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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Fleet, 2016, 373 p (plus an additional 16 pages extract of Colson’s first novel, none of which I read.)

 The Underground Railroad cover

Even if this was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 2017 I might not have got round to it for some while had it not also won this year’s Clarke Award (- not to mention the shadow Clarke Award.).

The main viewpoint character, Cora, is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, whose grandmother bequeathed (informally of course) to her descendants a small patch of ground in the slave quarters on which she grew scrubby vegetables. Cora’s mother ran away when she was small – the only runaway from the plantation not to be recaptured – and Cora tries to defend the patch as best she can, before she is pushed out to the Hob (a kind of depository for the less fortunate slaves.) This demonstration of the hierarchy that existed within the slave community is one of the features of Whitehead’s book. While Cora lives on the relatively benign half of the plantation this benignity is still only relative. Whitehead does not go overboard on the indignities and horrors but nevertheless portrays slave life in all its wretchedness, yet he doesn’t skirt over the harshnesses they endure nor can themselves inflict. Cora is female: no more need be said. Things change when the Randall brother in charge of her half of the estate dies and the whole plantation becomes subject to the whims of Terrance Randall. When she steps in to absorb his blows on a slave boy he becomes her implacable enemy and so she accepts the offer of male slave Caesar, who has been in contact with the Underground Railroad, to escape with him. They do not make it to the Station without mishap and in a confrontation with a group of whites Cora, in order to evade capture has to kill one of them by striking his head with a stone. This makes her even more of a target for tracking down.

At the Station they descend below the cellar and come to a tunnel along the floor of which run two parallel steel lines. Thus is the metaphor of the organisation which helped runaway slaves, and gave Whitehead his title, made literal. This literalisation is the sort of thing Science Fiction does and I suppose is what allows the book to be classified as such (or, indeed, an Altered History) and thus eligible for the Clarke. In other respects though the story the book tells does not rely on this speculative element – could have been written without this device – and so would lie outside the boundaries of the genre. The book might not have received as much attention without this presence of steel and steam, though.

The main sections are titled for the various States in which Cora finds herself, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and “The North” while shorter chapters relate aspects of the lives of Cora’s grandmother Ajarry, captured and enslaved in Africa; slave-catcher Ridgeway; an anatomist and “resurrectionist” called Stevens; Ethel, the wife of one of the Railroad’s agents; Cora’s escape companion Caesar; and the ironical fate of Cora’s mother.

Cora ponders the US Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident truth” that, “All men are created equal,” with the thought “unless we decide you are not a man.”

Set in the time and place it is there are of course frequent uses of the “n” word, which therefore appears in full in some later quotes here.

It is not just slave-catchers – and Ridgeway in particular – that Cora has to be wary of. In South Carolina she and Caesar find the authorities are collecting data about and performing medical procedures on the “coloured” – controlled sterilisation, research into communicable diseases by pretending to give treatment but really allowing the disease to run rampant, perfection of new surgical techniques on the socially unfit – to protect “our women and daughters from their (the coloureds’) violent jungle urges” which was understood “to be a particular fear of southern white men.”

Whitehead tells us, “The ruthless engine of cotton required its fuel of African bodies. More slaves led to more cotton.” But more slaves represented a problem. “Even with the termination of the slave trade, in less than a generation the numbers were untenable: all those niggers.” North Carolina’s response was to advertise for Europeans to be indentured for a while to pick the cotton. “In effect they abolished slavery. On the contrary, Oney Garrison said in response. We abolished niggers.” Coloured men and women were banned from North Carolina soil on pain of death. Bodies of those unable to flee lined the so-called Freedom Trail for mile upon mile.

The resurrectionist anatomist reflects on the irony that, “when his classmates put their blades to a coloured cadaver, they did more for the cause of coloured advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”

About the excesses of his fellow slave patrollers Ridgeway ruminates, “In another country they would have been criminals. But this was America.” And later, that justification of acquisition, “If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now. Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property. slave, or continent. The American imperative.” Later he tells Cora about the country they are travelling through after she is captured, “Settlers needed the land, and if the Indians hadn’t learned by then that the white man’s treaties were entirely worthless, Ridgeway said, they deserved what they got.” Ridgeway describes the American spirit, “to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription – the American imperative.”

Cora is freed from Ridgeway’s clutches and finds a temporary refuge in Indiana where a black speaker orates, “‘Who told you the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life’s suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history it can’t exist. This place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are. And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

On her first journey underground Cora was told, “If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” But, “It was a joke then from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.”

