WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE, THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD, THE ALA ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL AND THE HURSTON/WRIGHT AWARD ** NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, WALL STREET JOURNAL, WASHINGTON POST, TIME, PEOPLE, NPR AND MORE ** #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“Get it, then get another copy for someone you know because you are definitely going to want to talk about it once you read that heart-stopping last page.”
Oprah Winfrey (Oprah's Book Club 2016 Selection)
“[A] potent, almost hallucinatory novel... It possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift…He has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.”
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Think Toni Morrison (Beloved), Alex Haley (Roots); think 12 Years a Slave…An electrifying novel…a great adventure tale, teeming with memorable characters…Tense, graphic, uplifting and informed, this is a story to share and remember.”
People, (Book of the Week)
"With this novel, Colson Whitehead proves that he belongs on any short list of America's greatest authorshis talent and range are beyond impressive and impossible to ignore. The Underground Railroad is an American masterpiece, as much a searing document of a cruel history as a uniquely brilliant work of fiction."
Michael Schaub, NPR
“Far and away the most anticipated literary novel of the year, The Underground Railroad marks a new triumph for Whitehead…[A] book that resonates with deep emotional timbre. The Underground Railroad reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches the ligaments of history right into our own era...The canon of essential novels about America's peculiar institution just grew by one.”
Ron Charles, Washington Post
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE, THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD, THE ALA ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL AND THE HURSTON/WRIGHT AWARD ** NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, WALL STREET JOURNAL, WASHINGTON POST, TIME, PEOPLE, NPR AND MORE ** #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
By now you've probably heard of Colson Whitehead's sixth novel, The Underground Railroad. Soon after publication, it was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her eponymous book club and quickly rose to the top spot of the New York Times bestsellers list. This must be something of an oddity: Oprah's blessing has compelled so many American readers to buy a literary novel about a runaway slave girl that the book has become a large- scale cultural commodity.
Whitehead must be satisfied and intrigued simultaneously. He is, after all, a superb novelist worthy of wide attention and a great "scholar" of the American language of advertisement and commerce i.e., capitalism. His novels seem to tell us: be wary of American hype and the way it can promote, beautifully and powerfully, bright emptiness and elegant trash. They're also saying: Hype can obscure or mask what is truly beautiful and powerful about the thing under spotlight. Behind the hype here is Whitehead working as master craftsman.
The Underground Railroad's fifteen year-old- protagonist, Cora, escapes from the Randall Plantation in Georgia. Running alongside Caesar, another fugitive from the plantation, Cora steals away to South Carolina. They ride there in a ramshackle railcar attached to a locomotive that runs through a dugout railroad tunnel several hundred feet below ground. Here, Whitehead turns the historical, figurative Underground Railroad, the surreptitious freedom routes, into a real freedom machine.
Throughout Railroad, Whitehead maintains his trademark dexterous, loose prose style while heightening its efficiency. Always adept at drawing fascinating scenes, his set pieces here come off with dazzling precision. Early in the novel, for example, when a young man named, Blake, a new slave to the Randall Plantation, tramples her prized garden and replaces it with a house for his dog, Cora understands that her response must demonstrate more than anger.
Her first blow brought down the roof of the doghouse, and a squeal for the dog, who had just had his tail half- severed . . . Her second blow wounded the left side of the doghouse gravely and her last put it out of its misery. She stood there, heaving. Both hands on the hatchet. The hatchet wavered in the air, in a tug of war with a ghost, but the girl did not falter.Cora's quick hatchet job is the opening clause of her message to Blake; she delivers the second clause with her eyes: "You may get the better of me, but it will cost you."
Cora also knows how to make her eyes inscrutable with vacancy: to be understood is to be found out, and the consequences of that are disastrous. Following James Randall's sudden death, his brother, Terrance, announces that their neighboring farms will become one plantation. Big Anthony, one of James's slaves, uses the upheaval of the transition to attempt an escape. When Big Anthony is captured, Terrance punishes him in a manner meant to shame the devil and Simon Legree.
