The Underground Railroad

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The Underground Railroad Chapter 10: Indiana Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
This chapter is preceded by a runaway ad for a 28-year-old woman called Sukey, who is “very neat in appearance” and a devout Methodist. The narrative returns to Cora, who is once again in a classroom. This time, the children in the class are racing ahead of her. As part of their lessons, members of the class recite the Declaration of Independence—all except the youngest, who are only 6 and 7. Cora feels embarrassed about being in a class with children; her shame deepens when her teacher, Georgina, scolds her for saying “pickaninnies” instead of “children.” Georgina is from Delaware, and at first she and Cora have difficulty making sense of one another. Yet over the four months since Cora’s arrival at Valentine, the two women develop a friendship. Cora also becomes close to a 10-year-old girl called Molly, who lets Cora braid her hair and grabs Cora’s hand while walking to and from class.
Clearly, Cora’s life has undergone a radical change since her time with Ridgeway. The scene portrayed in the opening of this chapter is idyllic; not only is Cora free again, with access to education, but she is surrounded by other black people, lives in the midst of a real community, and has formed close relationships with several of the farm’s residents. The fact that Cora’s class regularly recites the Declaration of Independence suggests that the residents of Valentine farm are concerned with constructing their own version of America, one true to the country’s proclaimed ideals.
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One Saturday, the farm residents prepare for an evening feast, and the smell of smoked meat fills the air. Cora shares a cabin with Molly and her mother, Sybil. They are proud of the house and have done their best to make it beautiful. Cora sits in a squeaky rocking chair made by Sybil’s lover and picks up her quilting. Sybil is 12 years older than Cora and Cora loves witnessing the love between her and Molly. Sybil had fled a tobacco plantation when Molly was 2 after hearing that the master planned to sell her and thus separate her from Molly. Through sheer luck, she encountered a black farmer who helped her and Molly access the underground railroad. Cora asks Sybil if she’s ever met a woman from Georgia who might have called herself Mabel, and Sybil replies she hasn’t. Despite Cora’s lingering anger with her mother, she asks everyone else on Valentine the same question. Some suggest that Mabel might be in Canada, which is where a lot of runaways go now.
Despite Cora’s new, utopian existence, she is still haunted by the unresolved question of what happened to her mother. This issue is made more painful by the fact that Sybil took Molly with her when Molly was only 2—indeed, she ran away precisely to avoid being separated from her child. Regardless of how many years have passed, Cora is still shocked and pained by the fact that Mabel fled without saying goodbye or taking Cora with her. However, she cannot admit this to those around her, even her trusted friends such as Sybil. In the midst of all the unimaginable trauma Cora has been forced to endure, her mother’s abandonment is still by far the most painful.
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There is no consumption of alcohol on Valentine except for on Saturday nights. John Valentine himself has lost count of how many people live on the farm; there are at least 50 children, most of whom are under 5. Georgina notes that “liberty makes the body fertile,” and Cora thinks of the women sterilized against their will in South Carolina. On this night, Valentine is in Chicago while the rest of the farm leaders handle other business, such as attending abolitionist meetings. With the rest of the residents seated and quiet, Gloria Valentine steps up to the lectern to deliver a short speech. John Valentine had bought her freedom years ago and married her within a week. Now, it seems as if she has been to a finishing school for white women. However, she still has trouble ridding her speech of “plantation inflections.”
In some ways, Valentine is like an enormous family, but there is also a clear hierarchy of leadership and sense of a collective goal. Cora’s classes, the farm leaders’ abolitionist work, and Gloria Valentine’s effort to speak standard English are all part of the same aim of “racial uplift.” Valentine is not only a place of refuge, but also a community dedicated to enhancing opportunities and quality of life for black people. Although overall this is an important goal, it can have the effect of making formerly enslaved people feel shame for their lack of education and plantation mannerisms.
