The second chapter transitions to Cora’s perspective, opening as she sits at the edge of her small garden plot, awaiting the start of celebrations to mark the birthday of a fellow slave Jockey. She reminisces about the story of the garden, the place she returns to every Sunday where she “own[s] herself for a few hours” (12). The plot was first planted by her grandmother, Ajarry, when she arrived on the Randall plantation. Slaves coveted these small plots of land, and both Ajarry and then Mabel guarded their vegetables with zeal. On her own at age eleven, Cora was left to fend for the land herself. A fellow slave, Ava, set her eye on the plot and made Cora’s life miserable, forcing her to move to Hob, a cabin for the outcasts of slave society on the Randall plantation. Blake, a young, powerful worker, new to the Randall plantation, was next. One day he tried to claim Cora’s plot for his dog, building a doghouse on the plot and digging out the garden vegetables. Overcome with rage, “in a spell” (19), Cora smashed the doghouse with a hatchet. Miraculously, Blake backed down, leaving Cora to her plot. After the incident, Cora became even more of an outcast. No one intervened when a few men dragged her behind the smokehouse in a gang rape. By that point, Blake was gone, having tried to run away and been punished for it.
The chapter continues on the day of Jockey’s birthday feast. Cora drifts in and out of reflection. This kind of celebration, a small slave freedom, only happens on the northern half of the Randall population, under James. His brother, Terrance, is a meaner master, obsessed with profit. Cora watches as the children arrange themselves for the races, including Chester, a stray who she looks after. Young and old slaves drift over to watch, and Lovey stands at the finish line to judge. After the races, Caesar, a new slave Cora has never spoken to before, approaches her. He takes her arm and says, “I’m going back north. Soon. Running away. I want you to come… For good luck.” Cora laughs him off and goes to find Lovey. Together, they watch the wrestling matches, and then, finally, the dancing starts; an opportunity for the slaves to make “a circle of themselves that separated the human spirits within from the degradation without” (28). Everyone except Cora joins in to the “lively madness” (29).
The Randall brothers suddenly appear among the slaves’ celebration, holding wine cups in their hands. James is a rare visitor to the slaves, mostly leaving them alone. Terrance, on the other hand, preys upon his female slaves. The brothers ask for a slave called Michael, who supposedly could recite the Declaration of Independence from memory. Michael was dead from a beating from the overseer, Connelly, so Terrance makes the slaves dance to amuse them. While dancing, Chester accidentally bumps Terrance, and a single drop of red wine stains his white shirt. Terrance begins beating Chester viciously with his cane. The feeling of the old “spell” comes over Cora. Despite witnessing horrible violence and injustice, this was the first moment for “the slave part of her [to catch] up with the human part of her” (34) since she had defended her garden plot from Blake. In a split second, she rushes to protect Chester with her body, and the cane comes down on her instead.
The chapter continues two weeks after the incident. Cora is recovering slowly, both from the cane and from the whipping that followed the three days after. Two Hob women, Nag and Mary, take care of her. As she struggles with her health, Cora thinks about her mother’s escape, and readers finally learn the story of Mabel, who ran away from the Randall plantation years earlier, leaving Cora behind. No slave had escaped Randall before, and he tried everything from dogs to voodoo to Ridgeway, a feared slave catcher. But Mabel, who took her yams with her and left the empty garden plot for Cora to take over, was never found.
The next day, Terrance visits his brother’s plantation while James is ill, and says a silent hello to Cora as she works in the fields. Two days later, James dies, and Terrance is set to take over his brother’s half of the plantation. Big Anthony, a slave on the northern half, takes advantage of the moment and runs away, but is caught after twenty-six miles. The night before his punishment, Caesar visits Cora in Hob to try to convince her again to run away with him, and again she turns him down. The next day, a group of white visitors arrive, and they eat outside on the lawn as Big Anthony is whipped, tortured, and eventually burned alive in stocks built for this purpose. Terrance lectures them on the increased cotton yields he expects and other new, harsher policies. He squeezes Cora’s breast, and Cora realizes that “now she was his” (48).
After that day, Cora changes her mind and decides to run away with Caesar. Caesar is from Virginia, farther north, born on a small farm with a an old widow who taught her slaves to read, encouraged Caesar to develop his skill in woodworking, and promised to free them when she died. Instead, a local lawyer liquidated her estate and Caesar’s family was split up and sold in the South. Down in the South, Caesar continued selling his crafts on the Sunday markets. One day, a white man approached, offering to let him sell his bowls at his shop during the week. Caesar was suspicious, but it turned out that the man, Mr. Fletcher, opened a station in the Underground Railroad, and it is through him that Cora and Caesar will now escape.
The evening of their escape, Cora digs up the yams from her garden to take with her, and she and Caesar begin to make their way through the swamp at the edge of the Randall plantation. After only a short way in, Lovey catches up to them, and demands to escape with them. They have no choice but to agree, and press on. That night, hog hunters find them, and the slaves are forced to fight for their freedom. In the altercation, Cora smashes a rock into the head of a boy who restrains her and manages to escape. Cora and Caesar flee into the darkness, leaving Lovey behind.
