Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” and Today’s Racism

Carolyn Bryant recently admitted that she lied. It was not a little white lie, but a big white lie, the biggest of white lies ever told. A big fat white lie told countless times over the centuries, always to the detriment of African-Americans. Her lie? She said that Emmett Till, a 14 year-old African-American boy, whistled at her. For this lie, Mr. Till died an excruciating, sickening death. (Scroll down on the “Emmett Till” Wikipedia page and you’ll see a picture of Mr. Till in his coffin; his mother insisted on an open casket funeral to show the world what had happened to her son.)

Bryant’s big fat white lie reinforces a truism that was my takeaway from Colson Whitehead’s excellent novel The Underground Railroad: African-Americans live at the pleasure of white Americans. Even when his heroine Cora, a runaway slave, found anti-slavery whites willing to help her escape bondage, some had a different agenda. Some wanted to maintain control over the black population by forced sterilization. One couple would only help Cora by making her a prisoner, keeping her locked away so that others would not discover that they are harboring a fugitive slave. In her attic dungeon, aloft like Rapunzel, she sees what happens to uppity Negroes and the whites who helped them. They become fodder for state-sponsored barbarism and murder in the comfort of the neighborhood park across the street.

Railroad makes another point that stuck with me: when blacks do achieve a level of success, then whites have the right to destroy it. Cora is menaced by a rabid slave-hunter named Ridgeway, Captain Ahab to her Moby Dick. Ridgeway has an almost spotless record when it comes to capturing runaways and returning them to their plantations. Cora’s mother was the “almost,” the one who eluded Ridgeway’s capture. For this, he wants to make Cora pay by taking her back to her sadistic master in Georgia by any means necessary.

Ridgeway is a jewel of a villain, well drawn out and vicious. But he also has a curiously calm side, making him even more threatening. When things go his way, he can behave almost civil. But it only takes an instant for him to turn his barbarism on, commit an atrocious act, and then returning to his calm state. Ridgeway believes in maintaining the status quo: a slave is property, like a plough or a table, and it belongs to someone (he always uses the third person pronoun with slaves). Yet he also has a black companion, Homer, sort of his Boy Friday. Ridgeway obtains Homer then buys his freedom. Despite the terrors he commits to other blacks, Ridgeway treats Homer respectfully, and Homer remains loyal to him. I wonder if Ridgeway really sees Homer as a black person at all. Bigots often create exceptions in their minds for black folks that they like.

Ridgeway wants to destroy any freedom blacks enjoy and ultimately longs to destroy the underground railroad itself. Whitehead makes the underground railroad a literal railroad, a locomotive subway with stations buried deep underneath safe houses. Some readers found this a bit over the top, but I thought it a brilliant representation, a perfect foil for his antagonist.

The power Ridgeway possesses is his ability to get like-minded people to follow his audacious lead. This proves critical at the end of the book. And it had me thinking of how whites, jealous, filled with hate, have taken from African-Americans sometimes simply because they could, like Bryant did to Mr. Till. It also explains why I reacted as strongly as I did to the election of Donald Trump as president. It was the ultimate act of cruelty, the sort of thing that haunts blacks and that bigots live for.

In Trump we have Ridgeway’s modern equivalent. He believes that blacks have their place, and so long as they are in that place, things are OK. Otherwise, blacks are uncivilized and live in horrific conditions riddled with crime and drugs. His racist views date back decades, to when he and his father prevented blacks from living in their buildings.

When Barack Obama became president, Trump lost it and started his birther bullshit. He lost it further still when no one took him seriously, people called him a racist, and the President himself mocked him at a White House Correspondents Dinner.

What greater revenge could such a man as Trump have then to get elected president, go into the White House, and destroy everything President Obama ever did. “Make America Great Again,” Trump proclaimed, a foghorn more than a dog whistle, one that harkens back to the age of slave hunters like Whitehead’s Ridgeway.

Trump got away with it because society gave him permission just as it gave Carolyn Bryant permission to lie and get a 14 year-old boy into trouble and murdered. Turning a blind eye to bigotry does not make it go away. It makes it grow. It maintains the status quo for all the Ridgeways, Bryants, and Trumps of the world, making it safe to hate again.

© 2017, gar. All rights reserved.

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