‘The Underground Railroad’: Down the Rabbit Hole

I heard old Queen Victoria say,
If we could all forsake
Our native land of slavery,
And come across the lake,
That she was standing on the shore,
With arms extended wide,
To give us all a peaceful home
Beyond the rolling tide.
Farewell, ole master, please don’t come for me,
I’m on my way to Canada, where colored men are free.
                          Joshua McCarter Simpson (to the tune of “Oh Susanna”)


My hometown of Painesville, Ohio, was founded in 1805 and there are 300 Civil War and thirteen Revolutionary War veterans buried there. In 1861 President Abraham Lincoln gave an address before 4000 people at the Painesville train depot. During those times, Painesville was known as a “red hot abolitionist” town.

Some of my most indelible memories, in the late 1940s and 1950s, were of our home on Skinner Avenue, the last street before reaching the banks of the Grand River, which formed a river boundary between Painesville and Fairport Harbor.

Fairport was one of the ten exit points in northern Ohio for the “Underground Railroad”—not an actual physical railroad line, but the common term for a secret network of friends, safe houses, inns and hiding places that escaping slaves, from southern states, could access to find safe passage to Canada.

The thirty-foot-high Old Fairport Harbor Lighthouse, built in 1825, capped with an octagonal-shaped iron lantern, sits at the mouth of the river. The first lighthouse keeper, Jonathan Goldsmith, was a white abolitionist and allowed his lighthouse to be used as a guiding marker and gathering point for runaway slaves.

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Ohio had 3000 miles of secret networks and routes on the Underground Railroad and was the most active of all the US states in helping fugitive slaves to freedom. It was only 250 miles from Canada, and bordered on two sides by slave states: Virginia and Kentucky. Runaways had to cross the lower border of the Ohio River, usually at night in winter, when the river was frozen over, and establish contact with a network of complete strangers. Many slaves who had successfully made the difficult journey to Canada would return, at great risk, to help others find their precarious way. These heroic souls, such as Harriet Tubman and William Still, became known as “conductors”.

Ohio also had a large population of the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Christian group who had initiated the abolitionist movement in the UK. Quaker abolitionists in the US were less successful, meeting resistance from many other Quakers, but the Ohio group was renowned as the most active in helping fugitive slaves.

Even in free states, this was extremely dangerous and illegal. Although the northern states had outlawed slavery, Freedom Seeker Laws, entrenched in the US Constitution, allowed slave owners to cross over into free states to reclaim their “property”, with high rewards payable, not only to bounty hunters but to informants, through a Writ of Qui Tam, a law where any private individual who helped with a prosecution was entitled to receive part of any bounty recovered. Anyone harbouring fugitive slaves was liable to severe fines.

The Underground Railroad (2021) is a hard-hitting television mini-series, created and directed by Barry Jenkins. It is based on the novel of the same name, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Colson Whitehead. In the series, the Underground Railroad is imagined as a secret physical train line running through a vast network of subterranean tunnels.  This is a work of fiction. Remember this and it will help you keep your balance when the train goes off the tracks.

The story begins in Georgia, on the Randall plantation. Two slaves, Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre), escape looking for the legendary Underground Railroad to take them to the free states of the North. The two are attacked by a group of whites and Cora kills one of the under-age boys.

A slave hunter named Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), and his ten-year-old black assistant, Homer (Chase W. Dillon), are contracted to hunt them down.

The fugitives locate a “station” tunnel hidden under the floor of the house of a white abolitionist, boarding a waiting train, and arrive in Griffin, South Carolina. At first glance this appears an idyllic place, where Cora receives education and Caesar finds work, but later they discover this perfect town is conducting experiments in eugenics.

Ridgeway tracks the fugitives to Griffin. Cora escapes alone back to the underground station where she boards another train.

Her next stop is a nameless village in North Carolina, populated by a Christian-like sect that hangs any black person they find from an avenue of trees. A white railroad “agent”, Martin (Damon Herriman), and his wife, Ethel (Lily Rabe), have a tolerant attitude towards slaves and allow Cora stay in their attic where another young black girl named Grace is already in hiding.

