The “South Carolina” chapter of The Underground Railroad finds the protagonist, Cora, recruited to work as a living model at the Museum of Natural Wonders. In a series of three rooms that trace the American slave experience from Africa to the plantation, Cora poses in costume, silently critiquing the scenes she inhabits, pointing out their inaccuracies. For author Colson Whitehead, Cora’s stint at the museum offers a frame story within the novel’s sprawling alternate history, one that prompts readers to reflect on Whitehead’s juxtaposition of fact and fiction.
In the room “Life on a Slave Ship,” where Cora dons a sailor outfit, she observes that “[t]here had been no kidnapped boys swabbing the decks and earning pats on the head from white kidnappers. The enterprising African boy whose fine leather boots she wore would have been chained belowdecks, swabbing his body in his own filth” (116). And in the room “Typical Day on a Plantation,” she notes that “slave work was sometimes spinning thread, yes; most times it was not. No slave had ever keeled over dead at a spinning wheel or been butchered for a tangle” (116).
Readers witness Cora’s reflections knowing them to be the observations of a fictional character but realizing as well that that the tableaux vivant of the Museum of Natural Wonders are as fictional as the novel, itself. Cora is not a historical figure, but her plight parallels the harrowing experiences of real-life fugitive slaves, a truth that Whitehead underscores by prefacing his state-titled chapters with runaway slave advertisements (from the digital collections at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). The chapters named for characters are free of those ads, symbolically liberating them from the Fugitive Slave Laws that impede their journey on Whitehead’s literal Underground Railroad.
Some readers may question Whitehead’s choice to create an actual Underground Railroad, turning the metaphor into a series of subterranean tracks, noting the apparent irony of such deviations even as the novel’s central character meditates on historical inaccuracies. But Whitehead is a novelist, not a historian. His aim is not to produce a history but to breathe life into characters who speak truths from their fictional worlds—not our current terrain of alternative facts but a reimagined past where Cora astutely critiques what Whitehead called a “sanitized history” in his recent appearance at Lenoir-Rhyne University.
Sanitized versions of the past deny truths laid bare by Whitehead’s novel and other alternate histories. Notably, last year marked not only the publication of The Underground Railroad but also Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines. The fictional worlds of both novels evoke the legacies of slavery that remain, though the truths of those legacies—police brutality and anti-immigration policy, among them—may be obscured by rhetoric and mythos. As Cora in her role as a living, breathing mannequin observes: “Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach” (116). At the novel’s close, readers unsettled by the difficult truths within the fiction, can at least find solace in the last image of Cora, still headed north and still out of reach.
Whitehead, Colson. “An Evening with Colson Whitehead.” 14 Sept. 2017, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.
—. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.