On Colson Whitehead’s new novel, _The Underground Railroad_

Three chapters of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Underground Railroad, were published as a special print supplement to last Sunday’s New York Times (Aug. 7). What’s so extraordinary about the novel’s vision is not that he makes the “underground railroad” metaphor literal, so that we have to rethink what it really meant. No, the really extraordinary thing is that the world his heroine Cora is trying to escape is not just slavery-time but also Reconstruction and Jim Crow and twentieth-century forms of racist science and “utopian” social management–all postslavery incarnations of racism that show up when she emerges from underground at the different “stops” on her journey north.

Whitehead’s use of fantasy/sf time-travel techniques exposes the terrifying _continuity_ of multiple forms of oppression, erasing the bright line some like to draw between slavery “then” and modernity “now.” It’s Afrofuturism for the Black Lives Matter era, while also powerfully remixing 18th and 19th century writings by Crevecoeur, Douglass, Jacobs, and others on slavery and its effects on both whites and blacks.

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