All nations have their darker shadows. Slavery is the USA’s original (and in the form to which it evolved, racism, its besetting) sin. Whitehead shows how the patterns it produced were engrained, embedded by the “Peculiar Institution”. The Underground Railroad is extremely well-written, its characters far more than ciphers or types – and Whitehead gives due consideration to the views of the slave-holders – but the tale it tells seems, sadly, to be as relevant today as the organisation it was named for was all those years ago.

Pedant’s corner: a pile of ball and chains (balls and chains,) “The doctors were stealing her babies from her, not her former masters” (is ambiguous. “The doctors, and not her former masters, were stealing her babies from her,” would make it clearer,) forbid (forbade, x 3,) “Every town … held their Friday Festival” (its Friday Festival,) hung (hanged,) “the fire had eliminated the differences in their skin” (in their skins,) laying (lying,) “The two rifles turned to him” (on the previous page it had been “his pistol” and “A second man held a rifle,” so not two rifles then.)

The Black Jacobins by C L R James

Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution

Allison & Busby, 1984, 426 p including 11 p Bibliography and 28 p Appendix plus i p Map of San Domingo, i p Contents, iii p Foreword and iii p Preface to the First Edition. First published in 1938.

 The Black Jacobins cover

C L R James was a Trinidadian historian and journalist whose book on cricket has been described by none other than John Arlott as the finest book written on the game. He was also a Marxist which if you didn’t already know could be divined here from the frequent use of the word bourgeoisie and many mentions of class. Note also, “The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.”

The San Domingo Revolution was the only successful slave revolt in history. It eventually led to the establishment of the state of Haiti. Toussaint L’Ouverture, who changed his name from Toussaint Bréda when he joined the revolt, was its undoubted hero. James says however that “Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint.”

San Domingo was a prodigious source of wealth for its white sugar planters and the merchants back in France who traded its product; wealth built on the backs of the slave workers imported from Africa, a slave trade which James says had turned Central Africa from peace and happy civilisation to violence and ferocity, the product of an intolerable pressure on the African peoples. Of those who dispute that statement we have, “Men will say (and accept) anything in order to foster national pride or soothe a troubled conscience.”

Before the revolt San Domingo was riven by differences; between the planters and the bureacracy, big whites, small whites, Mulattoes, blacks. (For some reason I couldn’t fathom James always capitalises the word Mulattoes.) For the small white with not much in the way of property, “race prejudice was more important than even the possession of slaves. The distinction between a white man and a man of colour was for them fundamental.” An illustration of the central importance of colour to San Domingan life was that, “They divided the offspring of white and black and intermediate shades into 128 divisions. The true Mulatto was the child of pure white and pure black, a quarteron was the child of a Mulatto woman and a white man. This went all the way down to the sang-mêlé of 127 parts white and one part black but who was still a person of colour. These distinctions exemplify “the justification of plunder by any obvious differentiation to those holding power.” I note here that James describes pure blacks as negroes. I suppose the usage was common in the 1930s when he was writing but it strikes an odd note now.

Free Mulattoes were able to save, to own property and eventually to lend money. Their threat was such that, “white San Domingo passed a series of laws which for maniacal savagery are unique in the modern world.” But the Mulattoes were too numerous and the colonists had to be satisfied with humiliations such as restrictions on dress, meetings, travel, and so on. Black slaves and Mulattoes hated each other, and those who were more white despised people with blacker ancestry. This internalisation of racial prejudice was still prevalent in the Jamaica of James’s present.

In 1789 San Domingo accounted for 11 of the 17 million pounds of France’s export trade. The beginning of British efforts to abolish slavery was an attempt to undermine this economic powerhouse. “The slave trade and slavery were the economic basis of the French Revolution.” The fortunes made, “gave to the bourgeoisie that pride which needed liberty and contributed to emancipation.” But then came the French Revolution and the ideals of liberté, egalité and fraternité, which took root in the fertile ground of the plantations.

When the uprising finally came James says that the slaves in their vengefulness were surprisingly moderate, far more humane than their masters had been, not maintaining it for long – unlike the systematic and enduring abuse the slaves had suffered. Toussaint himself established early a “great reputation for humanity, a very singular thing in the San Domingo of those days.” The crucial event for the sustenance of the revolt was the abolition of slavery by the Constituent Assembly in Paris, a reason for the slaves to cleave to revolutionary ideals thereafter.

