Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” and Ben Winters’s “Underground Airlines” show how to look at history through imagination’s lens and come up with revelations about both our past and our present.
Whitehead, who is black, makes some simple tweaks to the reality of antebellum America that play out with astonishing force in his novel. He gives us a southern state, North Carolina, that abolishes slavery _ but in favor of indentured servitude and accompanied by a murderous position on escaped slaves. His Underground Railroad is a literal subterranean locomotive that whisks slaves to freedom. He allows us to see that escaping the legacy of slavery requires more than a change in the law or in geography. Americans have been inescapably shaped by a history Whitehead describes vividly: the vicious punishments for recaptured slaves dreamed up to psychologically paralyze anyone else who might have been considering running away; the white riots that destroyed black communities; the custom of white families bringing children and picnics to lynchings, turning the flaying of black bodies into festivals; black bodies abused in the name of scientific research.
We can choose not to read about the terrors that are part of our history. But we can’t escape their influence on our present and our future. All we can do is rely on resiliency and hope, which Whitehead also explores in his central character, the complex, damaged, heroic escaped slave Cora.
Winters, who is white, takes more liberties with history than did Whitehead. In his novel, 21st century America includes a Hard Four -- Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and a united Carolinas – where slavery is not only legal but organized by something akin to a real-life private prison corporation. Winters’s main character, Victor, escapes a Hard Four plantation but can only remain free if he hunts other fugitives. Winters describes Victor’s struggle to survive without privilege in a racist society.
So, the concept was proven before the men behind “Game of Thrones” announced plans for an HBO series in which the South seceded and slavery survived to become a modern institution. “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who are white, have assembled a multiracial team for their new venture, with Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman as co-writers and executive producers.
Still, I’m skeptical Benioff, Weiss & Co. can pull off what Whitehead and Winters did. And I’m a “Game of Thrones” fan. I connected with wry Tyrion Lannister and vengeance-minded Arya Stark from the start. But it has not escaped me that the show has no black or brown characters who are as fully realized as Arya and the dwarf. In “Game of Thrones” both masters and slaves are one-dimensional – the former self-centered and cruel, the latter patient and suffering. They’re also, as far as I can tell, of the same race, so we don’t have any messy racial overtones to the exploitation. We do, though, have two particularly attractive former slaves to act as noble spiritual guides to white central characters, a Hollywood cliche I hope “Confederate” avoids.
Yes, the new show is called “Confederate.” I wonder how that will sound to those who won’t acknowledge their version of American history is a fiction without Whitehead's honesty or Winters's empathy. and who insist on waving the Confederate flag in aid of bigotry and intolerance. With that title, the new show starts off tone deaf. It will be hard enough to get the tone right in our fractious times.
Back in March we learned that “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins will write and direct a series based on Whitehead’s “Underground Railroad.” If that can get to the screen first, perhaps it will provide some guidance for the “Confederate” team.