The eighth chapter opens with the captured Cora en route back to her old master, Randall, in Ridgeway’s slave catcher wagon. Jasper, another runaway who Ridgeway captured along the way, sings biblical hymns incessantly. His voice is a constant as their wagon travels through Tennessee. This new state has been burned to the ground. They pass entire towns turned to ash and are soon covered with black grime themselves.
They stop to eat. Ridgeway allows his runaways a full portion of food to make the journey easier—he bills their masters upon return—but Jasper refuses to eat. Homer, a ten-year-old black boy who wears a suit and top hat, drives Ridgeway’s wagon and takes notes on Ridgeway’s business accounts and exploits. Ridgeway tells Cora that he found the boy for sale and took him to be a kindred spirit. Ridgeway bought Homer and then set him free, but Homer remains with him. According to Ridgeway, Homer knows “a black boy has no future” in America (202).
Boseman works for Ridgeway too and travels in the wagon with them. Boseman is known for wearing a necklace of ears, which he won in a wrestling match from an Indian named Strong. He tells the group his father passed through Tennessee when it was still forest. Now it has been cleared by settlers. Ridgeway tells Cora the story. Tennessee used to be Cherokee land, until the president decided white settlers needed it. The army rounded up the Cherokee and marched them west of the Mississippi. Thousands died from disease, malnutrition, and the harsh winter on the march. When what remained of the Cherokee arrived in Oklahoma, white settlers squatted on the land they had been promised.
What is left of the former Cherokee land in Tennessee is now desolate from a huge wildfire, started by a lightning strike, according to Ridgeway. But a shopkeeper told them that white settlers had started the fire themselves to try and clear the land. The flames got away from them and destroyed three million acres of land. Cora tries to escape several times as they travel through this desolate land, but she never gets far. She notices they are traveling west instead of south, the direction of Randall’s plantation. When Cora asks Ridgeway directly, he informs her of his plans: a pit stop in Missouri to apprehend an unruly slave. Ridgeway also tells Cora of his visit to Randall’s plantation to confer with Terrance when he issued the bounty for Cora. Terrance had constructed three gallows on the plantation, and hung Lovey from a stake in the gallows by her ribs. When Cora hears this news, she bursts into tears. It takes her ten minutes to regain her composure. Ridgeway continues talking, telling her how it was a shame to see Terrance Randall so mean, so corrupted by money. He catches her up on more events: how he paid Mr. Fletcher a visit and learned he had helped Cora and Caesar; how a tip about Martin’s father led him to North Carolina.
After a short break, Boseman puts Cora and Jasper back in their chains in the back of the wagon. Jasper continues singing his hymns. Ridgeway climbs into the wagon for the first time, takes Boseman’s pistol, and shoots Jasper in the face. Jasper’s blood and bone splashes all over Cora. Ridgeway explains the profit from Jasper’s bounty is not enough to make up for the annoyance of Jasper’s singing.
The wagon continues traveling through Tennessee. They finally escape the desolate landscape of the wildfire, but soon come across a sign warning of yellow fever. Boseman shudders, recalling the death of his brothers from yellow fever. The trail they take away from the quarantined town leads them to more infected settlements, leading Cora to reflect on lists of misfortune. Slavery required list-taking: lists of slaves at the auction block, lists of slaves alive and dead. Slavery had made Cora into a list-maker, as well: lists grew in her head of loved ones, those who had helped her, those she had lost along the way. Cora concludes there is no justice, despite the promise of order from list-making. The fire that ravaged Tennessee was not a result of God’s vengeance for the settlers’ sins, but rather “arbitrary punishment” (216).
