact, quite representative of fundamental forces within that narrative that have led the white to exploit and abuse the black, the male to exploit and abuse the female, and (perhaps most fundamental of all) the rich to exploit and abuse the poor throughout American history.

The Underground Railroad is a powerful addition to the body of African American texts about the historical experience of slavery and the ongoing impact of its legacy on American society and the American psyche. These texts can generally be grouped under the rubric of the “neo-slave narrative,” though Whitehead’s novel also belongs to a particular group of such texts—including Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), and Ta-Nahisi Coates’s The Water Dancer (2019)—that have approached this difficult topic through strategies that one might describe as magic realism[1]. Of these novels, Whitehead’s is probably the most visibly postmodern in the way it both foregrounds its magic realism and supplements it with a number of other distinctively postmodern strategies, including most obviously its blurring of historical boundaries, freely mixing truth with fiction and jumbling together materials derived from a number of different historical periods. In so doing, it tells a story about American slavery in some genuinely fresh and inventive ways (and this story is one that cannot be told too many times or ways). What perhaps sets Whitehead’s novel apart from others in the tradition of magical realist slave narratives is the extent to which it places the trauma of slavery within a broader narrative of American history, suggesting that slavery was not an awful aberration from the American quest for liberty but a central and defining part of the American project. And it does so in a way that is potentially politically powerful in a way that postmodern literature, so steeped in the prevailing ideology of late capitalism, can seldom be.

The most striking conceit of The Underground Railroad is its literalization of the metaphor of the Underground Railroad, presented here as a literal railroad, with locomotive-driven trains running in subterranean tunnels, transporting escaped slaves northward and toward freedom[2]. In the novel, a much-abused young slave woman named Cora (she puts her age at “sixteen or seventeen” at the time) escapes from horrific conditions on a plantation in Georgia (25). She then rides the railroad to a South Carolina and then a North Carolina that are themselves magic realist constructs designed as allegorical commentaries on the plight of African Americans both during and after the period of slavery. Cora is then captured by the slave hunter Arnold Ridgeway and dragged across a burning, postapocalyptic Tennessee, where she is rescued by agents of the railroad and sent on one of its trains north to Indiana. In Indiana, she takes refuge on a utopian black-owned farm, only to have the farm destroyed in an attack by local whites who feel threatened by its success. Cora is once again confronted by Ridgeway in the ensuing melee but manages once again to escape underground, mortally injuring Ridgeway in the process. She then resurfaces and catches a ride on a wagon headed for California, her ultimate fate left uncertain.

The various conditions encountered by Cora on her travels together constitute an epic commentary on the African American experience that provides an overview, not just of the experience of slavery, but of the ongoing experience of exclusion and exploitation that has continued to be central to the lives of African Americans since emancipation. The book begins with a flashback to the story of Cora’s grandmother Ajarry, relating Ajarry’s capture in Africa by slave traders, passage to America in the hold of a slave ship, sale at auction, and repeated reselling. The opening chapter thus supplies the narrative with aspects of the African American experience that are beyond the personal experience of its protagonist. Ajarry drops dead while working in the cotton fields, providing another typical experience of Southern slaves. We are also introduced early-on to the story of Cora’s mother Mabel, driven to flee the plantation into the surrounding swamps, where she has a change of heart and decides to return to the young daughter she left behind, only to be bitten by a water moccasin and killed (we learn at the end of the book), then lost in the swamp. Adding an extra layer of pathos to the text, Cora spends her life on the assumption that her mother escaped to freedom, hating and resenting Mabel for abandoning her. This element of the novel provides a reminder of the ways in which slaves were so often separated from family members, as when Ajarry was separated from two cousins during her passage to America, never to learn their fate.

If The Underground Railroad thus seems to want to provide reminders of as many aspects of slave experience as possible, it also goes well beyond the experience of slavery, despite being set entirely before the Civil War, providing reminders that the end of slavery was hardly the end of oppression for America’s black population. Thus, when Cora and her companion Caesar travel to South Carolina via the railroad, they emerge in a fictional world constructed by Whitehead from bits and pieces of African American history in the period after the Civil War. In this world, slavery has been abolished, and the local white population seems devoted to various projects designed to “uplift” the local Negroes, with whom they intermingle relatively freely, though a certain amount of segregation still occurs and though the black population is employed in largely menial occupations. There is, however, some effort to educate the black population, at least teaching them to read, an undertaking that would have been strictly forbidden back in Georgia. Then we gradually learn that the local Negroes are also being subjected to macabre medical experiments, including the dosing of the men with mysterious drugs and the sterilization (sometimes forced) of the women. The echoes of real events in African American history are quite clear—including the Tuskegee Syphilis Study on black men and the various eugenics programs that led to the forced sterilization of thousands of black women between the late nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth century.

