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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Underground Railroad and White Guilt

Looking down over the universe of the park, she saw the town drift where it wanted, washed by sunlight on a stone bench, cooled in the shadows of the hanging tree. But they were prisoners like she was, shackled to fear. Martin and Ethel were terrified of the watchful eyes behind every darkened window. The town huddled together on Friday nights in the hope their numbers warded off the things in the dark: the rising black tribe, the enemy who concocts accusations; the child who undertakes a magnificent revenge for a scolding and brings the house down around them. Better to hide in attics than to confront what lurked behind the faces of neighbors, friends, and family. - Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
At this point I've written at length about post-apocalypse and dystopian fiction. I'm curious about why it does so well, and why maybe a third of all the books my son brings home from the library is some new twist on the old tale. One of the biggest shows on tv is, inexplicably, The Walking Dead, which I quit watching as soon as I realized it was just a soap opera with a very good makeup and gore team. Maybe the best since Days of Our Lives. I don't get it. While I read Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, I maybe started to.

When you think about it, the plot of these books, especially your Hunger Games/The Giver/Uglies/The Maze Runner/Divergent could all be boiled down to this: what if everything terrible that happened to blacks over the last 300 years happened to white people instead? Can you even imagine?

Escaping oppressive labor camps that would kill you if they caught you? Police and military forces working for an all-powerful government that protects the status quo to the expense of an underclass? How about this: watching a wealthy group of privileged people live in opulence while the plucky main character with just enough dirt on her face to show that she's poor but not enough that she isn't pretty forages in the woods for food to supplement meager rations. I just watched Rogue One, which I feel is the best portrayal yet of what the oppressive Empire looks like, and you guys, it pales in comparison to the Southern United States 150 years ago.

In every one of those stories there is only one path that a hero must take after having the reality of his or her situation revealed: rebellion. If there is one theme we revere more than any other in mainstream entertainment it is this one: freedom at all costs. Freedom is worth dying for. Whether it's Lafayette singing for it in Hamilton, William Wallace screaming it while being disemboweled, or Neil Diamond's "Freedom Song: They'll Never Take Us Down," it is the rallying cry of every American rooting for Rocky to beat up Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.

Wait, though. Little caveat. Just a minor thing. Yeah. We don't like it when black people talk about rebellion. Not so much. You won't be reading this then, but at the time of this writing it's Martin Luther King Jr. day. On Facebook there is this low-level war taking place all day where we white people are passive-aggressively fighting over what this day symbolizes. Some want to make it clear that MLK Jr. was all about love. That he was well-behaved and patient. Others kind of want to point out how hated he was at the time. How some celebrated his death. When black people riot after shootings, someone inevitably post a meme of Dr. King advocating peace. Riots do not represent what he fought for, they say.
But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?...It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity. - Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Other America"
When Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand for the National Anthem, again Dr. King is invoked. How can someone who has benefited so much from our capitalist nation turn around and disrespect it like that?
Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad. - "The Three Evils of Society"
Sixty years later and we've already decided that, in the words of historian Rob Schneider, Martin Luther King Jr., "won civil rights."
The more I learn, the more I realize that there is no concoction of horrors and evil that fiction writers can come up with that will outdo what has already happened. I think every one of us can look at our grandparent's lives and see how they impacted ours. Our parents even more so. Yet we're not even two generations removed from a time when people traded human beings as property. And currently there are more black men in prisons than there were slaves at the height of the practice.
The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity. - "Where do we Go From Here"
How white Americans can simultaneously fall all over themselves crying over Braveheart and Nathan Hale for dying in the fight for freedom and then try to rationalize slavery will never cease to amaze me. Bill O'Reilly begrudgingly admits that the White House was built by slaves, but hastens to remind us that they were "well fed and had decent lodgings from the government." The founding fathers were pretty well-fed, too. Thomas Jefferson with his 170 inherited slaves was probably very comfortable. Yet he said, "I prefer the tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude."

Freedom, it seems, is just more important to white people. Some black slaves love the families they served, I hear. Or, the United States didn't start slavery, it was everywhere. We're also reminded that black people in Africa and the Middle East had slaves, too. Sure. Let them deal with their guilt, too. This is our country, and in 1860, there were more millionaires in the lower Mississippi valley than anywhere else in the nation. There were 4 million slaves, whose combined value was more than "all manufacturing and railroads combined." Slaves were, according to the linked article, "The largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy." That money went on to build banks, investment firms, and insurance companies that we all use. Brooks Brothers were known to make high-end slave clothing.

