The Underground Railroad

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Value, Ownership, and Commodification 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.
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon

Throughout the book, the narrator emphasizes that slavery is an economic system, and that the social and moral behavior of the white characters is fundamentally governed by economic interests. For example, Terrance Randall’s sadistic personality and cruel, lecherous behavior toward Cora is linked with his desire to make Randall plantation as efficient and profitable as possible. Similarly, Ridgeway decides to kill the captured slave Jasper because he calculates that it will be more financially profitable to kill Jasper than to let him live. This scene demonstrates how the desire for profit perverts all sense of morality. Although Ridgeway is technically “right” that shooting Jasper will save him money, on an ethical level Ridgeway is obviously in the wrong. The law of the time dictates that enslaved people cannot own property (because legally, they are considered property themselves), and the narrator summarizes the relationship of enslaved people to economic capital with the statement: “Some might call freedom the dearest currency of all.”

The book also explores the way in which enslaved people are reduced to their capacity to make a profit, with their bodies used like tools or machines. Slave-owners push the bodies of enslaved people past the limit of endurance and treat the matter of an enslaved person being injured or dying through overwork without remorse. Indeed, slave-owners are able to treat enslaved people carelessly because they also oversee enforced reproduction among the enslaved population. In this sense, enslaved people are treated more like farm animals than human beings. From the perspective of slave-owners, the act of producing a child is divorced from the normal context of love and family because slave children (or “pickaninnies” as they are called in the racist vocabulary of the time) are simply seen as a resource for profit, rather than as people. Slave-owners thus routinely separate enslaved children from their parents and sell them off to make even more money.

Cora’s story also reveals other ways in which black people’s bodies are commodified (meaning turned into an object with financial value) beyond the system of slavery. When Cora escapes the plantation, she escapes a certain kind of forced labor, but she quickly finds that other white people want to use black bodies in different ways to make a profit. For example, in South Carolina she discovers that the white doctors are using black people’s bodies for medical experiments. The reason for this is that the medical profession is facing a shortage of bodies on which to experiment, and professional body snatchers know that black people have little legal or social power to protest the use of black bodies for medical experimentation. This fact emphasizes the way in which bodies are seen as commodities or things, rather than human beings. Cora’s job working as a “type” at the museum further underlines the way white people treat black people’s bodies as objects for their own voyeuristic pleasure and profit. Whereas the white figures in the museum scenes are dolls, the black figures are real people, confirming the idea that white supremacy casts white people as humans and black people as merely things.

Throughout Cora’s journey, she is constantly reminded of the fact that most of the country’s infrastructure has been built by slave labor. When Caesar asks Lumbly who built the underground railroad, Lumbly replies: “Who builds anything in this country?” Similarly, when Cora goes into hiding with Martin and Ethel in North Carolina, she notices that everything in the town around her has been constructed by black people: “The only thing colored folks hadn't built was the tree. God had made that, for the town to bend to evil ends.” These observations explore the deeply ironic fact that enslaved black people were kidnapped from Africa and forced to build a country that in turn imprisons, tortures, and kills them. This irony reveals a lie at the foundation of America—while American identity is founded on the notions of freedom and individual merit, in reality the country is constructed by an imprisoned population forced to work for the benefit of others.

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Value, Ownership, and Commodification ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Underground Railroad related to the theme of Value, Ownership, and Commodification.
Chapter 1: Ajarry Quotes

She knew that the white man's scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temperature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations… in America the quirk was that people were things.

Related Characters: Ajarry (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Cora’s grandmother Ajarry was born in Africa before being kidnapped and transported across the Atlantic to America. Once there, Ajarry is sold many times, and she gradually comes to learn about how enslaved people are valued. In this passage, the narrator compares this knowledge to the scientific research conducted by white scientists. In America, black people’s bodies are commodified, meaning they are turned into objects with which white people can make a profit. This is true in an obvious sense with slavery, but is also true in a less obvious sense when it comes to scientific research.

