“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 secret triumph you keep in your heart.”

This passage occurs in the final chapter of the book, “The North,” as Cora pumps the handcar through the ghost tunnel, escaping Ridgeway and Homer. Throughout the novel, Cora has asked engineers and conductors who built the Underground Railroad. In this chapter, she understands their cryptic responses. They have told her it was built by the same people who build everything in the U.S., and as she pushes her way through the earth, she becomes one of those builders. Whitehead uses magic realism here to present the railroad as both a literal system of tunnels and tracks and also an extended metaphor for the enormous effort and sacrifice necessary for anyone to escape slavery. The railroad also represents how each escape creates the possibility of another escape, just as Mabel’s running away gave Cora and Caesar the courage to run. Cora’s labor with the handcar both creates those routes and transforms her. Escape is a miracle, but it is an active miracle, requiring not just luck but also an effort of body and will so great that it changes the escapee forever.

“I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription—the American imperative.”

Ridgeway speaks these words to Cora in the “Tennessee” chapter, when he has taken her to eat dinner in town. Whitehead uses the speeches Ridgeway makes throughout the book on the topic of the American imperative to present the concept of manifest destiny, the idea that American history unfolds inevitably as an expression of God’s will. By having the antagonist of the novel give voice to that philosophy, Whitehead implicitly rejects it. Ridgeway believes that property belongs to those who can hold on to it. His definition of property includes land and people. He sees his work as a slavecatcher as just, because he views Black people as legally owned. He believes that the fact white people have been able to enslave Black people proves slavery is just. Likewise, he believes the land of the American continent rightly belongs to white people, since they have been able to take it. The novel rejects the morality of manifest destiny by presenting Black people as the characters the reader identifies with most. In this chapter, the abject destruction of the land whites have taken from Native Americans suggests divine wrath, an argument that the cruelest and most greedy aspects of American history were not, in fact, God’s will.  

“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.”

These words repeat in the novel, changing meaning as the story progresses. As Cora and Caesar first board the train in Georgia, at the end of the chapter titled “Georgia,” Lumbly closes them into the boxcar and tells them to look outside. Cora does her best to peek through the boards, but she only sees darkness. She remembers the words as she rides in the well-appointed passenger car carrying her to Indiana, in that state’s chapter, and believes he was joking all along, since on each of her trips it has only been dark. Finally, in the chapter titled “The North” as she walks through the final tunnel, after abandoning the handcar she has pumped from the ghost tunnel entrance, she understands him differently. Running her hand along the walls and feeling their geography, she believes she is feeling the shape of “a new nation hidden beneath the old.” Above ground, Whitehead’s novel shows the history of American white supremacy, from plantation slavery to Black exclusion laws and the scientific racism of the twentieth century. However, this image suggests that underground lies the possibility of a different America, one with the freedom Cora walks towards, digging the tunnel that shows that new nation as she goes.