Throughout the book, the narrator emphasizes that slavery is an economic system, and that the social and moral behavior of the white characters is fundamentally governed by economic interests. For example, Terrance Randall’s sadistic personality and cruel, lecherous behavior toward Cora is linked with his desire to make Randall plantation as efficient and profitable as possible. Similarly, Ridgeway decides to kill the captured slave Jasper because he calculates that it will be more financially profitable to kill Jasper than to let him live. This scene demonstrates how the desire for profit perverts all sense of morality. Although Ridgeway is technically “right” that shooting Jasper will save him money, on an ethical level Ridgeway is obviously in the wrong. The law of the time dictates that enslaved people cannot own property (because legally, they are considered property themselves), and the narrator summarizes the relationship of enslaved people to economic capital with the statement: “Some might call freedom the dearest currency of all.”
The book also explores the way in which enslaved people are reduced to their capacity to make a profit, with their bodies used like tools or machines. Slave-owners push the bodies of enslaved people past the limit of endurance and treat the matter of an enslaved person being injured or dying through overwork without remorse. Indeed, slave-owners are able to treat enslaved people carelessly because they also oversee enforced reproduction among the enslaved population. In this sense, enslaved people are treated more like farm animals than human beings. From the perspective of slave-owners, the act of producing a child is divorced from the normal context of love and family because slave children (or “pickaninnies” as they are called in the racist vocabulary of the time) are simply seen as a resource for profit, rather than as people. Slave-owners thus routinely separate enslaved children from their parents and sell them off to make even more money.
Cora’s story also reveals other ways in which black people’s bodies are commodified (meaning turned into an object with financial value) beyond the system of slavery. When Cora escapes the plantation, she escapes a certain kind of forced labor, but she quickly finds that other white people want to use black bodies in different ways to make a profit. For example, in South Carolina she discovers that the white doctors are using black people’s bodies for medical experiments. The reason for this is that the medical profession is facing a shortage of bodies on which to experiment, and professional body snatchers know that black people have little legal or social power to protest the use of black bodies for medical experimentation. This fact emphasizes the way in which bodies are seen as commodities or things, rather than human beings. Cora’s job working as a “type” at the museum further underlines the way white people treat black people’s bodies as objects for their own voyeuristic pleasure and profit. Whereas the white figures in the museum scenes are dolls, the black figures are real people, confirming the idea that white supremacy casts white people as humans and black people as merely things.
Throughout Cora’s journey, she is constantly reminded of the fact that most of the country’s infrastructure has been built by slave labor. When Caesar asks Lumbly who built the underground railroad, Lumbly replies: “Who builds anything in this country?” Similarly, when Cora goes into hiding with Martin and Ethel in North Carolina, she notices that everything in the town around her has been constructed by black people: “The only thing colored folks hadn't built was the tree. God had made that, for the town to bend to evil ends.” These observations explore the deeply ironic fact that enslaved black people were kidnapped from Africa and forced to build a country that in turn imprisons, tortures, and kills them. This irony reveals a lie at the foundation of America—while American identity is founded on the notions of freedom and individual merit, in reality the country is constructed by an imprisoned population forced to work for the benefit of others.
Value, Ownership, and Commodification ThemeTracker
Value, Ownership, and Commodification 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.