Literary Fiction by People of Color discussion

Buddy Reads > The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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message 1: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments Ajarry... pgs 1-8
This beginning encompasses everything from the youthful capture of Ajarry til the end her life in Georgia. What are your thoughts?

message 2: by Amanda (new)

Amanda | 57 comments The author really painted a picture of how inhumane the enslaving and trading of HUMANS was and in such a matter of fact way. He depicts Ajarry's life as if she were something a commodity instead of someone, which was effective but so sad...She was the property of a Welshman for three months and then she was lost in a game of whist! After reading this chapter the quote " in America the quirk was that people were things" became so real.

message 3: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments "a matter of fact way"... great way to put it. From being lost in a card game, to the knowledge of your dollar value, to the acceptance of the physical taking of ones body. It's a very limited reality, but it is Ajarry's reality.

message 4: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments In comparison, Coates gave more texture to the fact of a slave existence, but Whitehead's picture is effective for what he is doing.

message 5: by Lotty (new)

Lotty | 81 comments I find it interesting that the "matter of fact" way in which her experience was written made it more jarring for me. Most likely due to the fact that her human existence was really just compared to chattel. I see how Ajarry's experience influenced Cora to stay quiet and know your place so that you can stay alive. I'm really looking forward to reading how much of her grandmother's influence starts to fade and the moment she starts to change her mind about leaving with Caesar.

message 6: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments There is a lot to see in how Ajarry influences Cora, but also (where I'm at) how Mabel impacts and influences her also.

message 7: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments GEORGIA page 9-73
Amanda, you referred to the description as gruesome initially. This question I found speaks to that...
Many of the scenes on the Randall plantation are graphic. Why do you think Whitehead chose to include these scenes?

message 8: by Amanda (new)

Amanda | 57 comments Great question I have been thinking about that and I am sure there is a reason which I am not too sure of but so far those scenes really instilled in me a greater empathy for the fear that kept many of them in bondage and the courage it would have taken to try to run to freedom.
Like Lotty said I could see why Cora would want to stay quiet just to stay alive.
I'm curious how you guys feel about the graphic nature? I was definitely not ready.
Whitehead is really focusing on the experience of being a slave and what it means to be a "thing" in those times which contrasts The Water Dancer as Coates mainly focused on the importance of family.

message 9: by Lotty (new)

Lotty | 81 comments I would say that I was expecting a little bit based on your progress comments but like you, I was really taken aback at some of them. Particularly the moment when Cora was raped and the pinching of Ajarry's breast while she was being auctioned. And how young they were and how close in age they are to my oldest daughter. I know that people tend to talk about how back then, preteen girls were already seen as women but really they were still children.

A definite contrast to Coates' Water Dancer. Whitehead seems to be focusing more on the individual and acceptance and fighting for what is their's. For example, the Blake and doghouse situation. Also, how others waved Cora off when her mother was gone and she was only 10. What are all your thoughts on that?

message 10: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments I think the raw brutality of the book has a 2 fold effect. It's awful you have to dream of running. Yet, it so awful most wouldnt dare run.
If you remember, Hiriam's mother was sold at a young age also. To, not see the slave as a person means not sympathizing with the pain of thier family being destroyed.
I do think, Hiriam lived a different experience because he was the Master's son and Cora was a castaway even among the slaves. Also, "Every state is different " as Lumbly said. Georgia is the deep. Virginia was more about the appearance class and civility. What was done to Big Anthony in front of guests by Terence wasnt civility at all.

message 11: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments A couple quick observations...
1. pg 32, black intellect in TUR and TWD is viewed as a parlor trick by the slave owners.
2. pg 44, specifies that the slaves ("n****rs) are not men
3. pg 66, obedience is survival
4. pg77, free isnt free for black ppl

message 12: by Amanda (new)

Amanda | 57 comments Omg what happened to big Terrence was insane I mean what kind of savagery?! and how that was justified by science and religion blows my mind.

Mrs Garner, Caesars former master "didn't agree with the popular arguments for slavery but saw it as a necessary evil given the obvious intellectual deficiencies of the African tribe."

