Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”

At one point in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the escaped slave Cora finds herself working in a South Carolina museum, technically “free” but forced on a daily basis to model what it was like to be enslaved within a series of dioramas that white citizens gawp at. She thinks to herself of the various exhibits:

The enterprising African boy whose fine leather boots she wore would have been chained belowdecks, swabbing his body in his own filth. Slave work was sometimes spinning thread, yes; most times it was not. No slave had ever keeled over dead at a spinning wheel or been butchered for a tangle. But nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world. And no one wanted to hear it. Certainly not the white monsters on the other side of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting. Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.

Cora returns to this theme later on, as she hides in an attic in North Carolina, finding comfort in almanacs, because these “didn’t need people to say what they meant. The tables and facts couldn’t be shaped into what they were not.”

I find this particularly relevant today, in a world of alternative facts, where not only scientific truths are daily ignored, but where Trump would dispute the observable weather on inauguration day. Let us not be those monsters, sneering and hooting at the world that best suits our purposes. Let us not proudly set forth our accomplishments on the broken backs of others. Let us not be like the slavedriver who shows up in Tennessee and coldly compares Cora to a hog: “You need to be strong to survive the labor and make us greater. We fatten hogs, not because it pleases us but because we need hogs to survive. But we can’t have you too clever. We can’t have you so fit you outrun us.”

Stay alert. Stay educated. The chains are those of ignorance, the whip is the one that suppresses the vote.

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