After reading "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead, awarded the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016, and being at least mildly surprised by the liberties the book takes with the historical record, I decided to see what facts I could learn about escaping slavery.
Here's some of what I found out.
The reality of the "underground railroad," as opposed to its legend, is that it was relatively unimportant in pre-Emancipation America. Contemporary historians looking at the records estimate that the number of white people who helped fugitive slaves free themselves from bondage throughout the lengthy period when slavery was legal numbered only in the hundreds. Despite the dramatizations of film and TV, no underground railroad 'stations' existed in the slave states; the so-called 'railroad' existed only in the North. And once an African American fleeing slavery managed to cross a state line into Ohio, or Illinois, or Indiana or Pennsylvania, any northerner willing to hide, enable, offer money, clothes, food, or a tip on where to go next was likely helping a runaway get to Canada.
For in most places and at most times throughout the history of slavery in the United States, the North was not safe. Slave catchers routinely followed the trail of runaways over the border. And after the Fugitive Slave Act became law in 1850, slave catchers (or any white person) had the right to claim any black person (even free ones) as his lost property and go before a kangaroo court that was legally encouraged to find for the white claimant in all cases.
Most whites turned their back on slavery, or shrugged their shoulders, or were of the opinion that black people belonged in slavery rather than living among white people. Outrage over the Fugitive Slave Act fueled abolitionist feeling in states such as Massachusetts, but abolitionists were never close to a majority anywhere in the North. So there is plenty of guilt for white Americans whose roots lie in the North to share with fellow Americans with southern roots when it comes to assessing our nation's slave-holding past.
The popularity of the underground railroad, a concept more myth than practical reality, stems from Americans' need for a story of brave and moral conduct in defiance of "the peculiar institution" to point to as a moral beacon -- somewhat analogous to the way the Statue of Liberty serves as a national salute to our image as a welcoming home for immigrants and refugees, even though the true story is a lot more complicated and a lot less benign.
There was nothing, of course, at all benign about the institution of African slavery in America. The emphasis current day culture places on the underground railroad is an attempt to lift the moral scale at least a notch off rock-bottom moral evil. But might it not be better simply to face the facts. Slavery persisted for so long in this country because of its economic benefit. It led to accumulations of wealth by a white-dominated society that would not have been possible without the abundant resource of unpaid slave labor. Slavery was a good deal for the white majority. The advantage goes way beyond the oft-noted fortunes made by northern ship owners from the slave trade. The young nation as a whole benefited from a robust agricultural economy: from the rapid development of untilled land, cleared of its native occupants by national policy, and then cleared for agricultural uses and productively farmed by enslaved African labor to raise cotton and other market crops.
America's dominant export in the 19th century, the cotton trade was taxed and the funds raised turned to infrastructure development. Cotton exports played a major role in our trade balance with Europe. Texas and the American Southwest were taken by force of arms from Mexico by national policy under the impetus to seek new lands to 'open' for cotton production.
So given that white Americans were in no hurry to abolish slavery -- as illustrated by the infamous compromises in our Constitution that recognized the 'peculiar institution' and established a slave's value as three-fifths of a person when it came to determining a state's representation in the House of Representatives -- how did slaves seek to escape their bondage?
In a lengthy, statistically based article appearing in the New Yorker two years ago, Kathryn Schultz writes that "while fugitives did often need to conceal themselves en route to freedom, most of their hiding places were mundane and catch-as-catch-can—haylofts and spare bedrooms and swamps and caves, not bespoke hidey-holes built by underground engineers."
The efforts of heroic "guides" such as Harriet Tubman were real enough, that is, but most runaways were faced with making it on their own without any systematic assistance.
Not only did the underground railroad fail to penetrate into the slave states -- the Carolinas, the infamous black belt states of George, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana where cotton production caused slaves populations to rise sharply in the 19th century -- "most people who slipped the bonds of slavery did not look north," Schultz writes.
In fact, despite its popularity today, she writes, "the Underground Railroad was perhaps the least popular way for slaves to seek their freedom. Instead, those who fled generally headed toward Spanish Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, Native American communities in the Southeast, [and] free-black neighborhoods in the upper South" known as Maroon communities.
It doesn't play well for white American audiences to watch fugitive slaves from the Carolinas struggling to reach Florida or Mexico rather than following "the drinking gourd" north with the assistance of brave black guides and white abolitionists. One of the reasons the United States forced a weakened Spain to cede Florida to us was the complaints of slaveholders that the sanctuary of the Spanish colony was attracting their valuable property. After Florida became a state, fugitive slaves living there as freedmen had to find somewhere else to go.
