The Underground Railroad. Colson Whitehead. Doubleday, 2016. 306 pp. $26.95 hardcover; ebook $13.99.
The tragedies of slavery have long been represented in literature. Colson Whitehead’s newest novel, The Underground Railroad, adds a twist to the tradition. It has gained recognition as an Oprah’s Book Club pick and the winner of this year’s National Book Award. Whitehead, known for such brazen novels as Zone One and John Henry Days, continues his bold and evocative writing in this tale of faith and violence. This time, he gives the titular “underground railroad” of history, which was a secret route of passages and safe houses to transport runaway slaves, a literal makeover. His railway is an actual railway, hidden in secret tunnels underground.
The Underground Railroad is an attempt by Whitehead to shed more light on a subject that has long haunted American soil. This is especially relevant in light of the recent law enforcement injustice in the United States. With cases like Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and many others popping up across this country, Whitehead’s novel is a timely look back at the injustices faced by slaves throughout the 19th century. America’s controversial past, while the central plot of this novel, gives rise to the modern problems of race in America that we know today. Whitehead’s novel feels like a history lesson in the most harrowing and depraved parts of our past, and by examining this past, we can better understand the present racial injustice in our society.
The novel’s protagonist, Cora, is a young, Georgia plantation slave who refuses to back down with her slave masters. After standing up for a young slave boy in front of her two owners, Cora is persuaded by Caesar, a young male slave, to run away with him. What follows is a heartbreaking, heroic, and often violent journey to escape the slave catchers of the South. The narration is often choppy, and for good reason—-Cora is constantly moving from hiding place to hiding place. Her point of view during the novel is defiant, yet tender. She is a brave soul in a cruel world. Whitehead takes plenty of inspiration from popular slave narratives of the 19th century. There are hints of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in his writing, from the dialogue of the slaves, to the cramped hiding spaces in an attic. His writing is an unflinching look at the reality of slaves on the run, even though this book is fiction. At some points on Cora’s journey, the violence is stomach-churning and sadistic. Beloved characters are easily killed and the story keeps going, as if the character never existed. That is definitely one of the most jarring aspects to Whitehead’s novel—the violence becomes second nature, and at some point during the story, you’re jolted back to reality and reminded, “These things really happened.” But that isn’t all that The Underground Railroad accomplishes through its powerful storytelling.
This novel also gives a more detailed look at the personalities and lives of slave catchers, which is something that history tends to shy away from. Whitehead focuses less on the slave owners and more on the people hired to catch runaway slaves. These slavecatchers were hired by plantation owners to track down runaway slaves, and these catchers resorted to some of the most sadistic and brutal methods to capturing them. Since the slaves were purely property, these catchers treated them with no dignity or respect. Most slaves were violated in some way by these despicable catchers. Ridgeway, the sadistic and sinister catcher in this story, is an unapologetic villain. He represents the South and everything that was wrong with it during this time period. One could also argue that Whitehead uses him as a way to parallel the police brutality of the 21st century. Ridgeway is the original cop, and his hatred of blacks is the historical background the African-American distrust of law enforcement. His sections of the book are gut-wrenching, and stick with you long after the book is finished.
Whitehead, a Harvard-educated writer who has won the MacArthur fellowship, has a knack for writing about a variety of subjects and making them stand out. He has previously written books about John Henry, a post-apocalyptic future, and even the World Series of Poker. While an immensely talented writer, The Underground Railroad is his first worldwide hit. I believe the racial climate in this country has a lot to do with that success. Black Lives Matter protests are encouraging black citizens to stand together and be heard. A Donald Trump presidency has added even more fuel to the fire. When Oprah made his book an official Book Club pick, however, is when this book began to gain a lot of traction.
Whitehead’s book is a challenge to everyone to examine the tragic history of America and attempt to move forward. Cora’s perseverance, despite the odds being against her, are extremely relevant in modern day America. Whitehead’s unapologetic writing is exactly what America needs during these times of racial injustice. It forces a conversation about race in America, and asks readers to question the history of this country.
