Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: Reading "The Underground Railroad"

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Reading "The Underground Railroad"

Thursday, January 12, 2017

 I should have read “The Underground Railroad” sooner. I should have read it as soon as I heard about it or as soon as I read the spell-binding excerpt that arrived with my New York Times on a Sunday in August. I should have read it in mid-October after I heard its author, ColsonWhitehead, speak at the Boston Book Festival. I should never have left it to read after November 8.

It is an astounding book. The writing is so vivid that I had a moment of questioning whether the Underground Railroad had been, in fact, an actual rail line running below ground. It is also unsparing in its depictions of barbaric cruelty inflicted with sick and sickening gusto, and its portrayal of Cora and other former slaves who, balanced on a razor edge between fear and hope, are nearly numbed to either. The book indicts not only the “peculiar institution” of slavery with its unspeakable inhumanity, but also the whole white supremacist outlook, from the “manifest destiny” of claiming Native American territory to the new reality we are grappling with since Donald Trump’s ascendancy made America hate again.

Late in the book a woman in the early 20th century, hearing about “The Great War,” will feel it was misnamed. “The Great War was the one between black and white. It always would be.”  And here we are now at a moment when we are hearing every day about post-election acts of hatred-- including the march scheduled for this weekend in Whitefish, Montana-- directed at all “others” who are not white, Christian, and male,.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt what people seem to call patriotic, though I have revered the country’s institutions and its promise. Now that America is over, though, I am despondent. For my grandparents it was the land of milk and honey where dreams could be made reality. I am guessing that was the case for most of the immigrant ancestors of the currently American.

“Stolen valor” is a concept I happened upon recently, the dishonest claiming of unearned military honors. It is a term that feels strangely appropriate, as well, to describe how what is being loudly claimed as “American” now feels so constricted, exclusionary, and antithetical to the promise I always thought it embodied.

In “The Underground Railroad” a character says, “Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary.” If America is to exist as America again, at the very least don’t we each have to be a good full moon to our neighbors?

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