All the black characters in the novel—whether enslaved or free—must constantly navigate an impossible choice between enduring the brutality of slavery and racism or risking everything in a (likely doomed) attempt to rebel. The entire system of slavery and white supremacy is designed to make black people believe that they have no hope of rebellion, for example by making it illegal for enslaved people to learn to read and write. Similarly, the torture and execution of captured runaways and their accomplices—such as Big Anthony and those hanged on the Freedom Trail—is designed to serve as a warning for anyone who dreams of rebellion. Although life under slavery is unbearable, many enslaved people are forced to endure it because the only other “choice” is a grisly, sadistic death. Similarly, any white person who feels sympathy for the enslaved is confronted with the fact that if they choose to assist enslaved people, they will likely be killed along with their families. Before Cora decides to run away, she views the option of enduring slavery as the only way in which she can exercise autonomy: “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.”
Those who still choose to rebel against slavery despite the near-certainty of failure are often characterized as insane. When Caesar first approaches Cora to ask her to run away with him, Cora thinks of the idea as a “prank,” “a trick he was playing on himself,” and “idiocy.” Despite the hellish conditions on Randall plantation, the idea of running away still strikes Cora as lunacy. In this sense, it is Cora’s placement in Hob—a shack on Randall for female slaves who are considered mentally unstable or disturbed—that allows her to eventually decide to run away. By being placed in Hob, Cora is exiled from the community of other enslaved people on Randall, and, by extension, from the social logic of this community. It is only this break from the social fabric that allows Cora to begin to imagine herself free. This underlines that, for enslaved people, insanity is a form of rebellion, because it is necessary to be “insane” in order to believe in the possibility of becoming free.
Rebellion also occupies a powerful place in the imagination of white slave-owners and their allies, who live in constant fear of slave rebellion. In the early 19th century, when the novel is set, the tension between the northern states—where slavery is outlawed—and the southern “slave states” threatens to tear the country apart (and will, of course, eventually lead to the Civil War in the 1860s and abolition of slavery in all states). Furthermore, slave rebellions in parts of the south as well as in the Caribbean and Latin America make slave-owners feel increasingly uneasy about the possibility of violent resistance. Some white people even choose to leave the south due to the fear of being killed in a slave rebellion: “The specter of colored rebellion, all those angry dark faces surrounding them, had stirred white settlers to leave the south.”
Although individual enslaved people might not realize it, personal acts of rebellion are thus part of a much larger movement that will, eventually, lead to the overthrow of slavery altogether. This is brought into particular relief in the story of Mabel and Cora. Cora spends her life feeling resentful of Mabel for selfishly abandoning her, and at the end of the novel it is revealed that Mabel does not make it far from Randall before dying of a snakebite. However, Mabel’s rebellion allows Cora to rebel, and at the end of the novel Cora seems to have finally succeeded in reaching freedom. Although individual acts of rebellion can often seem selfish, risky, and foolish at the time, in reality they are part of a broader network of resistance that succeeds in gradually chipping away at the power of slavery.
Endurance vs. Rebellion ThemeTracker
Endurance vs. Rebellion Quotes in The Underground Railroad
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.