Britain then promptly rowed back on the abolition of slavery and attempted to take over San Domingo. Under Toussaint the former slaves inflicted on Britain “the severest defeat that has befallen a British expeditionary force between the days of Elizabeth and the Great War.” The British lost more men in actual deaths than Wellington did to all causes in the entire Peninsular War, “‘her arm for six fateful years fettered and paralysed.'” Held by Toussaint and his raw levies Britain could not attack the revolution in France.

James has an undiluted admiration for Toussaint (along with Nelson and Napoleon one of the three outstanding personalities of the times) though admits his one fatal flaw. His allegiance to the French Revolution made him what he was; but in the end this ruined him. “His desire to avoid destruction was the very thing that caused it. It is the recurring error of moderates when face to face with a revolutionary struggle.”

The rise of Napoleon is seen by James as the bourgeoisie reasserting itself. Under Bonaparte it was the French intention to restore slavery on the island and their actually doing so in Guadeloupe that led to Haiti’s final independence. Toussaint’s blind spot had seen him acquiesce to the new French Governor, eventual imprisonment, transportation to, and eventual death in, France. It was Toussaint’s more ruthless deputy Dessalines who came to see independence was the revolt’s only hope.

James keeps describing the slaves and their culture as primitive (as he also characterises those of Africa.) Is this as a result of his Marxist view of history and its laws? He notes that slaves brought from Africa were compelled to master European languages, “highly complex products of centuries of civilisation.” There was therefore “a gap between the rudimentary conditions of the life of the slave and the language he used.” (Note also that inclusive – exclusive? – “he”.) It seems to me these sentiments are profoundly condescending – to African and slave alike.

Everything in the book is seen through the prism of Marxism, an approach which seems almost quaint these days as does James’s conclusion that salvation for the West Indies lies in Africa.

Aside:- For a fictional treatment of the slave revolution I would recommend the excellent All Souls’ Rising by Madison Smartt Bell. Having looked that up I discover Bell has published two subsequent books on the subject.

Pedant’s corner:- “All the slaves, however, did not undergo this régime.” (Not all the slaves underwent this régime,) “All of them did not submit to it.” (Not all of them submitted to it,) illtreatment (more usually it’s ill-treatment,) knit (knitted,) “adventurers seeking adventure,” (well, yes,) “72 million pounds’ weight of raw sugar and 51 million pounds of white,” (either use the apostrophe or not, don’t mix them,) the the, “both Hyacinth and another men” (man,) Francois’ (Francois’s,) Laveaux’ (Laveaux’s,) understod (understood,) acutal (actual,) Dessalines’ (Dessalines’s.) “It is a typical example of the cloud of lies which obscure the true history” (the cloud of lies which obscures,) “to neglect the race factor as merely incidental as an error only less grave than to make it fundamental” (as merely incidental is an error,) Maurepas’ (Maurepas’s,) Capois’ (Capois’s,) strewed (strewn,) Clairveaux’ (Clairveaux’s,) wirter (writer,) indpendent (independent,) a missing parenthetical end-comma, tonelle (tonnelle?)

Kindred by Octavia E Butler

headline, 2014, 320 p. First published 1979.

Kindred cover

The novel is narrated by Dana Franklin, a black woman who lives in California in 1976 with her white husband, Kevin. One day she has a dizzy spell and comes to herself in a strange environment and just in time to save a young white boy, Rufus, from drowning. Threatened with a gun by the boy’s father, in fear of death, she is as suddenly returned to her 1976 home. She barely has time to wash herself before suffering another dizzy spell and is thrown back again to Rufus’s bedroom, where she puts out a fire. Rufus is older. His speech leads her to question him and she discovers she is in Maryland in 1815 or so, on a slave plantation and works out Rufus is her ancestor, yet to beget her great grandmother. There is no mechanism given for Dana’s ability to travel in time, it just happens. The only connection seems to be the genetic one. This makes this aspect of the novel fantasy rather than Science Fiction.

There are several more instances of journeys back and forth through time, on one occasion Dana is accompanied by Kevin as he is holding on to her at the time. They are separated when Dana is drawn back home after being whipped for teaching a slave to read. On her next return they meet up again but Kevin has spent five years in the past while only days have passed for Dana.

