Are novelists who write about slavery reminding us of its ongoing effects, or using the past to illuminate problems specific to the present? Are they arguing that slavery never stopped shaping African American lives in the United States, or helping us to imagine new grounds for African American feelings of national belonging?
In the weeks leading up to President Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008, I, as a newly minted assistant professor, sat in my office trying to revise my dissertation for publication. My topic was the rise of African American narratives on American slavery in the post–Civil Rights era, and I would often stop mid-edit, plagued by concerns about syntax (“What verb tense should I use?”) and temporality (“Has his election made my thesis passé?). Always guiding my research was the question, “Why, in this period of unprecedented legal and political gains for African Americans, marked by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the expansion of a black middle class, did African Americans feel compelled to remember slavery, that original site of exclusion and disenfranchisement?”
My answer was simple: American citizenship was never simply a matter of legal protections. It was also a matter of who did and didn’t feel like a citizen, who was and was not treated like one. Citizenship included the feeling of belonging to the nation, of having your history and contributions recognized in the civic culture of the United States. Because slavery contradicted the myth that the United States was an unfettered democracy, the nation had to willfully forget the lives and histories of the enslaved. And for that reason, slave descendants were caught in a paradox of what I called “civic estrangement,” in which we are simultaneously citizens and noncitizens, shaped by disillusionment, a sense of not belonging, and a yearning for civic membership.
Starting with Margaret Walker’s 1966 novel, Jubilee, a generation of artists, white and black, who came of age during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, turned back time. They reimagined the stories of those marked by slavery’s lash. Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada, and, of course, Alex Haley’s Roots continued this work into the 1970s; authors like Charles Johnson, Sherley Anne Williams, and, most famously, Toni Morrison carried it into the 1980s. By the 1990s, when I was an undergraduate, it felt like what Bernard Bell called a “neoslave narrative” appeared almost every year. Alongside the literature, visual artists like Glenn Ligon, choreographer Bill T. Jones, photographer Carrie Mae Weems, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, and the young visual artist Kara Walker led this cultural preoccupation with slavery into the 21st century.
But by 2008, some artists had declared the topic of slavery dead. That year, in his essay “The End of the Black American Narrative,” Charles Johnson wrote that the “unique black American narrative,” which emphasized the experience of victimization in slavery and segregation, “despite being an antique,” persisted, “denying the overwhelming evidence of change since the time of my parents and grandparents, refusing to die.” At the same time, the US House of Representatives issued an unprecedented apology to African Americans for slavery and Jim Crow. The Obamas became the first black family to inhabit the White House rather than just work there. African Americans finally saw themselves in the most powerful symbol of the land. As Michelle Obama put it, for the first time, we felt proud of the country, as if we finally belonged. In those days, my argument about civic estrangement suddenly seemed antiquated. Had the politics of recognition and that last rung of citizenship finally been achieved?
History, like books and black lives, continue to matter.
But something else happened in the days and years following Obama’s inauguration. Other people grabbed hold of slavery: New Confederates and organizers of Secession Balls in the South expressed nostalgia for a better time before the South lost the Civil War by reclaiming “Dixie” as their anthem or engaging in reenactments that memorialize Lincoln, not Calhoun, as a traitor. Sometimes they acted to erase the slave past, as when House Republicans in 2011 excised any mention of slavery from their public reading of the Constitution—a shocking move from a party that tends to celebrate an “originalist” reading of the constitution. For these conservatives, slavery was both over and had never happened.
Whether slavery would reemerge as a dominant topic in American culture remained to be seen. But in the years to come, Hollywood responded: Django Unchained (2012) became Quentin Tarantino’s highest-grossing film; director Steve McQueen won an Academy Award for 12 Years A Slave (2013); and just over a year ago, Nate Parker sold his film on Nat Turner’s slave revolt, Birth of a Nation, to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million. By last summer, WGN’s series Underground and A&E’s remake of Roots were television sensations.
Critics repeatedly cast the success of these representations as the art of Black Lives Matter. James Poniewozik, in his New York Times review of Roots, described it as “optimistic in focusing on its characters’ strength, sober in recognizing that we may never stop needing reminders of whose lives matter.” That comment stood in sharp contrast to scholar Stephen Best’s warning in 2012 that to “articulate a sense of racial belonging rooted in the historical dispossession of slavery seems to be an unstable ground on which to base a politics.”
