The first line of the first chapter introduces the idea of escape. When Caesar asks Cora to run away with him, she says no; a response that the narrator attributes to the legacy of Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry. The rest of the first chapter tells Ajarry's story.
Ajarry is sold into slavery in Ouidah, a port on the Gold Coast of Africa. Her mother is long dead and her father killed by slave traders on the march to Ouidah when he couldn't keep up with their march, so Ajarry enters slavery as an orphan. Other members of her family are sold at Ouidah, as well: her cousins to a Portuguese ship where they soon die of plague. Ajarry's relatives' fate is known to the narrator but never to Ajarry, who is rowed out to the Nanny, a seasoned slave trade ship from Liverpool. Once aboard, she embarks across the Atlantic.
The journey on the Nanny is a wretched experience. The shipmates rape Ajarry despite her young age, and she tries twice, but fails, to kill herself. When they finally dock in America, she is auctioned off in Charleston amid onlookers eating oysters and corn and sucking on rock candy. An agent wearing a white suit and gaudy rings squeezes her breast and buys her for 226 dollars, a relatively low price explained by the high number of young girls sold on the market that season. Ajarry is branded and sent on a march south.
Ajarry is sold over and over again over the next few years, so much so as to suggest she is “cursed.” Her first owner goes bankrupt after buying a scam cotton gin; her second dies from dropsy; her third loses her in a betting game. Her price fluctuates according to the whim of the market. Through all the sales to different plantations, mostly indigo and cotton, Ajarry learns how to adjust quickly and handle the different whims and ambitions of her masters. She also learns about value, making “a science of her own black body.” Observing that, as a slave, “your value determined your possibilities,” she keeps her head down.
The narrator notes a “new blankness behind her eyes,” perhaps a result of her observations about a slave’s value. Nevertheless, she is sold again, this time to the Randall plantation in Georgia for 292 dollars. On her new home, she goes through three husbands. The first, a man with “a hankering for corn whiskey and… big fists,” is sold to a sugar-cane estate in Florida. The second, who tells her stories from the Bible, dies of cholera. The third steals honey and dies from the wounds from his punishment.
Five children result from these three men, all of whom die before the age of ten. Their deaths are caused by an array of maladies—fever, a rusty cut, a blow from an overseer—but none are sold. The only child who lives past the age of ten is Mabel, Cora’s mother.
Ajarry dies from a knot in her brain, alone in the cotton field. The narrator notes that this type of death could have happened anywhere. Yet Ajarry’s life since being picked up by slave traders has been defined by her value as a slave. Without slavery, her existence means nothing. Escape would have been impossible for Ajarry.
The chapter concludes by suggesting that it is these lessons learned by Ajarry that speak through Cora when she refuses to run away with Caesar. Three weeks later, however, she changes her mind and agrees to escape. The narrator ascribes this choice to the influence of Cora's mother.
The first chapter of the novel establishes a broad, sweeping overview of the context of slavery in which the story will unfold. Ajarry’s story establishes the bloody links of the slave trade between traders on the Gold Coast in Africa, Portuguese and British slave ships, and finally, the auction blocks of port cities in the United States. Though the rest of The Underground Railroad takes place within the confines of America, and even more specifically, the southern states, Ajarry’s tale lends the exposition important global context.
This context also serves to firmly situate the novel in the genre of historical fiction. Ajarry’s trajectory from slave port to ship to auction to plantation is one shared by millions of enslaved Africans. Perhaps Ajarry has particularly bad luck over the course of her life—the narrator comments bleakly, “You would have thought Cora’s grandmother cursed, so many times was she sold" (5). Yet such a pattern is not so extreme as to be outside the realm of historical possibility. In addition, this first chapter does not yet contain the elements of fantasy that appear later in the novel.
This first chapter of The Underground Railroad establishes a clear link between the narratives of Ajarry, Mabel, and Cora, introducing the theme of the relationship between mother and daughter. On one hand, Ajarry’s life both foreshadows and influences the stories of her descendants. First, the novel depicts how slavery is a particularly gendered experience for his characters, especially through the phenomenon of sexual violence. Members of the slave ship crew rape Ajarry, only a young girl at that point. Later in the novel, both Ajarry’s descendants, Mabel and Cora, become victims of rape. Ajarry also exerts a direct and powerful influence over the choices of her granddaughter, Cora, who becomes the protagonist of the novel. The first line of the novel introduces the concept of escape from slavery. Cora initially refuses: “she said no. This was her grandmother talking” (3). Thus Cora’s decisions are directly attributed to her grandmother. Escape for Ajarry is “impossible,” and it is this worldview that initially influences Cora (8).
On the other hand, Ajarry’s story is established as a counterpoint to the stories of her descendants, Mabel and Cora. Her life from a young age is defined by slavery. On the slave ship, Ajarry attempts suicide several times. In some ways, these attempts to escape slavery, albeit through death, foreshadow her descendants’ drive to free themselves from slavery. On the other hand, Ajarry’s personhood is defined by her status as a slave, unlike her descendants’. In America, for example, Ajarry learns that “If you were a thing—a cart or a house or a slave—your value determined your possibilities” (7). Her death, too, confirms the totality of slavery: Ajarry dies in the cotton fields, at work for the profit of her white master. Escape would have been impossible, because the “fundamental principles of [her] existence” confine her to slavery (8). The text will later juxtapose Ajarry’s life with that of Mabel and especially Cora, who are driven to seek freedom.
In this first chapter, Whitehead establishes a dark mood, retained throughout the novel. The text describes these horrors, however, in matter-of-fact language, creating a detached tone. An objective narrator describes the intimate sorrows of Ajarry's life in the third person. The narrator also occasionally zooms out to describe the broader geopolitical implications, a narrative technique employed throughout the rest of the novel.