North Carolina

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It’s tough to read about places you love and have them described with awful, disgusting imagery. I’ve always been kind of glad that North Carolina didn’t have the same level of plantation culture as other southern states, and I like the ideas that NC was slow to secede and there were a significant number of Unionists operating in NC during the Civil War.

But, honestly, these are pretty lame attempts of my subconscious mind to lessen the North Carolina’s role in defending slavery, which is not something I should allow myself to do. Colson Whitehead doesn’t let NC off the hook easy. I’ll present my thoughts in a list again (spoilers ahead)….

  1. I was not expecting the NC station to be closed. This twist in the plot introduced a new element of suspense for me, wondering how Cora would get back on the railroad. As long as there was a station operating nearby, offering a quick and easy escape, the stakes were not as high.
  2. Like the Underground Railroad, which is a physical manifestation of an historical idea, the “freedom trail” is another historical concept that becomes a physical reality in the book. That it is littered with the dead and mutilated bodies of African Americans is a strong statement about the cost of freedom over time. I think Whitehead is warning us not to be too proud of the path of progress.
  3. My bad history alarms were going off again while reading the backstory of the end of slavery in this alternate North Carolina. In the story, the fear of a black uprising led whites in NC to outlaw black slavery in favor of white indentured workers, and embark on a course of racial genocide. However, this is pretty much backwards from one of the classic arguments for why African American slavery took hold in America. According to Edmund Morgan’s widely accepted thesis, there was a crisis in early American society about what to do with poor, landless whites as they finished their indentures. There was a real fear that the poor would revolt against the wealthy land owners (as evidenced by Bacon’s Rebellion), so land owners started preferring black slaves (who would never earn freedom) over white indentures, and then fostered race consciousness to control the poor. Once again, historical reality is warped in the interest of symbolism. What is Whitehead doing with this inversion? I think the “freedom trail” is a hint, and I think NC represents a Jim Crow reality, where blacks might be safe as long as they remained boxed-in and hidden, but they were lynched the moment they stepped out or let their presence be known. Reluctant whites who didn’t approve of the violence, failed to stand up or take action against it, preferring to try to keep blacks hidden and in their boxes in order to preserve the status quo.
  4. Is Fiona the next in the string of children who cross Cora? She’s described as surprisingly young with a round face. Might be a stretch, but it is suspiciously close to repeating the pattern.
  5. The park, or town commons, complete with buntings on the bandstand is the picture of idyllic  Americanism, but it’s subversion as the site of gruesome, ritualized race violence is a topic that is worthy of some thought/debate. The symbolism is hyperbole, but it is rooted in actual historic truth, as lynchings were often public spectacles that reinforced race identity.
  6. What is the meaning of the juxtaposition of the Bible and the Almanac? Ideas?
  7. The end of this section made me wondered how in the world the book could go on for another 100 pages.
  8. On to Tennessee!


  1. 3. Whitehead also called out real Oregon as a parallel to his fictional NC’s “solution.”
    6. I thought a lot about the Bible vs. Almanac thing, too. Man, Cora loves an almanac! I think this is all of this is reaching too much: An almanac tries to predict and give information without trying to assign meta-meaning, etc. That might be much more palatable content in the midst of the senseless evil of Cora’s situation. Also, the advice for farmers perhaps evokes faint echoes of her beloved tiny plot that she farmed. Through her tiny rectangle of earth, she experienced some shred of agency, some control.

    I can’t remember when Cora says that she doesn’t buy into a view of bad guys getting what they deserve because that would mean that she is deserving of her plight. Does she connect that to the Bible/religion? (I don’t read the overall Bible as a karma text, but rather as a text about grace. But many who haven’t read it, and many who have, think of it that way.)

    1. Yeah, at first Cora doesn’t show remorse about the pig hunter boy, but she keeps coming back to him in her thoughts and she eventually admits that she was secretly grieving him. I think she also feels responsible for the fates of all the people who have helped her along the way and paid for it. I’m not sure how she stands on the Bible thing. I think you’re on to something with the non-judgey meaning of an almanac, though.

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