Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was one of 2016’s most decorated novels. It follows a few storylines, but the primary focus is on Cora, a runaway slave fleeing for a better life north of Georgia. Hers is not a direct path, and as readers, we follow Cora through myriad situations that African Americans experienced in pre-Civil war America.
Listening to the book was too visceral of an experience. I needed the distance of reading. Truly, just listen to this passage read by Bahni Turpin. Cora’s pain and the pain of others is illuminated so brilliantly that Turpin’s voice became too painful to hear. It was as if she were speaking directly to me. Halfway through, I stopped listening and bought the book.
The following passage, on page 168, struck me the most. Cora is in hiding in North Carolina, living in a white couple’s attic. She has a conversation with Martin, the husband, an abolitionist who continues his father’s legacy. Martin’s wife, Ethel, is a reluctant participant, and he is trying to explain his wife’s position to Cora:
Once again, Martin apologized for his wife’s behavior. “You understand she’s scared
To death. We’re at the mercy of fate.”
“You feel like a slave?” Cora asked.
Ethel hadn’t chosen this life, Martin said.
“You were born to it? Like a slave?”
That put an end to their conversation that night…
I stopped there. Reread it. Put the book down. And I came to this conclusion: There’s a bit of Martin in me.
Martin is an active ally for runaway slaves. He does not merely talk about the ills of slavery, but he puts his life, and that of his wife, in danger. In Whitehead’s novel, other white abolitionists are killed in heinous ways, and Martin understands that his allyship could kill him and his wife and hurt the rest of his family.
But that’s not why I compare myself to Martin. I am not an ally of action, only one of thought. I do most of my work in the literature classroom by discussing race and ethnicity, and, hopefully, challenging my students to problematize their worlds. And I thought that was enough. I established a false equivalency like Martin did in this passage – that my own experiences are somehow equal to those who live in fear like Cora does.
That gave me pause, and this blog stayed unfinished until last week when Danez Smith, a “black as hell” queer poet (see an interview here), performed at my university. His poem, entitled “Dear White America” compelled me to rethink what I was writing about Whitehead’s novel:
The lyrics are powerful, and this passage is as moving as Whitehead’s:
I tried, white people. I tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones. You interrupted my black veiled mourning with some mess about an article you read on Buzzfeed. You took one look at the river, plump with the body of boy after girl after sweet boi & asked ‘why does it always have to be about race?’ Because you made it that way!
Sitting in that audience, surrounded by people of many ethnicities, orientations, and levels of privilege, I knew that he was speaking of me and to me, and I didn’t like what the poem mirrored back to me. When I make my class about race, I sit in a safe zone, one of privilege. There is no Cora to challenge me. I leave thinking I’ve done something, made some good change in my students, and leave with that “My work here is done!” mentality.
But it isn’t done; in fact it hasn’t really started. This blog is still unfinished. If I’m going to applaud Danez Smith’s poem, I also have to admit there’s so much more for me to do.