Cora next travels to North Carolina, where African Americans have been banned altogether and are ritually hanged for gruesome public display if spotted and captured. Conditions in North Carolina echo a number of different aspects of the historical experience of African Americans, traditionally excluded from so many spaces, as in the black rules that were in force in many places in the South during the slavery era or the various Jim Crow laws that sprang up during Reconstruction and that often severely limited African American freedom of movement. Meanwhile, the public hangings recall the baleful legacy of lynching in America, while the ritualistic aspects of these hangings inevitably recall the practices of the Ku Klux Klan. In addition, that Cora hides out for an extended period in an attic while awaiting an opportunity to escape North Carolina surely echoes the fact that Harriet Jacobs hid for years in her grandmother’s attic, as related in her own classic slave narrative.

Finally, Cora’s experiences in Indiana echo the historical establishment of black utopian communities in a variety of locations around America, including Indiana, where the Lyles Station community was formed in 1849. Lyles Station still exists today (though much of it was destroyed in the Great Flood of 1913), so that the destruction of the prospering Valentine Farm in The Underground Railroad would appear to point elsewhere, most obviously to the destruction of the prosperous black Greenwood District in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. On the other hand, this kind of overt, officially sanctioned mass attack is actually more associated in American history with attacks on Native American settlements than on black ones. Indeed, after recapturing Cora, Ridgeway makes this connection quite explicit when he tells her of the recent attack on Valentine Farm, “One of the deputies said it reminded him of the old days of proper Indian raids. … Bitter Creek and Blue Falls.” (305).

Then again, Ridgeway goes on to note that “I think he was too young to remember that. Maybe his daddy.” Ridgeway’s questioning of the man’s memories of the “proper Indian raids” at Bitter Creek and Blue Falls might be appropriate, given that there were, in fact, no famous Indian raids in such locations, though Bitter Creek, Wyoming, would later (in 1885) become the site of the massacre of a number of Chinese immigrant workers by white miners. Whitehead, of course, had many massacres of Native Americans to choose from. That he chose two such non-examples can be taken as an indication of the way in which The Underground Railroad tinkers with history in general, showing little regard for specific facts, while getting at more general truths. Given that they are not the locations of famous Indian massacres, Bitter Creek and Blue Falls can be taken as allegorical stand-ins for all the massacres that did, in fact, occur, while Bitter Creek, in particular, also provides a reminder that other ethnic groups have been the victims of massacres as well.

In any case, this link between the African Americans massacred on Valentine Farm and the Native Americans massacred at “Bitter Creek and Blue Falls” is reinforced by several suggestions sprinkled throughout The Underground Railroad that the institution of slavery was not a monstrous diversion in the history of America but was central to it, along with other abominations, such as the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans by a combination of massacre and forced relocation. That relocation, for example, is directly referenced in the novel as Ridgeway takes Cora through Tennessee, explaining to her that they are traveling across what once was “Cherokee land,” until the Cherokee were removed to Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears to make way for white settlement (208). Subsequently, the white settlers in the novel used fire to try to clear the growth from the wild land they occupied, only to have the fires get out of control, resulting in the ruined, still-burning wasteland across which they are now traveling. Thus, in one neat package, Whitehead is able to point to the atrocities committed by white Americans against both the native inhabitants of the American continent and the continent itself. In this way, he is able to suggest that white abuses of both the land’s rightful owners and the land itself belong together with slavery and racism amid a constellation of images that provides an encyclopedic reminder of the crimes on which the United States was built as a nation.