Ridgeway locates them, capturing Cora, and Martin is killed. His house is set on fire and the fate of Grace, still concealed in the attic, is unknown.

We flash back to the childhood of Ridgeway and his father (Peter Mullan), a master blacksmith, but the son has no aptitude for his father’s trade. Young Ridgeway persuades a black boy, Mack, to jump into a well, causing permanent damage his leg. When Ridgeway reaches fourteen, he joins up with a group of slave hunters.

Back in present time, Ridgeway and Homer are transporting Cora, and another fugitive, Jasper, by covered wagon, to Georgia. They pass through acres of former Cherokee land, set on fire by a lightning strike. Jasper, despondent, starves himself to death.

Ridgeway stops in Tennessee to farewell his dying father. Mack, the boy from the well accident, now a man, lives with the elder Ridgeway and still walks with a limp. That night, three armed black men, led by Royal (William Jackson Harper), break into the Ridgeway home and rescue Cora.

Back in North Carolina, the fire from Martin’s house has spread throughout the village and Grace, hidden in the attic, manages to escape. She makes her way to the rubble of the destroyed Underground Railroad station, climbs over rocks to a waiting train and reveals to the conductor that her birth name is Fanny Briggs.

Cora and Royal become romantically involved and travel to Indiana, finding the free black community of Valentine Farm that has a thriving wine-making business. Ridgeway tracks Cora to Valentine Farm but is refused an arrest warrant by the town’s judge.

Undeterred, Ridgeway forms a posse and attacks the farm, killing most of the inhabitants, including Royal. Cora escapes, once again, back into the tunnel station. Ridgeway, while descending the entrance shaft in pursuit, falls and severely injures himself. Cora seizes his revolver, shoots him and flees through the tunnel, emerging at another remote station. She meets an elderly black man traveling in a covered wagon and joins him on his journey.

Director Barry Jenkins is an American screenwriter and producer who directed and co-wrote the independent film Moonlight, winner of the 2016 Academy Award for Best Picture. Colson Whitehead is an American writer, whose novel The Underground Railroad won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He also won the Pulitzer Prize for The Nickel Boys (2020), making him only the fourth person, along with Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner and John Updike, to win the award twice.

Most of the actors are relative newcomers, except for Joel Edgerton who plays Ridgeway, and Peter Mullan, who plays Ridgeway’s father. Edgerton is an Australian actor-filmmaker who has appeared in the Star Wars franchise films (2002-2005) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). In Australia, he won the AACTA Award for Best Actor for the series The Secret Life of Us. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor for the title role, in Loving (2016), about Richard and Mildred Loving, arrested for inter-racial marriage in Virginia in the 1960s, which led to a key 1967 Supreme Court decision striking down all state laws banning mixed-race marriages.

There are quite a few differences between Whitehead’s novel and the series.

One of the finest pieces of writing in the book is the opening chapter describing Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, a character who is completely omitted from the series:

A big auction always drew a colorful crowd. Traders and procurers from up and down the coast converged on Charleston, checking the merchandise’s eyes and joints and spines, wary of venereal distemper and other afflictions. Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air … Cora’s grandmother saw a little boy among the gawkers eating rock candy and wondered what he was putting in his mouth.

In the novel, there is no boy named Mack who falls down a well.

The South Carolina town Cora and Caesar arrive in is named Griffin, but in the book there is only a Griffin Building, where medical experiments on the blacks have to do with a syphilis-prevention program for men. The sterilisation procedure is not just for women, as in the series, but for both men and women.

When we arrive in North Carolina, the railroad tunnel station there has not caved in, as in the series; it is merely disguised to fool bounty hunters and inspectors. The working train track is concealed off to the side. The town is not populated by a religious cult and there is no Christian-Celtic iconography, crosses or candles anywhere. The racist townspeople do engage in secular entertainment activities such as “coon shows”.