It makes me wonder of any current blindspots in society, beliefs based on scientific data and/or religious interpretations that make us accept acts which would otherwise be considered heinous.

message 13: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments Right. The only way one could condone that is if they don't see these people as people. They could not see them as sons of Adam. They could not see the men as men, women as women, children as children and treat them as they did. It makes me think of how police handle people in the minority communities they are suppose to serve. It makes me think about children being put in cages. You cant see them as equals and do these things.

message 14: by Amanda (new)

Amanda | 57 comments So true, dehumanizing is necessary to placate any guilt

@Lotty It was sad the way no one looked out for Cora as a child. I just have to think of the emotional and psychological state everyone else around her had to be in, just trying to survive themselves.

message 15: by Lotty (new)

Lotty | 81 comments I didn't even think about the different locations until you mentioned it. Yeah the Big Anthony incident was just awful and what's worse, is that he was held up for a couple of days until Terrance came back with a group of friends. Disgusting.

Pg.32 - the black intellect. Even Hiram was exposed to that with his photographic memory.

Dehumanizing was the easiest way and Mrs. Garner, although she provided Caesar's family of a better situation, she was still ignorant and complicit. It's the whole "they don't know how to take care of themselves, so I will" mentality that still is around today.

Also, can I just say, reading the part where Cora and Caesar were waiting for the train in the underground railroad. I was not expecting an actual railroad and that was awesome to read.

message 16: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments RIDGEWAY pg 74-84
(The actual railroad train was a surprise.)

message 17: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments South Carolina pg 85-134
NOTE: Lotty, on page 110, it says by 10 years old "all the joy is ground out." So, emotionally, children in slavery carried a weight heavier than any child should have. But as Terrence thought, children, marriage and procreation was all for the purpose of the task and profit.

message 18: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments As women, what do you guys think about Cora (Bessie's) thoughts on "stealing futures"? (pg 119-120)

message 19: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments I'm in North Carolina (pgs 143-192).

What does this mean to you from page 147?
"Cora drew her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. In the end she would have disappointed him. She was a stray after all. A stray not only in its plantation meaning-orphaned, with no one to look after her -but in every other sphere as well. Somewhere, years ago, she had stepped off the path of life and could no longer find her way back to the family of people."

message 20: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments page 142 and 169 make statement about equality in death.
Page 142, "Only then (in death) was he the white man's equal."
Page 169 " the fire had eliminated the differences in thier skin, leveling them."
What does this say about equality?

message 21: by Lotty (new)

Lotty | 81 comments Tricia wrote: "South Carolina pg 85-134
NOTE: Lotty, on page 110, it says by 10 years old "all the joy is ground out." So, emotionally, children in slavery carried a weight heavier than any child should have. But..."

That was so sad to read. Makes me think about Lewis Hine, the photographer who advocated for child labor laws. Yes, he advocated for something that was needed but you look at all his photos, mostly all white children. I think I've seen maybe a few of a black family. Children in slavery were suffering long before the ones photographed by Hine.

message 22: by Lotty (new)

Lotty | 81 comments Tricia wrote: "As women, what do you guys think about Cora (Bessie's) thoughts on "stealing futures"? (pg 119-120)"

I thought that was such a great line. I'm familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen testing, was syphilis experimentation happening as well during the same timeline that is in the book? If so, I had no idea. That whole thing is SC was like a scene out of a Jordan Peele type movie.

message 23: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments I'm unfamiliar with Hines, but I will look up his work. I have stories from my parents of starting school 2 months late to harvest crop instead and ending thier school months early to see seeds in the spring. My grandmother left school at 9 when her mother died and became the woman of the house as the oldest female child. In those days educating a black southern female was a luxury she could not afford.

message 24: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments I dont think the Tuskegee experiments coincided with slavery. I think they were afterward. Not very long ago. The hospital gave me GET OUT vibes too. Maybe Peele could do this movie.

message 25: by Amanda (new)

Amanda | 57 comments On stealing futures: i highlighted that part and had to marinate on it. To put sterilization in that way illuminated the gravity of what was being taken from them. Legacies erased: "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." They were robbing them of future leaders, inventors, doctors, scientists etc.
Its truly sad.

Slavery is undoubtedly inhumane but it was only the tip of the iceberg. The acts done to maintain slavery and white supremacy are atrocious.

The job she had at the "museum"... the way the stories are watered-down for public consumption. I loved the part where she began looking back at the visitors that viewed her
"It was a fine lesson, Cora thought, to learn that the slave, the African in your midst, is looking at you too"

message 26: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments @Amanda, that was a deep text about futures...

I'm at ETHEL now, pages 193-200

message 27: by Lotty (new)

Lotty | 81 comments Tricia wrote: "I'm in North Carolina (pgs 143-192).