Without giving too much away, I must add that the ending is an untidy thing of beauty. His story and its lessons are not tied up in a neat bow at the end. This, of course, is definitely a metaphor for race relations in this country. History itself cannot be tied up neatly and it is uncomfortable to talk about. Whitehead’s writing is, at times, hard to read because of the violence and brutality of his characters. At one point in his novel, a young slave girl who attempted to run away, is strung up by a giant metal hook through the stomach. Passages like these are difficult to swallow, but pushing through is an accomplishment in itself. We must force ourselves to look at the dark deeds of America’s early history to be able to beat racism in the present time. As we put ourselves in Cora’s shoes, we can empathize and relate to her struggles. Colson’s prose is choppy and reads like the inner monologue of a slave on the run. We are scared when she’s scared, and we are triumphant when she succeeds.
Overall, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is an amazing work of fiction based on the horrendous history of racism in the United States. The most important aspect of this book is its situation in America’s racial timeline. Whitehead’s book comes at a crucial time in America’s race relations and the protests over racial injustices in law enforcement. It is more important now than ever that Americans look to our history in an effort to understand our present. The Underground Railroad is that perspective—the right book at the right time.
~Lee Hall, EN 464, Fall 2016
Salvage the Bones. Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury, 2011. 261 pp. $16.00 paperback.
Salvage the Bones is the powerful story about an underprivileged black family’s struggle to survive rural Mississippi in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 National Award winning fiction novel is painful, inspiring, violent, and sweet, all at once. The Batiste family lives on several acres of rural land, called the Pit, covered by rusted scrap-metal, broken down vehicles, old appliances, and chickens that roam free. For the story’s fifteen-year-old narrator, Esch, dogfighting, sexual abuse, poverty, and an unwanted pregnancy are facts of every-day life. Esch’s mother died giving birth to Junior, the youngest of four children, and her father spends his time working odd jobs, toying with broken down vehicles, and drinking to mask the pain from losing his wife. Although Salvage the Bones is a fiction novel, the story is not too distant from Ward’s history with her brother, growing up poor and black in the Gulf of Mississippi.
Siblings Randall, Esch, Skeetah, and Junior must raise themselves in a collapsing house, “a drying animal skeleton, everything inside that was evidence of living salvaged over the years” (Ward 96). The children’s dirty sheets make them itch and they ration their food, eating mostly top ramen, eggs, or stolen bread. Esch and her oldest brothers, Randall and Skeetah, are constantly together, swimming in the muddy waters at the bottom of the Pit or watching dog fights. Junior, who has never known the touch of his mother, spends his time digging underneath the house or close by the sides of his siblings. Randall hopes to go to college on a basketball scholarship, and Skeetah obsesses over his Pitbull, China, and her new litter of puppies that Skeetah hopes to sale for eight hundred dollars.
Unlike her brothers, Esch doesn’t have much going for her. She says, “the only thing that’s ever been easy for me to do, like swimming through water, was sex when I started having it. I was twelve…and it was easier to let him keep on touching me than ask him to stop, easier to let him inside than push him away, easier than hearing him ask me, Why not?” (Ward 40). Manny, the boy Esch loves and the father of her unborn baby, doesn’t love her back. Not afforded the privilege to care for a baby, Esch hides her secret and tries to terminate her pregnancy.
Jesmyn Ward grew up in the coastal town of De Lisle, Mississippi, and with her family, she survived the devastations of Hurricane Katrina. Ward says, “I lived through it. It was terrifying and I needed to write about that. I was also angry at the people who blamed survivors for staying and for choosing to return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast after the storm. I wrote about the storm because I was dissatisfied with the way it had receded from public consciousness” (Hoover).
Ward has dedicated much of her life writing on the topics of poverty, sexism, racism, classism, and social justice. In Salvage the Bones, whites and blacks are divided by class and by geographical location. The Batiste children live in Bois Sauvage, “the black Bois,” and can only dream about life in the “white Bois… spread out and upcountry, past churches and one-room stores selling cigarettes and hot fries, chips and cold drinks in glass bottles and penny candy, the kind of stores that have one gas tank out front with the writing scratched off” (Ward 116). Instead, the Batiste children steal medicine from their rich, white neighbors to give to China for her survival and for the children to have much-needed income. The Batiste children must also salvage nearly everything they own including the most basic necessities: food, clothing, and shelter.