There are no sex scenes in the novel. Sonia Saraiya, of Vanity Fair, wrote:

In the show … Cora has a sexual relationship with Royal. In the book, she is unable to be vulnerable enough to be intimate with either Royal or Caesar, whom she is also attracted to. Her reluctance for physical intimacy is rooted in the trauma she suffered being raped at the hands of several older enslaved people when she was a teenager.

In the novel, Cora doesn’t shoot Ridgeway but leaves him lying in the cavern to die from the fall he has suffered.

The character of Grace/Briggs does not appear in the novel. Briggs is mentioned in an earlier Whitehead novel, The Intuitionist. So why did Jenkins introduce her here? Some reviewers have justified this as creating continuity between Whitehead’s novels, but if Whitehead wanted to connect his stories, why didn’t he put her in his book?

Neither the novel nor the series has nothing to do with the real Underground Railroad. There is no mention of the Quakers or freed blacks, like Harriet Tubman, who made it to safety and then chose to go back down dangerous routes to help others out. The book and series are mistitled—and misleading. The only US film critic that has pointed this out is Armond White, an African-American film and television reviewer for the National Review. He writes, in his article “The Underground Railroad Teaches Hatred and Self-Hatred”:

Jenkins and Whitehead use identity politics—identity poetics—for race-baiting. Their streaming-series collaboration appeals to the lip-smacking delectation of liberals who have bought into the race-gender historical conceit of the 1619 Project and critical race theory. Both Jenkins and Whitehead epitomize the new media trade. They deliver the immiseration expected of black media workers, which is eventually lauded with Oscars and literary prizes, like the work of their British counterpart, Steve McQueen. This obvious sense of patronage defines The Underground Railroad as another in the proliferating series of programs that trivialize the history of U.S. slavery and oppression.

Roger Ebert, another of America’s top film critics, called White “a troll”. This is one professional critic name-calling another! There’s a saying in debating: once your opponent resorts to name-calling, they’ve already lost the argument.

To best understand White’s criticism of The Underground Railroad, we need to understand what the 1619 Project, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, proposes. In a similar manner to Bruce Pascoe’s discredited theories of Aboriginal agrarian culture, so in the States, a rewriting of American slavery has taken hold. The premise is that America did not truly become a nation in 1776, but in 1619. Allen Guelzo, in his essay “1619 and the Narrative of Despair”, summarises:

The follies of the 1619 Project begin with its title. Most of the time, when we think of how the United States began, we think of 1776—the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. What the 1619 Project asked us to do was to dial that beginning date back to 1619—the year the first African slaves were deposited on the shore of what was then the English colony of Virginia.

In this proposed parallel universe, the American Revolution was staged to protect slaveholding, capitalism was modelled after plantation slavery, and a racist President, Abraham Lincoln, initiated the Civil War as part of a strategy to deport freed slaves!

The US critical mind seems to have disappeared down the underground rabbit hole, along with Jenkins and Whitehead. A better title for both the book and the series might have been Cora in Wonderland. What we really have here is just an entertaining science-fiction tale of escaping prisoners, in the style of The Fugitive or Les Misérables, spiced up with a little Rod Serling. You can almost hear Serling deliver his famous opening Twilight Zone monologue:

You’re travelling on another railroad, a railroad not only of sight and sound but of mind; an underground railroad into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead—your next stop, the Twilight Zone.

The section on eugenics has whiffs of Josef Mengele and makes it appear that here, yet again, is yet another town of duplicitous white people. In reality, the controversial eugenics movement, of the late 1800s and early 1900s, was similar in many ways to the debate today on cloning and DNA manipulation. It was promoted not only among some whites, but also by many blacks. W.E.B. Du Bois, a man considered one of the greatest intellectuals in Black American history, although opposing the specific eugenics agenda of white racists, supported the Black Eugenics movement. Dr Marilyn M. Singleton, in “The ‘Science’ of Eugenics: America’s Moral Detour”, wrote:

In 1905, the Harvard-educated professor and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois adopted eugenic principles. He believed “only fit blacks should procreate to eradicate the race’s heritage of moral iniquity”. Dr Thomas Wyatt Turner, a charter member of the NAACP, and many black academics at Tuskegee, Howard, and Hampton universities promoted “Assimilationist Eugenics”. They proposed that “The Talented Tenth” of all races should mix, as the best blacks were as good as the best whites … in later years, the NAACP promoted eugenics theory by hosting “Better Baby” contests with the proceeds going to its anti-lynching campaign.