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Lately there have been disagreements on Valentine about whether the residents should move west, where there are other communities of black people and where they can be further away from the slave states. A man named Mingo argues that the community should stay put, but should limit its size by kicking out runaways (like Cora). Mingo has an impressive reputation; he raised enough money through extra work to purchase freedom for himself and his family, but Sybil believes that it was simply good fortune that his master would agree to such a thing. Sometimes people John Valentine calls “dignitaries”—wealthy people from the north—visit the farm, but there are none there tonight, only local guests. Sometimes musicians perform, and tonight there is a poet who gives a reading. Someone called Royal appears by Cora’s side, distracting her from the poetry. Cora is disturbed by her feelings for Royal, just as she is made anxious by her attachment to Molly.
Cora’s life on Valentine may seem idyllic, but she is not able to feel truly comfortable or happy there. Having learned her lesson in South Carolina, she refuses to become too attached to life on Valentine and remains suspicious that something about her turn of good fortune must be too good to be true. This sense of uneasiness is echoed in the broader dilemma of the Valentine farm as a whole. They have established a stable, harmonious, and productive community in Indiana, but they remain in proximity to danger. Is it a greater risk to abandon their current situation and seek safety in the west, or to remain in Indiana?
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Just as the dancing begins, Cora heads home, where Royal is waiting for her. He has a black eye but tells Cora it was just a “scuffle,” nothing to worry about. He gives her an almanac as a gift, the first book Cora has ever opened new. The narrative jumps back to Cora’s first month at Valentine, the motto of which, Cora notes, is “Stay, and contribute.” Cora and everyone else on Valentine think of Royal as an “exotic prince.” One night, Royal approaches Cora after they hear a speech by Elijah Lander, a highly-educated biracial man who travels the country giving speeches. Cora admits that she is worried about being kicked out of Valentine. The next day, she and Royal go out for a picnic; Cora wears a new dress and bonnet she’s recently bought with her wages. After the picnic, Royal shows her the “ghost tunnel,” an underground station, and he explains that the tunnel doesn’t connect to the main underground railroad line. The last time Cora was at a railroad station, it was the night she escaped from Tennessee, the memory of which still haunts her.
Cora’s relationship with Royal is at first introduced without any context, so that the reader is just as intrigued by Royal as Cora is when she first meets him. Insight into Royal’s personality comes through a series of contradictory clues: his black eye, the brand-new almanac, the romantic picnic, the underground railroad tunnel. Royal seems to be something of an outsider to the community at Valentine, although he also possesses insider knowledge (such as his awareness of the abandoned underground railroad tunnel). This provokes further questions about Royal’s life story. How long has he been at Valentine? What makes him an “exotic prince”? And why does he take such a particular liking to Cora?
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Back in Tennessee, after leaving Ridgeway and his crew behind, Royal had introduced himself to Cora; the other men were called Justin and Red. Royal apologetically blindfolds Cora, explaining that it’s to keep the location of the railroad station secret. The station they arrive at is decorated in a luxurious fashion. Royal explains that the agent, who is absent, likes to create a “mood.” Justin is shocked that Royal just killed Boseman, but Red suggests Boseman surely deserved it. Royal is the first freeborn black person Cora has ever met. He was born in Connecticut to a barber and midwife who had also both been freeborn in New York City. Royal’s parents had been optimistic about black people’s future in America and were confident that slavery would eventually be abolished in all states. At 18, Royal moved to Manhattan and began working for abolitionist causes, eventually coming to work for the underground railroad.
This passage illustrates the variation in the backgrounds of people who work for the underground railroad, emphasizing that not everyone comes ends up working for black freedom for the same reasons or via the same route. Justin is clearly more sensitive and thus assumedly less accustomed to witnessing violence (or perhaps simply stunned to see a black person inflict violence on a white person). Royal, on the other hand, has the optimism and determination of someone who has lived his entire life as a free man. Meanwhile, it remains a mystery why the station agent chooses to decorate the station in an elegant, expensive fashion.