It’s impossible to not want Esch to succeed at the end of the story. In many ways, she is very much a typical teenage girl: dreamy, lustful, and with desire to be loved; however, her passion, intuitiveness, grit, and sensitivity set Esch apart from other girls into a league of her own. Esch also bears the burdens of sexual assault, poverty, and the death of her mother without complaint. If anything can break Esch, it’s the fact that she is pregnant, and like many other teenagers living in poverty, Esch cannot afford to welcome her pregnancy. Manny, the baby’s father, refuses to claim the child, so if anything, Esch’s pregnancy is something that makes her want to hide. To make sense of the world in which she lives, Esch escapes into a world of mythology, comparing herself and her situation to Madea, an enchantress who kills her children to punish her husband. Ward says, “Madea is in Hurricane Katrina because her power to unmake worlds, to manipulate the elements, closely aligns with the storm. And she’s in Esch, too, because Esch understands her vulnerability, Medea’s tender heart, and responds to it” (Hoover).
While Salvage the Bones is provocative, it is also magnetic, bringing to front and center the issues faced by underprivileged communities. Poverty, unwanted teenage pregnancies, drugs, alcoholism, and sexual abuse, are consequences of systemic racism and facts of life for many minority families. Ward says, “The stories I write are particular to my community and my people, which means the details are particular to our circumstances, but the larger story of the survivor, the savage, is essentially a universal, human one” (Hoover). Ward brings that familiar story of survival to life, and at moments, it feels as if Esch could jump from the pages. But it is that realness—although tough— that makes this story a critical one to be shared with those inspired by human resilience.
~Laura Wood, EN 464, Fall 2016
Work cited: Hoover, Elizabeth. “Jesmyn Ward on Salvage the Bones.” The Paris Review. 30 August 2011. web. 21 November 2016. <http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/ 08/30/jesmyn-ward-on-salvage-the-bones/>
Brown Girl Dreaming. Jaqueline Woodson. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014. 336 pp. $16.99 paperback.
Brown Girl Dreaming is a young adult memoir consisting primarily of poems about the life of African-American author Jacqueline Woodson. The construction of the memoir documents the trials and tribulations of her young life and the adversity that she has overcome throughout her journey of life. Woodson’s point-of-view in the story begins from the moment she is born through retellings of her adolescence, and peaks during her development as a teenager living in the climatic and passionate social movements that were taking place in the 1960’s. Throughout the memoir, Jaqueline Woodson uses both verse and prose poetry to express themes in her youth that molded her into the famous author that she is today.
Racial climate is a significant and intriguing subject that this memoir productively fleshes out. Given that its genre is young adult nonfiction, Woodson entwines a creative technique by finding common, relatable ground between her life and society through the eyes of her younger self. Using that writing concept to her advantage by speaking to a larger audience, it contrasts her life beautifully in comparison to the emerging desegregation laws unfolding around her throughout South Carolina and the United States. For example, Woodson and her grandfather experience a racial confrontation with a deliberately unresponsive candy shop owner, yet she is too young to understand why the owner acts this way. By using a simple, lighthearted, and child-like setting, Woodson combines the event with symbolic irony by relating her setting to the racial wars that are beginning to occur in South Carolina. The purpose of this situation inevitably adds context that even young children were vulnerable to cultural hatred, and despite their age, they were more than aware of what was occurring. “In the stores downtown we’re always followed around because we are brown,” Woodson documents early in the memoir (pg. 82). Woodson also references the surge of rioting, marches, and the Black Panther movement as a result of discrimination throughout the 60’s. Woodson uses childlike naiveté in the poetry, which requires the reader to analyze her writing with a sophisticated mentality to grasp the exposure of outrageous racial boundaries and prejudices.
