The Underground Railroad


Colson Whitehead

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Family, Heritage, and Home 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.
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon

The beginning chapters of the book introduce the notion that Cora was predestined to run away because her mother, Mabel, also ran away—running away and pursuing freedom is her family “inheritance.” Although Cora hates her mother for abandoning her to a life of captivity, the penultimate chapter confirms that Mabel believed that by running away she would implant the idea of freedom in Cora’s mind. This lineage of freedom between mother and daughter is further underlined by the garden that Mabel leaves Cora to tend, which is framed as Cora’s “inheritance.” The significance of the garden lies in the fact that it is a place of refuge, hope, and vitality in the midst of the desolate hell of the plantation. Through the garden, Cora is connected to her mother and other ancestors who came before her, including those who lived free in Africa. Thus, although Cora grows up without her immediate family members, it is her connection to her family that enables her to seek a life of freedom. This idea is emphasized when Cora is described as a “stray” (an orphan, exiled from the normal life of the plantation): while there are negative consequences of being a “stray,” Cora’s lack of attachment is also what enables her to escape the clutches of captivity multiple times. By stepping “off the path of life,” Cora receives access to another path––the path of freedom.

The book also illustrates the ways in which family, kinship, and heritage are distorted by the institution of slavery. In the chapter about Ethel, the narrator notes that, as a child, Ethel was confused by the connection of enslaved people to their white captors, mistaking it for a familial relation: “Ethel thought that a slave was someone who lived in your house like family but was not family.” Although this is a naïve misunderstanding of the way slavery really operates, it also highlights the way in which enslaved people live among whites in a far more intimate and interpersonally complex way than is often assumed.

There are many scenes depicting the traumatic separation of families, particularly mothers separated from their children, which was one of the most common manifestations of the brutality of slavery. Due to this practice and the forced erasure of African identity and language, black people in America were severed from their heritage and often could not trace their familial lineage. While this was a form of violence, it also allowed for the formation of new kinds of family, including, the book suggests, a feeling of kinship and solidarity among people of African descent who are living in America. John Valentine, for example, explains that, although he is personally free, he feels obligated to help runaways because “as long as one of our family endured the torments of bondage, I was a freeman in name only.” Throughout the novel, Cora must navigate the difficult balance between maintaining this sense of kinship with others and ruthlessly looking out for her own interests, which is necessary for survival.

The book also illuminates the way in which slavery effectively makes black people homeless within the only country most of them have ever known. Cora wrestles with three different ideas of home: the plantation where she was born, the home of her ancestors in Africa, and the unknown home that she seeks through the underground railroad. Although she was born on Randall, the plantation serves as a hideous distortion of the concept of home; it is a place of endless suffering and death, and once Cora runs away, it is the place where she is least safe in the world. The irony of considering Randall “home” is conveyed when Ridgeway tells Cora after he captures her: “You don't have to be afraid, Cora. You're going home.” Cora’s ancestral home in Africa, meanwhile, provides her with a feeling of solace and hope; when she works as a “type” at the museum, “ending her day in Scenes from Darkest Africa never failed to cast her into a river of calm.” However, this home is also imperfect, because Cora has so little real access to it. She has never been to Africa, doesn’t know where in Africa her ancestors come from, and her only lived experience of the continent is through acting within an inaccurate, stereotypical scene in a museum for the benefit of white voyeurs. Finally, Cora searches for a home in the north where she can finally live a free and happy life. To some extent, Valentine’s farm serves as the closest thing to a home Cora ever experiences. However, it is not long before Cora is forced to leave the farm and go on the run again. In this sense, Cora’s “home” is not any particular place, but the act of being on the run, and, in doing so, seeking freedom.

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Family, Heritage, and Home ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Underground Railroad related to the theme of Family, Heritage, and Home.
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:

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.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:
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:
Chapter 4: South Carolina Quotes

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."

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Caesar, Mabel
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

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:
Chapter 7: Ethel Quotes

Ethel thought that a slave was someone who lived in your house like family but was not family. Her father explained the origin of the negro to disabuse her of this colorful idea. Some maintained that the negro was the remnant of a race of giants who had ruled the earth in an ancient time, but Edgar Delany knew they were descendants of cursed, black Ham, who had survived the Flood by clinging to the peaks of a mountain in Africa. Ethel thought that if they were cursed, they required Christian guidance all the more.

Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10: Indiana Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Caesar, Chester, Molly
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

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: