The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Chapter 4: South Carolina Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The chapter is preceded by another runaway slave ad, this time for an 18-year-old “yellow Negro girl” who ran away nine months ago and who is suspected of “attempting to pass as a free person.” The main narrative then begins with a description of the “lovely clapboard house” of the Anderson family: Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, their two children, and their nanny, Bessie, who cannot read or write. Mrs. Anderson is a philanthropist who is raising money for a new hospital. Bessie lives in dormitories a short walk from the Andersons’ house. She enjoys walking through Main Street and eyeing the colorful shop window displays. She particularly loves the 12-story Griffin Building, one of the tallest in the whole country. This is where Mr. Anderson works, and Bessie was thrilled to take the children to visit him and thrilled (and frightened) to ride up to the eighth floor in the elevator. Mr. Anderson works in contracts for the cotton industry. He was pleased by the children’s visit, but seemed anxious to return to his work.
In comparison to the previous chapter, the opening description of South Carolina reads as something of a dream, simultaneously modern and idyllic. The happy Anderson family, the bustling activity of Main Street, and the impressive Griffin Building all indicate a sense of progress and achievement. While Bessie is a (presumably black) woman employed by a (presumably white) family, her relationship to the Andersons differs greatly from the dynamic between masters and slaves illustrated in the previous chapters. Bessie lives in a separate dormitory, comes and goes unsupervised by white people, and seems to enjoy a pleasant enough relationship with the white family she works for. However, Mr. Anderson’s job shows that he, too, directly profits from the brutality of the slave trade.
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Bessie is able to walk through town “as a free woman,” although she is careful to avoid the saloons and neighborhoods where poorer white people live. The dormitories where she lives are newly-built red brick buildings with spotless interiors. Only half of the black residents work on Saturdays, and many are nannies like Bessie. She sleeps in a room with eighty beds. She takes out a blue dress that she bought soon after arriving in South Carolina—she treasures this dress. On Saturdays she lets herself sleep in before attending classes and then doing her own chores. Supper is chicken and roast potatoes made by Margaret, another dormitory resident. On her way back upstairs, Bessie runs into Miss Lucy, a white proctor with a “severe aspect” but “quick smile.” Miss Lucy corrects Bessie on her speech, encouraging her to replace her African-American dialect with “proper” English. She tells Bessie that she’s making “splendid progress” and bows to her on her way out, which still stuns Bessie.
On the surface, Bessie’s life in the dormitories and her interaction with Miss Lucy suggest that she enjoys the privileges of a free and equal citizen. However, on closer inspection this is not the case. Living in the dormitory may be comfortable, but it is also infantilizing, and the fact that Bessie shares a room with 79 women does not seem particularly pleasant. Furthermore, although Miss Lucy is polite to Bessie, she also encourages her to erase aspects of her identity that mark her as black. Bessie clearly still occupies a subservient role, as revealed by the fact that she calls the proctor “Miss Lucy” and obediently follows all her corrections.
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Cora was given the name Bessie Carpenter when she arrived from Georgia. The train journey felt dangerous, and Cora clung to Caesar as the car shook. When they arrived, they were greeted by a white man named Sam who brought them food and promised them that South Carolina had a more “enlightened attitude” towards black people than other parts of the South. He advised that it might take some time for them to figure out their next escape route, and that they might even want to stay in South Carolina. Cora was able to wash and was given a blue dress made of soft cotton. Looking at the papers they’d been given, Caesar pointed out that the papers said he and Cora were “property of the United States government”; however, Sam brushed this off as a “technicality,” explaining that the government bought off slaves in large numbers in order to encourage migration to the cities. Caesar and Cora memorized their story: Christian and Bessie had been bought by the government in a bankruptcy case. They realize that they also need to learn to “walk like freedmen.” Over time, Cora adapts her posture and diligently studies reading and writing.