Woodson also does an excellent job of exploring the struggles of childhood by using examples from her own life. Through the personal narration of her artistic poems, she often feels insecure in her younger years and condemns herself for the color of her skin. Her insecurity predominantly stems from her inability to change the situations occurring in her life. Woodson is forced to move from Ohio, to South Carolina with her grandparents, to New York with her self-seeking mother, and back to South Carolina. These contrasting settings expose her to different aspects of reality in the 1960’s. Woodson is able to experience a life of responsibility and structure while living under the roof of her grandmother and grandfather in South Carolina, and she is stunned at the unprejudiced and easygoing atmosphere of New York. Halfway through the novel while she is living in South Carolina, Woodson is no longer allowed to play with the white child across the street. She is bewildered by this idea, but she points out that these sort of attitudes are scarce in the melting pot atmosphere of New York.
Family and maturation are also a key concept that Woodson explores thoroughly. Her grandparents were polar opposites, saying that her grandfather took pride in his grandchildren by taking the time to enunciate each of their names, as opposed to her grandmother who compiles their names together halfheartedly because she does not care to remember them. Several poems introduce her parent’s relationship by exposing their arguments and resentment. As a result of the toxic relationship, her father is non-existent in her life and that creates an inescapable void. Woodson alludes to her mother’s wandering soul, constantly looking for a new place to call home for her family, such as New York. It affected Woodson heavily because her mother was dreaming of a better life elsewhere instead of embracing the family that she had in front of her. Her family, including her siblings, clearly affects her mentally as she began to find maturity within herself. For a reader, this is a unique feature of the memoir because it is a theme that it prevalent in almost all young adult literature, but it also originates from a genuine place in Woodson’s heart.
Overall, Woodson’s memoir serves as a platform for optimism. Despite the personal and societal hardships that she endures, youthful exuberance continues to radiate in her views of life. Woodson impressively uses a positive outlook in respects to adolescence insecurity when she has to deal with exposure that put children at unease: new schools, students, and teachers. She is praised in the classroom for her poems, which led her to find the courage to pursue a career in writing. She combines her own personal struggles of race to society, yet always exhibits an assurance that positivity outshines the hatred. Woodson writes, “I believe in one day and someday and this perfect moment called Now (pg. 318).” In a world where she often feels small, collections of poetry like Brown Girl Dreaming gives Jacqueline Woodson the power to be seen.
~Alex Rickard, EN 464, Fall 2016
Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Gloria Anzaldúa. Edited by Joan Pinkvoss, 4th Edition. Aunt Lute Books, 1987. pp. 284. $22.95. Paperback.
La frontera, the US/Mexico border, serves as a symbol of the divisiveness between Mexicans and Americans. In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Anzaldúa refers to the border as “una herida abierta” (an open wound). The border is not only a physical barrier dividing the United States from Mexico, but also a barrier that hinders any path to understanding among Mexicans and Americans. As a result, Mexican-Americans are encouraged to choose one culture or the other. Chicano/as (Mexican-Americans) living in America are encouraged to be American and lose touch with their Mexican culture, or struggle to adapt to an American culture that disapproves of the Mexican values and beliefs that they embody. Therefore, differences between Mexican and American culture create yet another border. As a result, Chicano/as are stuck in the middle of tensions that arise from both sides. The term Mexican-American is divided into two different terms, American or Mexican, similar to the border that divides the two countries. This ultimately leaves Chicanos and Chicanas struggling to adapt in an American society and hinders their ability to find their identity. Moreover, due to racial tensions arising from the recent presidential race, many Mexicans and Americans have been pitted against one another, resulting in a difficult situation for Chicanos and Chicanas. Mexicans face labels and dehumanization because they are misunderstood. While concerns for a secure border are appropriate; the current misinterpretation of Hispanics in the media as “criminals” only further divides and pushes away any hope of solidarity between Mexicans and Americans.
The first section of Borderlands is in prose, both in the English and Spanish language. Anzaldúa translates some of her Spanish works and words, but there are times when she does not translate. Anzaldúa’s intentional stray from translation is representative of her rejection of assimilation. By not translating every work, sentence, or word, she embraces her identity. She does not only speak one language; she speaks two. It is up to the audience to be receptive to the material or turn away and refuse, which will only increase the gap of understanding.
