Last fall, I walked out of a Kara Walker exhibit because the white couple beside me kept taking selfies. I’d gone to the Broad Museum in Los Angeles to see African’t, Walker’s black paper silhouettes depicting a dreamy and disturbing antebellum South. I felt jarred watching the smiling pair pose in front of horrifying images: A dismembered white explorer roasts on a spit; a plantation owner rapes an enslaved woman; a white girl fondles a black boy while another shoots air up his ass.
Later, I wondered why I’d walked away. The couple meant no harm; people take pictures in museums all the time. But I resented, or maybe envied, how easily they delighted in the spectacle of Walker’s art, while I found it hard even to look.
If images of slavery make you uncomfortable, then good luck going to the movies. Over the past decade, the entertainment industry has shown a renewed interest in telling stories about the lives of slaves. The Daily Beast declared 2013 “the year of the slavery film,” anticipating the release of 12 Years a Slave, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography, and Belle, which followed a mixed-race aristocrat in eighteenth-century England. An interest in slavery narratives has also extended to television this past year, with Underground, a WGN America series about the Underground Railroad, and a reboot of Roots.
In January, an online debate erupted among black writers when Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s film about Nat Turner’s 1831 insurrection, was purchased for a record $17.5 million at Sundance. At Jezebel, Kara Brown wrote that while Turner’s rebellion is a “fascinating story, an important one, and an under-examined one,” she felt ambivalent about seeing yet another film “that centers around the brutalization of black people” for entertainment. At The Nation, Mychal Denzel Smith disagreed, counting only seven major studio releases in all of film history that have centered on American slavery, including Amistad (1997), Glory (1989), and Gone With the Wind (1939). “I want a Marvel Universe of films about slavery,” he wrote. “I want so many films about slavery that white actors start to complain that the only roles they’re being offered are those of slave owners.”
What does it mean when white audiences are suddenly so eager to consume narratives of black suffering? And is this preferable, or even progressive, compared to their long history of looking away? During the Oscar campaign for 12 Years a Slave, leaked ballots from Academy members revealed that some voters simply chose not to view the film. “Look, I’ve lived long enough to know what it was like to be a black person in America,” one voter wrote. “What I don’t want is more terrible stuff to keep in my head.” Centuries later, the history of slavery hovers like the sun. We feel its presence always, but we cannot bear to stare directly at it.
American audiences haven’t been this interested in slavery stories since the nineteenth century, when narratives by escaped or freed slaves became best-sellers. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, an autobiography of a former slave living in Britain that was first published in 1789, had at least ten editions by 1837. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, now required reading, was massively popular upon its release in 1845, selling 5,000 copies in four months. Solomon Northup sold 27,000 copies of his book within two years. Slave narratives “provided antislavery propaganda,” Vernon Loggins observed in The Negro Author in 1931. “But that they sold rapidly is a surer reason for their great abundance.”
Some scholars attribute the popularity of slave narratives to their sensationalism. “Romantic and thrilling” slave stories captivated readers “by the sheer horror of their revelations,” John Herbert Nelson argues in The Negro Character in American Literature. Others point to the white audience’s mystification that a former slave was even capable of writing his own life story. Despite their popularity, slave narratives were not considered artful. Nineteenth-century critics often scorned them as “biased,” “inflammatory,” and “improbable.” More than a century later, even black critics remained dismissive, like one scholar who declared that the formerly enslaved “wrote to correct impressions rather than to make them,” and that “their work lacked any significant literary quality.”
The problem with the slave narrative is its predictability: A person is born in bondage to a cruel master; he or she observes a first whipping, struggles to obtain literacy, attempts to flee, fails, and later successfully escapes to the North. If the purpose of autobiography is to uniquely render a unique life, then slave narratives often feel formulaic, the narrators indistinct.