Cora and Caesar arrive safely at Fletcher’s house, who fills them in on the situation. The alarm had been sounded earlier than they thought. In addition to being runaways, now they were “as good as murderers” after Cora’s assault on her attacker. Upon hearing this news, they decide to leave straightaway, hiding under a blanket in the back of Fletcher’s cart. They make it through the town safely and press on. In the evening they arrive at the Underground Railroad station. Lumbly, the station agent, takes them into a stairwell, leading them to the train platform. Shocked by the amount of labor the Railroad must have taken in its construction, Cora and Caesar learn that it is their fellow slaves who have built the Railroad. Lumbly gives them a vague train schedule and the runaways choose the next train, even though the destination is unknown. They climb aboard and the train departs. Cora watches the darkness speed by until they reach their destination, stepping out into the sun in South Carolina.
The second chapter describes life on the Randall plantation, creating a setting that functions as a grim backdrop for the rest of the book. The plantation master, Terrance Randall, is a tyrant. In one particularly gruesome display, he brings in woodworkers to carve fantastical figures in stocks built for a runaway slave’s punishment. While Big Anthony is publicly mutilated and burned alive, on display for three days straight, the narrator describes how the engravings in the wood light up as they burn, “twisting in the flames as if alive (47).” This imagery brings to life the horrors of slavery. This is the premise that informs Cora’s desire to escape; with these vivid descriptions, readers understand why Cora wants to run away. She never explicitly states her reasons, but the alternative is clear. Cora will consistently refer back to this brutal setting throughout the novel.
This chapter also introduces readers to Cora herself, the protagonist of the novel. Two of Cora’s defining characteristics are on display in this first chapter: her ability to make her own way in a bad situation, and relatedly, her determination. When Cora’s mother, Mabel, runs away and leaves her alone as an orphan on the plantation, Cora is relegated to the status of an outcast by her fellow slaves. There are numerous internal disagreements and petty vendettas on the plantation—for example, a rumor that Cora sneaks off to the swamp to fornicate with donkeys and goats on the full moon—which provide a certain “usefulness” to the community (21). Hob, the slave cabin for misfits, is one of these tools to maintain social order among slaves on the plantation.
The text does not specify for whose benefit this enforced “circle of respectability” functions: slave or master (21). Regardless, Cora adapts. Certainly at first the company of such “abject creatures” as the mentally and physically disabled inhabitants of Hob makes her afraid (17). As she grows up, however, Cora’s unpredictable defense of her vegetable plot against Blake and his doghouse demonstrate to the plantation that she truly belongs in Hob. In addition, she starts to feel as though she belongs there too. The Hob women take care of her after she is gang-raped by four slaves, and then after her punishment for defending Chester. Hob becomes a true home and a “fortress” for Cora on the plantation (54). This is the first of many examples in the novel of Cora’s ability to transform a difficult situation into an opportunity, or at least find something small to cherish in it.
Cora is also revealed to be a highly determined character. When Mabel leaves her alone on the plantation, for example, Cora, still a young girl, is forced to defend her vegetable garden against would-be intruders. An especially formidable schemer is Blake, a strong field hand who wants to take over the plot of land for his dog. In a dramatic scene, Cora walks back to Hob to retrieve a hatchet. Then, in front of a crowd of onlookers, she smashes Blake’s doghouse with the hatchet. Cora’s gaze signals to Blake that she will not back down, suggesting, “You may get the better of me, but will cost you" (20). More than just determination too, the text suggests there is something intuitive and special about Cora’s actions. In both this episode, as well as the moment when Cora defends Chester from Terrance’s beating, her peers find her actions incomprehensible. The narrator describes Cora as “in a spell” and “strange”; after the fact, she, too, is unable to remember what influenced her to take action (19, 39). These actions are intuitively moral, providing an ethical juxtaposition to other characters. Combined with her perseverance, this powerful emotionality makes Cora a formidable protagonist. These qualities of Cora’s also connect her to her mother, Mabel, who is described in this chapter as “quiet and stubborn” (14). Even Ajarry is said to have threatened violence if anyone disturbed her vegetable plot. Thus there is a clear lineage from Ajarry, through Mabel, and down to Cora. Indeed, this first chapter establishes the importance of mother-to-daughter inheritance, a theme that continues to resonate throughout the book.
This chapter also reveals the paradox at the heart of America. About to board the underground railroad for the first time, the conductor, Lumbly, tells Cora and Caesar that the true face of America is only visible from the Railroad. He also responds, "Who builds anything?" when Cora wonders aloud, alluding to slaves. Thus it seems that America, a nation that promises freedom, can only be truly understood only from within the darkness, aboard a machine built by America's most subjugated population.