As the fields of human biology and medicine evolved during the 19th century, many experiments were conducted on black people by white scientists. White supremacy dictated that only white people were intelligent enough to become scientists, whereas black people were thought to be useful only as objects of study. However, this passage disproves this view—even without any formal education, Ajarry comes to understand the “science” of her own body and how she is assigned financial value. Ajarry herself is thus also a scientist, although her knowledge is not considered legitimate within the context of white supremacy.

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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.

Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn't look like it. When it was a dream of new shoes.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Lovey
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Cora and Caesar set off at night, fleeing into the darkness, and they make it some distance before noticing that Lovey has been following them. Cora is surprised by this, as she doesn’t really think of Lovey as someone with a rebellious side. However, this quotation notes that “every slave thinks about it”—“it” meaning freedom—even if these thoughts are not conscious. Enslaved people thus have a paradoxical relationship to freedom. On one hand, the institution of slavery works to shut down the very notion of black freedom in people’s minds. However, as this quotation indicates, even those who have never personally known freedom—and who could never hope to—spend their lives fantasizing about it.

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

As she moved through the examination, Cora got the impression she was being conveyed on a belt, like one of Caesar's products, tended down the line with care and diligence.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Caesar
Page Number: 112-113
Explanation and Analysis:

In South Carolina, Cora has gone for a second examination at the hospital, this time with the young and friendly Dr. Stevens. In this passage, Cora reflects that the experience of being examined feels like being one of the products Caesar makes in his factory. At first this comparison may seem like a positive thing, as Caesar treats his products with “care and diligence.” However, it is in fact evidence of the extent to which Cora is being treated as a commodity—an object through which white people can profit. This treatment violates the proper purpose of medicine, which is to help the person receiving care. Instead, Cora is being used as an object of voyeurism, curiosity, and exploitation.

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.

Perhaps they would prefer not to know, Caesar said. What were these rumors compared to what they had been freed from? What sort of calculation would their neighbors make, weighing all the promises of their new circumstances

against the allegations and the truth of their own pasts? According to the law, most of them were still property, their names on pieces of paper in cabinets kept by the United States Government. For the moment, warning people was all they could do.

Related Characters: Caesar
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

On discovering the truth of the medical experiments and forced sterilizations that are taking place in South Carolina, Cora and Caesar despair over what they should do. If they attempt to warn the black dormitory residents, it is likely that many would not believe them. Furthermore, even if their revelations were accepted as truth, this would put the residents in an impossible position of choosing the lesser of two absolute evils. While being subject to harmful medical experimentation and forced sterilization is horrific, for most residents it is still an improvement on the brutality of slavery from which they fled.

This dilemma doesn’t represent one particular moment in history—remember that the Tuskegee syphilis experiment on which the South Carolina chapter is based did not occur until the mid-20th century—but rather the repeated injustices to which black people have been subjected throughout American history. The proctors in South Carolina take advantage of the fact that black people in the south are desperate to flee slavery at all costs, and they use that fact to exploit and violate the black population. This represents a long tradition of white people subjecting African Americans to injustice and violation, with the excuse that it is a mild improvement on even worse brutality.

Chapter 6: North Carolina Quotes

Cora rarely thought of the boy she had killed. She did not need to defend her actions in the woods that night; no one had the right to call her to account. Terrance Randall provided a model for a mind that could conceive of North Carolina’s new system, but the scale of the violence was hard to settle in her head. Fear drove these people, even more than cotton money. The shadow of the black hand that will return what has been given. It occurred to her one night that she was one of the vengeful monsters they were scared of: She had killed a white boy. She might kill one of them next. And because of that fear, they erected a new scaffolding of oppression on the cruel foundation laid hundreds of years before. That was Sea Island cotton the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and that crop grew fast. The whites were right to be afraid. One day the system would collapse in blood.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Terrance Randall
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

Confined to the attic, Cora is forced to spend many hours without any distraction or human interaction, an experience that forces her to reflect on her memories and concoct fantasies (and nightmares) about the future. While she spends a lot of time turning over the memories of her escape in her mind, she doesn’t often think about the 12-year-old boy she killed during the conflict with the hog hunters. Her experiences since running away have illuminated for her the extent to which she is a manifestation of white people’s greatest fears, and also that it is this fear—even more than economic incentives—that fuels the system of slavery.