In 2016, several black and white writers published novels that continue to compare the United States’ slave past and the contemporary moment. Of The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award–winning novel, Vogue asked, “Does the timing of the book feel uncanny, emerging at a moment at which shootings of unarmed black men crowd the newspapers, when we have the need to assert that black lives matter?” Ben H. Winters reportedly “kept thinking about Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was fatally shot in Florida by George Zimmerman, and incidents of police violence against African-Americans” as he prepared to write Underground Airlines. A reviewer noted that Natashia Deón’s Grace “takes place at a time in our history when the moral ledgers were never in proper balance”; the Washington Post said that Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is “merely asking us to consider the tangled chains of moral responsibility that hang on our history.”
History, like books and black lives, continue to matter. But these narratives are not only evidence of the long arm of slavery extending into our present. They also tackle the limits and possibilities of our present moment itself. Against our current backdrop of the US carceral regime, global surveillance, and the ongoing erosion of civil liberties and reproductive rights, the question of freedom—who is, isn’t, and never was free—has taken on increasing urgency. And these novels show that the concept of freedom is flawed, because historically it has always been more available to some groups than to others, with some groups having something close to “perfect” freedom at the expense of others made unfree.
“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,” marvels Cora, the 15-year-old protagonist of Whitehead’s latest novel, The Underground Railroad. “Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had.” Cora’s epiphany appears over halfway through the novel and far away from the Georgia plantation on which she was born and abandoned by her mother, Mabel, the only slave to escape their plantation without being returned. As a young girl, Cora is exiled to the Hob, quarters set aside for unfit women, during which she is brutally raped by four male fellow slaves. Her orphanage and alienation set her apart: “Somewhere, years ago,” Whitehead writes, “she had stepped off the path of life and could no longer find her way back to the family of people.”
When Cora is first approached by Caesar, a literate slave who plans to escape north on the Underground Railroad, she refuses him, invoking her West African grandmother Ajarry: “White man trying to kill you slow every day, and sometimes trying to kill you fast. Why make it easy for him? That was one kind of work you could say no to.” But after being violently attacked by a plantation owner, she invokes her mother and opts to go, finding herself in an actual tunnel and on an Underground Railroad that Whitehead has quite brilliantly reimagined as an actual train line. Through this sleight of hand, the underground railroad is no longer metaphorical, but a subterranean technological world that quickly indoctrinates Cora into a world where freedom, as the momentary suspension of her literal enslavement, cannot be separated from unfreedom, an inability to determine her fate: once on board the train, she doesn’t know where she is going; once she gets off, she doesn’t know when it will come back or where it will take her next.
The result is a panoramic portrait of the United States, each trip potentially taking Cora further and further away from her desired goal of freedom. Whitehead renders each state as having its own unique racial codes that flash forward to the racist violence that continued long after slavery had been abolished: sterilization, medical experimentation, lynchings. South Carolina seems to represent progress, with its skyscrapers and blacks and whites living and working alongside one another, but its white citizens are conducting a genocidal experiment in eugenics. North Carolina has banished all black people, sentencing to death those who, like Cora, happen into that state, sentences carried out in public executions that leave black bodies hanging from trees along a “Freedom Trail.” Instead Cora boards another train, to Tennessee, and then yet another, to Indiana, all the while trying to avoid the traps laid for her by a slave catcher named Ridgeway as well as other bounty hunters, moles, and lynch mobs.
Each time Cora runs back to underground, she leaves more of her past behind, adopting a new name and inventing a new backstory for her newfound freedom. In North Carolina she spends over a year in hiding, peering through a hole in an attic crawl space that Whitehead adapted from Harriet Jacobs’s autobiography, Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl, which described her seven-year escape to the 9 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 3 feet high crawlspace above her grandmother’s porch. Jacobs’s narrative, written in 1861, was a demand for abolition; hiding in that crawl space, she was imprisoned, but not enslaved. Cora’s fate reminds us that freedom is available nowhere; everywhere Cora goes, “America remained her warden.”