The pseudo-Christian-Celtic town with its Spartacus-style rows of hanging blacks is a distortion and insult to the actual Christian groups who risked their lives and reputations to help runaway slaves. There is no reference in the novel to any cult inhabiting this nameless town or the presence of any Celtic cross iconography whatsoever. All this was a projection of the director and screenwriter. The religious townspeople portrayed in the series resemble more of a mix of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century witch-hunter and post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan mentality.

The ultra-violent scenes that begin with the burning alive of a slave at a family picnic and culminate with the massacre of blacks at Valentine Farm seem to be lifted directly from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. As someone once wrote, “the mindless violence inherent in the human condition”. Or in contemporary film-making.

Dave Mason, the ex-Poet Laureate of Colorado, remarked to me:

Is it too conceptual? The way the two ideas of blackness, the debates among blacks about who they are and how they should live, is finally just interrupted by [the] slaughtering whites, is probably too conceptual; a nod to Black Lives Matter, too unfair to the complexity of real events.

This series is a crude attempt to jury-rig the classic Underground Railroad metaphor onto contemporary black issues, illustrated in a key line from the novel, omitted from the series, spoken by Mingo’s daughter, Amanda. On hearing that the European war is referred to as the Great War, Amanda remarked to her sailor boyfriend, “The Great War had always been between the whites and the blacks. It always would be.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr. (born 1950) is an African-American literary critic, professor and historian who serves as Director of the Hutchins Center for African American Research at Harvard University. He has received fifty-three honorary degrees and was brought in as historical consultant on the Academy Award winning film 12 Years a Slave.

Gates quotes from correspondence with historian David Blight who called the legend of the Underground Railroad one of the “enduring and popular threads in the fabric of America’s national historical memory”. Many people, both white and black, have conceptualised it in order to suit particular agendas.

In the “Indiana: Autumn” chapter of the series, we see reinforced one of the erroneous myths that have sprung up: a magnificent underground railroad terminal with hundreds of people waiting in queues for their tickets. Stylishly uniformed attendants guide passengers to their departure points. In his article “The African-Americans”, Gates wrote:

Sometimes when I hear our students talk about the Underground Railroad, it seems to me that they are under the impression that it was akin to a black, Southern Grand Central Station, with regularly scheduled routes that hundreds of thousands of slave “passengers” used to escape from Southern plantations.

Sonia Saraiya says, “the fantastical bureaucracy of the underground railroad also seems to be a nod to [Whitehead’s] The Intuitionist, because the [series] imagines dimensions to the railroad that don’t appear in Whitehead’s book”.

Director Barry Jenkins told Marcus Jones, in an interview with EW:

This period in American history has kind of been left by the wayside as far as arts and letters go. This is pre-photography, this is pre-Black folks having the legal right to own property … there almost isn’t any authentically recorded history, certainly not history authentically recorded by Black folks.

Jenkins isn’t entirely accurate. William Still’s 913-page book Underground Rail Road Records: The Hardships Hairbreadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom (1886), is an exhaustive account, with details of interviews and stories of “passengers” who spoke with him during the time. William Still was an African-American abolitionist from Pennsylvania, the youngest of eighteen children born of two former slaves. He became a successful businessman and chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Once a “conductor” himself, he became known as “The Father of the Underground Railroad”, having helped 800 slaves to freedom over fourteen years. His own home became a safe and convenient “station”.