At first glance, Cora and Caesar’s life in South seems to be idyllic. They are able to live in comfort and dignity, with access to resources (such as education) that are strictly denied to enslaved people. Cora’s astonishment at the soft cotton of her dress highlights a particular hypocrisy of slavery—while slaves are worked to death in order to harvest cotton, most never even get to touch the final product of soft cotton clothing. However, once again there are indications that Cora and Caesar’s life in South Carolina may not be quite as wonderful as it appears on the surface. Although they enjoy many of the benefits of freemen, they are still technically owned by the United States government. While Sam assures them that this is nothing to worry about, it will soon turn out that Caesar is right to be suspicious of this arrangement.
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Miss Handler, Cora’s teacher, is relentlessly patient even with an old man in Cora’s class who “sputtered and choked” through the lesson. Mabel used to explain to Cora that the “half-language” spoken by enslaved people who blend African mother tongues and slave dialect is “the language of the plantation.” Miss Handler explains that this class would be illegal in North Carolina, and that they would all be whipped (or worse) as punishment. Cora remembers that Connelly once gouged out the eyes of an enslaved man who merely looked at words. She thinks that Mabel would be proud of her for learning to read. Cora is still desperate to learn what happened to Mabel, and one day she decides to ask Miss Lucy if she has any record of Mabel Randall. Lucy points out that Cora’s last name is Carpenter, but Cora lies that this was her father’s surname and that her mother is a Randall. Lucy promises to check the statewide records in the Griffin Building. This moment was an anomaly, however; in general, Cora tries not to think about Mabel, and when she does she feels full of rage.
Cora’s conflicting feelings about Mabel speak to both the universal complexity of relationships between mothers and children and the specific devastation caused by slavery. The book illustrates the way in which slavery tears families apart in a direct, deliberate way—such as when relatives are sold off separately from one another—and in an indirect manner, by placing enslaved people under such horrific conditions that they are often forced to act in selfish ways in order to survive. Thus Cora’s more conventional feelings about her mother—such as her hope that Mabel would be proud of her—are interwoven with feelings of rage, resentment, and shock that Mabel chose to abandon her.
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After her meeting with Miss Lucy, Cora is so overcome by emotion that another dormitory resident asks if she is alright. Cora resolves to be better at hiding her feelings, although she is generally very adept at maintaining her identity as “Bessie.” When she first arrived at the dormitories, she was subjected to a quick interview in order to place her in a job, as well as an assessment by Dr. Campbell, whose steel instruments frightened Cora, reminding her of the tools used for torture on the plantation. Dr. Campbell asked her questions about her ancestry and health. During the physical examination, Dr. Campbell was able to guess the number of lashes she’d received almost to the exact number, and he realized from the genital examination that she’d been raped. Cora feels nervous and humiliated, but she answers his questions honestly. Finally, Dr. Campbell takes a sample of her blood.
The clinical and orderly doctor’s office may seem far less horrific than the horrors Cora was subjected to on the plantation—however, this passage highlights that the doctor’s probing is itself another form of violence. Although Dr. Campbell does not intentionally antagonize Cora, he forces her to relive her existing traumas through both his verbal and physical examinations. Furthermore, Dr. Campbell’s clinical manner provides Cora little emotional support as her psychic wounds are re-opened. Perhaps worst of all, he does not fully explain why the examination is happening, making his actions exploitative and a violation.
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Back in the present, it is almost time for the social, and Cora puts on her beloved blue dress. When she first arrived in South Carolina, she was shocked to find that items in the “colored emporium” were marked up to two or three times the price of goods sold to white people. Cora is careful with money; most of her wages are deducted by the town for food and accommodation. It is possible to get credit through “scrip,” but Cora is wary of getting into debt. On the green, she spies Caesar, who looks older and has grown a mustache. He gives her a bouquet of flowers. A month after they arrived in South Carolina he tried to kiss her and she refused, but now she thinks that perhaps one day she will kiss him. The proctors organize socials in order to encourage socialization between the black men and women who live in the dormitories and “undo some of the damage” of slavery. There is music, dancing, food, and drink. Caesar works in a factory, a job he finds “unexpectedly fulfilling.” He enjoys being able to witness the product at every stage of its development, from a pile of parts to a finished item.