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Royal joined forces with Red after Red’s wife and child were lynched in North Carolina. Red walked the Freedom Trail searching for their bodies, but never found them. When Red learns that Cora killed the 12-year-old boy, he comments: “Good.” He was the one who encouraged Royal to use a gun; Royal had never held one before and he confesses that internally he was “shaking.” Justin was assisted in his escape by a kind employer to whom Justin’s master hired him out. When the train arrived, Cora was thrilled to ride in a real passenger carriage, rather than being forced to grip onto a flatcar. Royal told Cora it was up to her whether to stay Valentine or keep riding the railroad through Indiana.
Although Royal, Justin, and Red acted efficiently as a team when they rescued Cora, they are in fact three very different men with dissimilar life stories and relationships to violence and rebellion. Justin is the most timid of the three, with Red the boldest and Royal in the middle. Red’s life story further emphasizes the notion that extreme trauma can create courage, as after the gruesome death of his wife and child Red is vengeful against white people and seems to feel that he has little left to lose.
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John Valentine passes as white, but black people recognize his Ethiopian features. His father, a white man, didn’t acknowledge his existence except by leaving John his Virginia estate in his will. John employed six freemen as farmhands and kept his purchase of Gloria’s freedom a secret, as it is common and thus unsuspicious for a white man to “keep” an enslaved woman. When one of John’s employees was lynched, he, Gloria, and their children left Virginia for Indiana. The farm in Indiana began with invited guests, and soon became a haven for runaways and a station of the underground railroad. Local businesses soon began to depend on the custom of Valentine residents, which helped ensure the farm’s safety within the local community. When Royal showed Cora the railroad station, he explained that he wanted her to know it was there. However, Cora is convinced that she doesn’t want to keep running.
This passage provides an explanation of how Valentine farm—which seems almost fantastically idyllic in comparison to the other places depicted in the novel—came to exist and survive. The details about John Valentine highlight the fact that only through clever manipulation of the norms of white supremacy could a community like Valentine end up becoming real. John uses his racial privilege as a white-passing man, as well as his inherited wealth, to construct a safe and productive community for black freemen and runaways. However, there are clues that Valentine might not be as safe and secure as it seems on the surface.
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In November, Sam arrives at Valentine, and his reunion with Cora is emotional. Sam tells Cora that Ridgeway found Caesar at the factory before he had a chance to warn him. Despite being horrifically beaten in jail, however, Caesar never gave Sam up—it was another person who told on Sam, leading Ridgeway’s gang to burn his house down. Sam fled north and worked as a station agent, at times posing as a slave catcher to help get people to freedom. Cora is thrilled to see Sam happy and healthy, where so many of her other friends have been killed. Sam then tells Cora that Terrance is dead. He had grown obsessed with finding Cora and brutally punished the enslaved people at Randall in his frustration. He died of heart failure in a brothel in New Orleans. Ridgeway, meanwhile, is a laughingstock. Homer rescued him after the confrontation with Royal, and the two ran off together, their reputation in ruins.
Sam’s arrival brings an end to many of Cora’s fears and fantasies, which in itself is a form of relief. While Cora has tortured herself with all the possibilities of what could have happened to the people she encountered on her journey to freedom, she can now at least accept the truth of what actually happened. Additionally, Sam’s health indicates that—although the path to freedom is riddled with violence and death—death is not inevitable. Some people do survive and flourish, and even this small minority makes the pursuit of freedom worth it.
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Sam stays on Valentine for three days, unsuccessfully trying to pursue Georgina. On the third night, there is a shucking competition, during which two teams participate while joyful music plays in the background. The night before, Cora let Royal kiss her. She confesses that she’s been thinking about Terrance; she knows that the enslaved population will be sold off and worries that a relative will manage to track her down. However, Royal assures her that now that Terrance is dead, she is free. Now Royal joins in with the singing, but Cora struggles to dissociate singing with her memories of working in the fields. When Sam leaves, he promises to write once he has settled somewhere. Cora begins to spend more and more time in the library with Molly, and one day a passerby comments, impressed: “Master said the only thing more dangerous than a nigger with a gun… was a nigger with a book.” The community decides to build a bigger library in a separate building next to the smokehouse. In the library, there are books about Africa and slave narratives by black Americans.