Over two days, Big Anthony is tortured publicly. On the third day, he's "doused in oil and roasted," while Terrance's guests look on sipping spiced rum and he addresses the slaves of the newly conjoined farms. Laying out the new rules and performance quotas, Terrance moves through the group, making appraisals. When he turns to Cora, he slips his hand into her shift, cups her breast, and squeezes. In the moment, Cora doesn't move. "No one had moved since the beginning of his address, not even to pinch their noses to keep out the smell of Big Anthony's roasting flesh." In rapid succession, Cora detaches herself for the lurid spectacle, realizes "she had not been his and now she was his," and decides secretly and instantly to join Caesar, who has already approached her with a plan for escape.
With those scenes Whitehead establishes a brutal, vicious world wherein violence rises as easily as breathing. In this world, any bit of physical freedom is luxurious enough to seduce fugitives into lethargy. When Caesar and Cora arrive in South Carolina, they find themselves in a kind of parallel South, one in which they receive new names and positions with a labor and housing organization aiding runaway slaves. Life here is orderly and almost utopian by comparison to the suffering on the plantation. Offered opportunities for education, work, and money in an apparently serenely segregated new society, they come to enjoy freedom's pleasures. Of course, their confidence blinds them to potential trouble.
Cora takes a post in the Museum of Natural Wonders, performing in large-scale, live-action dioramas. The new museum displays a series of habitats illustrating critical events and scenes from American history, including "Scenes from Darkest Africa," "Life on the Slave Ship," and "Typical Day on the Plantation." In rotation with two other young women, Cora acts out these three vignettes during her workday.
One afternoon, as a group of white children examine her performance in the Ship scene, Cora returns their gaze, considering the "many inaccuracies and contradictions" in all the habitats and their effects on "the white monsters on the other side of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting."
She's reminded of a young boy on the Randall Plantation who'd been trained to recite the Declaration of Independence. Though she doesn't understand all its language, she realizes that
. . . the white men who wrote it didn't understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom. The land she tilled and worked had been Indian land . . . Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.Cora's ruminations distill a central strain in African-American literary intellectual and political thought from Harriet Tubman to James Baldwin. In Between the World and Me, Ta- Nehisi Coates offers a version of this claim in his arguments about "The Dream," the advertisement-quality American placidity that thrives on the plundering of black bodies.
Whitehead gives Cora a voracious and capacious intelligence in this novel. Her psychological self is fully intact. She notices the world and digests it critically. Cora even notices that the dioramas make her the spectacle. Though she's not roasting alive, there's violence in the doctored, dishonest history promulgated in her museum performances. Her critique is affirmed when she comes to learn more about the way the outwardly benevolent South Carolina project ultimately plans for her body. The move from plantation to industrial modernity is not, as it turns out, a journey toward a straightforwardly better world.
But Cora's problems turn out to be even more urgent: a slave catcher named Ridgeway trails her in hot pursuit. Especially skillful and philosophical about his chosen profession, Ridgeway is driven to capture Cora because years earlier, he'd been unable to find and return her mother, Mabel, to the Randall Plantation. His repeat appearances in the story bring to mind a stray character out of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, a personification of the chaos and brutality deeply embedded in American history.
When she learns that Ridgeway has arrived in the Palmetto State, Cora escapes to North Carolina, this time alone on the clandestine transport line. But North Carolina doesn't offer any comforts, only a more draconian race code and fresh spectacles of black dehumanization. During this sequence Whitehead openly improvises on Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl, tucking Cora away in an attic compartment. Through a peephole in the crawlspace, Cora watches the townspeople gather in the square for their weekly "coon show" and accompanying violence. At night, with her host, Martin, she discusses the contingent relationship between European immigration to the South and black degradation in and out of bondage. "Whether in the fields or underground or in an attic room," Whitehead writes, "America remained her warden."