The social invites comparison to Jockey’s birthday celebration. In many ways, the two events could not be more different. The social is a genuinely pleasant and joyful affair, with attendees free to engage in activities safe from the threatening gaze of white people. The comfort and autonomy of Cora and Caesar’s new lives are symbolized by objects such as Cora’s dress, Caesar’s mustache, and the bouquet of flowers. However, there are also similarities between the social and Jockey’s feast. Both involve the same activities—eating, drinking, music, and dancing. And whereas the social is organized by the white proctors, the black community at Randall organized Jockey’s feast themselves. Life in the dormitories is pleasant, but it is still controlled by white people.
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Cora asks Caesar about Sam, and Caesar mentions that there is a train leaving in a few days, which they can take if they want to. Since arriving, Caesar has grown happy about the prospect of staying put, while Cora has wanted to continue their journey. Sam, emphasizing the state’s “enlightened” racial attitude, has remained enthusiastic about the pair’s prospects in South Carolina. Eventually, Cora comes around to the idea of staying. She changes her mind after finishing a delicious dormitory meal and feeling anxious about the prospect of starving again while on the run. As the dormitory residents dance, Cora and Caesar decide to stay. On the way home from the social, Cora sees a young woman running over the green, her blouse flapping open to reveal her breasts. Two men grab her and gently subdue her, while the woman screams: “My babies! They’re taking away my babies!” The black people looking on have seen a similar picture many times before—a mother distraught as her children are sold to a different master. That night, Cora is haunted by the woman’s screams, even as she feels reassured by the decision to stay.
Once again, Cora and Caesar are faced with a difficult choice between endurance and rebellion. Although life in South Carolina is infinitely more bearable than conditions on the plantation, Cora and Caesar have still sacrificed their dream of true freedom in the north for a sheltered, somewhat infantilized existence in South Carolina. They remain in dangerous proximity to Georgia and are locked into an arrangement that leaves them with little autonomy over their lives, even if they also have comparatively little to worry about. The woman screaming is the first sign of rebellion Cora witnesses in South Carolina, as well as the first sign that there may be more sinister realities lying beneath the idyllic surface of the dormitory.
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Miss Lucy tells Cora that she has been given a new placement at a museum. Cora asks Lucy about the screaming woman she saw on the green, and Lucy explains that she is a resident of number 40, the dormitory reserved for “residents with nervous disorders.” Forgetting herself, Cora remarks that 40 is “your Hob.” Cora is sad to leave the Andersons, who were kind employers. At the museum, Cora is introduced to Mr. Field, the “curator of Living History.” Cora assumes she was hired as a cleaner, but Mr. Field explains that visitors come to the museum to see the full variety of the American landscape and its people, “people like you.” The first room Cora poses in is called “Scenes from Darkest Africa,” which depicts rural village life. The next is “Life on the Slave Ship,” where Cora poses as an African boy turned sailor next to a white figure made of wax. In the final room “Typical Day on the Plantation,” Cora sits at a spinning wheel. She points out to Mr. Field that the room does not accurately represent plantation life, but he responds that he does not have the resources to make the scenes as accurate as he would like.
Try as she might, Cora cannot seem to leave behind life on the plantation. The first indication of this is her association of number 40 with Hob, which partially explains why she is so haunted by the screams of the woman. The connection between Randall and life in South Carolina is made more explicit when Cora is hired at the museum to pose in scenes from different parts of the slave trade. As Cora immediately realizes, these scenes present a completely inaccurate, idealized view of slavery, one that fails to represent the brutal reality of the lives of enslaved people. However, when she points this out to Mr. Field, he misunderstands her critique. This misinterpretation reveals that Mr. Field feels no obligation to accurately present the violent, torturous reality of slavery, which white visitors, we can assume, do not want to see.
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One realistic element of the plantation scene is the coarse “Negro cloth” Cora is forced to wear, which makes her feel intensely ashamed. There are two other “types” employed to pose in the scenes, two black women named Isis and Betty. Betty tells the others that she likes the fact that Mr. Field never shows his temper, unlike her previous employers. The museum visitors, however, are not so respectful—they bang on the glass and make rude comments. The exhibits open on the same day as the new hospital. Cora and the other dormitory residents are regularly monitored by the doctors, and Miss Lucy explains that their findings will be used to understand “colored life.” Cora goes into an appointment with a new doctor, Dr. Stevens, who is kinder than Dr. Campbell. After the examination, Dr. Stevens asks if Cora has considered birth control. Cora, alarmed, asks what will happen if she refuses. Dr. Stevens explains that it’s mandatory for some black women in South Carolina to be sterilized, such as those who have already had two children and the mentally ill, but that for Cora, it is simply a chance to “take control over [her] own destiny.”
