Halfway through The Underground Railroad I went to see I Am Not Your Negroe, the documentary based on an unpublished essay by James Baldwin. In this documentary carefully selected images and well-formulated texts came together forcibly. As a result the impact on me was great. Back to The Underground Railroad I noticed that it lacked the eloquence Baldwin used again and again to make his point. Both documentary and novel show us a world in which ‘black and white’ do not manage to live together, the documentary demonstrating the force of language gave me goose bumps.
Baldwin takes us along in recent history (the last 50 years); when he states that ‘history is the present’ he puts the finger on one of the open wounds. Whitehead shows us how the wound came to exist in the first place. He describes the life of an Afro-American woman, starting as a slave, through her escape managing to become a free woman. I was expecting a considerable amount of explicit violence, it turned out I was shocked most by the ways whites implicitly managed to bind their freed fellow Afro-Americans. Ever since watching Roots in the seventies I knew slavery had come with inconceivable cruelty and violence, I had never known that in states where former slaves could live as free Americans they were lured to undergo sterilization, that in those states slaves were bought by the government, switching them from privately owned to public property.
The Underground Railroad was one of those novels needed to be written, which also goes for The Sellout by Paul Beatty, Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasis. They add important chapters to history. I do not add Colson Whitehead to the list of authors who indelibly impressed me by combining eloquence and content. Whitehead’s sentences are too basic, his metaphor of a physical railroad too concrete, his style too fixed on explanation and sharing historical facts. Whitehead had a message to share with us not a literary masterpiece. I applaud him for writing this confronting, important part of history, I hope that a next novel will also wow me for its literary qualities.