Cora makes it out of the attic and finds haven in yet another state, but she must free herself twice more before the novel's end. Each of the long sequences that cover Cora's experience in a new place - - South Carolina to Indiana is marked at its opening with language from wanted posters for fugitive slaves. The rewards are for $30–$50. In lieu of riffing on advertising or pop culture, Whitehead uses these posters to remind us that it's really American capitalism chasing after Cora.
In a late passage, Whitehead's omniscient narrator notes that an endless roster of black bodies have generated America's economy:
List upon list crowded the ledger of slavery. The names gathered first on the African coast in tens of thousands of manifests. The human cargo. The names of the dead were as important as the names of the living . . . [O]n the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh.Cora, like the other slaves, runaways, and free people of color we meet throughout The Underground Railroad, is as much a product of early American consumer culture as she is a producer of the materials cotton, rice, tobacco that become consumable goods. Whitehead recognizes this irony that black people have been products within and generators of American economy as central to African-American identity.
There are moments throughout the work when Whitehead invokes in his own voice Toni Morrison's lyricism or Edward P. Jones's oracular vision for his characters' futures, perhaps just to remind us that he knows the tradition that he's extending. There are touches of Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison, too. More important, The Underground Railroad emerges from Whitehead's specific oeuvre. He's developed Cora so that her fierceness and courage are evident to readers even before she imagines her own freedom she must come to learn her own mettle through trials. In other words, Cora is the mater familias for Whitehead's protagonists: Lila Mae in The Intuitionist, J in John Henry Days, the nameless neologician in Apex Hides the Hurt, Benji in Sag Harbor, and Mark Spitz in Zone One.
Strangely, Zone One resonates throughout The Underground Railroad from Whitehead's predilection for underground railway systems to the final, riotous scenes of mayhem in both works. Taking in the North Carolina town at dusk, Cora notices that "the whites wandered the park in the growing dark." To her eyes they are ghosts "caught between two worlds: between the reality of their crimes and the hereafter denied them for those crimes." Cora's description sounds like Mark Spitz describing zombies. What if we thought of nineteenth-century Southerners who found sustenance in lynching bees as skels and stragglers, rabid, flesh-hungry zombies and those beings caught between human life and zombification, respectively?
To me, the most startling realization about The Underground Railroad is that its successful sales numbers will mean that with each purchase, Cora will be born into slavery, endure the Randall Plantation, liberate herself, endure capture, ride the subterranean railroad into ever dangerous northern spaces, witness rampant murder, and limp in pursuit of freedom all over again, ad infinitum.
Walton Muyumba is an associate professor of English at Indiana University-Bloomington. He has written for the Oxford American and the Los Angeles Review of Books and is the author of The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism.
Reviewer: Walton Muyumba
Q & A with Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad starts with a realistic depiction of slavery and goes on to feature literal underground railroads and many other ahistorical elements. What was your intent in constructing this type of blended narrative, as opposed to straight-ahead historical fiction?
The book began with the question: "What if the Underground Railroad were an actual underground railroad... and every state it traveled through a different state of American possibility?" So from its conception, it wasn't going to stick to the facts. You pick the right narrative tool for the job you want to do, and straight realism wasn't going to cut it--the "facts" couldn't accommodate the "truths" I wanted to tell.
You make direct reference to Gulliver's Travels: "The white man in the book, Gulliver, roved from peril to peril, each new island a new predicament to solve before he could return home." Except for the fact that Cora has no home, that seems to accurately describe Cora's journey from state to state--each posing its unique difficulties--over the course of the book. Did you deliberately pattern The Underground Railroad after Gulliver's Travels? If so, why?