They reach a town uninfected with yellow fever, bustling with activity even in the evening. Homer delivers a package to Cora: Ridgeway has bought a clean dress. She throws away her old shift, covered in Jasper’s blood, and puts on the new dress. Ridgeway takes Cora to the pub for dinner, and right away begins to provoke her. He tells her what happened in South Carolina: Ridgeway had found Caesar at the factory where he worked, and placed him in jail overnight. A mob broke into the jail when word spread Caesar was wanted for murder. The townspeople ripped Caesar apart limb from limb. Cora does not react to the news: sometime in her attic nook in North Carolina, she had come to terms with the likely reality of Caesar’s death. Ridgeway asks Cora if she feels guilty for killing the boy back in Georgia. She realizes she has been grieving for that boy, too; but still she does not regret it. He continues pontificating about Manifest Destiny and his role as a slave catcher in maintaining order as Cora heads to the outhouse to shut him out.
That evening, they make camp outside the settlement: Boseman sensed the approach of yellow fever within the town. When they fall asleep, Boseman wakes Cora with a hand over her mouth, planning to rape her. She agrees to remain quiet, hoping he will unchain her and give her a chance to escape. Before anything happens, Ridgeway wakes up and knocks Boseman to the ground in a fury. They scuffle briefly until three black men step out from the darkness. Cora has never seen black men holding guns before. They ask Cora if she’d like to come with them. A fight ensues: one man shoots Boseman and another wrestles with Ridgeway. Cora jumps on Ridgeway and half-strangles him with her wrist chains. Homer runs off. The men chain Ridgeway to the wagon and Cora kicks him three times in the face before they ride off.
The grim mood from the North Carolina chapter is only magnified as the text travels through the scorched land of Tennessee. In this chapter, the landscape represents Cora’s individual situation. As they travel through the state, Cora notices that so much has been destroyed by fire that there is no longer anywhere to hide. Even if she wasn’t in chains, escape is impossible. Thus a parallel is established between the destruction of the land and the chains that confine Cora.
The scenes that emerge as they travel through Tennessee have a religious overtone to them. Fire has so destroyed the land as to evoke the idea of the wrath of God; Jasper sings hymns that echo this time. White families in camps are “inconsolable and abject,” and figures that “stagger” through the streets have “demented expressions, wild-eyed,” as if feeling from a biblical catastrophe (2015). The red sky at sunset amplifies this catastrophic mood and setting.
These scenes force Cora to meditate on a larger theme: whether tragedy or misfortune is a result of one’s deeds or simply chance. Boseman’s opinion of the destruction is that the white settlers “must have done something to make God angry,” a position refuted by Ridgeway, who believes the fire was just the result of a spark that got away (206). Cora is tempted to assign the destruction of the white settlers’ livelihoods to justice for the catastrophes they inflicted on her people and on the land. In deeper reflection, however, she is stymied when she tries to explain the reasons for her own misfortunes. The world, she reasons, is “indiscriminate,” and catastrophe happens to the good as well as the wicked (216).
The fact that her own reflections side with Ridgeway—“just a spark that got away”—complicates the traditional protagonist-antagonist relationship between the two characters. They are not fully separated by a strict boundary between good and evil. Instead, they agree on the interpretation of an important theme in the novel. Characters’ actions do not merit just reward or equal punishment. Although Ridgeway believes it is the white man’s fate to be master of this land, he also acknowledges the arbitrary “spark” that treats everyone equally. In this way, Whitehead places Ridgeway and Cora momentarily on the same moral side, blurring an otherwise assumed distinction.
Indeed, a strange dynamic develops between Ridgeway and Cora on their journey through Tennessee. Cora asks him questions directly, and he treats her as a conversational equal. Ridgeway uses impersonal, object pronouns (“it”) to describe other slaves, but it becomes clear that he holds a complicated respect for Cora. She and her mother, according to Ridgeway, are the “best of [their] race,” so clever they present a “flaw” in the American system of slavery (233). This twisted respect only heightens the drama of the conflict between the two characters.
As they travel, Ridgeway also educates Cora, and thus the readers, on another history of white theft, this time not of black bodies but of Native American land. Once Cherokee land, white settlers moved in, irrespective of treaties. The United States Army herded the Cherokee west of the Mississippi in a death march called The Trail of Tears and Death, a name readers will almost certainly recognize. Thousands died on their way to Oklahoma, where white men already squatted to claim more land. Cora learns this history and adds it to the list in her head of white theft.