This passage explores the way in which this fear both empowers and disempowers Cora and other black people who choose to rebel. On one hand, Cora realizes that white people consider her to be a threat, a fact that emboldens her and convinces her that one day “the system would collapse in blood.” Slavery and white supremacy are not inevitable—they are actually far more fragile than white people make it appear. However, in a more immediate sense, white people react to rebellion with increased brutality, “a new scaffolding of oppression.” This places those who rebel in a difficult position, as they know that not only do they risk their own punishment, but they also risk other vulnerable people being punished in their stead.

Colored labor had erected every house on the park, laid the stones in the fountain and the paving of the walkways. Hammered the stage where the night riders performed their grotesque pageants and the wheeled platform that delivered the doomed men and women to the air. The only thing colored folks hadn't built was the tree. God had made that, for the town to bend to evil ends.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Lumbly
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

Through the tiny crack in the attic wall, Cora looks down at the town square. Although the town is now all white, black people remain present through the products of their labor. In this quotation, Cora echoes Lumbly’s statement earlier in the novel—“Who builds anything in this country?”—which implies that black labor is the reason that any American infrastructure exists. Although Cora of course always knew that black people were a major component of America’s labor force, it is only through traveling through the country that she realizes the extreme extent to which the entire nation has been constructed through black slave labor. Cora notes the cruel irony of the fact that the only thing in the square black people didn’t build is the tree, which is what the white population uses to lynch black people with.

What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn't stand.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie)
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

Cora has been growing increasingly exasperated with her confinement to the attic, and has begged Martin to organize her transportation to the next station on the underground railroad. However, Martin is reluctant to do so because he is too nervous that they will be caught. This passage illustrates the suffocating frustration that Cora experiences in the attic, which is so intense that she begins to wonder if she perhaps had more freedom back on Randall.

Cora’s thoughts illuminate the notion that freedom is not a concrete, absolute phenomenon, but rather a relative one. Even in bondage, Cora experienced some aspects of freedom, such as the fact that she could walk around the plantation in the open air. On the other hand, as an enslaved person she was placed under constant surveillance and subjected to constant arbitrary punishments. Cora’s comparison between her life on Randall and at Martin’s house reflects the idea that there are two types of freedom—“freedom from” and “freedom to.” While in the attic Cora is free from the brutalities and restrictions of slavery, she is not free to go anywhere or even make a sound, which makes the attic feel like a tiny prison cell.

Chapter 8: Tennessee Quotes

At the auction block they tallied the souls purchased at each auction, and on the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh. The peculiar institution made Cora into a maker of lists as well. In her inventory of loss people were not reduced to sums but multiplied by their kindnesses. People she had loved, people who had helped her. The Hob women, Lovey, Martin and Ethel, Fletcher. The ones who disappeared: Caesar and Sam and Lumbly.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Caesar, Lovey, Fletcher, Lumbly, Sam, Martin Wells, Ethel Wells (née Delany)
Related Symbols: Hob
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

Cora has been captured by Ridgeway, and is now traveling alongside him and his associates, Homer and Boseman. The ride is long, giving Cora a lot of time to reflect. She thinks in lists, imagining an “inventory” of people she has met. This passage highlights the way in which slavery infects people’s minds, encouraging them to assign value to people as if they were objects. However, Cora distorts this way of thinking in a positive sense, turning it into a way of categorizing people’s kindness. During her time on the run, Cora has often been forced to say goodbye to people before she had a chance to develop a real friendship or fully express her gratitude for their assistance. However, she treasures their memories and honors the part they each played in attempting to transport her to freedom.

Chapter 10: Indiana Quotes

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.