The Underground Railroad

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Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Death and Freedom Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
Brutality and Violation Theme Icon
History, Myth, and Fantasy Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Underground Railroad, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon

The beginning chapters of the book introduce the notion that Cora was predestined to run away because her mother, Mabel, also ran away—running away and pursuing freedom is her family “inheritance.” Although Cora hates her mother for abandoning her to a life of captivity, the penultimate chapter confirms that Mabel believed that by running away she would implant the idea of freedom in Cora’s mind. This lineage of freedom between mother and daughter is further underlined by the garden that Mabel leaves Cora to tend, which is framed as Cora’s “inheritance.” The significance of the garden lies in the fact that it is a place of refuge, hope, and vitality in the midst of the desolate hell of the plantation. Through the garden, Cora is connected to her mother and other ancestors who came before her, including those who lived free in Africa. Thus, although Cora grows up without her immediate family members, it is her connection to her family that enables her to seek a life of freedom. This idea is emphasized when Cora is described as a “stray” (an orphan, exiled from the normal life of the plantation): while there are negative consequences of being a “stray,” Cora’s lack of attachment is also what enables her to escape the clutches of captivity multiple times. By stepping “off the path of life,” Cora receives access to another path––the path of freedom.

The book also illustrates the ways in which family, kinship, and heritage are distorted by the institution of slavery. In the chapter about Ethel, the narrator notes that, as a child, Ethel was confused by the connection of enslaved people to their white captors, mistaking it for a familial relation: “Ethel thought that a slave was someone who lived in your house like family but was not family.” Although this is a naïve misunderstanding of the way slavery really operates, it also highlights the way in which enslaved people live among whites in a far more intimate and interpersonally complex way than is often assumed.

There are many scenes depicting the traumatic separation of families, particularly mothers separated from their children, which was one of the most common manifestations of the brutality of slavery. Due to this practice and the forced erasure of African identity and language, black people in America were severed from their heritage and often could not trace their familial lineage. While this was a form of violence, it also allowed for the formation of new kinds of family, including, the book suggests, a feeling of kinship and solidarity among people of African descent who are living in America. John Valentine, for example, explains that, although he is personally free, he feels obligated to help runaways because “as long as one of our family endured the torments of bondage, I was a freeman in name only.” Throughout the novel, Cora must navigate the difficult balance between maintaining this sense of kinship with others and ruthlessly looking out for her own interests, which is necessary for survival.

The book also illuminates the way in which slavery effectively makes black people homeless within the only country most of them have ever known. Cora wrestles with three different ideas of home: the plantation where she was born, the home of her ancestors in Africa, and the unknown home that she seeks through the underground railroad. Although she was born on Randall, the plantation serves as a hideous distortion of the concept of home; it is a place of endless suffering and death, and once Cora runs away, it is the place where she is least safe in the world. The irony of considering Randall “home” is conveyed when Ridgeway tells Cora after he captures her: “You don't have to be afraid, Cora. You're going home.” Cora’s ancestral home in Africa, meanwhile, provides her with a feeling of solace and hope; when she works as a “type” at the museum, “ending her day in Scenes from Darkest Africa never failed to cast her into a river of calm.” However, this home is also imperfect, because Cora has so little real access to it. She has never been to Africa, doesn’t know where in Africa her ancestors come from, and her only lived experience of the continent is through acting within an inaccurate, stereotypical scene in a museum for the benefit of white voyeurs. Finally, Cora searches for a home in the north where she can finally live a free and happy life. To some extent, Valentine’s farm serves as the closest thing to a home Cora ever experiences. However, it is not long before Cora is forced to leave the farm and go on the run again. In this sense, Cora’s “home” is not any particular place, but the act of being on the run, and, in doing so, seeking freedom.

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Family, Heritage, and Home ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Family, Heritage, and Home appears in each Chapter of The Underground Railroad. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Family, Heritage, and Home Quotes in The Underground Railroad

Below you will find the important quotes in The Underground Railroad related to the theme of Family, Heritage, and Home.
Chapter 2: Georgia Quotes

Feast or no feast, this was where Cora ended up every Sunday when their half day of work was done: perched on her seat, looking for things to fix. She owned herself for a few hours every week was how she looked at it, to tug weeds, pluck caterpillars, thin out the sour greens, and glare at anyone planning incursions on her territory. Tending to her bed was necessary maintenance but also a message that she had not lost her resolve since the day of the hatchet.

The dirt at her feet had a story, the oldest story Cora knew.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie)
Related Symbols: Cora’s Garden
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

It is Sunday on Randall, and the enslaved community is preparing to celebrate Jockey’s birthday with a feast. Jockey, one of the oldest enslaved people on the plantation, doesn’t know his real birthday, but he picks days at random as excuses for celebration. Lovey asks Cora which day she would pick for her birthday, but Cora dismisses her, saying you can’t choose. Rather than choosing her birthday, Cora exercises autonomy by tending to her garden. Every Sunday, during the precious hours she has away from forced labor, Cora works on maintaining her small plot of land.

