By Frank, April 18, 2020, Subject: Literature, type: Book Review, Pages: 6
Oxford dictionary defines the word “freedom” as the “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants” (Oxford Dictionary of English). Ideally, it is the act of not being in a constraint in the present day. Although freedom does not have a single definition, all versions converge by the fact that the different definitions relate to the idea of having liberty, independence, and absence of enslavement. Writers have perfected the art of using keywords to give deeper meaning and understanding of the novel. It is only with deep analysis of such words that a reader can understand the significance of the words in a text. In the book “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead, freedom recurs multiple times. Thus, it can be said that freedom is a keyword. The keyword is used in different ways to provide a better understanding of the novel. Colson Whitehead seems to have chosen to use the word several times with an aim of helping the reader have a better understanding of the motifs and themes of the novel.
Themes are the central elements of a novel, and Whitehead used the word freedom is to develop the main themes of the novels. Themes such as rebellion, family, and brutality and violation are all developed from the usage of freedom as a keyword. Certainly, from the author’s descriptions, most slaves including Cora have never known freedom in their entire lives. Besides being brutal, the slavery system is so expansive such that no slave can ever imagine being free. Cora who is among the main characters in the novel states that “Every dream a dream of escape”, which means that even with the tough slavery system, slaves still want to break free (Whitehead 39). Here, the freedom as a keyword is used to show how enslaved people seek freedom in their consciousness. Despite the tough system, which seems unbreakable, the slaves have the feeling that freedom exists. From Cora’s point of view, even the slaves who could not attempt to run away still dreamt of freedom. That is the reason why some of the slaves chose suicide or religion in an attempt to run away from the reality of enslavement- possibly attains freedom through it free (Whitehead,65). Thus, it could not be possible to understand such a link between death and freedom for the black people living under slavery in the New World
Freedom and death are deeply intertwined as observed in how powerfully it is encapsulated in the “Freedom Trail.” Colson Whitehead writes about the trail as an endless path along which the runaway slaves and those attempting to attain freedom face a nasty end. From the way it is used, the term “Freedom Trail” is used by the masters to serve as a caution or warning for the slaves attempting to run away. As described in the novel, “Freedom Trail” is that path where the runaway slaves are hanged by the masters and left on displays free (Whitehead 176). Other slaves with similar intentions have to learn from the remains of the runaways and possibly remain loyal to the masters. In simple terms, the phrase as it is used in the novel shows that the idea of slaves seeking freedom means certain death. Hence, the readers can understand from how the author uses the word that freedom for slaves was close to impossible. However, the only individuals that attained freedom had to give up their lives. Death was indeed the ultimate price a slave would receive for attempting to break free from the slavery system. Additionally, the caution aims to conceal the fact that some slaves manage to escape- although the success is always dismal. However, the main idea readers understand from the “Freedom Trail” is that the struggle between Black freedom and white supremacy ends in deaths (Whitehead 187). For instance, Cora kills a 12-year old white boy after successfully escaping from the Randall plantation.
In another sense, freedom is used to show the opposite of death. Life in the plantations is not easy for the back slaves. According to Cora, it is a living death, or in her words, it is a way of being killed slowly by the slave owners. Hence, since the bondage is already hectic for the slaves, the only way to survive is by running away. Running away from oppression, mistreatment, and enslavement was the only way to avoid death. However, the act of running by itself was a sufficient offense to earn death penalty free (Whitehead187). From the deep analysis, it is apparent that most slaves perceive the disappearance of Mabel as the best thing that ever happened to her since it gave her freedom. Mabel succumbed to snake bite after fleeing Randall Plantation. For a long time, Mabel was able to avoid slave-catchers who were trying to track her down. To most characters, Mabel achieved a kind of immortality. In the end, no one ever found out to what happened to her after her body was swallowed by the swamp. Thus, the idea of Mabel’s freedom inspired both Cora and Caesar to run away (Whitehead 134). Clearly, the encouragement from Mabel’s freedom is what bestowed a chance in life and freedom on Cora. Most slaves had died in the attempt to find freedom but Cora was lucky to survive until the end of the novel. In essence, freedom is the direct opposite of death- those who were able to achieve it survived.