As the feelings of relief over her escape from plantation life fade, Cora is made aware of more and more trials that she must endure as part of her new life in South Carolina. Working in the museum may be safe and predictable, but it is also humiliating. Her encounter with Dr. Stevens leaves her with a similar sense that she has been exploited, violated, and humiliated. On the other hand, Cora is also more confrontational (particularly around white people) than she used to be. The fact that she immediately asks Dr. Stevens what will happen if she refuses to go on birth control illuminates the notion that she still harbors a powerful inclination for rebellion. Cora is determined to maintain control over her destiny, which she knows means refusing birth control.
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Cora leaves the hospital feeling dizzy and furious with the idea that some women are forced to take birth control simply because they are deemed mentally “unfit.” She walks to the Andersons’ house and accidentally introduces herself as Cora to the girl who answers the door, before correcting herself. The girl tells her Mrs. Anderson and the children are out and that she should come back when they are home. Two weeks later, Mr. Field gives Cora, Isis, and Betty a tour of the whole museum. All the white figures in the exhibits are made of wax; she and the other girls are the only living “types.” The exhibits tell stories of different moments in American history, from pre-colonial Native Americans to the Boston Tea Party. Back in her own exhibit, Cora asks the sailor dummy, Skipper John, if this is “the truth of our historic encounter.” Cora thinks about the reality of life as an enslaved person, and realizes that no one seems to want to know the truth, particularly not the white museum visitors. She recalls hearing Michael recite the Declaration of Independence; even then, she knew that the line about all men being “created equal” was false in a country built by slavery on stolen land.
In the moments following Dr. Stevens’ revelation, the “dream” of life in South Carolina quickly turns into a nightmare. Cora feels shocked and panicked by the sinister truths lying beneath the surface of her comfortable, pleasant existence in the dormitories. Cora’s decision to walk to the Andersons’ house seems motivated by a desire to tell someone what she has just discovered so that they, too, can wake up from the dream. However, this seems more like a momentary lapse of judgment (akin to the slip of introducing herself as “Cora”) than a serious solution. Later, in the museum, Cora realizes that the white people in South Carolina do not want to know the truth about what is happening around them, particularly when it comes to the brutality and violence exerted on black people.
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Soon after, Cora notices that the lights in number 40 are out, and someone explains that the women have moved to the new hospital to “get better.” An hour before Cora goes to meet Caesar and Sam, she manages to get through an unlocked door to the roof of the Griffin Building. Cora looks out at the town, which is in various states of construction, and wonders if the Griffin Building is as tall as the pyramids built by slaves in Egypt. She wonders if she will one day live in a cottage on a street in the town that hasn’t been built yet. Cora isn’t sure why Sam has summoned her and Caesar. When she arrives, Caesar is already there, drinking an ale and wearing a new dark suit that suits him. Sam tells them that there is a train coming in a few days; he knows they have decided to stay, but thinks they might change their minds after hearing what he has to say.
Cora’s life seems to finally have reached a degree of comfort, security, and peace. Not only does she feel somewhat settled in South Carolina in the present, but she is even able to imagine a future for herself there—something beyond the imaginative capacity of most enslaved people, who are never able to feel that they belong anywhere or that they will even survive for long. Of course, it is just at this moment that Sam reveals information that he believes will change Cora and Caesar’s minds about staying in South Carolina. For black people in America, it is difficult to feel like anywhere is truly home. The fact that the town in South Carolina is only ever called “the town” in the book further emphasizes this idea: as even this place that Cora has come to know to an extent is still aonymous to her.