At first it might seem strange that Cora, who is forced to spend almost all her time toiling in the fields, would choose to spend her few hours off working in her garden. Why add further labor to a life of bondage? However, as this passage makes clear, tending to the garden gives Cora a sense of control, autonomy, and ownership over her life. Because she spends most of her time being forced to work for others, she finds it rewarding to be able to choose to work towards creating and nurturing new forms of life; this allows Cora to endure the misery of enslavement. Furthermore, through the garden, Cora is connected to her mother and grandmother. The garden is thus one of the only ways Cora can access her dead relatives and the mystery of her ancestry.

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This was the farthest she had ever been from home. Even if she were dragged

away at this moment and put in chains, she would still have these miles.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Cora, Caesar, and Lovey journey through the night, battling bites and injuries. When day breaks, Lovey notes that the people back on Randall now know that they are missing. However, when thinking about the possibility of being captured, Cora is defiant. Just the act of fleeing is, in a way, a victory, even if Cora is ultimately caught. Note the use of the word “home” in this passage; while Randall is the only home Cora has ever known, it seems perverse to refer to the plantation as a home when she has only lived there due to her captivity.

Part of the condition of being a black person in America is this sense of homelessness; while black people are unwelcome in American territory, most have no experience of the African lands from which their ancestors originated. This quotation introduces the idea that simply being on the run is a kind of home—the home of freedom.

Chapter 3: Ridgeway Quotes

The cotton gin meant bigger cotton yields and the iron tools to harvest it, iron horseshoes for the horses tugging the wagons with iron rims and parts that took it to market. More slaves and the iron to hold them. The crop birthed communities, requiring nails and braces for houses, the tools to build the houses, roads to connect them, and more iron to keep it all running. Let his father keep his disdain and his spirit, too. The two men were parts of the same system, serving a nation rising to its destiny.

Related Characters: Arnold Ridgeway (speaker), Ridgeway Sr.
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Ridgeway is the son of a blacksmith with a gentle, spiritual personality who disapproves of his son’s decision to become a slave catcher. Ridgeway resents his father’s attitude and believes that his father’s views on slavery are hypocritical, because it is through making the metal chains and tools used on plantations that Ridgeway Sr. is able to make a living. This passage explores the moral problem of existing in an economy that is totally fuelled by slavery. While Ridgeway’s father rejects violence and prefers a peaceful, empathetic view of the world, he nonetheless directly profits from the exploitation of slaves.

By representing slavery as an economic system in which everyone is implicated, Whitehead highlights the fact that racist violence is the product of the overall structure of society, rather than individual acts (although, as Ridgeway himself proves, individuals can play a large role in carrying out particularly heinous acts of brutality). Ridgeway’s comment about America’s destiny suggests that all white settlers are to some extent complicit in slavery, even those who personally oppose it.

Chapter 4: South Carolina Quotes

Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible. After landing in South Carolina, she realized that she had banished her mother not from sadness but from rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom's bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell. A child. Her company would have made the escape more difficult, but Cora hadn't been a baby. If she could pick cotton, she could run. She would have died in that place, after untold brutalities, if Caesar had not come along. In the train, in the deathless tunnel, she had finally asked him why he brought her with him. Caesar said, "Because I knew you could do it."

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Caesar, Mabel
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

In South Carolina, Cora is careful to guard the secret of her true identity. However, she is eventually too tempted by the opportunity to ask Miss Lucy to check the records for any information about Mabel. Overall, Cora still feels furious and resentful toward Mabel, particularly now that she has experienced freedom for herself. How could Mabel have left her to suffer and die on Randall? This passage makes clear that Cora has invented her own mythology about Mabel, just as Caesar has his own fantasy about Cora. Cora is convinced that Mabel needlessly and carelessly abandoned her, and Caesar is convinced that Cora would be able to successfully escape. Although these stories both contain kernels of truth, their main purpose is arguably to provide a sense of assurance to Cora and Caesar as they journey through brutal conditions and the terrifying unknown.

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. With the surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest. Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that's what you do when you take away someone's babies––steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when

they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.

Related Characters: Dr. Aloysius Stevens (speaker), Cora (aka Bessie)
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

At the examination conducted by Dr. Stevens, he notes that Cora has had sexual relations and he asks if she has considered being sterilized, adding that, for many black women, sterilization is mandatory. Cora is horrified at having discovered the dark secret beneath life in South Carolina. To her, Dr. Stevens’ words about sterilization fit within the broader “engine” of life in America, which is powered by violence against and exploitation of nonwhite people. Cora’s use of the word “engine” is significant, as it underlines the connection between white supremacy and capitalist industrialism. Science and industry, which are often considered to be good and progressive, are in fact tools through which black people are tortured and killed.