I didn't start with Swift in mind, but it seemed if my character was going on a journey through different states/lands, the association that came to mind was, "Oh, you mean like Gulliver's Travels, Colson?" Is it also the structure of The Odysseyand Pilgrim's Progress? Maybe so. The structure of most adventure stories, a series of escapades? Most of the things Swift critiques and satirizes in his book are over my head--the religious and political scandals of Britain in the 18th century--but it was useful to keep Gulliver in my head when I was conceptualizing the book. Safe to say, there are fewer jokes in The Underground Railroad, and you're right that Cora has no home to return to between states.
There are ways that Cora's plucky but faltering escape from bondage can be seen as a metaphor for the African-American experience in the United States, post-emancipation. Cora notes: "Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits." Many Americans today don't seem to understand that the African-American struggle didn't end with emancipation. Did you intend your book as a kind of corrective?
I'm not incredibly interested in what people do or don't know about history and I'm not out to educate anyone. But American history certainly is good material for a novelist, so lucky me.
For all its many trying passages, The Underground Railroad has moments of genuine hope. In books such as The Noble Hustle, you have hardly presented yourself as an optimistic individual. As a self-proclaimed anhedonic, did you ever have to make a conscious effort to avoid the nihilism and despair that often come hand in hand with meditating on terrible crimes?
If you didn't have hope you'd die--I think that ties Zone One and The Underground Railroad together. Even if it's an unrealistic hope. How to persevere in the face of disaster? As for keeping distance from the material... the deeper I got in the research, and the more I realized what I'd have to put the characters through if I wanted to be faithful to history, the more depressed I got. It was tough to write.
You write: "Versifying left her cold. Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people's head that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world." Am I wrong in thinking that lines such as these as well as well as certain aspects of Cora's personality are autobiographical?
I don't see myself much in Cora. I like poetry, but no, I'm not much of a churchgoer, that is true. If I had to name my most autobiographical book, it'd be The Colossus of New York, strange as it sounds. Without the filter of a character or a narrative, there's a bunch of me all over that book.
Did the choice of subject matter or protagonist require a major stylistic shift on your part? Would you agree that The Underground Railroad has simpler, more accessible prose as opposed to the dense, abstract language that characterized books such as The Intuitionist? If so, what is the purpose of that change?
Again, you pick the right tool for the matter at hand. The narrator of The Intuitionist is not the same as the narrator of Sag Harbor, and neither of them is the narrator of The Underground Railroad. The voice in the book came to me more quickly than it usually does when I start a book, and seemed to fit what I was up to. Since I do change genres and subject matter a lot, finding the right voice for each new project is part of the territory.
Your book foregrounds Cora but also features a few chapters from the perspectives of other characters, including the villainous slave catcher Ridgeway. How did you go about getting into the head of a man who, among other crimes, captures runaway slaves for fun and profit?
It's my job. If you're lucky, you're animating all your characters, big and small, so that they live and breathe in a realistic fashion. You take what you know about yourself, other people, the world, and use it make your characters real on the page. And you also make stuff up and invent plausible psychologies and hope it comes together.
The Underground Railroad examines a number of deeply held ideologies regarding the American Experiment, often in conflict with each other. Do you continue to find anything inspiring about the promise of America, if you ever did?
The American idea is certainly a fine one, even if we've botched its execution. I suppose things get better by degrees. Like, I'm not property. I have two kids, so I have to believe the world will start improving at a quicker pace.
Could you speak about the character of Homer, the odd black boy who drives Ridgeway's coach and serves him loyally? He is portrayed almost as demonic--does he represent anything in particular in your mind?
Homer's gonna Homer!'
When you've written a book about race, let alone several, you must know that in interviews, author events, etc., you'll be continually asked about one of the most difficult questions in American life. Do you ever wish you could simply say what you needed to say in your novel and have that be the end of it? Touching the third rail of American discourse again and again must be exhausting.
Well, there are only so many ways to phrase an answer, so that gets exhausting, but events are always a nice way to end the day. I'm lucky to have any readers at all, let alone ones that stick with me from book to book, so when people take the time out of their busy lives to come and see you, it's really fortifying.
You have such a heterogeneous body of work--any idea what's next?