Following Sam’s visit, Cora is able to finally feel more at peace with her life at Valentine, a shift illustrated by the facts that she spends her time absorbed in the library and lets Royal kiss her. Surprisingly, Terrance’s death does not give Cora a feeling of closure—in fact, it’s just the opposite, with Cora feeling an ominous tug back to Randall. At least with Terrance alive, Cora could reasonably assume that she knew what was taking place back on the plantation. Now, she is thrown back into uncertainty. The time Cora spends in the library can be interpreted as another way of reassuring herself of reality in the face of uncertainty. In a white supremacist world, true information about black people is a rare and essential gift.
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One day, John joins Cora in the library. Cora is ashamed by her debt to him so she usually avoids him. He hasn’t been spending much time around the farm, apparently because he has been feeling ill. Cora asks about the meeting at which Elijah Lander will speak. There is a strong culture of debate on Valentine, initiated by conversations between John and scholars and abolitionists who visit the farm. The debate with Lander will focus on the future of the farm; Mingo plans to argue in favor of excluding runaways and trying to improve relations with the local white community. John assures Cora that she is “one of us,” but also admits that Valentine is in an extremely dangerous position. White people despise the idea of a black person even knowing how to read, so what would happen if they discovered the library?
John Valentine is committed to an inclusive, egalitarian style of leadership, and thus makes a point of not giving preference to any particular viewpoint or member of the community. However, this is frustrating for Cora, who seeks his reassurance and protection. John speaks proudly of the supposedly healthy culture of debate on the farm, but this viewpoint speaks to the security of his position. For Cora, this debate is not a good thing in itself, as it could mean the end of her time on Valentine and her return to the brutal existence of life on the run.
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Cora realizes that she has forgotten how precarious life at Valentine is. She tells John that, the week before, a group of white men yelled vulgar abuse at her and some other Valentine women while they were walking up the road. John notes that while slave catchers don’t often come up to Indiana, perhaps it would have been better if he and Gloria kept moving, further away from Virginia and the rest of the South. He says he is proud of the community in Indiana, but he is confident they will be able to rebuild elsewhere. Gloria has expressed interest in going to Oklahoma, and John is eager to make her happy. He tells Cora that he will follow the decision of the community, and that everyone will have a say. Cora asks him why he does what he does, and John replies: “White man ain’t going to do it. We have to do it ourselves.”
This passage illuminates a different side to John to how he has previously been depicted. In general, John projects a self-assured and positive image to the residents of Valentine. During this private conversation with Cora, however, he admits that he has doubts about whether he and Gloria were right to stay in Indiana. Even more significant is his comment about why he has dedicated his life to running the farm. While John passes as white in public and entertains many white guests, beneath this he is pessimistic and distrustful about the extent to which white people can be relied on for help.
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In December, the last ever gathering takes place on Valentine. For years after, the survivors still remain uncertain of what happened. Sybil, who ends up in Michigan among many grandchildren, insists Mingo is to blame. However, another survivor believes that Elijah Lander was the real target, and that the Valentine community was caught in the crossfire. Joan Watson, who was 6 years old at the time and who had been born on Valentine, maintains that the local white people simply joined forces against the farm, as this is just what white people do. The day begins normally; Cora spends it reading the latest almanac Royal has given her. By this point, she has told Royal all about Randall, Ajarry, Mabel, Blake and the doghouse, and the night she was raped. Royal comforted her, saying that everyone who has wronged her will be punished in this world or the next. Cora doesn’t believe him, but she still feels better after.
The destruction of Valentine is introduced in a disrupted chronological order; the narrator begins by mentioning the night at which the incident takes place, before jumping forward many years into the future, and then reversing back to the day before the night of the incident. Immediately, the reader knows that Cora’s time at Valentine—and Valentine itself—is about to end, but also that there are at least some survivors (and by implication, some fatalities) following the incident. The question of whether or not Cora survives remains unanswered. The survivors’ different theories about what happened confirmed the irresolvable mystery surrounding the event.
