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Book Review: Colson Whitehead, The Prophet -- and The Underground Railroad

Reviewed By Charles Bane, Jr. | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016.

Western History is an insistent narrative that follows a pat formula that remains a standardized text to this day. "Civilization" begins in ancient Greece and winds its way through the appearance of Rome. This led in turn through the artistry of the European Renaissance and continues through the gateway of the Enlightenment. An accepted voice of this phenomena was Thomas Paine, whose logic made inevitable the democratic spirit of an emerging America. Following this logic, the founding of the United States was an ideal, a culmination of historic Western thought never to be equalled.

But it is a lie, and the lie appears in its celebrations, documents and record. In the Oxford History of the American People, its author Samuel Eliot Morrison writes approvingly of an early settler:  "Such was the first William Byrd, son of a London goldsmith who reached Virginia in  1671 at the age of nineteen...Purchased the plantation named Westover, built there a mansion, a shop, and a warehouse and did very well with his tobacco crop. He imported, in his own ships, servants and all manner of goods. To the West Indies he sent provisions, grain and barrel staves, and imported thence sugar, rum and African slaves -- in one shipment 506 slaves, most of whom he sold to his neighbors. He was also a successful Indian trader...At the time of his death in 1704, he was rightly regarded as one of the first gentlemen of Virginia."

The publication of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead detonates at ground zero of the American lie ; it exposes in gripping, imaginative (some reviews describe the language as hallucinatory) prose the reality of slavery as holocaust, fueled by a racism so toxic that its effects are felt in every step towards a future that we inhabit today.

Unconsciously, Whitehead's artistic masterwork transforms him into prophet: his description of "patrollers " surrounding plantations is so harrowing and precise that we cannot help seeing in them modern day police officers like those described in a Justice Department report that described a police department where incident forms  handed to officers were blank, save for " suspect" which were pre- filled in: " Black male. "

Whitehead cannot help this; he is widely seeing and cannot turn away; the author read widely of slave narratives before beginning his tale of Cora, an indomitable soul who is determined to run away from her enslavement and reach freedom. But as the story unfolds, Cora learns that freedom is illusory and slave catchers are free to roam anywhere and everywhere and send as they please anyone -- free or no -- into bondage and lifetime suffering.

Perhaps this is the book's greatest strength: Whitehead is waiting for racism to appear at every corner of the American narrative, and his patience has produced a novel of profound truth, and what will long be recognized as a classic.      


Charles Bane, Jr. is the author of The Ascent Of Feminist Poetry. Visit his website at Charles Bane, Jr.com

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Publisher: Doubleday

Published August 2, 2016; 320 pages  

Book Review: Colson Whitehead, The Prophet -- and The Underground Railroad

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