This passage also identifies a crucial way in which white supremacy destroys not only a present generation of the black population, but their hope for the future, as well. Through the traumatic separation of families under slavery and forced sterilization programs, black people were robbed even of the hope that one day future generations might experience freedom for themselves.

Chapter 7: Ethel Quotes

Ethel thought that a slave was someone who lived in your house like family but was not family. Her father explained the origin of the negro to disabuse her of this colorful idea. Some maintained that the negro was the remnant of a race of giants who had ruled the earth in an ancient time, but Edgar Delany knew they were descendants of cursed, black Ham, who had survived the Flood by clinging to the peaks of a mountain in Africa. Ethel thought that if they were cursed, they required Christian guidance all the more.

Related Characters: Ethel Wells (née Delany), Edgar Delany
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

This chapter tells the story of Ethel’s childhood. Ethel’s family owned two slaves, a woman named Felice and her daughter, Jasmine. As children, Ethel and Jasmine were best friends who loved playing together and had a relationship “like sisters.” As a result, Ethel grows up with a confused notion of the relationship between enslaved people and their captors, mistaking it for a familial relation. In this passage, Ethel’s father, Edgar, explains to Ethel that she is wrong by telling her a Biblical myth about the origin of black people that was commonly used to justify slavery from a Christian perspective. Many of the abolitionist characters in the novel oppose slavery on Christian grounds, but Edgar’s explanation highlights the fact that many proponents of slavery supported their beliefs from a Christian perspective.

Of course, both Edgar and Ethel have a factually incorrect and racist understanding of the relationship between white people and enslaved black people, although their perspectives take drastically different forms. Ethel’s childlike innocence allows her to acknowledge that intimacy is a big part of the relationship between slave-owners and the enslaved, however what she doesn’t realize is that this intimacy is one-sided, the result of white people forcing their emotional and social desires on black people who have no choice but to accept it.

Chapter 10: Indiana Quotes

How could such a bitter thing become a means of pleasure? Everything on Valentine was the opposite. Work needn't be suffering, it could unite folks. A bright child like Chester might thrive and prosper, as Molly and her friends did. A mother raise her daughter with love and kindness. A beautiful soul like Caesar could be anything he wanted here, all of them could be: own a spread, be a schoolteacher, fight for colored rights. Even be a poet. In her Georgia misery she had pictured freedom, and it had not looked like this. Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and rare.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Caesar, Chester, Molly
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

Cora now lives on Valentine farm, a community of free black people who live and work together in Indiana. Cora lives in a cabin with a woman named Sybil and her daughter Molly, and she is moved by witnessing their relationship. She is also astonished by the way in which labor becomes something positive on Valentine, rather than a means of suffering and oppression. Cora’s thoughts highlight the fact that from the outside, there are similarities between Valentine and a plantation. After all, both consist of a community of black people living and performing agricultural work together.

Of course, this similarity belies a fundamental and all-important difference: on the plantation, black people are forced to labor and are not allowed to receive any of the profits of their work. Enslaved people are under constant surveillance by cruel bosses, must adhere to cruel and arbitrary rules, and are forced to endure constant psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. On Valentine, residents work voluntarily and are free to enjoy the bounty of their labor. Perhaps more importantly, the community acts as a loving and cohesive whole, working in solidarity with one another to create “something lovely and rare.”

We can't save everyone. But that doesn't mean we can't try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth. Nothing's going to grow in this mean cold, but we can still have flowers. Here's one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can't. Its scars will never fade. When you saw your mother sold off, your father beaten, your sister abused by some boss or master, did you ever think you would sit here today, without chains, without the yoke, among a new family? Everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick-yet here you are. Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary.

Valentine farm is a delusion. Who told you the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life's suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history, it can't exist. This place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are.

And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes––believes with all its heart––that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn't exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.

Related Characters: Elijah Lander (speaker)
Page Number: 285
Explanation and Analysis:

At the final meeting of Valentine residents, Mingo has argued for expelling the runaways and “criminals” that live on the farm in order to ensure the farm’s survival and contribute to the project of racial uplift that he argues is only possible through cooperation with and deference to white people. However, in this passage Elijah Lander disputes Mingo’s claims, arguing that while it is true that white supremacy casts black freedom as impossible, it is vital that the residents of Valentine cling on to this “delusion.” Lander’s distinction between useful and harmful delusions is crucial.

The whole foundation of America, in Lander’s view, is a harmful delusion, which, in turn, creates harmful truths. Belief in the necessity and rightness of slavery has created the inescapable reality that no one in America can escape slavery and thus everyone must learn to deal with its consequences. However, this does not mean accepting that enslavement and oppression are the only possible conditions under which black people can live in America. By acknowledging the ugly reality of white supremacy, yet committing to the “impossible” project of black freedom, black people can build a picture of the future on their own terms, a future in which impossible fantasies eventually become reality.