I think it's going to take place in New York City in the 1960s--and that's all I can say! Trying different kinds of stories, with their different narrative strategies and problems to solve keeps the work interesting. Figuring out what makes this genre tick, compared to another type of story--it's scary but fun.
-Q&A courtesy of Shelf Awareness
…touches on the historical novel and the slave story, but what it does with those genres is striking and imaginative…carefully built and stunningly daring; it is also, both in expected and unexpected ways, dense, substantial and important…[Whitehead] opens his eyes where the rest of us would rather look away. In this, The Underground Railroad is courageous but never gratuitous…The Underground Railroad becomes something much more interesting than a historical novel. It doesn't merely tell us about what happened; it also tells us what might have happened. Whitehead's imagination, unconstrained by stubborn facts, takes the novel to new places in the narrative of slavery, or rather to places where it actually has something new to say. If the role of the novel, as Milan Kundera argues in a beautiful essay, is to say what only the novel can say, The Underground Railroad achieves the task by small shifts in perspective: It moves a couple of feet to one side, and suddenly there are strange skyscrapers on the ground of the American South and a railroad running under it, and the novel is taking us somewhere we have never been before…The Underground Railroad is Whitehead's…attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.
"Each thing had a value... In America the quirk was that people were things." So observes Ajarry, taken from Africa as a girl in the mid-18th century to be sold and resold and sold again. She finally arrives at the vicious Georgia plantation where she dies at the book’s outset. After a lifetime in brutal, humiliating transit, Ajarry was determined to stay put in Georgia, and so is her granddaughter, Cora. That changes when Cora is raped and beaten by the plantation’s owner, and she resolves to escape. In powerful, precise prose, at once spellbinding and ferocious, the book follows Cora’s incredible journey north, step by step. In Whitehead’s rendering, the Underground Railroad of the early 19th century is a literal subterranean tunnel with tracks, trains, and conductors, ferrying runaways into darkness and, occasionally, into light. Interspersed throughout the central narrative of Cora’s flight are short chapters expanding on some of the lives of those she encounters. These include brief portraits of the slave catcher who hunts her, a doctor who examines her in South Carolina, and her mother, whose escape from the plantation when Cora was a girl has both haunted and galvanized her. Throughout the book, Cora faces unthinkable horrors, and her survival depends entirely on her resilience. The story is literature at its finest and history at its most barbaric. Would that this novel were required reading for every American citizen. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi Inc. (Sept.)
Pulitzer Prize finalist Whitehead (John Henry Days) here telescopes several centuries' worth of slavery and oppression as he puts escaped slaves Cora and Caesar on what is literally an underground railroad, using such brief magical realist touches to enhance our understanding of the African American experience. Cora, an outsider among her fellow slaves since her mother's escape from a brutal Georgia plantation, is asked by new slave Caesar to join his own escape effort. He knows a white abolitionist shopkeeper named Fletcher with connections to the Underground Railroad, and as they flee to Fletcher's house, Cora saves them from capture with an act of violence that puts them in graver danger. "Who built it?" asks Caesar wonderingly of the endless tunnel meant to carry them to freedom. "Who builds anything in this country?" replies the stationmaster, clarifying how much of America rests on work by black hands. The train delivers Cora and Caesar to a seemingly benevolent South Carolina, where they linger until learning of programs that recall the controlled sterilization and Tuskegee experiments of later years. Then it's onward, as Whitehead continues ratcheting up both imagery and tension. VERDICT A highly recommended work that raises the bar for fiction addressing slavery. [See Prepub Alert, 3/7/16.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
In his dynamic new novel, Colson Whitehead takes the Underground Railroad—the loosely interlocking network of black and white activists who helped slaves escape to freedom in the decades before the Civil War—and turns it from a metaphor into an actual train that ferries fugitives northward. The result is a potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of slavery.
