This book was hailed as one of the best, if not the best book of 2016. When I received it as part of my first gift package to review I was very excited to see what all the hubbub was about.
I am sure that most of you have either seen, watched, or heard of the show The Walking Dead. I read the comics for a long time and watched the first two or three seasons before I just had to stop. Recently the season premiere was so graphic that even when I simply read about it I wondered at the level of self-hate and morbidity that must exist for people to still watch this show.
After reading Colson Whitehead’s novel I know. Hear me out.
A very basic read of The Walking Dead is: zombies, band of people find someplace safe except it isn’t really. They move on after damage is done. They find a new safe place. It isn’t really safe. They move on after damage is done. Rinse and repeat with some character development and plot to keep things interesting. I got bored and things were getting too gross so I checked out and stopped reading and watching.
Cora travels the Underground Railroad from Georgia to South Carolina to North Carolina through Tennessee to Indiana. At each stop there is an idea that she can relax, that sure the white people still aren’t great, but there’s a real attitude of “advancement” or maybe they are just leaving them alone and that’s good enough. The deep truth, the underlying plague is that no black person is safe and you never know which white person is spying or ready to screw up your life.
All I could think of was the constant search for safety and peace and the rinse and repeat nature of The Walking Dead, increased exponentially when you consider that it has been happening in this country for hundreds of years. You think you are safe and doing what’s expected and then you’re raped behind the main house. You’re a free black, born in the north, but then a zombie grabs you and throws you into the south, your freedom an illusion that only you believed in. Don’t rise too high, don’t be too loud or too prosperous, don’t be proud or free or alive or beautiful or smart or the zombies will hear and they will eat you alive. The only difference is that while being bitten by a zombie in The Walking Dead allows you to become a zombie and be on equal ground with your murderer, being caught by the white zombies in this country only makes slaves.
This book made me so angry. It used to be that slaves weren’t allowed to learn to read. WE STILL DO THIS through white flight and “school choice” and funding cuts and we allow students to go straight from school to jail and OMG I’M SO MAD. And the part about the Valentine farm. The local economy RELIED on this large amount of people for commerce and it didn’t even matter, they still couldn’t stomach it because god forbid black people become more prosperous than white people. Break them down, burn them down, chase them off, enslave them, criminalize them. Never celebrate, never join in community, never share in prosperity. It is completely unacceptable for blacks to get anything over on whites in this country, and it is a terrible disease bourne of slavery that, as a character in the book says, may never be swept away or cured.
I could write a book about events that are happening NOW that would totally map the same events and pressures and struggles that the characters in Whitehead’s book face. Safety always remains out of reach, schools in name only, figures gain trust only to betray it, institutions for all as long as they are white (or look white). If they can just survive until the next safe neighborhood, the next good school, the next police outreach, maybe that will be the moment blacks in America can relax. Or maybe there will be zombies in the basement and they will have to run again. Most likely there will be running and someone will die, but survival is possible if we just try to find the next safe place, right?
I am white. I recognize this privilege and I know that I will never understand what it means to be afraid for myself and my family because of my skin color. But I listen to those who are and accept those truths and I. AM. ANGRY. The Underground Railroad is an important book because it reminds me, as a white person, that white people are fucking sneaky, racist, self-serving, discriminatory assholes that should always be side-eyed. Even when we mean well, we’re being fucking racist (see Ethel in the story). The racism in America can be overt but it is largely systemic and until we realize this and begin to say it aloud and make attempts to dismantle it we will force Africans and African Americans to continue to run from the zombies and face a world where safety and relaxation are only momentary respites between running for their lives and the lives of their children. I have the privilege of turning off the show and going on with my life. Africans and African Americans in this country can’t turn it off. There is no rest for those who must again ride the rails to “freedom.”
Read this book and become enraged and inspired. Black Lives Matter here at Angry Angel Books and reading this book has only fueled my fire moving into 2017. Nothing has changed, but something must. Thank you, Mr. Whitehead. This book is a revelation.