Whitehead also addresses, through the museum in which Cora works for a time in South Carolina, the way in which America has managed to avoid facing up to these crimes by whitewashing them. This museum includes a number of exhibits that present tableaus of the slave experience for its mostly white audience, but only in a grotesquely sanitized version that obscures, rather than reveals, the true horrors of slavery. Native Americans are included in the exhibits as well, but only in ways that make it look as if the white man acquired land from the Indians in fair and honorable ways, as in one display, in which “a red Indian received a piece of parchment from three white men who stood in noble postures, their hands open in gestures of negotiation” (118). All these displays, the curator Mr. Fields tells Cora, are designed to “illuminate the American experience” and to reveal “the truth of the historic encounter,” but Cora’s reaction shows that she knows better, as (presumably) will Whitehead’s readers (118). What this museum illustrates, in fact, is the way in which America has long avoided facing up to the truth of its history by producing heavily biased versions that emphasize the good, while downplaying the bad.

For Ridgeway, whatever was done in the conquest of America (and he clearly includes his own work as a slave catcher here) was justified by the grand project of building the new nation, which, for him, was manifestly destined to span the continent. He even cites the well-known term “Manifest Destiny” at one point, though he seems to regard this as a prettied-up version of his own philosophy, touted by “all the smart men” (225). Meanwhile, he struggles throughout The Underground Railroad to articulate his vision of the “American imperative.” Infuriated and frustrated by what he sees as the “Indian” mumbo-jumbo of his father’s faith in “The Great Spirit,” Ridgeway begins to formulate an alternative guiding principle, first stated early in the book in the simplest of terms: “‘If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now. … If you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent’” (82). His philosophy thus appears to be a cobbled-together combination of “might makes right” and the philosophy of Optimism, so mercilessly skewered by Voltaire in Candide (1759). Later, Ridgeway defines this American imperative in even starker terms while pontificating to Cora, now his captive. Presenting the “American spirit” specifically as an alternative to his father’s notion of the “Great Spirit,” Ridgeway says that he prefers “the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription—the American imperative” (226).

Interestingly, this particular formulation of the American imperative provides what is almost an outline for the novel itself, as Cora’s various stops along the Underground Railroad echo the various alternatives presented her by Ridgeway. Georgia, where Cora suffers beneath the yoke of slavery, represents the alternative of subjugation. South Carolina, where Cora encounters Tuskegee-like experiments and a program of forced sterilization, supposedly represents an attempt to “uplift” the “Negro.” And, if Ridgeway’s alternative of exterminating anyone or anything that gets in the way of American expansion inescapably recalls the genocidal removal of Native Americans from lands wanted for employment in the building of America, the book’s North Carolina also represents this alternative relative to African Americans.

Finally, as he lies dying, Ridgeway dictates to his diminutive African American amanuensis Homer one last attempt to define his vision: “‘The American imperative is a splendid thing … a beacon … a shining beacon.’ He coughed and a spasm overtook his body. ‘Born of necessity and virtue, between the hammer … and the anvil … Are you there, Homer?’” (309). Thus, Ridgeway refuses to stop in his dogged and insistent attempt to impose his view of the nature of the American project, even as his consciousness fades and the life ebbs from his body.

Ridgeway, of course, is something of an allegorical monster who stands in for all of the evils that have been done in the interest of the American imperative. As a result, there seems little chance that readers of the novel will accept his argument. It might be noted, however, that, while still a villain, the character of Ridgeway is significantly humanized in the miniseries adaptation. In particular, as played by Joel Edgerton, the version of Ridgeway in the miniseries is far less imposing than the almost superhuman figure presented in the novel. In addition, the series adds significantly more information about Ridgeway’s troubled relationship with his father, suggesting some essentially Freudian explanations for his devotion to slave catching. Still, even Barry Jenkins, the creator and director of the series, has elucidated in an interview the fundamentally allegorical role that Ridgeway plays even in the television adaptation:

“Ridgeway is kind of a stand-in for the historical record that we’ve all been given. I’ve been talking about the difference between facts and the history that we have been presented. We consider them to be facts, because someone said this thing happened, and usually they have power and authority, so we accept it. Truth is much more elusive. Men like Ridgeway kept telling us the “facts” of what America is, and how it came to be” (Frank).

In any case, near the end of the novel, the radical African American intellectual Elijah Lander, visiting Valentine Farm, delivers what seems to be a blistering indictment of the entire American project to some of the farm’s African American inhabitants, thus providing an explicit rejoinder to the kinds of arguments about America favored by men such as Ridgeway:

“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are” (290–91).