As the novel progresses, Cora has to decide whether she will spend her life running away from the plantation and the man who seeks to return her to it, more likely dead than alive, or whether she is running to somewhere of her own choosing. That subtle distinction brings to mind political theorist Isaiah Berlin’s 1958 essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” which defined negative liberty as the absence of an external constraint or barrier (like chains or a slave catcher) and positive liberty as the presence of something (like self-control or self-determination).
At novel’s end, Cora, taking the train for perhaps the very last time, finds herself both driver and passenger, whizzing past the South and history itself, having a moment of full self-actualization that becomes the novel’s apex of freedom. “On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light,” Whitehead tells us. “The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart.”
Cora’s fate may be hers, but Whitehead goes to great lengths to situate her freedom in relation to individuals and communities who help her. By contrast, the protagonist of Ben H. Winters’s newest novel, Underground Airlines, who goes by the name Victor, is utterly alienated from those around him, and even from himself. “I am not a slave,” Victor confesses. “But neither am I man.” Inverting Frederick Douglass’s famous chiasmus in his 1845 slave narrative, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man,” Winters situates his novel in a world so overrun by technology, bureaucracy, and slavery that almost all of its characters have come to lack inner lives or basic human connections.
These novels show that the concept of freedom is flawed, because it has always been more available to some groups than to others.
This alienation stands out because, unlike in slave narratives or even in many post–Civil Right novels on slavery, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, here it makes any pursuit of freedom mainly a matter of self-interest rather than a desire to be part of or advocate for a collective. Winters models Underground Airlines on hard-boiled detective fiction, which thrives on isolated, alienated protagonists. And he gives his novel a dystopic, counterfactual setting: though we meet Victor in present-day Indiana, these United States are a country in which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before he could serve as President, the Civil War never happened, and, while most of the country has abolished slavery, the “Hard Four” of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the reunited Carolinas still hold more than 3 million slaves. Externally, the United States is subject to global sanctions for its reliance on slave labor; internally, the nation is still getting over a war with Texas after its attempt to secede in the 1960s.
Victor plays a peculiar role in this alternate America; he is a tracker for the US Marshals who recapture runaway slaves. Like Whitehead’s slavecatcher Ridgeway, Victor is particularly adept at this job, having tracked down more than 209 escapees over the course of his career. His trick: he is black, and was once a fugitive slave himself, caught by a US Marshall who locked him in a basement and offered him the opportunity to work undercover as a “soul catcher.”
Victor’s liberty, his “miracles of freedom,” requires that he deny those very same freedoms to others. We meet him in hot pursuit of a man enslaved on a textile plantation in Alabama owned by a vast corporation called Garments of the Greater South. Jackdaw has escaped with the help of the Underground Airlines, which “flies on the ground, in package trucks and unmarked vans and stolen tractor-trailers.” As in any mystery, neither Jackdaw nor the corporation are what they seem.
Victor ends up a double agent and a potential agent provocateur, determined to redeem himself and perhaps even eradicate the institution of slavery along the way. The real mystery of the novel turns out to be the lengths that corporations like Garments of the Greater South will go to erase the distinction between laborers and the objects they produce. A critique of racial injustice becomes also an attack on globalization and on the environmental and economic exploitation of workers, at home and abroad.
“Free ain’t never free,” says Cynthia, a white brothel owner in antebellum Georgia. “Love is,” whispers back Naomi, the runaway slave protagonist of Natashia Deón’s debut novel, Grace. Naomi flees Alabama after killing her master with a fire poker to save her older sister, Hazel, from becoming a “breeder” like their mother. The 15-year-old Naomi gets as far north as Georgia and ends up with Cynthia, who offers her protection and anonymity in exchange for unpaid manual labor.
After being falsely accused of a crime, Naomi goes on the lam again—this time heavily pregnant with the child of Jeremy, a white man with a gambling addiction. She plans to travel west with him, until he explains that an interracial relationship would impair his freedom and social mobility. At 17, she finds herself in the Georgia backwoods, giving birth to her daughter, only to be immediately killed by slave catchers. Her daughter survives, but Naomi ends up in a new state of purgatory when she becomes a ghost haunted by her own inability to raise her daughter or save her from being brutally raped by a white man. “Tree roots, like dead fingers, have risen from the wet ground,” Deón writes, “and press against her throat, crushing her windpipe.” Naomi’s postmortem suffering challenges the widespread belief that death was at least a relief from slavery.1 Just as Cora’s attic or Victor’s basement do not represent freely chosen spaces of liberty, death in Grace is not a choice, but another site of imprisonment in a long chain of unfreedom.