What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a "dilapidated box car" along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks? For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with "real life," both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves' destiny reveal themselves. So it's back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they've not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that "freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits." Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller's deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass' grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft's rococo fantasies…and that's when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is. Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.
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Read an Excerpt
THE first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.
This was her grandmother talking. Cora’s grandmother had never seen the ocean before that bright afternoon in the port of Ouidah and the water dazzled after her time in the fort’s dungeon. The dungeon stored them until the ships arrived. Dahomeyan raiders kidnapped the men first, then returned to her village the next moon for the women and children, marching them in chains to the sea two by two. As she stared into the black doorway, Ajarry thought she’d be reunited with her father, down there in the dark. The survivors from her village told her that when her father couldn’t keep the pace of the long march, the slavers stove in his head and left his body by the trail. Her mother had died years before.
Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times on the trek to the fort, passed between slavers for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase, eighty-eight human souls for sixty crates of rum and gunpowder, the price arrived upon after the standard haggling in Coast English. Able-bodied men and child- bearing women fetched more than juveniles, making an individual accounting difficult.
The Nanny was out of Liverpool and had made two previous stops along the Gold Coast. The captain staggered his purchases, rather than find himself with cargo of singular culture and disposition. Who knew what brand of mutiny his captives might cook up if they shared a common tongue. This was the ship’s final port of call before they crossed the Atlantic. Two yellow-haired sailors rowed Ajarry out to the ship, humming. White skin like bone.
The noxious air of the hold, the gloom of confinement, and the screams of those shackled to her contrived to drive Ajarry to madness. Because of her tender age, her captors did not immedi- ately force their urges upon her, but eventually some of the more seasoned mates dragged her from the hold six weeks into the pas- sage. She twice tried to kill herself on the voyage to America, once by denying herself food and then again by drowning. The sailors stymied her both times, versed in the schemes and inclinations of chattel. Ajarry didn’t even make it to the gunwale when she tried to jump overboard. Her simpering posture and piteous aspect, recognizable from thousands of slaves before her, betrayed her intentions. Chained head to toe, head to toe, in exponential misery.
Although they had tried not to get separated at the auction in Ouidah, the rest of her family was purchased by Portuguese trad- ers from the frigate Vivilia, next seen four months later drifting ten miles off Bermuda. Plague had claimed all on board. Authori- ties lit the ship on fire and watched her crackle and sink. Cora’s grandmother knew nothing about the ship’s fate. For the rest of her life she imagined her cousins worked for kind and generous masters up north, engaged in more forgiving trades than her own, weaving or spinning, nothing in the fields. In her stories, Isay and Sidoo and the rest somehow bought their way out of bondage and lived as free men and women in the City of Pennsylvania, a place she had overheard two white men discuss once. These fantasies gave Ajarry comfort when her burdens were such to splinter her into a thousand pieces.
The next time Cora’s grandmother was sold was after a month in the pest house on Sullivan’s Island, once the physicians certified her and the rest of the Nanny’s cargo clear of illness. Another busy day on the Exchange. A big auction always drew a colorful crowd. Traders and procurers from up and down the coast converged on Charleston, checking the merchandise’s eyes and joints and spines, wary of venereal distemper and other afflictions. Onlook- ers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a lime- stone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain. Cora’s grandmother saw a little boy among the gawk- ers eating rock candy and wondered what he was putting in his mouth.
Just before sunset an agent bought her for two hundred and twenty-six dollars. She would have fetched more but for that sea- son’s glut of young girls. His suit was made of the whitest cloth she had ever seen. Rings set with colored stone flashed on his fin- gers. When he pinched her breasts to see if she was in flower, the metal was cool on her skin. She was branded, not for the first or last time, and fettered to the rest of the day’s acquisitions. The coffle began their long march south that night, staggering behind the trader’s buggy. The Nanny by that time was en route back to Liverpool, full of sugar and tobacco. There were fewer screams belowdecks.