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Sybil tells Cora that Lander has returned to the farm. Sybil admires Lander and is thrilled by his presence, even though she doesn’t want to pack up and move west, as Lander is expected to propose. That night, Cora and Royal sit in the front row, next to Mingo and his family. There are no white people there, although there are some visitors from neighboring black farms. John begins his speech by explaining that his white-passing privilege allowed him to grow up without fear of being abused or sold into slavery. He saved his own children from brutality by moving out of Virginia, but “saving two children is not enough.” He says that everyone on Valentine, regardless of how long they’ve been there, has saved his life. He chokes up, and Gloria comforts him. He encourages the residents to listen to the messages of the other speakers. Mingo then speaks, arguing that, although Valentine farm is a great achievement, some black people have been ruined by slavery to a point of no return. These people have lost hope and turned to alcohol and other vices, and are not capable of contributing to a place like Valentine. He also argues that white people won’t change overnight, and that Valentine risks ruining the cause of “negro advancement” by harboring runaways and criminals.
The debate about Valentine’s future symbolizes broader disputes within African-American communities that have been raging since before the 19th century to the present. In this passage, John and Mingo present two opposing views. Despite his ability to pass as white, John feels a sense of responsibility for helping all black people, regardless of whether they are rich, poor, intelligent, criminal, sick, enslaved, or free. Indeed, John seems to believe he has a special duty as someone with light-skin privilege to use this privilege in order to help the less fortunate. Mingo, however, holds the view that racial uplift depends on intelligent, disciplined, and even-tempered black people separating themselves from those society deems lesser—runaways, drunks, criminals, and so on. Over the years, many have criticized this kind of argument for being self-interested, unjust, and ineffective.
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During Mingo’s speech, his daughter has been whispering flirtatiously with Lander. As Lander stands to speak, Royal is excited. He wants the community to move to Canada, where he will finally be able to settle down and have a family. Cora tries to ignore this kind of talk. Lander begins his speech by politely disagreeing with Mingo’s call for “gradual change.” He calls Valentine a “delusion,” but a useful one. All of America is in fact a delusion, based on white people’s false belief that they have the right to steal land and inflict brutality on others. He says he doesn’t know what they should do, particularly given the “we” of the black community encompasses so many different people with such different experiences. However, this makes it all the more essential that black people remain in solidarity with one another. Though the path to freedom is dark and dangerous, if they help each other at least they will “arrive together.”
During Lander’s speech he articulates many of the thoughts that have been unfolding in Cora’s mind over the course of the novel. As Cora travels from place to place and narrowly escapes death each time, it becomes increasingly clear that black freedom is a “delusion” in America, though it’s still a delusion worth fighting for. Lander also articulates the struggle to maintain a balance between working in solidarity with one another and looking out for one’s own interests, which, to a certain extent, is necessary in order to survive as a black person. Lander’s speech ends on a note of optimism, yet this optimism is immediately marred by the events that follow.
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Suddenly, the atmosphere turns “prickly,” and Lander is shot in the chest. Royal immediately jumps up and runs to Lander, and is shot three times in the back. There are more shots and screams and as the residents rush to get out, white men are waiting outside hollering in glee. The Valentine family escape, and, as Cora holds Royal’s head, he smiles and tells her to escape via the underground railroad. As Royal dies, men help Cora up and tell her to run. Everyone is going in a different direction, and many are cut down or dragged off by white men. The Valentines survive, eventually resettling in Oklahoma. Cora calls out for Molly, and at this moment Ridgeway grabs hold of her. He is with Homer, who Cora now realizes was in attendance during the speeches. Homer tells Ridgeway that he heard Royal mention the underground railroad station.
It is tragically fitting that what is perhaps the most optimistic and affirming moment in the novel quickly turns to carnage. Lander and Royal are both killed immediately, highlighting the ease with which people take black lives without even a moment’s consideration. Royal’s smile and encouraging words to Cora as he dies show that, despite everything, he remains optimistic about her fate. In this way, Royal comes to symbolize everyone who died during Cora’s journey to freedom. Perhaps Royal’s smile reflects not only his hope for Cora’s freedom, but the fact that he, too, is now finding freedom in death.
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