The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Quotes and Analysis

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.

Cora (Chapter 4)

Cora's description of America imagines the nation as a machine, an engine perhaps like that of the Underground Railroad. The very basis of this machine is evil: based on theft and literally sustained by the blood of slaves. Thus this perspective casts a damning eye on the nation, suggesting its promise is inherently corrupt.

They erected a new scaffolding of oppression on the cruel foundation laid hundreds of years before. That was Sea Island cotton the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and that crop grew fast. The whites were right to be afraid. One day the system would collapse in blood.

Cora (Chapter 6)

Cora reflects on the system devised by North Carolina to deal with their fear of slave rebellion. She concludes that it is fear at the root of their violence. Her words predict a bloody reality for the future: in an almost biblical take, Cora thinks violence will beget more violence. The system cannot hold.

Yet when his classmates put their blades to a colored cadaver, they did more for the cause of colored advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.

Aloysius Stevens (Chapter 5)

This quote describes the irony of white supremacy. Abolitionists may struggle for black freedom, but despite their best efforts, the only true equality for a black person is found in death, dissected by a doctor. This sad reality demonstrates the deeply racist setting that is America.

If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn't be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it'd still be his. If the white man wasn't destined to take this new world, he wouldn't own it now.

Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.

Ridgeway (Chapter 3)

This quote describes Ridgeway's conception of "the American imperative," the central principle of the nation. This is a deeply pessimistic view. Rather than any high-minded ideal or notion of liberty, Ridgeway had a different idea of what America is really about: theft, property, and expansion above all else.

If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you'll find the true face of America.

Lumbly (Chapter 2)

This quote from the engineer comes as Cora boards the Underground Railroad for the first time. In that moment, America still holds the promise of freedom. Lumbly gives voice to this optimism: the Railroad is the ticket to that freedom. Yet Cora's succeeding adventures reveal brutalities just as dire as the ones she left behind on the plantation. More often that not, the places where the Railroad lead do not bring freedom, but rather, more suffering. Lumbly's words, then, could be read as irony, revealing the false optimism of the Railroad. This interpretation suggests that the "true face of America" is not hope and freedom but rather the racist violence and oppression that Cora encounters along her journey.

Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.

Cora (Chapter 4)

In the novel, Whitehead is deeply concerned the nature of truth and narrative expression. Characters often view the same situation differently. Ridgeway, for example, looks at American slavery and sees the natural order, the way things should be. Cora, on the other hand, fights relentlessly for her freedom. In this quote, Cora recognizes that truth—just like freedom—is unreliable.

The way poor Michael reciting the Declaration of Independence 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.

Cora (Chapter 6)

An observation made in one of Cora's darkest moments, while hiding in Martin and Ethel's attic in North Carolina, this quote reveals a deeply pessimistic view of America. The idealistic promises of the Declaration of Independence are empty, or if not empty, at least unfulfilled. America itself, Cora suggests, doesn't exist at all; only the myth of America and its false ideals.

The music stopped. The circle broke. Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always—the overseer's cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.

Narrator (Chapter 2)

The slaves on the Randall plantation form a dance circle to celebrate Old Jockey's birthday, but they are interrupted by the arrival of the plantation owners. This quote depicts the experience of slavery. There is no real escape from the reality of oppression.

Each thing had a value and as the value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America the quirk was that people were things... If you were a thing—a cart of a horse or a slave—your value determined your possibilities.

Ajarry (Chapter 1)

This quote, early in the text, introduces the American obsession with profit, as well as the idea at the center of American slavery. Humans were property and thus their value was rooted in their money-making utility, just like a calabash gourd or fishing hook. It is against this idea that Cora battles throughout the book, struggling to reclaim her humanity and seek freedom to be more than her value as a slave.

Who are you after you finish something this magnificent—in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side. On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light. The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood. The stolen triumph you keep in your heart.

Cora (Chapter 12)

This meditation on the redemptive power of labor comes at the very end of the novel, after Cora has just gone through a book-length nightmare en route to freedom. The labor she imagines was directed towards the construction of the Underground Railroad. Cora is about to emerge from the Underground Railroad for the last time in the novel and travel west, ostensibly to freedom. This passage, therefore, could also applied to the effort required to escape slavery. The journey she describes of undertaking labor, and being transformed by it on the other end, could also describe Cora's situation.