What does this mean to you from page 147?
"Cora drew her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. In the end she would have disappointed him. She ..."

I just read this part and was going to bring this up here and then realized that you had already commented on this part. I really felt this moment. The reason I really felt this is due to my own abandonment issues and generational trauma tied to it. My grandmother was essentially "sold off" to a richer family in South Korea when she was only 4 years old. My grandmother's family was poor with 6 other children. She ran away back to her family and due to her running away the richer family no longer wanted her and received their money back. My great grandmother's biggest regret in life but also something that she did in a desperate chance to save the rest of her family from starving.

I believe Cora's mother abandoning her, has always made her feel like she did not belong and never would belong to a family or to even a person like Cesar. It's as if she doesn't know how to love in that way since that love left her at such a young age.

message 28: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments Thanks for sharing, Lotty. Powerful observation. Btw, I looked up some of Lewis Hines photos. Those kids have no light in thier eyes. Barefoot, dirty and the childhood in them seems gone.

message 29: by Lotty (new)

Lotty | 81 comments You're welcome thank you guys for being my goodreads friends :) There's a book called It Didn't Start with You that talks about generational trauma that's on my list of books to read. And a topic that really is interesting to me.

Yeah its really sad to see those photos. They all look so much older than they are and no joy.

message 30: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments I think we could all find something there. I will look at up.

message 31: by Amanda (new)

Amanda | 57 comments Thanks for sharing Lotty. I also have that book on my TBR list. I didn't know slavery existed in South Korea as recent as your grandmothers generation. I went to a book sale recently and bought "The Making of Asian America" which I hope to learn more from.

It's so important to know your history, when I was younger I used to judge my grandparents (and parents) for some of their decisions but also their lack of physical/verbal affection. But I have to remind myself of the examples they had, from whom did they learn to love. Later I've come to realize they're also dealing with their own generational trauma.

Regarding Cora, I 100% agree. She definitely has abandonment issues. Those abandonment issues have led her to feel like she isn't worthy of love.

message 32: by Amanda (new)

Amanda | 57 comments I'm on the Tennessee chapter I won't put any spoilers but we learn Ridgeway has never owned a slave and only bought Homer because he seen a "kindred spirit" in him and immediately bought him his freedom, and tried shooing him away.
What do you guys make of this character? What are his motives as a slave catcher if he himself doesn't believe in slavery?

message 33: by Lotty (new)

Lotty | 81 comments Well, South Korea did not have the type of slavery like the US. But Japanese occupation was very cruel and I guess you could almost say it was like slavery. I highly recommend reading Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and it's really well-written. It's a pretty accurate story of Korea during the Japanese occupation. My grandmother remembers being forced to learn Japanese and had a Japanese name. Also, her father was a farmer/furniture maker which most of their food and livelihood went to the Japanese. Those were some dark times in Korea.

I also have "The Making of Asian America" that I started about a month ago but I've been really drawn towards fiction right now. I've read some pages in that book and its really good.

I'm still in NC in the book but I will say that Ridgeway is an interesting character and sounds like it he gets more interesting in the book. I can't tell if he resented his father or not. I know he was too philosophical for him but he did admire his work as a blacksmith. What are your thoughts on his origin story?

message 34: by Janet (new)

Janet | 224 comments and this about intergenerational trauma:

discusses generational trauma; not explicitly, but may be triggering. but I think relevant to this discussion.

message 35: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments @Amanda, Homer is interesting enough to have his own novel.
@Lotty, Ridgeway is like many young men who are shaped by thier fathers but reject thier philosophy (although they carry it in some manner.)
Pachinko and The Making of Asian America are on my TBR list. So, many histories are similar and correlated.

message 36: by Amanda (new)

Amanda | 57 comments @Janet thanks for sharing that. I remember when Selah Marley went viral and being shocked that fame and wealth still did not protect her from generational trauma.

@Lotty wow definitely learned something new. I also have Pachinko on my TBR list.