There is, however, a clear utopian dimension to Lander’s indictment of America, because it suggests that seemingly impossible “delusions” can become reality. In fact, he makes this declaration amid an argument that Valentine Farm, a black enclave that would appear to be an impossibility in the midst of white America, can and should exist.

During the same speech, Lander also makes another key point about a possible utopian dimension to the African American experience. For him, America has made the diverse collection of Africans who have been brought to its shores into one people, given them a collective identity that is defined only by color and by the experience of being that color in an America where that color marks them as candidates for oppression:

“They had different ways of subsistence, different customs, spoke a hundred different languages. And that great mixture was brought to America in the holds of slave ships. To the north, the south. Their sons and daughters picked tobacco, cultivated cotton, worked on the largest estates and smallest farms. We are craftsmen and midwives and preachers and peddlers. Black hands built the White House, the seat of our nation’s government. The word we. We are not one people but many different people.” (291)

Lander’s oratory is described in the novel as “verging” on a “sermon” (258). He does, indeed, preach some of the strongest political messages in the book, which might be one reason why his character is eliminated altogether in the television series.

If The Underground Railroad is, then, something of an allegory about the entire history of America, there are times at which it can be seen to broaden its commentary still further. For example, if Cora’s stay in that North Carolina resembles the experience of Harriet Jacobs, it might surely recall for other readers another well-known story of a young fugitive hiding in a concealed space. However, whereas Cora ultimately escapes, Anne Frank, the young Jewish girl whose posthumously published account of her time in hiding in The Diary of a Young Girl (1947) made her one of the most widely known victims of the Holocaust, died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the age of fourteen. In addition, while the organized killing of any African Americans remaining in North Carolina certainly carries echoes of events in American history, it probably resembles the systematic killing of European Jews in the German Final Solution more than any American events[3].

To give an even broader dimension to the events narrated in The Underground Railroad, it might be noted that African Americans caught in North Carolina are hanged along a roadway for public display on the grotesquely named “Freedom Trail.” The mutilation of the hanged bodies is clearly modeled on the grotesque details of American lynchings, while the victims of American mass lynchings have sometimes been left on display in a similar manner. However, this public display of the hanged also almost inevitably recalls the display along the Appian Way of the crucified bodies of 6,000 slaves who had rebelled against Rome in the Third Servile War (73–71 B.C.)[4]. Thus, the events in North Carolina link the experience of American slavery and racism not only to the Nazi persecution of Jews (perhaps a rather obvious link) but to other atrocities reaching back to the early days of the Roman Empire[5]. Western history, these connections seem to say, is riddled with incidences of slavery and racism, steeped in hatred and blood.

The nature of Whitehead’s project in The Underground Railroad seems clear, though it is certainly valid to question the success of his political message, even if the literary achievement of his novels seems beyond doubt. There are, in fact, two valid questions that might be posed relative to strategies used by the novel in its attempt at sociohistorical commentary. First, do the insistent inclusion of references to the persecution of Native Americans and the more subtle inclusion of references to German Nazis—and possibly even to the Roman Empire—strengthen Whitehead’s demand that America come to grips with the legacy of slavery, or do they weaken that demand by watering it down and providing possible distractions? Second, does the highly inventive and literary nature of the novel diminish the power of its political message? In particular, does Whitehead’s magic realist technique strengthen his attempt to force us to come to face up to the brutal truth of American history, or does it weaken that attempt by providing still more distortions of the historical record?

In terms of the first question, it seems to us that placing the phenomenon of slavery within a larger historical context can only add to our understanding of something that, at first glance, might seem so monstrous as to be inexplicable except as an example of pure evil. Indeed, the evils of slavery and its aftermath are extreme enough that a number of recent attempts to come to grips with the phenomenon through cultural representation of it have felt it necessary to resort to the genre of horror. For example, Beloved, perhaps the most important modern literary exploration of American slavery, employs a ghost story motif to suggest the way in which the legacy of slavery has haunted African Americans, even after slavery. Indeed, some of the most interesting of such attempts at contemporary cultural representation of slavery and its aftermath—such as Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel Lovecraft Country, the similarly titled 2020 HBO miniseries adaptation of that novel, or the 2021 Prime Video miniseries Them—have dealt with later periods in American history (all of the works just mentioned are set primarily in the 1950s), when racism was perhaps easier to disguise than it was during the period of slavery, making it valuable to bring out just how much of a horror story life for African Americans still was. Even the recent film Antebellum (2020), which contains numerous scenes that at first seem to be set in the period indicated by the title, is really set in the twenty-first century, its scenes from the slave era functioning primarily as reminders of the ways in which the racist attitudes underlying slavery still linger in the minds of today’s white supremacists, who look back nostalgically on the time of slavery. Even Bernard Rose’s legendary Candyman (1992), perhaps the most prominent horror film with links to the antebellum period, is set in the present day of the film and works primarily because of its indication of the ways in which the slave past continues to haunt present-day American society.