You would have thought Cora’s grandmother cursed, so many times was she sold and swapped and resold over the next few years. Her owners came to ruin with startling frequency. Her first mas- ter got swindled by a man who sold a device that cleaned cotton twice as fast as Whitney’s gin. The diagrams were convincing, but in the end Ajarry was another asset liquidated by order of the magistrate. She went for two hundred and eighteen dollars in a hasty exchange, a drop in price occasioned by the realities of the local market. Another owner expired from dropsy, whereupon his widow held an estate sale to fund a return to her native Europe, where it was clean. Ajarry spent three months as the property of a Welshman who eventually lost her, three other slaves, and two hogs in a game of whist. And so on.
Her price fluctuated. When you are sold that many times, the world is teaching you to pay attention. She learned to quickly adjust to the new plantations, sorting the nigger breakers from the merely cruel, the layabouts from the hardworking, the inform- ers from the secret-keepers. Masters and mistresses in degrees of wickedness, estates of disparate means and ambition. Sometimes the planters wanted nothing more than to make a humble living, and then there were men and women who wanted to own the world, as if it were a matter of the proper acreage. Two hundred and forty-eight, two hundred and sixty, two hundred and seventy dollars. Wherever she went it was sugar and indigo, except for a stint folding tobacco leaves for one week before she was sold again. The trader called upon the tobacco plantation looking for slaves of breeding age, preferably with all their teeth and of pliable disposi- tion. She was a woman now. Off she went.
She knew that the white man’s scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temper- ature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as the value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America the quirk was that people were things. Best to cut your losses on an old man who won’t survive a trip across the ocean. A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth. A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money. If you were a thing—a cart or a horse or a slave—your value determined your possibilities. She minded her place.
Finally, Georgia. A representative of the Randall plantation bought her for two hundred and ninety-two dollars, in spite of the new blankness behind her eyes, which made her look simple- minded. She never drew a breath off Randall land for the rest of her life. She was home, on this island in sight of nothing.
Cora’s grandmother took a husband three times. She had a pre- dilection for broad shoulders and big hands, as did Old Randall, although the master and his slave had different sorts of labor in mind. The two plantations were well-stocked, ninety head of nig- ger on the northern half and eighty-five head on the southern half. Ajarry generally had her pick. When she didn’t, she was patient.
Her first husband developed a hankering for corn whiskey and started using his big hands to make big fists. Ajarry wasn’t sad to see him disappear down the road when they sold him to a sugar- cane estate in Florida. She next took up with one of the sweet boys from the southern half. Before he passed from cholera he liked to share stories from the Bible, his former master being more liberal- minded when it came to slaves and religion. She enjoyed the stories and parables and supposed that white men had a point: Talk of salvation could give an African ideas. Poor sons of Ham. Her last husband had his ears bored for stealing honey. The wounds gave up pus until he wasted away.
Ajarry bore five children by those men, each delivered in the same spot on the planks of the cabin, which she pointed to when they misstepped. That’s where you came from and where I’ll put you back if you don’t listen. Teach them to obey her and maybe they’ll obey all the masters to come and they will survive. Two died miserably of fever. One boy cut his foot while playing on a rusted plow, which poisoned his blood. Her youngest never woke up after a boss hit him in the head with a wooden block. One after another. At least they were never sold off, an older woman told Ajarry. Which was true—back then Randall rarely sold the little ones. You knew where and how your children would die. The child that lived past the age of ten was Cora’s mother, Mabel.
Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean. The last of her village, keeled over in the rows from a knot in her brain, blood pouring from her nose and white froth covering her lips. As if it could have been anywhere else. Liberty was reserved for other people, for the citi- zens of the City of Pennsylvania bustling a thousand miles to the north. Since the night she was kidnapped she had been appraised and reappraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale. Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible.
It was her grandmother talking that Sunday evening when Caesar approached Cora about the underground railroad, and she said no.
Three weeks later she said yes.
This time it was her mother talking.