It was Black Man that first introduced me to the notion of the underground railroad, and of the work of Harriet Tubman. Utterly compelling from the first line of the vocal, Black Man, co-written by Stevie Wonder and Gary Byrd (who seems to get a writer’s credit, these days) was one of the stand-out songs on Songs in The Key of Life (coincidentally released 42 years ago this weekend) – a major credit in a very crowded field – and it identifies Harriet Tubman as a black woman who lead countless slaves to freedom via the underground railroad.
A film is being made, with shooting starting next month, of Harriet Tubman’s life and, probably more than Stevie Wonder, it is Colson Whitehead‘s 2017 novel which is the sparking point not least because – while his novel is emphatically not about Harriet Tubman – there are certain parallels between her early life and that of Cora, his heroine.
The star of the work, though, is the underground railroad itself. Given here a physical form (it was not, in reality, an actual railway but a network of sympathisers, determined people and incredibly brave, and frequently terrified, risk-takers), Whitehead uses the physicality of the railroad to pinpoint allegorical lessons about the un-noticed and unheralded contributions of slaves to the growth of the US. In taking such an approach, he is also able to pay tribute to those ‘station masters, conductors and sympathizers’ who built the railroad and whose pride in doing so thereby restored their humanity:
The ones who excavated a million tonnes, of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them… Who are you after finishing something this magnificent – in constructing it, you have also journeyed through it, to the other side… The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your own sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart.
To achieve the centrality of the point Whitehead is trying to put across, especially in what is not a long novel, the characterisation of the people he chooses to populate it must almost, by definition, take a back seat – as indeed must the casual mistreatment of slaves which, although very present in the novel, is dispensed with fairly quickly and in a matter-of-fact way unlike, for instance, the physicality of the approach to the experience of being a slave taken by Yaa Gyasi in Homegoing. This is quite clearly a risky strategy since it risks trivialising slaves’ experience of their treatment, but it pays off as long as the reader is aware of the author’s approach to what is he trying to achieve. The effect in making such experiences ordinary, everyday and, in that context, quite literally unremarkable may lie in dehumanising those subject to it but in circumstances in which the human miracle of those building, operating and maintaining the railroad is thereby made sharper, more real.
The major contribution which authors – as all artists – have an obligation to make is to use their work to pinpoint the injustices present in contemporary society. In spite of the Underground Railroad being a historical work, and a novel, it contains evident lessons not just in why the US has a Black Lives Matter movement (and why there is one in the UK, too) but in the ease with which ordinary men and women can be whipped up by demagogues into hatreds the like of which they wouldn’t otherwise recognise in themselves. We saw this with Hitler’s rallies; we saw it in the ease with which Milošević was able to turn workers bussed into rallies in Belgrade into Serbs; we saw it in many of Trump’s pre-election rallies; and we see aspects of it in live audience talent shows, too. And certainly we see it in the ease with which hate speakers and other divisive figures are able to gain access to (social) media.
A good artist is able to draw attention to such contemporary developments in the pictures they paint for us, even where they have a historical setting – and here Whitehead has done so too in the horrific Friday night ‘pageants’ which he has Cora witness from her North Carolina garret. Indeed, the contemporary lessons are made all the more pointed when we can witness their historical precedents (even in a work of fiction). We are all dehumanised when we allow any of ourselves to have our humanity taken away from us by a focus on others as ‘the other’, and the end-point is clear in a toxification of the public policy arena and in such a deterioration in the quality of public debate.
Similar to those facing the decision to construct the underground railroad out of a situation of horror, and to give hope to all those who are involved with it or who engage with it, or even who simply only hear about it, all of us have a responsibility to engage in the essential (re-)building process of our own humanity. We are indeed yet, as someone once sang, between the wars, and it is not yet too late for our efforts to have an effect.