The Underground Railroad itself verges on horror at times. The gruesome medical experiments of the South Carolina segments are certainly horrific, for example, while the entire North Carolina segment bears strong resemblances to any number of folk horror or hillbilly horror films in which outsiders wander into an insular community and find themselves decidedly unwelcome. But the book’s actual representation of slavery—which resides almost entirely in the Georgia segment—is presented in a relatively straightforward, realistic manner, reminding us that no added genre energies are needed in order to convey the horrors of slavery. Indeed, the most vivid and effective representations of slavery in recent culture—such as in Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013), based on Solomon Northrup’s 1853 slave narrative—have also been brutally realistic.

What Whitehead achieves by placing his story of slavery amid the context of larger historical developments such as the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and the German Final Solution is to ask us to view slavery in the American South within the larger context of the building of the United States and of the modern world as a whole. After all, Eric Williams demonstrated as long ago as 1944 that slave plantations in the colonized Caribbean (and the slave trade itself) provided the capital that was needed to fuel the Industrial Revolution back in Britain, thus providing the foundations of modern capitalism itself. Meanwhile, slavery has often been presented as an aberration in the history of the United States, despite the fact that it is deeply embedded in the Constitution and despite the fact that so many of the Founding Fathers were slave owners. According to many narratives, slavery was a premodern institution that eventually became an anachronism and was thus replaced by a growing capitalism. But, as historians such as Edward Baptist have demonstrated, slavery was crucial to the building of an American economic system that provided the framework upon which American capitalism could eventually grow to be the mightiest economic force in history. The Underground Railroad, by placing slavery within a broad historical context, contributes to this same process of historical recovery.

One of the most overt and effective ways in which The Underground Railroad pursues this project is through its description of the exploitation of immigrant labor, especially in the North Carolina segment. After all, if there are no black people in the entire state, then who will do all the work, given that the state’s white population had become accustomed to having most of their work done for them by black slaves? The solution, of course, is to import an underclass of white workers who can be exploited on the basis of their own ethnic differences, despite their white skin. In particular, most of the menial work in North Carolina is done by Irish immigrants—who are not treated as property, but who are still treated as inferior to the established white population. This motif evokes an entire legacy of the exploitation of immigrant workers in America—and sometimes of pitting white immigrant labor against African American labor. Even Cora recognizes the serial nature of this process, thinking to herself that, eventually, “a new wave of immigrants would replace the Irish, fleeing a different but no less abject country, the process starting anew” (174).

The Irish, who began pouring into America during the 1850s as a result of the Potato Famine back in Ireland, provide a particularly clear case of this phenomenon, especially given that they arrived in America just as slavery was nearing the official end of its more than two-hundred-year reign. For one thing, as documented by L. Perry Curtis, the Irish had themselves been subjected to a panoply of racist stereotypes during centuries of British rule in Ireland. They were, for example, frequently depicted as apelike in Victorian caricatures. Vincent Cheng, in a recent study of the treatment of race in the work of James Joyce, demonstrates that these stereotypes were very similar to those that have also long been applied to Africans and African Americans. Meanwhile, as scholars such as Theodore Allen and Noel Ignatiev have documented, the ultimate success of Irish immigrants in America was achieved partly because of the extent to which the Irish in America were eventually able to identify themselves as white, often through their support for racist stereotyping of African Americans. No such option is available to the African Americans themselves, of course, but Whitehead’s inclusion of Irish immigrant labor in his narrative reminds us that American slavery was part of a larger history of the exploitation of labor in America.

