Cora (aka Bessie) Quotes in The Underground Railroad
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.
There was an order of misery, misery tucked inside miseries, and you were meant to keep track.
Cora was still squinting over his idiocy when she got her first bowl of the soup. White man trying to kill you slow every day, and sometimes trying to kill you fast. Why make it easy for him? That was one kind of work you could say no to.
Caesar has pulled Cora aside and invited her to run away with him, but Cora thinks the idea is absurd and that Caesar is a fool. However, Cora does not refuse Caesar because she lacks an instinct for rebellion; rather, as this passage shows, it is Cora’s desire to rebel that initially prompts her to want to endure life on Randall. Cora has very few opportunities to make decisions about her own life. To her, simply the act of survival is a defiant exercise in autonomy against the white men who try to kill her through physical strain and punishment. However, this view is complicated, as Cora is also a tool through which these white men profit. Her refusal to run away assumes with certainty that she will get caught—but what if she doesn’t?
They were exiles, but Hob provided a type of protection once they settled
in. By playing up their strangeness, the way a slave simpered and acted childlike to escape a beating, they evaded the entanglements of the quarter. The walls of Hob made a fortress some nights, rescuing them from the feuds and conspiracies. White men eat you up, but sometimes colored folk eat you up, too.
When Mabel left, Cora was placed in Hob, a cabin for women considered strange and mentally unstable. There is a strong stigma attached to being placed in Hob, and most people on Randall believe it is a curse to become a “Hob woman.” However, this passage indicates that there is also a positive side to be being placed in Hob. Because they are labeled as strange and different, Hob women tend to be left alone and spared the “feuds” and dramas that can make life on Randall even more dangerous than it already is. In this sense, Cora’s experience in Hob highlights the fact that there are both positive and negative sides to belonging to a community, just as there are positive and negative sides to being excluded by a community.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
At one point the girls started for the attic but reconsidered after a discussion about the habits and customs of ghosts. There was indeed a ghost in the house, but she was done with chains, rattling or no.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Cora had come to cherish the impossible treasures of the Valentine farm so completely that she'd forgotten how impossible they were. The farm and the adjacent ones operated by colored interests were too big, too prosperous. A pocket of blackness in the young state. Valentine's negro heritage became known years before. Some felt tricked that they'd treated a nigger as an equal and then to have that uppity nigger shame them with his success.
One day, while Cora is sitting in the library, John Valentine joins her and the two discuss the future of the farm. Some residents are arguing that the community should move west, while others advocate staying put but kicking out the runaways. Cora is anxious about this latter option, and has expressed her fears to John. While at first Cora had been resistant to feeling too at home at Valentine, she has now settled into life there and forgotten that the premise of the farm—black freedom, self-direction, and happiness—is “impossible” under white supremacy. These thoughts foreshadow Elijah Lander’s speech later in the chapter, in which he encourages Valentine residents to embrace the “delusion” of Valentine, as this is their only hope of achieving freedom and joy in the midst of those who will do everything to destroy the possibility of black success.
Seeing them all in one room, Cora got an idea of how large they were for the first time. There were people she'd never seen before, like the mischievous little boy who winked at her when their eyes met. Strangers but family, cousins but never introduced. She was surrounded by men and women who'd been born in Africa, or born in chains, who had freed themselves or escaped. Branded, beaten, raped. Now they were here. They were free and black and stewards of their own fates. It made her shiver.
The residents of Valentine have gathered for a debate at which Elijah Lander and Mingo will speak about the future of the farm. It is the first time that Cora has seen all the residents in the same place at the same time, and she is astonished by the community, which in some ways functions as a large and mutually supportive family. This passage functions as a meditation not only about Valentine itself, but also about the entire population of black people who live in America. As Lander will explore in his speech, there is little that actually connects the experiences of all black people in the United States—they originate from many different districts and tribes of the African continent, and many (such as John) are categorized as black even when they have mostly white ancestry.
The mention of the little black boy winking—who, unbeknownst to Cora, is actually Homer—is a reminder that not all black people choose to exist in solidarity with one another. However, it is inescapably true that all black people are united by the condition of being labeled “black” in America and by the ensuing oppression and subjugation they are forced to experience. At the same time, it is not just this negative experience that unites black people in the country—it is also their dream of freedom and their desire to be “stewards of their own fates.” It is this sense of mutual fantasy and solidarity that makes possible a positive future for black people against all odds.
On Randall, on Valentine, Cora never joined the dancing circles. She shrank from the spinning bodies, afraid of another person so close, so uncontrolled. Men had put a fear in her, those years ago. Tonight, she told herself. Tonight I will hold him close, as if in a slow dance. As if it were just the two of them in the lonesome world, bound to each other until the end of the song.
Ridgeway and a gang of white men have descended on Valentine, killing Lander, Royal, and many other residents. Ridgeway has captured Cora and forced her to lead him to the underground railroad station, which Homer overheard Royal mention in his dying words. As Cora shows Ridgeway the station, she draws nearer to him and loops her chains around his neck, holding him close as if they are dancing. This moment highlights Cora’s fearlessness by showing that she has turned her former fears—of dance and of proximity to white men—into a weapon.
In a symbolic sense, Cora’s decision to “dance” with Ridgeway shows that she understands fighting white supremacy requires exploiting white people’s fears and the intimacy with black people on which they (secretly) depend. Furthermore, this passage illustrates the way in which Cora and Ridgeway are a kind of mythic pair of arch enemies whose survival ultimately depends on the death of the other.