The Underground Railroad is a historical novel, and much of what takes place is an accurate representation of what life in mid-19th century America was really like. At the same time, Whitehead also deliberately weaves fantastical and ahistorical elements into the narrative, some of which are more immediately recognizable to readers than others. This decision is a deliberate rejection of the demand that historical fiction realistically and accurately represents the past. By rejecting absolute realism in this way, Whitehead reminds the reader that there is much about the historical reality of black people’s lives in America that is impossible to know, due to the fact that enslaved people were forbidden to read or write. The fantastical aspects of the narrative—such as the Freedom Trail—also emphasize the idea that slavery was stranger (and more horrifying) than fiction, particularly from the perspective of the enslaved people who were forced to endure it.
Whitehead’s deliberately inaccurate use of history also serves as a horrifying reminder of the way in which slavery is not a relic of the distant past, but a markedly recent phenomenon that still affects the present. Cora’s experience in South Carolina is based not on the mid 19th century, but rather on events from the eugenics movement that blossomed in the early 20th century, as well as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment of 1932-1972 and forced sterilization programs that are still inflicted on black women (particularly those who are incarcerated) today. By distorting the course of history in this manner, Whitehead challenges the reader’s assumptions that slavery is confined to the past through showing the institution’s powerful afterlife in the present.
Perhaps the most important fantastical feature of the narrative is the underground railroad itself. While the underground railroad was certainly real, in most cases it was not a literal railroad in the way it is depicted in the novel. Rather, it was a route of safe houses and “station agents” who helped convey enslaved people to freedom through a number of different methods. Enslaved people who escaped to freedom via the railroad did so through every available mode of transportation, including traveling in carts and wagons, on horse, and on foot. (It is worth noting that some critics have overemphasized the idea that the underground railroad was never a literal railroad. Historical evidence suggests that—at least in some places—there was a real railroad devoted to transporting runaways to the north.) By making the metaphor of the railroad into a literal, physical phenomenon, Whitehead questions assumptions about what is “real” and what isn’t when it comes to African-American history. In doing so, he draws attention to the fact that the very notion of black freedom is beyond imagination in a white supremacist context. This idea is particularly emphasized in the character of Ridgeway, who is confounded and infuriated by his continued inability to capture Mabel and Cora.
Beyond the question of historical accuracy of the narrative itself, many of the white characters in the novel remain committed to a mythical, false version of American history. This is best conveyed through the repeated references to the Declaration of Independence, which states that America is founded on the belief that all men are created free and equal. Such a statement is disproven by the reality of slavery and black peoples’ legal status as less than human. In his speech at the last meeting on Valentine, Elijah Lander references the dishonesty and hypocrisy of this American myth by pointing out that the whole country is built on the false belief that white people have a right to steal Indian territory and torture and enslave non-white people. In light of this, black people must commit to their own delusion—the idea of their own freedom. Fantasy and myth are thus shown to have both positive and negative consequences in the novel. Furthermore, the boundary between history and myth is blurred, particularly for black people whose very existence is a threat to the fantasy of white supremacy.
History, Myth, and Fantasy ThemeTracker
History, Myth, and Fantasy 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.
To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.