In this same vein, Fintan O’Toole notes that there is a long tradition of complex cultural entanglement between Ireland and the American West. For one thing, O’Toole parallels Allen and Ignatiev in noting the complex relationship between Ireland and American racism, while O’Toole’s focus on the American West is relevant to the prominent inclusion of Native Americans in The Underground Railroad. In particular, O’Toole notes that racist depictions of the Irish in the nineteenth-century English press sometimes compared the Irish to American Indians, concluding that “for Britain, the Irish are the Indians to the far west, circling the wagons of Imperial civilization.” Once in America, however, the Irish played a central role in the taming of the West—and in the near-extermination of Native Americans. In this new environment, according to O’Toole, “the Irish cease to be the Indians and become the cowboys” (134).

The second question regarding the efficacy of Whitehead’s technique in The Underground Railroad is a bit more vexing. Stephanie Li’s critique of the novel is representative of complaints that the novel, by deviating so dramatically from historical fact, is in danger of obscuring just those truths it hopes to reveal. For example, the conceit of the literal underground train and tracks is the novel’s central example of magic realism, and for Li this is a problem. Such a railway would have been built mostly by the labor of African Americans, so that “to call it magic is to discount the reality of that labor and to take for granted, yet again, the black bodies that fueled the engine of America” (4). With the exception of the proletarian fiction that bloomed so richly in the 1930s, American fiction in general has trouble dealing with the reality of labor, so Whitehead would certainly not be alone here, though he does at one point acknowledge that Cora has been wondering all along about the labor that built the novel’s underground railway. And she has received a consistent response from those she asked: “‘Who do you think made it? Who makes everything?’” (262). This moment, together with other moments in the text—such as Lander’s reminder that “black hands built the White House”—does make it clear that the railway was built by human labor (and black human labor at that). Anna Kornbluh has used The Underground Railroad as her key example of the way in which the novel can be an effective form of social critique for this very reason. For her,

“The black people who dug the tunnels and designed the routes are the black people who infrastructuralize struggle and survival, are the black people whose labor is the foundation of the violently accumulated wealth and territory that are these United States. This trope is laminated into an even bolder idea by the novel’s temporal logics and temporal confabulations, its frequent dyssynchrony and its frequent, powerful presentism (present participles, second-person address to an implied reader, and direct present tense): the labor of struggle, the work to survive against the work of the nation, is not historical fiction in the past but searingly ongoing reality in the present” (406).

Of course, Kornbluh also emphasizes that Marxist critical intervention is required to tease out this aspect of the novel, and it is certainly the case that the novel does very little to acknowledge the huge amount of labor that must have been involved in building its railroad, perhaps because that amount could not literally have been possible in the American South in the 1850s. At the same time, it might also be argued that the effacement of labor in the novel actually calls attention to the effacement of labor in American literature in general, which is part of a larger social tendency to ignore the contributions of labor, and especially of the labor of African Americans and immigrants.

In any case, Li’s more general (and more important) point is that, for her, the fantastical presentation of history throughout the novel results in “a text mired in fantasy that does not reveal history so much as perform it to satisfy the generic expectations of readers” (5). In particular, Li notes Ramón Saldívar’s theorization of a mode of “speculative realism” in which fantastical conceits can be used to illuminate reality. However, she argues that The Underground Railroad fails in this project because it mixes fantasy and historical reality so thoroughly that the result is more confusion than illumination. To illustrate her point, Li contrasts Whitehead’s novel with Kindred, suggesting that Butler’s motif of a modern African American woman traveling back to the slave era clearly stands as fantasy, allowing us to view the slave era in meticulous (and presumably accurate) historical detail, with no confusion between the fantasy aspects of the narrative and the historical aspects.

Li also finds fault with the ending of The Underground Railroad, which seems to her untrue to the historical experience of slavery. Here, Cora finally defeats Ridgeway, escapes the carnage on Valentine Farm, and catches a ride on a covered wagon headed West and for new frontiers. For Li, this conclusion is a genre-related narrative cop-out, a “happy ending that panders to audience appetites involving tales of black suffering” (4). However, it is not at all clear that Cora’s troubles are over at this point. Moreover, if one recognizes the extent to which Whitehead has gone to place his story within a broader context of American history, then it becomes apparent that this ending is anything but a happy one. The story essentially jumps genres and moves from the tradition of the slave narrative to the tradition of narratives about pioneers taming the American West. Historically, such narratives, of course, have been foregrounded in the building of the American national identity, emphasizing the grand achievement of the taming of the frontier (and the defeat of its “savage” native inhabitants), even as the story of slavery gradually became something that most accounts of American history would rather de-emphasize[6]. But this “grand achievement” was written in blood and genocide; Cora has, as it were, stepped from one narrative of racist brutality into another one. What The Underground Railroad suggests is that these two narratives are of a piece.