Regarding Ridgeway/Homer: I find sometimes there is a competition between father son, son trying to prove that he is a man in his own way. But I love the way you put it @TriciaSean "shaped by their father but reject their philosophy"

I genuinely feel sorry for Homer, imagine feeling so desperate and alone you cling to someone like Ridgeway for safety and a sense of belongingness. He finds security in being a slave, its like he looks at Ridgeway like a father because his concept of family has been so twisted and distorted.

message 37: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments Lotty, have you reached Homer yet?

message 38: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments Homer reminds of the black person who identifies the reality of anti black racism but feels thier safety is in appeasing those in power... even at the detriment of his people... I think of Candace Owens or a Ben Carson. The deepest thing was when he chained himself. He could only sleep then. He could only rest near his savior.That was deeply symbolic.

message 39: by Lotty (new)

Lotty | 81 comments I stopped at Caesar last night and I do agree with you about Homer. I'm still trying to figure out why Ridgeway saw Homer as a "kindred spirit." He is definitely interesting and still can't really figure him out. He treats them "better" than most slave patrollers yet refers to them as "it". Taking Cora out for a dinner in a new dress. He looks at Terrence in a negative light due to his gruesome showy treatment of his slaves, yet Ridgeway is just as bad, only more subtle.

message 40: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments It comes down to how one sees themselves and what one prefers... words or actions. Do you want to hear ally words or recieve ally action? Take Ethel who sees herself as an agent of salvation... but she also refers to them as n*****s, heathens, and believes thier position in bondage as justified. Is she good for nursing her to health, trying evangelize her, feeding and clothing her, and hiding her... or is her negative attitude and ideology condemn her?

message 41: by Amanda (new)

Amanda | 57 comments Yes Homer is like a Ben Carson/Candace Owens haha. The chaining himself was very symbolic.

I deeply disliked Ethel she had textbook white saviour syndrome, her motives were self-serving and had nothing to do with the salvation of any slaves. She fantasized about ministering to them.."in gratitude they'd lift her to the sky praising her name". She took advantage of Cora when she was sick "she kissed her on her forehead and neck in her restless slumber, with two kinds of feelings mixed up." Whitehead hints at her attraction to the same sex throughout.
I wouldn't even consider her an ally in words or action.

I too was wondering what Ridgeway saw in Homer as a "kindred spirit" since this totally contradicts his beliefs. I suppose he subscribes to the notion of slavery and the laws that govern its institution but without cruelty?.....I think his character is a complicated but clever creation by Whitehead.

Ridgeway is someone who is innately decent, who would otherwise be considered a respectable person. He reminds me of say a police officer today (with racial bias).....he has a conscious and a moral code to which he ascribes to but the dumhanization of slaves has made it so that he can earn a living guilt free as a slave catcher still believing he is doing good, as he upholds the law.

message 42: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments INDIANA page 241-294

Note back on 226, Ridgeway's perspective on The American Imperative is an honest accurate view on the American mindset. Sad.

message 43: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments How is your understanding of slavery in America different now than it was before reading the book? Did it prompt you to do any more research or find out any other stories about people who escaped?

message 44: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments I did look up Freedom Trail (North Carolina).

message 45: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments Page 265, "The negro's story may have started in this country with degradation, but triumph and prosperity would be his one day."

message 46: by Lotty (new)

Lotty | 81 comments Rideway's description of the American Imperative is very accurate. I don't know why but I also like that right after he said that, Cora said, "I need to visit the outhouse." She was just done with his mansplaining of America, haha.

I did look up the Freedom Trail as well. I'm also even more curious as to how the underground really worked. I do want to read some nonfiction books on the conductors, stations and the secret ways they were able to help slaves escape. If you guys know any books I can read let me know.

I can't wait to discuss the ending of the book!

message 47: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments Does Ethel telling her story change your perception of her? Why or why not?

message 48: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments Why do you think Ridgeway bought Cora a dress and took her out to dinner while she was still in chains?

message 49: by Tricia (new)

Tricia Sean | 359 comments Do you see any present day events reflected in the novel? How does this make you feel?

message 50: by Lotty (new)

Lotty | 81 comments Ethel - No, like Amanda I really did not like her. She just seemed so miserable but I'm thinking it's due to the life that she thought she was supposed to have. Her "white savior" attitude just really bothered me. That part of the book was really rough. Just how it all unfolded for Cora and to live like that in someone's attic, I would not have survived that.

Ridgeway - I have no idea other than maybe what Amanda mentioned earlier about him being innately decent. He held so much resentment for not finding her mother and I think that moment was used as if she was a trophy to him. "Your mother escaped from me but I have you now and let me dress you up like a trophy" type thing.

I keep thinking about the attitudes that haven't changed. The White Savior and the complicity attitudes are still being felt today. When I went back to school last year, I took an US History class. American attitudes really have not changed much when it comes to immigration, black people and the poor. I'm an optimist at heart and yes we have progressed through the years and I hope attitudes will get better...already seeing it happen.

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