A Heart in Darkness – Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

61ctwxzsuzl-_sx327_bo1204203200_The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, 2016

320 pages

South Carolina seemed enlightened, until you realized that, beneath the comforts and opportunities, the plan was to sterilize the black race out of existence.  North Carolina used less subterfuge, resorting to a grisly ‘Freedom Trail’ of hanging black bodies as a way of dealing with its ‘race problem.’  Tennessee was a burnt-over, cursed place and Indiana had its own terrors.

The main marvel is that Colson Whitehead’s book, The Underground Railroad, works at all.  It’s a fantastical reimagining of 19th century American slavery that manages to offer both a realistic portrait of the peculiar institution and an alternative narrative in which varied states play out racial narratives in different ways and in which the metaphorical railroad that channeled persons out of slavery to the North becomes an actual iron and steam train rumbling beneath the land.  In sum, the book makes an effective argument that the only way beyond the terrors and lingering trauma of American history travels via the subterranean tunnels of imagination.

The central character in the book is Cora, who is born into slavery on a coastal Georgia plantation.  Her story and choices are framed by a grandmother who left her a pitiful plot to till and tend and a mother, Mabel, who ran away, abandoning her child.  The first third of the book hews close to history, detailing the small and great indignities, the ever-present threat of violence, and the choking claustrophobia of cotton plantations.  Cora, who is a bit of an outsider within her own community, goes through a process of consciousness-raising that leads her to eventually accept the offer of a fellow slave, Caeser, to run away.

Their journey brings them to the Georgia station of the Underground Railroad, a creation that one ‘station master’ introduces this way: “If you want to see what this nation is all about you have to ride the rails.  Look outside as you speed through and you’ll find the true face of America” (262).  The grim punchline being that all you ever see in a tunnel is darkness.

If you want to see what this nation is all about you have to ride the rails.  Look outside as you speed through and you’ll find the true face of America” (262).  The grim punchline being that all you ever see in a tunnel is darkness.

In her travels, Cora is pursued by Ridgway, a sadistic slave-catcher who is just as deformed by the system of slavery as she is.  He is haunted by Mabel, the one that got away, and determined to send Cora back to a violent end, even if it means his own death.  His ultimate plunge into darkness is a fitting glimpse of the grotesque dance white and black were doing.

Whitehead’s book is a testament to the power of imagined alternatives, but it is just as much an indictment of the imaginary histories we tell ourselves about the past and about who we are.  Cora’s job in the relative freedom of South Carolina is as a living installation in a museum where she inhabits a glassed-in triptych meant to illustrate the real black experience.  Except that Scenes from Darkest Africa is ridiculously primitive, Life on the Slave Ship is jauntily nautical with a strange wax dummy of a sailor, and Typical Day on the Plantation has luxuries, like a seat and a spinning wheel, that Cora never knew.  When she complains to the museum owner about the inaccuracies, his only concession is that the room for the exhibit was too small.

When a small child on the plantation recites the Declaration of Independence for the amusement of his owner, the fantasy of the national myth is exposed.  To Cora it “was an echo of something that existed elsewhere.  Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the document described anything real at all.  America was a ghost in the darkness, like her” (180)

Is it possible to write a book that is very good without it being good writing?  I think so.  Whitehead’s ideas are vigorous, but his characters and dialogue aren’t.  I encountered this in his last book, Zone One, which I never finished because it left me cold, (and not just because it was about a zombie apocalypse).

We always inhabit stories that began before we got here and that shape who we are.  And the story I am a part of is one that has been distorted in its own way by the demonic narrative of slavery.  We need all the wrestling, dancing, and imagination we can muster to envision a light at the end of the railroad tunnel.

51nha5jnbll-_sx329_bo1204203200_Nevertheless, when you pair this with Yaa Gyasi’s great debut novel, Homegoing, which came out last year and which pulsates with life in telling a multi-generational story of Africans and African-Americans through the slavery era and beyond, we have two great windows on the lingering effects of the slave system on contemporary society.  As a white reader, I think these books say much more than that black lives and black history matter.  They are a reminder that we always inhabit stories that began before we got here and that shape who we are.  And the story I am a part of is one that has been distorted in its own way by the demonic narrative of slavery.  We need all the wrestling, dancing, and imagination we can muster to envision a light at the end of the railroad tunnel.