Unlike Whitehead and Winters, Deón does not present the Underground Railroad as a viable path to freedom. Instead, Deón offers human connection as the ultimate resistance to slavery’s dehumanization, focusing on the bonds Naomi and then her daughter create with a host of characters, and on how Naomi’s love for her daughter, Josephine, in life and even in death, becomes its own liberation.
“The British were no longer selling slaves to America, but slavery had not ended, and his father did not seem to think that it would end,” explains James, a character in the Ghanian American writer Yaa Gyasi’s sweeping debut novel, Homegoing. “They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.” By the time we meet James, we are already two generations into a story that opens on the coasts of Ghana’s Fanti region in the mid-17th century and centers on two Fanti half-sisters, his grandmother Effia and Esi, each half-sister unaware of the other’s existence. The 15-year-old Effia is given to and lives with James Collins, a British governor who oversees the slave trade at Cape Coast Castle. Esi, also 15, lives just below her, trapped in a slave dungeon awaiting transport to the Americas.
Each of the novel’s subsequent chapters is narrated from the point of view of one of the sisters’ descendants, who now live on both sides of the Atlantic. By alternating bloodlines that eventually merge in the present day, Gyasi tells the long story of slavery, colonialism, segregation, Ghanaian independence, and the post–Civil Rights period. By crisscrossing the Atlantic, Homegoing gives us a long history of unfreedom. Even as each generation gains more and more autonomy over time, Gyasi tempers our optimism by revealing how their kin on the other side of the ocean might in fact be experiencing the exact opposite: a loss of rights or, worse yet, a life of increasing racial violence.
Quey, the son of Effia and James, is educated in England at the end of the 18th century and plagued by questions regarding his sexuality, his sense of cultural belonging, and, when he attempts to return home to Ghana, his family’s engagement in the slave trade. Ness, Esi’s daughter, is ripped out of her mother’s arms, only to endure brutality on Alabama plantations not so dissimilar from what Whitehead’s Cora and Déon’s Naomi flee. She is whipped so often that “her scarred skin was like another body in and of itself, shaped like a man hugging her from behind with his arms hanging around her neck.” While Effia’s marriage to James enables her to protect her and her progeny from being enslaved, her grandson, James, will learn the cost of such calculations: he spends his life trying to redeem his grandfather’s past, ends up abandoning his mother and fiancé, and reinvents himself as a local farmer, which puts his new wife and daughter at risk by association with a man void of clan or kin.
A few years ago, I was trying to teach anglophone West African literature that explicitly dealt with the theme of slavery, but, as Laura Murphy’s Metaphor and the Slave Trade in West African Literature tells us, with a few exceptions (Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Ayi Kwei Armah’s Fragments, Ama Ata Aidoo’s Anowa), this literary tradition has worked to forget slavery. Gyasi’s crisscrossing in Homegoing enables her to achieve a rare literary feat: by reimagining the slavery from the perspectives of those who were collaborators and/or victims of the slave trade, she can depict the competing notions of freedom held by her characters. Notably, however, the threat of violence, familial and racial, hovers over all the characters, which ultimately makes their choice of whether to resist or accommodate a false one. For example, Gyasi’s chapter on the Fugitive Slave Act depicts one descendant, Kojo, unable to move to a free state from Maryland because his wife is too pregnant to travel. “Baltimore still felt safe.” But such safety matters little in a system when any free black person, like Anna, can be kidnapped and sold, despite her papers, reminding us of how arbitrary freedom has always been in a world, then and now, when the practice of capitalism requires the ongoing erosion of even the most basic rights.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- In The Black Atlantic (1995), Paul Gilroy reads Frederick Douglass as arguing that “the slave actively prefers the possibility of death to the continuing condition of inhumanity on which plantation slavery depends.” ↩