Similarly, the author used the word freedom to show how the black people’s freedom is constantly haunted by the threat of death from white supremacy. The white supremacy system described in the novel is inaccessible. White supremacy’s effect spreads to Valentine’s farm disturbing the free utopia that had been created in the region free (Whitehead 126). Ridgeway and some few other whites arrive at the farm and began killing the residence. The freedom that had reigned for a long time was suddenly disrupted. Such action indicates that the freedom enjoyed by the black people was only short-lived and usually face a bloody end. It is the same thing that happens to the black people living in South Carolina dormitories (Whitehead 124). Whitehead substituted the word freedom with liberty to describe how free black people were in that place. Black people thought they were enjoying freedom only to realize that indeed they were subjected to a medical experiment that would leave the involved people infected with illnesses that would prevent childbearing. In reality, all black people seem to have been in constant threat of losing their lives. In fact, the narrator while referring to the medical experiment, states that what happens when a person takes away someone’s babies is that such people take away the future. In simple terms, no black person during the slavery period could access freedom unless by risking death.
Whitehead also used the word to justify some acts in the novel. Towards the end of the novel, Whitehead describes Mabel’s life and the reasons she chose to escape. The reader can understand well why someone can decide to abandon her young daughter for good. Mabel did all that in search of freedom. In fact, the author makes it clear to the readers that after escaping, Mabel was “thrilled by the taste of freedom” (Whitehead 210). She has never known freedom all her life, but now she understands the goodness that comes along with it. Nevertheless, achieving that freedom was not easy. Mabel had to forgo several things including her dear baby. Notably, Mabel also faced the risk of getting killed if the slave owners could find her after escaping from the plantation. It is unfortunate that even after attaining the freedom, Mabel was not psychologically free as she continually thinks about her daughter. At last, she decided to look for her, but unfortunately, she was bitten by a snake. By analyzing the use of the word “freedom” in this context, it is apparent that even the runaway slaves were not enjoying the freedom as others would want to imagine free (Whitehead 2018). Being free means a runaway slave had to be on heels throughout to avoid being caught by the slave-catchers.
Conversely, whitehead uses freedom to show how life gains meaning when it is embraced. Cora is now residing in the free black community in Valentine’s Farm in Indiana. Unlike other communities where black people were living, Indiana was distinctively different since the black people enjoyed liberty free (Whitehead 116). For once, Cora was enjoying a free atmosphere and the author says that she began taking classes again. Valentine’s Farm was the only place where people from different backgrounds mix freely. In fact, due to the existence of freedom, abolitionists, artists, musicians, and other people frequently visit the place. Cora enjoys the resources available on the farm including the library. Since she was interested in learning, the freedom on the farm gave her a good chance to learn as much as possible. John Valentines who was the owner of the farm realized Cora’s smartness and went ahead to discuss with her the future of the farm (Whitehead 219). As it can be seen from the freedom enjoyed in the farm, black people had Valentine’s farm as the only secure place to live. Additionally, throughout the novel, it is in this context that freedom shows some positivity. The freedom enjoyed in the farm is connected to safety, prosperity, and calmness.
In short, the keyword “freedom” occurs several times throughout the novel “The Underground Railroad.” Although the dictionary defines it as the right to think, speak and act as someone wants, the author used it to portray different situations. Several aspects of the keyword are used to show its connection with the death, risks, and enslavements. By analyzing the context in which the word is used in the novel, a reader is able to understand more the meaning, motifs, and themes of the novel. Apart from being used to develop the themes, it explains the meaning of some important actions taken by characters in the book. Thus, a good understanding of the novel arises from deep analysis and comprehension of word usage in the novel.
Colson, Whitehead. "The Underground Railroad." (2016).
Stevenson, Angus, ed. Oxford dictionary of English. Oxford University Press, USA, 2010.
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