Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


Whitehead uses a motif of festivals to reveal the rules and character of the places Cora lives. The regular festival of the Randall plantation is Jockey’s birthday. It occurs irregularly, since Jockey does not know his birthdate, reflecting how slavery takes aspects of the identities of the enslaved from them. While the occasion brings joy, it is also dangerous. Even in celebration, the enslaved people are at the mercy of the Randalls, who have Chester and Cora beaten. The other plantation festival is the grotesque party Terrance holds while torturing and killing Big Anthony, showing the absolute power and cruelty he enjoys. In North Carolina, Friday Festivals emphasize the rules of white supremacy, with speeches, plays in blackface, and public hangings of Black people and those who try to help them. Valentine farm hosts regular gatherings to build community. The shucking bee and the Saturday suppers are joyful and industrious. As at Jockey’s birthday, there is music and dancing, but at Valentine, Cora is free to leave. However, even Valentine farm is not freedom, and its final Saturday gathering ends in death and destruction, as a white mob descends upon them.

Underground Railroad Stations

The Underground Railroad stations Cora encounters throughout the novel vary to reflect the circumstances of her travels. The barn above the station in Georgia is hung with iron shackles, symbolizing the physical bondage of plantation life. The South Carolina station, with its simple table and chairs and basket of food, fits in with the regulated life of Black people in South Carolina. The station she comes to in North Carolina is an abandoned wreck. The condition of the station mirrors the history of its station agents. When Donald Wells was alive, the station was busy, but Martin is too frightened to want to be part of its work. The station in Tennessee puts the others to shame, just as the prosperity and comfort of Valentine farm come as a shock to Cora. In Indiana, Royal brings Cora to the tunnel that will ultimately bring her to freedom. The ghost tunnel has no platform and is only big enough to admit a handcar. Throughout the novel, engineers tell Cora the railroad was built by the same people who build everything in America: Black people. In Cora’s escape, she becomes the builder of the line leaving Indiana, digging the tunnel with every push of the handcar lever.


Cotton, the most important export crop in the slave states, is a powerful force in the novel. Whitehead often compares fields of cotton to the ocean. Ajarry dies with the cotton bolls around her like whitecaps on a rough ocean. Old Randall replaces his indigo with cotton and expands the plantation after a dream of a “white sea.” These metaphors reflect the global nature of the cotton trade, where enslaved people raise the drop for the consumption of Europe. His use of the name King Cotton refers to the economic power and the power of cotton plantation owners to create laws ensuring enslaved labor to grow it. Working the cotton fields is arduous and destructive to the body. When Cora first encounters a dress of machine-woven cotton, in South Carolina, she is shocked and thrilled by the contrast of the soft cloth, noting that cotton “went in one way, came out another.” The luxury of cotton good stands in stark contrast to the labor that produces them.