As for Li’s concern that Whitehead’s free intermixture of history and fantasy undermines his commentary on the former, we think that this aspect of the novel can best be viewed, not through Saldívar, but through Linda Hutcheon, whose notion of “historiographic metafiction” has become one of the most widely used optics through which to view postmodern fiction. For Hutcheon, this term encompasses an entire family of postmodern historical novels that self-consciously play with the historical record, constructing their own narratives in a metafictional way that calls attention to the constructedness of all historical narratives and at least potentially presents an effectively subversive challenge to received official versions of history. Hutcheon’s notion can be contrasted with the corresponding component of Fredric Jameson’s broader theorization of the postmodern, in which he sees postmodern play with history, not as a coherent subversive strategy, but as a symptom of a larger loss of any true sense of history at all, a loss that works very much in the interest of capitalist hegemony. For Jameson, what Hutcheon calls “historiographic fiction” generally reflects a loss of historical sense that, far from constituting a genuinely subversive critique of late capitalism, is actually quite typical of the late capitalist world.

Noting (with admiration) the attempt of E. L. Doctorow to come to grips with this dilemma in his 1975 novel Ragtime, Jameson concludes that, while seemingly realistic in its representation of early-twentieth-century America,this historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes ‘pop history’)” (Postmodernism 25). This description, of course, does not apply to The Underground Railroad, which does not in the least pretend to be realist, even of this mediated kind. However, one thing that Whitehead’s novel has in common with Ragtime is that it emerges from a cultural perspective that is opposed to the dominant mainstream of American culture. In Ragtime that perspective is primarily socialist (though immigrant and African American perspectives are important components of that); in The Underground Railroad, on the other hand, that perspective is primarily African American (with immigrant and Native American components), recalling Jameson’s earlier acknowledgement that, while the successful literature of any given time and place will typically reflect the dominant ideology of its context, there will always be voices of resistance sounding from the margins, as (for example) in the “oppositional voices of black or ethnic cultures” (Political Unconscious 86).

In general, I agree with Jameson that the texts characterized by Hutcheon as examples of historiographic metafiction are rather toothless in their attempt to take on the juggernaut of capitalism. However, The Underground Railroad is an exception, not just because of its marginal cultural perspective but also because of the sheer abject horror of the historical experience of slavery that it is built upon. Thus, while Doctorow may be narrating, through the mediation of stereotypes, the historical defeat of the American Left, Whitehead presents us with a narrative that cannot be completely contained within the various stereotypes that have been applied to it. Thus, while whippings and rapes and amputations as examples of the slave experience might have become familiar to us via a panoply of popular cultural representations over several decades, from the original Roots (1977) miniseries to 12 Years a Slave, the fact is that such experiences are so powerfully abject that no amount of representation can contain them and render them inert. No matter how much The Underground Railroad might deviate from literal realism, these are experiences that we know for certain to be of a kind that have happened in the real world of the antebellum South—or even the colonial North. Even the most abject of the scenes in Whitehead’s novel—such as the gruesome “roasting” to death of the slave Big Anthony while Terrance Randall and his white guests sip spiced rum and take it all in as entertainment—cannot outstrip actual history, though they are not necessarily based directly on any specific events[7].

Put differently, Li believes that texts constructed in the mode that Saldívar describes as speculative realism can generally be quite effective as political critique; she concludes, however, that The Underground Railroad is constructed in such a way that it is an unfortunate exception. Conversely, I agree with Jameson that works of historiographic metafiction are generally not effective as political critique; we conclude, however, that The Underground Railroad is a fortunate exception that is politically powerful, largely because of the power of its subject matter[8]. Indeed, this subject matter is so powerful that it might be emotionally unbearable were it not for the distance created by Whitehead’s magic realist technique, which (somewhat in the mode of the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt)allows just enough space for readers to develop an intellectual response, rather than a purely emotional one.