In How to Tame A Wild Tongue, Anzaldúa reflects on Americans’ rejection of the Spanish language and her Mexican mother’s rejection of her Spanish accent when she spoke English as a child. How to Tame A Wild Tongue captures our American obsession with assimilation. Anzaldúa dwells on an instance when an American told her “if you want to be American speak ‘American’. If you don’t like it go back to Mexico” (Anzaldúa 75). This obsession with assimilation only leads to a greater struggle among Mexican-Americans to embrace their Mexican cultural heritage.
La frontera is not just geographical; it is also historical, political, and ideological. Anzaldúa discusses the historic tensions between America and Mexico throughout her first chapter. She summarizes the events of the Alamo to the Mexican-American War. She suggests that “Tejanos (native Texans of Mexican descent) lost their land and, overnight, became the foreigners” and that “The Gringo, (white man) locked into the fiction of white superiority, seized complete political power, stripping Indians and Mexicans of their land while their feet were still rooted in it” (Anzaldúa 28).
Many Americans struggle to take accountability for their mistreatment of African Americans throughout history, and even today with the rejection of the Black Lives Matter movement, which leads to a limited vision of racism more genuinely as well. As a result, Chicano and Chicana issues are not as readily included in racial discussions or curriculum meant to reach a level of understanding in embracing cultural differences in America, to the extent that African American issues are discussed and included. Mexican culture has already made its way to the United States and will continue at a steady pace. According to the US Census Bureau, “The Hispanic population is projected to increase from 55 million in 2014 to 119 million in 2060, an increase of 115 percent. In 2014, Hispanics are projected to account for 17 percent of the U.S. population. By 2060, 29 percent of the United States is projected to be Hispanic—more than one-quarter of the total population.”
Source: Colby, Sandra L. and Jennifer M. Ortman, Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060, Current Population Reports, P25-1143, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2014
It is only appropriate to begin focusing on the combination of cultures (Mexican and American) that, Anzaldúa argues, will inevitably take place. The two cultures will no longer divide at the border but will combine into a new mixed identity. Anzaldúa describes this combined identity as “the coming together of two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference” which causes “un choque, a cultural collision” (Anzaldúa 100).
A solution to this “habitual incompatibility” is to introduce more multicultural curriculum into American classrooms that focus on Chicano/a issues, which will ultimately bridge the gap of misunderstandings and differences among Mexicans and Americans. Anzaldúa addresses many issues concerning the identity of Chicanos and Chicanas in her work, Borderlands. Anzaldúa is an inspiration to Chicano/as struggling to adapt to an American society and courageously paves a way to a new identity that is not labeled to Chicano/as prior to their existence. Anzaldúa broke from the “social norm” that American and Mexican culture tried to box her into and developed her own identity. She encourages others that are experiencing the same struggle with identity to do the same. Anzaldúa’s purpose is to encourage a stray and acceptance of certain aspects of American and Mexican culture, depending on the identity that Chicano/as desire to attain.
Throughout Borderlands, Anzaldúa displays the struggle of Chicano/a identity front and center of her work. Anzaldúa’s words do not only serve as an explanation of an ongoing struggle, but they are beautiful and powerful tools of motivation that provoke a great sense of awakening. During an interview with Anzaldúa in the last section of Borderlands, she reveals that she was angry when she composed the book; however, her state and accumulation of anger brings various emotions off the page and into the hearts of other Chicano/as struggling with identity.
Overall, Anzaldúa yearns for differences, in terms of race, culture (Mexican and American), sexuality, and gender, to be embraced and accepted. Anzaldúa is not only a voice for Chicano/as, but also a voice for every walk of life living in America, that feels alien and unwanted in their own homeland. Borderlands is her way of not only bringing awareness to social justice issues, but also crying out for change. Gloria’s raw and vivid poetry covers issues of immigration, sexism, racism, and sexuality. Anzaldúa does not sugarcoat her poetry in order to make it easier for an audience to read. She wants others to read and feel the severe reality of issues depicted in her work. She is not writing to move people to tears. She is writing and expressing her concerns to push everyone to an act of acceptance, equality, and understanding. Anzaldúa’s yearning for a world “sin fronteras” (without borders) is still appropriate today.
~Ashley Garcia, EN 464, Fall 2016