How can one read a book about an America in which the Civil War never happened and not grieve that the circumstances described therein are not so far from the present reality? The reality of privilege is that I could read Underground Airlines and grieve, rather than nodding my amens and murmuring, “Preach”- like the church-going, former Baptist that I am. The black male protagonist feels hunted and he is, literally. Are there any black men or women who feel differently in the turbulent and bloody wake of the deaths of Tyre King, Terrence Crutcher, or Keith Lamont Scott.
Within the “modern” America of the book, slavery has been limited to the “Hard Four”: a unified Carolina, plus Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The plantation system has been taken over and corporatized, so that the enslaved people (all of African descent) belong to the company and are tattooed with logos to mark ownership.
The Constitution has been revised so that it can never be amended to outlaw slavery. The division between states, between abolitionists and slaveholders, between free black people in other states and all white people… these feel very contemporary, very real, very present. Since enslaved people still count as property, when a person escapes or is helped to escape- the federal government, in the form of marshals, is involved.
The main character and the narrative voice of the story is Victor, a formerly enslaved black man who now works for the marshals, helping them to track runaways and escapees. Even as he has been manipulated into this “service”, he is conflicted and frustrated by what he does. The pressures of choices, grief, and entrapment weigh in on him from all sides. The pacing of the book is uneven, reflecting the rhythms of his own life- waiting, rushing, waiting, rushing.
The first-person nature of the book means that the secondary characters are a little flat. The reader never fully knows their motivations because Victor doesn’t and can’t. They are not, however, unimportant to the story: Father Barton, Bridge, Martha.
The book is full of quotations and epigraphs, all created for the world of the book. This one sticks with me:
Compromise is not the worst of sins, but it is the busiest. The only one we’re all of us doing, twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week.
– Rev. Kevin Shortley, On the Urgent Necessities, 1982 (Underground Airlines, 297)
Victor’s days are full of compromises, some of which he believes that he must do to live. Bridge, Martha, and Fr. Barton- as well as others- are all doing the same thing. Compromising their ethics to expediency, compromising their courage for safety, compromising the humanity of others for their daily bread.
This book has stayed with me for over a month now. I checked out from the library and then I kept it, long after I had finished reading, because I just wasn’t done with it. Or more, it wasn’t done with me. What are the compromises that we each make daily? Quietism to avoid conflict. Token gestures to avoid fully committing. Promising tomorrow in exchange for a false peace today.
The reality is that by having fought the Civil War and made “official” enslavement illegal, we have compromised our own moral standing in the conversation about racial equality. We look to that history and believe there is nothing more that black and brown-skinned people could or should want. Not reparations, not apologies, not a recognition of an economic system built on the humanity of their ancestors and still commodified in them today.
We have compromised our ability to claim to be a land of opportunity, freedom and equality, when we have hobbled a great portion of our citizenry to a history that will not let us go until we learn its real lessons. The bodies are piling up in the streets. The grieving doesn’t stop. Black Americans are exhausted and, yet, many white Americans are still confused as to what they could and should do.
The time has come for internal and external examination, to listen and to hear, to be willing to acknowledge complicity in things done and left undone. A novel of an America without the Civil War should not end with a picture of a country that is nearly indistinguishable from the present reality. That is the image that Underground Airlines leaves the reader pondering. To do anything less is to compromise one’s self-understanding as a thoughtful reader.