In To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, William L. Andrews attributes the predictability of slave narratives to their white readership. Unlike white autobiographers, black authors could not expect that readers would approach their works on good faith—they anticipated a skeptical, if not hostile, audience. To make their stories seem authentic, ex-slave narrators came to rely on certain established patterns. “This was perhaps the greatest challenge to the imagination of the Afro-American autobiographer,” Andrews writes. “The reception of his narrative as truth depended on the degree to which his artfulness could hide his art.” The slave narrative thus became trapped in an endless loop. To seem truthful, a story needed to sound familiar. But over time, the stories became so familiar, readers doubted their truth.
In her 1987 essay “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison bemoans the inability of slave narratives to earn “the fair appraisal of literary critics,” particularly considering the societal confines the authors faced. She focuses on the distance that crept into nineteenth-century slave narratives, especially during moments of violence: “Popular taste discouraged the writers from dwelling too long or too carefully on the more sordid details of their experience.” Instead, writers “pull the narrative up short with a phrase such as ‘But let us drop a veil over these proceedings too terrible to relate.’” The job of the contemporary writer, Morrison argues, is to “rip that veil.” If slave narrators were forced to obscure moments of extreme violence to make their narratives more palatable to a white audience, then contemporary authors must force their own readers to look.
Morrison certainly accomplished that goal with Beloved, her Pulitzer Prize–winning 1987 novel. She’d found an old newspaper clipping about Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who had killed her own daughter rather than allow her to be returned to slavery. When Sethe, Morrison’s fictionalized version of Garner, decides to take her children’s lives, the slave-catchers—and the reader—stumble upon the violent scene, where “two boys bled in the sawdust and dirt at the feet of a nigger woman holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other.” Sethe holds her dead child’s face “so her head wouldn’t fall off.” After killing one daughter, Sethe tries to nurse the other, “aiming a bloody nipple into the baby’s mouth.” The scene is painful to read, beyond its gory details. The reader accesses the slaughter through the eyes of the slave-catchers who, despite serving as the impetus, are horrified and baffled. They find Sethe’s actions inscrutable, and their lack of empathy feels like an additional act of violence. But while the slave—catchers fail to understand Sethe, they still witness the bloodshed. In Beloved, nobody is allowed to look away.
If the problem of a nineteenth-century white audience was doubt, then the problem today seems to be acceptance. If we already understand that slavery was terrible, why must we keep experiencing stories about slavery’s horrors? Beloved is frequently challenged by parents who deem the novel too graphic for children to read in schools; the novel currently ranks 26th on the American Library Association’s list of top 100 books most frequently banned over the previous decade.
In the midst of this conversation enters Colson Whitehead’s newest novel, The Underground Railroad, a brilliant reimagining of antebellum America. The novel centers on Cora, an enslaved woman who’s been abandoned by her mother, the only slave to escape their plantation without being caught. As a young girl, Cora is banished to the Hob, a shack reserved for disturbed women, and later she is brutally gang-raped by four male slaves. She is tough but guarded, marked by trauma and ostracized, aware of her own loneliness. “Somewhere, years ago,” Whitehead writes, “she had stepped off the path of life and could no longer find her way back to the family of people.”
One day, Cora is approached by Caesar, a literate slave who plans to escape north on the Underground Railroad. In Whitehead’s vision, the railroad isn’t a secret network of abolitionists who organize routes and safe houses to guide slaves to freedom, but an actual train that rumbles below the earth. Cora quickly learns the rules: While aboard, you don’t know where the train will take you, you don’t know when the next train will arrive, and you don’t know where the next train will lead.
The invention of a literal train illuminates the absurdity within an already absurd slave system, further complicating the predictability of the slave narrative. In most slave stories, the Underground Railroad is a source of relief, the method through which a runaway eventually arrives in a free state, liberated.
