The Underground Railroad depicts the full spectrum of brutality and violation that defined the institution of slavery. Violence is such a large part of ordinary life in the world of the novel that Cora and the other characters are unsurprised by even the most sadistic and gruesome events, such as Big Anthony’s punishment after he is caught attempting to run away. At the same time, Whitehead is careful to show that Cora and other black people in the book are not numbed to the violence that surrounds them, even if they are often forced to suppress their emotions to avoid further punishment from white people. For example, when Ridgeway tells Cora that after being caught Lovey was hung by her ribs on a large metal spike, “Cora covered her mouth to keep in her scream. She failed.” This incident highlights the way in which Cora and other black people hide their reactions to the brutality of slavery as a self-protective gesture, a defence mechanism against the seemingly endless sadism of whites.
The fundamental injustice of slavery also leads some of the black characters to commit acts of violence themselves with apparent indifference. Early on in the novel, Cora is gang-raped by four male slaves and later she kills a 12-year-old white boy while escaping from Randall. When reflecting on whether or not she feels guilty for killing the boy, Cora concludes that she doesn’t because it was necessary for her escape. Cora has endured so much violence that the notion of avoiding committing violence herself is absurd. Indeed, considering Cora’s experiences in life, it is perhaps surprising that she doesn’t have a more vengeful attitude toward white people. Even when she has the chance to kill Ridgeway, she chooses only to kick him three times before letting him live—a decision that comes back to haunt her when Ridgeway and his gang arrive at Valentine’s farm. This turn of events suggests that showing any mercy to white slave-owners and slave-catchers is an unwise and dangerous choice.
Indeed, many white people in the novel are shockingly indifferent to the suffering of black people, and several seem to take great pleasure in subjecting black people to unimaginable tortures. One of the most disturbing scenes in the book comes early on, when Terrance Randall and his guests eat while Big Anthony is punished in front of them: “Big Anthony was whipped for the duration of their meal, and they ate slow.” This moment highlights the way in which the sadistic torture of black people is not only treated as a necessary tool to maintain white domination, but as a source of pleasure and entertainment for white people. The notion that white people gain pleasure from the suffering of black people is most heavily emphasized through the many examples of the sexual violation that was ubiquitous during slavery. This is particularly pronounced in the character of Terrance, who boasts: “I like to taste my plums,” meaning the enslaved women that are legally his property. The behavior of Terrance and other white men who delight in raping black women conveys the fact that even though slavery is primarily an economic system whose main focus is to produce profit, sadism and sexual desire are also important drivers in the perpetuation of slavery and white supremacy.
Brutality and Violation ThemeTracker
Brutality and Violation Quotes in The Underground Railroad
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.