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Sam explains that one of his regular patrons at the saloon, Bertram, is a doctor who has recently been hired at the new hospital. Recently, Bertram was drunk and warned Sam not to go to Red’s, the parlor with black prostitutes; this is because the black people who think they’re receiving blood treatment at the hospital are in fact being purposefully infected with syphilis for medical research. There are also other research trials being run at the hospital, including studies to better understand the physical and mental traits of different African tribes. The idea is that this knowledge will prevent the suicide of enslaved people or the rape of white women by black men. Bertram adds that strategic sterilization of people with the most rebellious ancestry will allow white people to eventually free the enslaved without worrying about being killed in revenge. Cora says that they must tell everyone living in the dormitories that they’re being lied to, but Sam points out that people will trust the white doctors over the three of them.
The research being conducted on the dormitory residents is an example of how the seemingly neutral (or positive) pursuits of knowledge, medicine can become sinister and violent through being designed to advantage white people at the expense of African Americans. There is a long history of both enslaved and free black people being used for medical research against their will. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (on which the syphilis trials in the novel are based) actually took place, in the twentieth century, which shows that even many years after the abolition of slavery and ostensible mitigation of white supremacy, black people were still violated in the name of scientific research.
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Cora suddenly remembers the woman who ran across the green screaming, “They’re taking away my babies,” and suddenly, she realizes that the woman knew she was being sterilized against her will. Caesar says he must warn Meg, a friend he’s been “spending time with,” because she sometimes goes to Red’s. The three of them struggle to decide the right course of action; Caesar suggests that even these horrors are better than what the dormitory residents have escaped on the plantation. That night, Cora sleeps badly, tormented by the fact that she and the other black residents thought they were free of white people’s control but are in fact still being treated like farm animals. The next day, Isis asks Cora if they can swap rooms at the museum because she is feeling unwell. Cora usually likes to get the plantation room over with first and end her day in Scenes from Darkest Africa, which makes her feel calm. Cora hates being under the constant supervision of the white people who visit the museum. She has taken to glaring at the visitors, picking the “weak links” to stare at. The targets always break away, unable to hold her gaze. On this day, she sees the Andersons’ little girl looking and thinks, “I’ll break you, too.”
In this passage, Cora realizes how deeply the treatment of black people as property is built into the fabric of American society. Even in situations where white people are behaving in an ostensibly respectful, helpful, and kind way, this in fact masks a relation in which black people have the status of children, animals, machines, or raw materials for white people’s profit and control. Cora’s decision to stare at the museum visitors suggests that the only possibility of escaping this violent control is by confronting white people directly with their own selfish and cruel intentions. Cora retains her inclination to rebel at all times, even if it is with a gesture as small as giving someone the evil eye. At this point, Cora does not believe in white innocence, even in the case of little children.
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That evening, Cora goes to see Miss Lucy and asks about the women in number 40. Lucy says that the women have been moved to another town. She encourages Cora to set an example for other women even if she doesn’t want to be sterilized right now, saying “you could be a true credit to your race if you put your mind to it.” A colleague of Lucy’s enters the room, and Lucy mentions that the Fugitive Slave Law means the proctors are legally bound to turn in runaways. She adds that they are not harboring any “murderers,” and Cora begins to fear that someone has tracked down her and Caesar. She goes to the men’s dormitories to talk to Caesar, but he is still at the factory. She manages to see Sam, who informs her that he’s been trying to tell them that Ridgeway is after them. They decide that Cora should go down to the underground railroad platform. Down in the dark, Cora—who is not religious—wonders if she should pray. However, she has never seen praying work for others who try it. She tries to listen to what is happening upstairs and can hear furniture being smashed. She then realizes the house is on fire.
The final moments of Cora’s time in the dormitories highlight the fact that she is not safe anywhere. No matter where she goes, what she does, and how much white people (like Miss Lucy) seem to approve of her, her status as a runaway will mean there will always be someone looking for her and hoping to turn her in. Furthermore, even if Cora were legally free—even if she had been born free—she would still have to contend with slave catchers and others attempting to kidnap her in order to profit from her capture and sale into slavery. As the destruction of Sam’s house shows, the attack against black people’s freedom and all who seek to aid it is brutal, vicious, and heavy-handed, with no regard for justice or nuance.
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