And just to put the story of the 'escape' from slavery in a less dramatic, but still more realistic context, Schultz offers this assessment: "Moreover, most slaves who sought to be free didn’t run at all. Instead, they chose to pursue liberty through other means. Some saved up money and purchased their freedom. Others managed to earn a legal judgment in their favor—for instance, by having or claiming to have a white mother (beginning in Colonial times, slave status, like Judaism, passed down through the maternal line), or by claiming to have been manumitted."
In many cases aristocratic slave owners followed the custom of freeing their slaves upon their own death in their will, in part as a reward for loyal service. This appears to have been a tradition in Virginia that father-of-our-country George Washington was unable to follow because most of his slaves actually belonged to his wife. Thomas Jefferson didn't free his slaves because his estate was in debt. Somehow, an analysis of available figures suggests, about ten percent of slaves found their way to freedom, only a very small percentage of these via the underground railroad.
Colson Whitehead's invention of actual underground tunnels fitted with rails and small trains to assist runaway slaves in states such as Georgia and the Carolinas, while it appeared to please the critics who praised it as a bold device, to my mind serves no real purpose in his novel.
It's hardly needed to tell the dramatic story of the challenges and dangers fugitive slaves faced, and even in the fictional context of the novel is shown to do very little good since it fails to help any of his characters reach freedom. The book's central character, the runaway Cora, is abandoned in one disconnected station after another.
While the fiction of a 'real' railroad has charmed a lot of readers and critics, it strikes me as arbitrary, intrusive, inessential to the plot, and serves only to make this reader wonder what we do know about escaping slavery.
Whitehead takes the same liberty in including other fictional and anachronistic elements into his story, including forms of racist discrimination and exploitation that took place beyond the era of slavery -- the Tuskegee experiment (involving untreated cases of syphilis in black men); research into schizophrenia; forced sterilization -- and belong to America's later, and often shameful post-Emancipation history.
These inventions include the imagining of a paternalistic apartheid state in South Carolina, where such experiments take place, and a genocidal North Carolina where the worst, most murderous and sadistic examples of race hatred become a kind of statewide sport celebrated with regular execution festivals. The obtrusive presence of these fictional devices caused me to question my knowledge of American history. Did North Carolina actually practice genocide? Not really. Slave catchers of the sort the author places there operated everywhere. And executions of runaways took place throughout the Deep South, as they likewise did, for instance, in Haiti.
I'm not sure what we can learn about the 'truth' of slavery in so fantasized a depiction. Many fiction writers do play with history, of course. Books are written on the premise of 'what if Germany had won the war.' Or what if the South had won the Civil War. Scifi-fantasy writer Orson Scott Card wrote a series of books on an alternative American history; in which, for example, William Blake turns up on the frontier in a pre-Civil War America. These books tend to be classified as genre works. National Book Awards, on the other hand, tend to go to books considered 'literature.'If Whitehead's book does have meaning for us that goes beyond the 'what if' sort, it has nothing to do with the underground railroad, and everything to do with the pure hatred shown by almost anybody white in this book (aside from a few railroad operators) to anybody black.
I'm not sure a writer has to make anything up to tell this tale about American history, this persistently dark strain in the American character, the country's second "original sin" (after the theft of the land from the Indians).
Certainly writer James Baldwin made this point a half century earlier, as last year's eloquent documentary "I Am Not Your Negro" reminded us. His fear for his country's future, Baldwin told us, is that white Americans' hatred for black people has seriously warped their own character. It's a self-inflicted moral wound that -- even after MLK, civil rights, Obama, and everything else that has taken place in the 150 years since slavery -- white Americans have been unable to overcome.
The strongest elements in "The Underground Railroad" -- how the constant presence of physical fear in the of life of slaves warps their relationships with one another and hamstrings their own plantation communities; and, to take another example, what it's like to spend months hiding in an attic room watching the world through a tiny hole in a wall -- come from the author's imaginative delving into the psychological and emotional realities of slavery.
These qualities can be more widely applied in writing about slavery in America. The critical success of Colson Whitehead's book comes from an appetite for that kind of imaginative exploration of a true American story that still haunts us -- as it should. Exploring that terrible truth is the job of literature.
I would have liked to see more such truth in this book.