Indeed, the comparison with Brecht provides an excellent framework in which to see that the magical realist aspects of The Underground Railroad strengthen, rather than weaken, its political critique of American racism. For one thing, this technique reminds us that the centuries-long phenomenon of slavery was itself almost fantastical, almost too shockingly monstrous to comprehend as a crucial part of the history of a nation accustomed to presenting itself as a beacon of freedom. Whitehead’s novel mixes accounts of things that did not and could not have happened with accounts of things that should have been impossible but nevertheless did happen. And we know that theyhappened, regardless of the fantastical nature of Whitehead’s text. Moreover, by placing his account of slavery within the broader context of American, and even Western, history, Whitehead asks us to step back and to ask whether unthinkable things might still be happening, despite the fact that literal slavery is a thing of the past. He presents us with a legacy of unspeakable horrors and asks us to acknowledge that this, too, is America. If we don’t like what we see, then it is up to us to change it.

Works Cited

Allen, Theodor W. The Invention of the White Race. 2 vols. 2nd ed. Verso, 2012.

Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Basic Books, 2016.

Bey, Marquis. Pitch Black, Black Pitch: Theorizing African American Literature. The New Centennial Review, vol. 18, no. 1, Spring 2018, pp. 105-67

Cheng, Vincent J. Joyce, Race, and Empire. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Curtis, L. Perry. Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971.

Frank, Allegra. “Barry Jenkins Breaks Down Every ‘Jarring’ Song Choice in The Underground Railroad.” Slate, 18 June 2021, Accessed 23 June 2021.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. Routledge, 1988.

Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. Routledge, 1995.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Cornell University Press, 1980.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.

Kornbluh, Anna. “We Have Never Been Critical: Toward the Novel as Critique.” Novel, vol. 50, no. 3, 2017, pp. 397–408.

Li, Stephanie. “Genre Trouble and History’s Miseries in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S., vol. 44, no. 2, Summer 2019, pp. 1–23.

McManus, Edgar J. Black Bondage in the North. Syracuse University Press, 1973.

O’Toole, Fintan. A Mass for Jesse James: A Journey through 1980’s Ireland. Raven Arts Press, 1990.

Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. “The Neo-Slave Narrative.” The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel, edited by Maryemma Graham. Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 87–105.

Saldívar, Ramón. “Historical Fantasy, Speculative Realism, and Postrace Aesthetics in Contemporary American Fiction.” American Literary History, vol. 23, no. 3, 2011, pp. 574–99.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. 1992, University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Thaden, Barbara Z. “Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage as Historiographic Metafiction.” College English, vol. 59, no. 7, November 1997, pp. 753–66.

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Anchor Books, 2016.

Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. 1944, University of North Carolina Press, 1994.


[1] For a convenient overview of the evolution of the neo-slave narrative as a contemporary reworking of the nineteenth-century slave narrative, beginning with Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966), see Rushdy. See also Bey for a discussion of the place of The Underground Railroad within this genre and within the thematic emphasis on the “underground” in African American literature as a whole.

[2] The literalization of metaphor is a key technique employed by Jonathan Swift in his construction of Gulliver’s Travels, the book that the literate slave Caesar so treasures in The Underground Railroad (and one that clearly provides something of a model for Whitehead’s novel).

[3] Butler also explicitly makes this connection between American slavery and German Nazism in Kindred.

[4] This event, of course, is best known to American audiences via Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus, itself based on the much more politically radical 1951 novel of the same title by the leftist novelist Howard Fast, in which the slave leader Spartacus becomes a sort of proto-proletarian revolutionary hero.

[5] The naming of the character Caesar perhaps provides another hint that it might be valuable to look for Roman referents in the text, as does the fact that the library on Valentine farm includes books about “the ambitions of the Romans” (278).

[6] For an extensive and extremely useful account of the importance of the conquest of the West (and of cultural narratives about that conquest) to the building of a belief in the United States as a virtuous nation that can overcome all obstacles, defeating “savage” foes in the process, see Slotkin.

[7] Those involved in slave rebellions have been treated especially harshly in American history. For example, after a slave revolt in colonial New York in 1712, one of the leaders of the revolt was executed on a breaking wheel, while twenty others were burned to death. One of those was reportedly slowly roasted for ten hours before finally dying (McManus 86).

[8] For comparison, see Barbara Thaden’s argument that Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990) is an effective critical account of slavery via the technique of historiographic metafiction, though Thaden appears to accept Hutcheon’s argument that such effectiveness is typical in this category of fiction.