Americans have a tendency to hide the horrors found in our history. A prime example of this is seen in our remembrance of slavery, where the true depth of the savagery done to slaves is often obfuscated in order to be palatable to a broad audience. This has led to the creation of a genre in literature I like to refer to as "slave fiction", wherein the same palatable yet tragic story taught in American textbooks is regurgitated by an author and is then made commercially successful. There are a few staples of this genre; there will be a child separated from their mother, one slave horrifically whipped (but not our heroic main character), one white person who bravely saves our illiterate protagonist, and an idyllic scene of our protagonist on a farm in the north, haunted by their experiences and yet content and safe and "free."
When I first picked up Underground Railroad, I was prepared for my eyes to roll faster than a commercial laundry machine as I read "Yet Another Slave Story." And for the first 50 pages, I was smugly sure of my indifference (for I am, in essence, a fool). It wasn't until Whitehead revealed his alternative version of history that this book truly enveloped me. When Cora, Whitehead's eternally persistent protagonist, arrives at the Underground Railroad to find tracks and conductors and trains, it becomes clear that time and history are simply tools in Whitehead's extended narrative.
Cora's story forces the reader to evaluate all of the injustices America has perpetrated against black people, from slavery to reconstruction to segregation to the prison industrial complex. As I read about a fictional era where skyscrapers and lynchings coexist, I could feel Whitehead's hands gripping my head and forcing me to take a hard look at the truths we love to forget. By folding American history in on itself and conflating decades and centuries of events, Whitehead captures the essence of what it means to be black in America. Cora faces trial after trial, doggedly continuing even when she has nothing left. And yet, this isn't a hopeful story about someone with endless intrinsic motivation. It is, in essence, an incessantly bleak yet incredibly important and distinctly American horror story. A must read for anyone (including myself) who insists that they are "woke."