The set-up allows Butler the opportunity to portray the life of slaves and the attitudes of slaveholders in some detail. Quite how close that is to the real experience is a good question. Words on a page cannot truly convey the experience of being whipped, for example. The whole truth may well have been too incompatible with readability though, a delicate balance for the author to achieve. The compromises and accommodations the slaves have to make simply to survive, the jealousies, hierarchies and resentments among them are well delineated though.

The book of course is a commentary on how the past history of the US still has resonance – even now, almost forty years after the book was first published – the victimisation of women, sexual dynamics, and race as a construct.

Butler’s characterisation is excellent but the episodic nature of Dana’s encounters with Rufus – she is only drawn back to his time when his life is in danger – means his development into a typical slave-holder is also disjointed. His attraction to Alice Greenwood is problematic, though. While it is necessary for the story to work logically his initial scruples over forcing himself on her (even after her enslavement) seem a touch unlikely.

History is a complicated web. Family history perhaps more so. Butler reminds us that in the US it is also contentious.

Pedant’s corner:- apart from being written in USian there were – remarkably – only two things I noted: insure (ensure; do USians employ insure in this sense?) hung (hanged; but it was in dialogue.)

Reelin’ In the Years 79: Sail Away

Who says USians can’t do irony – or satire?

Randy Newman certainly can. Biting sharp lyrics against jaunty or haunting tunes.

Has anyone ever made an invitation to enter into slavery more beautiful?

Randy Newman: Sail Away

Joseph Knight by James Robertson

Fourth Estate, 2004. 372p

Joseph Knight cover

Based on a legal case brought in the eighteenth century, celebrated at the time but soon forgotten, this novel pushes a fair number of Scottish buttons, with settings from Drumossie Moor, 1746, (Culloden) to the Perthshire of 1802, taking in Dundee, Edinburgh and the Scottish Enlightenment – complete with cameo appearances from Boswell and Johnson – before ending up in Wemyss, Fife, in 1803. It also ranges all the way to the Jamaican sugar plantations and back.

Though we don’t hear from or see him (except for two words of dialogue or in the pages of a notebook) until nearly halfway through, and then only incidentally till the last section, the character of Joseph Knight hangs over the book – almost like a ghost.

The tale is carried to fruition by Archibald Jamieson, who is engaged by Sir John Wedderburn, sometime Jacobite rebel and refugee from Culloden, later sugar planter and bogus doctor in Jamaica, long returned to Scotland a wealthy man and now owner of Ballindean Estate, to ascertain the whereabouts, or remaining earthly existence, of Joseph Knight, once Sir John’s personal possession (brought to Scotland as a marker of success) but who petitioned the Scottish courts in the 1770s to attain his freedom. Jamieson learns of the Jamaican episodes via a journal given to him by Sir John’s daughter but written by her long deceased uncle during his sojourn on the island. Despite at first finding no trace of him and assuming him dead, Jamieson nevertheless becomes fascinated by Knight.

The book is structured in four sections, two much shorter book-ending the longer middle pair: Wedderburn, where Sir John ruminates over his life from the windows of Ballindean with its fine views over the policies down to the River Tay; Darkness, mostly concerned with the life Wedderburn and his brothers led in Jamaica; Enlightenment, wherein the court case on which the book depends is led up to and described; and Knight, a somewhat melancholic coda.

The narrative is multi-stranded with various viewpoint characters in each section, all of whom are portrayed in their roundnesses. If anyone needs a demonstration of how to carry this off Joseph Knight is the perfect example.

There is a peculiarity. Robertson has his characters use the word “neger” to describe black slaves (and freemen.) Perhaps that is indeed how the n-word was pronounced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but it still seemed a trifle odd, as if he was somehow afraid to outrage modern day readers.

Dealing as it does with those novelistic biggies life and death, plus freedom, servitude and the peculiar institution of slavery – but not so much with sex – it’s not surprising that Joseph Knight garnered such praise; not to mention the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award. It does, however, lose focus a little in the two long sections. In particular the scenes involving Boswell were not entirely necessary.

The characterisation is superb, however; all the people portrayed, even minor characters, seem idiosyncratic living, breathing beings and Robertson’s ability to inhabit the minds of his centuries-gone agonists sympathetically is striking. The only exception to this is Knight himself, who remains a shadowy figure.

But even this is appropriate. It is his absence from the main lives depicted here, the void he left, that they circle around.

This is a fine book: perhaps not so good as Robertson’s first, The Fanatic, but certainly surpassing his later the testament of Gideon Mack.

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