South Carolina

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procrastinationI’ve been called out (justifiably) for not keeping up with my writing schedule. Thanks for holding my feet to the fire! So here we go….

There are so many things to write about here, so I’m going to resort to a list of some thoughts. Then if any of these points strike your interest, add your thoughts/questions/replies in the comments and I’ll go into more detail. Some of these thoughts maybe repeats if you’ve been following me on Twitter.

Also, I’m going to roughly break my posts down by state, and so this post will be my thoughts through SC, and I’ll deal with NC and TN in following posts. There will be spoilers after the “Read More” break, so if you haven’t gotten through the South Carolina section, and don’t want hint of what’s to come, stop here.

One more note: E mentioned that she had gotten through “chapter 8,” but my copy of the book doesn’t have numbered chapters. I don’t  know if this is because I’m using the large-print edition and the formatting is weird, or if E just counted the section breaks. Either way, for my reference, use States or plot points to describe where you are in the book, because I think my layout may be significantly different than most copies of the book.

Without further ado….

  1. Is it possible that the north/south division of the Randall plantation is an allegory for the north/south division of the pre-Civil-War US? I want this to be the case, but if so, it is an imperfect allegory and open to debate over what its significance is. Should we consider that the South was like the brutal and assertive brother while the North was the more passive (but no less culpable) brother who let his brother’s aggression spill over into his territory? At what point in history did the North die? Just spit-balling here….
  2. Are we supposed to be sad about the 12-year-old pig hunter that attacks Cora? If is was an adult, I don’t think I would have any sympathy at all, but a 12-year-old? I think Whitehead is challenging our notions of victim and victimizer. I think he is saying that a person can be both, especially if that person is a child. Do we victimize our children by making them victimizers?
  3. From the moment Lovey disappears, I wanted to know what happened to her. Her brief appearance at this stage must serve a purpose. More on this later.
  4. This leads me to a principal that I’ve tried to adopt about studying the Bible (credit for the idea goes to Eugene Peterson via Marshall Benbow, I think): always identify with the bad guys. We should sympathize with the good guys, but see our own faults reflected in the bad guys. I think this can be applied to literature as well, especially literature of race and gender when you’re a straight white male.
  5. This South Carolina section confuses me. Were skyscrapers a thing before the 1860s? Elevators? Maybe they were, but I’m pretty sure that terminology (skyscraper) was not in use until later. I should brush up on my building lingo history. Also, the syphilis and eugenics experiments didn’t arise until much later. I don’t think these were mistakes–I think Whitehead is compressing time to address a journey to freedom that African Americans have been on long before and long after the specific timeframe of the actual underground railroad. In fact, in a strange twist of literary devices, the literal and material railroad in the story is a marker that the journey Cora takes is not confined to an actual, narrow, and specific point in history. The material indicates the abstract.
  6. badbloodBTW, if you are interested in the history of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the classic history is Bad Blood by James Jones. This is an important work if you have time.
  7. I found Cora’s “evil eye” that she employs in the museum is reminiscent of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who lives in a basement filled with thousands of lightbulbs, secretly draining power from the establishment that tries to keep him in the dark. I wonder at her use of it against Maisie, who she has previously loved (or at least seemed to love). Maisie’s status as a child brings to mind the pig hunter. Why is it that Cora keeps confronting children?
  8. I have more thoughts, but I’m out of time. Share your thoughts in the comments and I’ll add more later.


  1. 1. Very interesting thought. I think it breaks down though with the death. Don’t think the North dies in history. In history, the brothers get in a horrific fight.
    2. From where I sit, I feel horror at the killing in the abstract, but no real sympathy or sadness for the child. Maybe like what Cora felt herself? I, like her, feel a revulsion to the idea of Cora as a killer, but feel like she did what she had to do, and feel disconnected from the child as a human. Not pretty, but a good portrait of how the desperation and hideous nature of slavery can strip people of their regular moral connection to humanity and value of life.

  2. 3. Definitely interested to see how he comes back to Lovey also.
    4. Yes, good plan.
    5. Heard the author talk with Terry Gross about this very thing. I think that you put it more eloquently than he in this comment, but his comments essentially confirm your ideas here.
    6. Caroline is at the School of Public Health and has a professor who actually was one of the people who uncovered what was going on at Tuskegee. She says that he indicated that it actually took them longer than one would think to figure it out because it was just so hard to fathom people actually doing this…

    1. 5. If you have the link for the Terry Gross interview, you should share it here.
      6. For a while, I thought the Lucy character was black. She reminded me of the real-life, African American nurse who is called out in Bad Blood for participating in and enabling the experiments. When I finally realized Lucy was white, I had a strange sense of relief. Not sure if I can articulate why it matters, but it did.

  3. 7. Perhaps all of these children confrontations are somehow connected to her stolen childhood and her resentment of her mother’s abandoning her?

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