Still kept meticulous diary records, and used them to write the earliest account of the underground system and the experiences of many runaways. He never expected any of it to be published as long as slavery existed, for discovery would have resulted in disaster.

Joshua McCarter Simpson was an African-American composer and agent on the Underground Railroad. He wrote songs in his home state of Ohio and published them as part of a collection in 1852 called Original Anti-Slavery Songs. Simpson also took the repertoire of the blackface minstrel shows, most notably the works of Stephen Foster, the writer of “Oh Susanna”, “Camptown Races” and “Swanee River”, and wrote his own lyrics to these standards. Harriet Tubman sang many of them on her journeys. Simpson said, “My object in my selection of tunes is to kill the degrading influence of these comic Negro songs … and change the flow of these sweet melodies into more appropriate and useful channels.”

Sarah Hopkins Bradford was a white American writer and historian who lived during the Civil War and interviewed the most famous “conductor” of all, Harriet Tubman. She authored two books based on their conversations, Scenes from the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869) and Harriet, the Moses of Her People (1886), writing them specifically to raise funds for the destitute Tubman.

Thomas Garrett was a white Quaker who aided the getaways of 3000 fugitives. He was tried many times for assisting runaway slaves, each time being fined to the limit of his resources. Bradford writes of him:

[When the judge told Garrett] “Let this be a lesson to you, no longer to interfere hereafter with the cause of justice, by way of helping off runaway negroes,” he responded, “Judge—thee hasn’t left me a dollar, however I want to say to thee, and to all in this court room, that if all of us is aware of a fugitive who desire a shelter, and a pal, ship him to Thomas Garrett, and he’s going to befriend him.”

[Not] Luther before the Council at Worms was grander than this brave old man in his unswerving adherence to principle. In those days that tried men’s souls, there were many men like this old Quaker, and many women too, who would have gone cheerfully to the fire and the stake, for the cause of suffering humanity.

Much has been written about Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad’s most famous “conductor”, sometimes called “the Moses of her people”. Her real name was Araminta Ross (nicknamed “Minty”) and she spent the first twenty-five years of her life as a slave in Maryland. According to Bradford:

She had worked only as a field hand for many years, following the oxen, loading and unloading wood, and carrying heavy burdens, by which her naturally remarkable power of muscle was so developed that her feats of strength often called forth the wonder of strong laboring men.

After she was freed, Tubman was commissioned in the early stages of the Civil War to act as a secret agent and a scout to help lead the armies of the North into the interior, for which she never received pay or pension. She also worked as a sanatorium nurse for the war-wounded, attending to hundreds of soldiers with smallpox and malignant fever. She never feared catching these diseases and developed a skill of curing dysentery with medicine prepared from roots grown by rivers. Bradford says:

This fearless woman was often sent into the rebel lines as a spy and brought back valuable information as to the position of armies and batteries. She has been in battle when the shot was falling like hail and the bodies of dead and wounded men were dropping around her like leaves in autumn.

Tubman possessed uncommon charity, even towards slaveholders. She remarked to Bradford:

I think there is many a slaveholder will get to Heaven. They don’t know no better. They acts up to the Light they have. You take that sweet little child (pointing to a lonely baby)—appears more like an angel than anything else—take her down there, let her never know nothing about niggers but they was made to be whipped, and she’ll grow up to use the whip on them just like the rest. No, Missus, it’s because they don’t know no better.

In conversations between Tubman and Bradford, a hardly-acknowledged aspect of southern plantation life is described in detail.

The black woman [was] a very suitable subject for the whip in the hands of the Southern lady. A good many women, North as well as South, manifest a tendency to become tyrants in their own household, and love to bully their servants. But the Southern mistress was a domestic devil with horns and claws; selfish, insolent, accustomed to be waited on for everything. She grew up with the instinct of tyranny—to punish violently the least neglect or disobedience in her servants. The variable temper of girlhood, not ugly unless thwarted, became in the “Southern matron” a chronic fury. She was her own “overseer”, and, like that out-door functionary, had her own scepter, which she did not bear in vain. The rawhide lay upon the shelf within easy reach, and her arm was vigorous with exercise. The breaking of a plate, the spilling of a cup, the misplacing of a pin in her dress, or any other misadventure in the chapter of accidents, was promptly illustrated with numerous cuts. [It was] these woman-whipping wives and mothers … who hounded on the masculine chivalry to the work of exterminating the “accursed Yankees”.