Whitehead presents a murkier picture. With each stop along the way, Cora wonders whether to remain or take her chances on the next train. Will it take her someplace better or worse? This uncertainty adds to the growing tension when we learn that Ridgeway, a legendary slave-catcher, is on the hunt for Cora, motivated by his failure to capture her mother. In The Underground Railroad, freedom is always precarious, safety merely temporary. Whitehead shatters the comforting mythology of the Underground Railroad as a system that rescued enslaved people from terror by whisking them away to a utopian North. No matter where Cora flees, “America remained her warden.”
The strength of the novel is its voice—chameleonic and distant, carrying on in a tidy nineteenth-century register that calls back to the literature of antebellum America. Like Beloved, The Underground Railroad features intense violence, but unlike Morrison, Whitehead often draws the veil. Take the moment of Cora’s gang rape:
Not long after it became known that Cora’s womanhood had come into flower, Edward, Pot, and two hands from the southern half dragged her behind the smokehouse. If anyone heard or saw, they did not intervene. The Hob women sewed her up.
In a moment of extreme trauma, the narrator almost politely looks away. Here is a proceeding too terrible to relate, Whitehead announces, and in his silence, the proceeding becomes even more terrible. The gaps in the narrative force the reader to fill in the blanks on her own. We not only imagine the horror but become active participants in its construction.
Throughout the novel, some of the most viscerally violent moments occur offstage. Cora does not witness but instead hears of the fate of an escaped friend, who is caught and hung from a gallows, “hooked through her ribs by a large metal spike and dangling.” While hiding in an abolitionist’s attic, she watches through a spy hole as townspeople gather weekly in an idyllic park to watch night riders kill runaway slaves and line the road with their corpses. Whitehead’s novel approaches a violence that is precise yet obscured, his language hiding while acknowledging what is being hidden. In The Underground Railroad, the veil exists not to protect the reader, but to challenge us. Whitehead forces us to see through the veil to witness the violence a nineteenth-century narrator might have been forced to hide.
In a 1986 article about Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, one of the first slave narratives to mention sexual violence, Joanne M. Braxton critiques the skewed treatment of a genre that disproportionately focuses on the stories of “heroic male slaves.” She points to Incidents as a text that taught her that “the silences and gaps in the narratives of women’s lives are sometimes more significant than the filled spaces.” Both Beloved and The Underground Railroad concern themselves with these gaps by centering on female characters who are too complicated to fit neatly into a nineteenth-century white audience’s idea of what a slave story should be. Sethe commits an unthinkable act—the murder of her own child—to free her daughter the only way she knows how. Cora is sexually violated not by a lecherous master, but by fellow slaves. She is prickly and unsentimental yet vulnerable, difficult to love but so deserving of it. Like Morrison, Whitehead interrogates the silences in history by drawing from the form and language of slave narratives to force a twenty-first-century audience to see the violent reality anew.
This is one of the biggest tragedies of the slave narrative: the pernicious belief that those closest to an experience are somehow the least authoritative. The ex-slave narrator was expected to condemn his oppression yet maintain a nuanced depiction of his oppressor, and to recall the events of his life in a manner that was clear, neutral, and devoid of any contradiction, lest he be accused of falsifying the past.
It’s difficult to imagine how any writer could have told the brutal truth about American slavery when held to these impossible standards. Even Frederick Douglass was criticized by a contemporary critic for his “severity of judgment and a one-sidedness of view.” Yet, as Morrison writes, “no slave society in the history of the world wrote more—or more thoughtfully—about its own enslavement.” Black-American literature can be traced back to these men and women, born in bondage, who fought for literacy and wrote to free us all. Two centuries later, black writers, inheritors of this literary legacy, continue to tell stories about slavery in a moment when white audiences are eager to consume them, but often still reluctant to engage with their brutality.
During a recent conversation about The Underground Railroad, a white woman told me that she was hesitant to read Whitehead’s novel because she’d heard that it was gory. Is it, she wanted to know? She wanted my reassurance. I understand. I still find it hard to look. But black writers are ripping the veil, and I’m grateful to see.