Here's Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie saying it better than I can:
When my father was in school in my NAB (Non American Black) country, many American Blacks could not vote or go to good schools. The reason? Their skin color. Skin color alone was the problem. Today, many Americans say that skin color cannot be part of the solution. Otherwise it is referred to as a curiosity called “reverse racism.” Have your white friend point out how the American Black deal is kind of like you’ve been unjustly imprisoned for many years, then all of a sudden you’re set free, but you get no bus fare. And, by the way, you and the guy who imprisoned you are now automatically equal. If the “slavery was so long ago” thing comes up, have your white friend say that lots of white folks are still inheriting money that their families made a hundred years ago. So if that legacy lives, why not the legacy of slavery? And have your white friend say how funny it is, that American pollsters ask white and black people if racism is over. White people in general say it is over and black people in general say it is not. Funny indeed. - Americanah
My ancestors didn't own slaves. They were immigrants. But part of the booming economy that enticed them here was fueled by slavery. Nobody asked me if I thought it was a good idea, but it's impossible to say I haven't benefited from it. Whether I participated or not, I have some of the responsibility to set it right.

Oof, you guys. That's how I can describe The Underground Railroad. What a frickin' gut punch. If you've heard anything about it by now you know that there is a central conceit that gets a lot of news: in this book the underground railroad is a literal railroad instead of a series of passages and safe houses. The metaphorical significance of this is discussed at length in actual book reviews which is not what I do, but I will touch on it briefly. At the beginning of the book, Cora escapes her plantation and hooks into the underground railroad. On her first trip, she's told that "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." On her journey, Cora does see the true face of America. "It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness."

The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the Freeman had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others. Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on the Randall plantation many times, his voice drifting through the village like an angry phantom. She didn't understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn't understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom.
Pretty bleak, huh? Haha, Whitehead is just getting started. Here's what the railroad metaphor does: by messing with the historic facts, he can mess with timelines as well. Here he takes on the horrors of slavery, which at this point is a well-trodden road. If you passed this book by thinking you've probably got a handle on slavery thank you very much, I can get it. My guess is that you don't, but there is a certain amount of fatigue that sets in. That's not what you're getting here.
Men start off good and then the world makes them mean. The world is mean from the start and gets meaner every day. It uses you up until you only dream of death.
Slavery is the backbone of what's going on, but through that lens we see every atrocity committed against the Africans white Americans brought to the United States against their will for oh, so many years. Many of the things you read here that sound like horrors relegated to the late 1800's are actually things that happened in the 1970's. Some of them are happening right now. On Whitehead's underground train he takes us on a nightmare Disneyland ride, each exhibit more hopeless and heartbreaking than the last. Here: the cruel plantation owner who tortures slaves while inviting friends to tea; here: doctors pretending to treat syphilis patients who are instead just giving them sugar pills to observe the disease's effects; here: a town that holds a lynching every Friday evening preceded by music and prayer.

White neighbors get uncomfortable when freed slaves begin to prosper while they themselves don't. Do-gooders happily and kindly help escaped slaves find jobs and get schooling, as long as they participate in sterilization programs. Body snatchers provide cadavers for local doctors by raiding the graves in the black cemetery, because their families have no legal recourse.

All of these things have happened in the last 150 years, and some in the last 40. And daily their ancestors see its shadow. We have the tendency to think that whatever existing trend we see is the only possible direction. We see improvement as inevitable, and progress as somehow an entity independent of effort. I think that's insulting to the people who died for independence, fought wars for freedom, and perished on the plantation gallows, were beaten to death by police officers protecting an institution, or died after being captured, after tasting just a breath of free air. The white abolitionists who were killed for helping them find freedom. The young men and women being sprayed by fire hoses by the people ostensibly paid to protect them. And the people still marching today.
The weak link-- she liked the ring of it. To seek the imperfection in the chain that keeps you in bondage. Taken individually, the link was not much. But in concert with its fellows, a mighty iron that subjugated millions despite its weakness. The people she chose, young and old, from the rich part of town or the more modest streets, did not individually persecute Cora. As a community, they were shackles. If she kept at it, chipping away at weak links wherever she found them, it might add up to something.