The little-known “Reverse Underground Railroad” was a name given to the practice before the Civil War of bounty hunters kidnapping, not only fugitive slaves, but also free blacks, transporting them back to the South for sale. It operated informally for eighty-five years. A New York gang known as the “Black-Birders” abducted men, women and children, often with the support of city officials. Martha “Patty” Cannon led a gang that kidnapped blacks across three states and sold them to plantation owners. She was eventually convicted of four murders and died in prison—of suicide by arsenic poisoning.

Director Barry Jenkins told Marcus Jones of EW about the magic realism of Underground Railroad:

Colson does this beautiful thing where because he’s taken this almost sci-fi approach to this period in American history, the width, the expanse of what [Cora] undergoes is … it’s not Alice in Wonderland, but it kind of is—

The Underground Railroad, both in the book and series, is depicted as a vast network of train tunnels, constructed deep underground, over which steam locomotives, on no specific timetables, suddenly appear to transport escaped slaves to free states. No attempt is made to try to explain this fantastical metaphor. When Cora asks who built them, she is told: “they were built before my time. No one knows.”

This echoes the science-fiction film Contact, from the novel by Carl Sagan. A network of wormholes that can instantaneously transport travellers millions of light years in minutes connects distant points in the universe. When astronaut Dr Ellie Arroway travels through one, communicates with an alien, and asks how the wormholes originated, she is told the same thing: “no one knows—they have always been there”.

In the same year that Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for The Underground Railroad, he also won the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award, the UK’s most prestigious science fiction prize, for the very same book. Small universe!

One reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes wrote: ‘this mini-series has pretty good acting and has some beautiful scenery. But I didn’t feel like I was always watching a young woman’s attempt to escape slavery as much as a 10-part Twilight Zone.

Slavery predates written records and was practised in every ancient civilisation. Much of the imagery associated with the abolitionist movement, including the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr, employs Hebrew biblical metaphors—Moses’s fight against Pharaoh, the River Jordan and so on—from the era when Jews were slaves. Slavery existed in the Shang Dynasty in China. The Romans enslaved everyone they conquered—25 per cent of the population of Rome was made up of slaves. The Persians, the Greeks, the Aztecs, the First Nations peoples of Canada and Muslims practised it. Child soldiers, child labour and human sexual trafficking are contemporary forms of slavery.

Henry Louis Gates has written that the enemy of individuality is “groupthink” and he holds everyone accountable. In an article for the New York Times, “Ending the Slavery Blame-Game”, Gates reminds us that the ones who captured and sold blacks into slavery in the first place were also Africans working for profit. After he wrote that, he said: “People wanted to kill me, man. Black people were so angry at me. But we need to get some distance from the binary opposition we were raised in: evil white people and good black people. The world just isn’t like that.”

2 thoughts on “‘The Underground Railroad’: Down the Rabbit Hole

  • Peter C Arnold says:

    This story has remarkable echoes in the ‘underground’ which took hunted Jews from France across the Pyranees into Spain under Franco’s regime, to safety. ‘The Mezuzah in the Madona’s Foot’, by Trudi Alexy, 1994. Harper. Franco’s customs police rescued them if they had been captured en route by the Germans.

  • subrosa says:

    I tried to read the novel but whole tracts of it read like propaganda. In many places the author interrupts the novel with observations and statements that don’t fit and take an obvious political position. Gruesome violence often surrounds these loaded observations, so they enter your mind in a state of alarm and chaos, linking unrelated thoughts together in a way only Woke literature can – through the concept of trauma. I’m not going to watch the series, but thank you for holding it up to the light.

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