Tennessee, Indiana, and Beyond

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I finally had time to finish up The Underground Railroad last night–and good thing because tomorrow is May! Time to move on to The North Water. But before we get on to the next book, I need to share my final thoughts and see what your final impressions are. Again, I’ll use a list (spoilers ahead).

  1. I wonder if the burnt-out landscape of Tennessee is meant to be representative of the evils of selfishness, greed and power that Ridgeway claims are the defining features of white America. There aren’t that many conversations what the characters expound on the meaning of the present circumstance. Of course, we always have Cora’s inner thoughts, but Ridgeway’s ruminations at dinner with Cora are one of the only times we get an alternate narrative. He essentially says that everything belongs to whites because they had the power to take it. Ridgeway makes this claim while sitting in a town surrounded by a wasteland consumed by fire and yellow fever. Greed and power in this case are the “spark that got away,” it you want to use Ridgeway’s words.
  2. Once Cora makes it to Indiana, I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. The pattern had been established by that time, and the only questions were when disaster would strike and whether Cora would escape again, or if the story would end in her demise.
  3. I thought the talk of picking up and going west was vaguely reminiscent of the back to Africa movement, but I could be imagining that.
  4. The debate between Mingo and Landers is an allegory of the famous rivalry between Washington and Du Bois. I have mixed feelings about Whitehead’s depiction of Mingo (Washington). Though Washington has been characterized by accommodating too much for whites and perhaps asking blacks to restrain from open resistance to racism, there is some historical evidence that he was secretly funding the legal defense of some blacks–a strategy later used to great effect by the NAACP. I’m not apologizing for Washington, but I am saying that it’s complicated, and I think the concept of Mingo may be too quick to paint Washington into a 2-dimentional framework. This is not something Whitehead is guilty of in other aspects, so it was unexpected.
  5. On another note, there is no denying that Washington worked to undermine Du Bois and his allies at times, so the speculation that Mingo was the informant that brought the white posse to the Valentine raid is justified.
  6. As soon as a young black boy winked at Cora in the meeting, I knew it was Homer and I knew Ridgeway would be close behind.
  7. More than any other event in the book, the Valentine raid made me feel like my biological whiteness made me part of the problem. I haven’t yet sussed through why I felt this way, but there was no other time in the book when the cruelty and violence seemed more characterized by racial white vs. black. The book seemed to make a subtle shift from master/slave to whites/black, and that made me feel like I am inherently on a side that I don’t want to be a part of. But here’s the thing: I can’t put aside my whiteness. No amount of racial guilt or work for social justice or deference in the hope of equal playing fields or cultural sensitivity etc. will ever divorce me from the whiteness I was born into. That comes with some amount of institutional privilege, some amount of institutional culpability,  and some amount of inherent race-relational awkwardness.
  8. I think it is intentional that Cora leaves Ridgeway behind without witnessing his death. I think if the Novel went on for another 20 pages, Ridgeway would have stumbled out of the bushes on two broken legs, still intent to torment Cora and “put her in her place.” Any other interpretation of events is a denial of reality. Our bugaboos will never die.
  9. I think the idea that the railroad (the struggle) is more about escaping something than arriving somewhere. What are people escaping from today?
  10. Does Ollie = ollie ollie oxen free?

One comment

  1. 6. I found it very hard to believe that Cora didn’t initially recognize Homer. He winked at her. She looked him in the face. Are we supposed to buy that just because he was in a different outfit without his usual hat, he looked so different that Cora didn’t know it was him until later? It seemed like a cheap device for drama, not realistic.

    7. Can you post the link to the article that you posted one time that gave instructions to white artists about addressing their whiteness before trying to make art about black suffering? It seemed like those prescriptions could be adapted and used productively for a more general audience.

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