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What a Charismatic Preacher Can’t Do

Put together a charismatic preacher, a warm environment where people care about each other, and a lively music team and it’s still possible to have a viable small church ministry in the heartland.  People looking for an experience of church appreciate those thinscreen-shot-2017-01-09-at-11-56-40-amgs and they certainly rate high on my list of desirable qualities.  Two problems, though: Is that all that a church ought to be in the United Methodist tradition?  And what about those people who aren’t looking for an experience of church?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not knocking a good preacher and a caring congregation.  They’re just not ends in themselves.

When a church is at its best, it is drawing me beyond where I am into an experience of the kingdom of God.  It is opening up space within which I can be challenged to grow and change.  It is not merely hitting all of my nostalgia buttons and reminding me of warm times in the past when I have felt close to God, it is engaging me in a network of vital relationships that call me to accountability.  It is not confirming my assumptions about the world, but opening me up to new ways of looking at it.

Churches that do this may have a dynamic worship service, but they’re likely to be quirky and a little unsettling, since they will raise deep, authentic questions.

They will not be beholden to expectations about the ‘right’ way to do things.  They will always be asking “Why are we doing what we do?” And if the answer doesn’t conform to the mission, they won’t do it.

The Unattracted

Which brings me to the other problem: How about the vast majority of people in our land for whom the church of our 1950s dreams no longer hold any attraction?

If we are clinging to an attractional model for people who aren’t attracted, what are we doing?

Recently I was looking at demographic data for my own Eastern Shore of Virginia.  You might assume that this is a region that has more affinity for church and faith than in other places, but, according to researchers, less than 20% here say that their faith is really important to them.  (Statewide the average is about 20%.)  Only about 20% feel it is important to attend church at all.

Doing church in this new age is going to have to be fed by what happens ‘inside,’ but it is also going to have to begin ‘outside’ where we develop relationships in proximity.  The living room of your house or the table at the diner may be the most important space in the church of today as we gather with persons to begin to know them.  It models the incarnational love of God in Jesus, who came into the world to experience it in all of its forms.  Preachers and choirs jazz me, but loving God and loving our neighbors may just begin by being a neighbor.

A Brief Word of Introduction

 

img_5321Heartlands is the site of Alex Joyner, an eclectic practitioner of trades and a person formed by faith and region.  Heartlands is a collection point for writing, news, and sharing on life and ministry in rural America.  I grew up in Virginia and make it my home now, but I have also spent significant time in Texas and Great Britain.  Though my home as a child and now as an adult is a small town, I have also lived in urban centers and small cities.  My conviction is that the unique environment of rural and small town life is often misunderstood and under-appreciated, even by those who live here.

We call this land ‘The Heartland,’ and that speaks to the mythical role of the vast landscapes that frame the American experience.  That heart speaks in our national literature from Mark Twain to Flannery O’Conner to James McBride.  But The Heartland is not monolithic, and it is irreducible to ‘red state’ ideology, gauzy country music imagery, or even the outlaw progressivism of Willie Nelson.  It is vibrant, changing, diverse.  Hence, the plural in the title.  These are Heartlands that offer contrasting visions of who we are and what we could be.

I am a writer whose calling leads me to reflection on spirit and place, heart and land.  I am an ordained minister in the United Methodist tradition, currently serving as the District Superintendent for the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  I am the author of 6 books on vocation, biblical study, theology, and the Middle East.

This site is an online watering hole for those seeking nourishment and refreshment as they travel through the land.  It’s a place to share ideas and insight, to learn about books and poetry—old and new, and to catch a glimpse of what ministry looks like in this emerging age.

Is it theological? Yes.  Is it meant just for ‘church folks’?  No.  It’s as broad and scattered as I am.  But if you are as homesick as I am for a new day, perhaps we’ll share this spot for a while and dream a little.

Short-takes:

A book that speaks to my soul: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Musical taste: Singer-songwriters, Delta blues, and Celtic music

Favorite movie: A close tie between The Commitments & The Wizard of Oz

I left my heart in: Archer City, Texas

First real job: Radio news director

Interests: Kayaking and boxing