Summary: Georgia, Part 1

“Jockey’s birthday only came …” 

Cora, who is 15 years old when the book begins, has a very difficult life on the plantation, in part because she has conflicts with the other slaves. The story of her life on the Randall plantation begins with the announcement of “Jockey’s birthday,” an invented holiday to celebrate the oldest slave’s supposed birthday. Slaves do not know their actual birthdays, but sometimes (twice a year) it is announced that it is Jockey’s birthday and the slaves on the northern part of the plantation, where Cora lives, come together for a feast and activities after their half-day of work on a Sunday. 

Cora has to fight to protect a small plot of land in the slave quarters, or village, that was staked out by her grandmother, Ajarry, and passed on to her mother, Mabel. Cora has very low status in the slave quarters. But even after her mother Mabel “vanished,” leaving her “a stray” at age 10 with no support, she has held onto her plot, where she grows vegetables. Ava, her mother’s enemy, got Cora relocated to the Hob, the living quarters for the most troubled and damaged women, many of whom had been raped and brutalized and lost their children. Even though Ava threatens to have her garden taken from her, Cora holds on. 

The second threat to Cora’s garden comes from a newly arrived slave, Blake, who is strong. He builds a doghouse on Cora’s plot after destroying her plants. Cora is filled with rage, gets a hatchet, and chops up the doghouse, even severing the dog’s tail. She knows Blake and his friends could kill her, but she is willing to hurt him as much as she can with the hatchet if he attacks her. He sees the dangerous look in her eye and leaves her alone. 

A few years later, after she gets her period, Cora is raped by Blake’s friends Pot and Edward, and two other slaves. Still, she maintains her mental and physical health and becomes the longest surviving resident of the Hob.

Summary: Georgia, Part 2

“They had already dragged …”

Celebrations like Jockey’s birthday only happen on the northern half of the Randall plantation, which is run by James Randall. He doesn’t pay much attention to his slaves, satisfied with stability and the slow growth of his estate. He doesn’t overwork his slaves. His brother Terrance, however, is cruel; he overworks his slaves on the southern half and treats them brutally.

Cora runs the children’s races at Jockey’s birthday, taking special care of Chester, a young slave who is also “a stray,” because his parents had been sold to another owner. Cora’s friend Lovey, a fun-loving girl, helps her. While everyone is eating, another slave, Caesar, tells Cora he plans to run away and asks her to come with him. She says no. 

James and Terrance Randall, sons of the plantation owner who bought Ajarry, arrive at the party with the overseer Connelly and cause trouble. They ask for a slave named Michael to be brought forward to recite the Declaration of Independence, but Michael has been killed by the overseer, who didn’t inform James. Then the men tell the slaves to dance. While dancing, Chester bumps into Terrance Randall and a drop of wine spills onto his sleeve. Terrance begins to mercilessly beat Chester. Cora is gripped by the same fury she felt toward Blake and she steps up to defend the boy, covering his body with hers and grabbing Terrance’s cane. She is beaten unconscious.

Summary: Georgia, Part 3

“The Hob women were seven …”

Over the three mornings after Jockey’s birthday, Cora and Chester are whipped savagely by the overseer, Connelly. The women of Hob nurse Cora back to health. She has a permanent scar on her forehead in the shape of an X from Terrance’s cane.

Sitting on a maple stump in her garden plot at night, Cora thinks about her mother Mabel running away from the plantation. Mabel told no one of her plan, and she was the only runaway slave who was never brought back to the Randall plantation. After a long search for her, the Randalls hired Ridgeway, a slave catcher, who searched for Mabel for two years before giving up. He came to the plantation to apologize to the Randalls personally, with the heads of two runaway slaves in a sack for delivery to another landowner.

After James Randall dies, his cruel brother Terrance takes over the northern half of the plantation. While he is in New Orleans settling James’s affairs, Caesar returns to ask Cora again to escape with him. Meanwhile, a slave named Big Anthony attempts to run away. Big Anthony is captured and returned. Terrance holds a sort of “garden party” attended by white people from Savannah, Georgia, and all the slaves, to watch as he burns Big Anthony alive. He surveys the northern section slaves, including Cora. It is clear to Cora that she needs to join Caesar in running away.

Analysis: Georgia, Part 1–Georgia, Part 3

The Hob represents Cora’s social isolation after Mabel runs away and the fragile community bonds on the Randall plantation. Without Mabel, Cora is a stray, left without her mother to protect her. While a stronger community might have pulled together to protect a child in her position, the village instead turns on her. The first outward sign of her loss of status is Ava convincing Moses to send her to Hob. Hob is the cabin of outcasts. The women who sleep there are misfits not from bad deeds but from misfortunes, rapes and beatings and the loss of their children. This shows how the scarcity of plantation life leads stronger members to abandon the weaker rather than help them. However, the Hob women do take care of each other. They stitch Cora up after she is raped and nurse her after Terrance beats her. Cora describes Mabel as “a Hob woman before there was a Hob,” recognizing in her character an independence and willingness to stand apart from the crowd.

Cora’s decision to defend her garden plot from Blake and others marks a turning point for her character and connects her to her grandmother, Ajarry. After Mabel runs away, Cora is left vulnerable. Others sense this and begin to take advantage of her. Ava forces her to leave the cabin for the Hob, and the people Mabel has helped in the past refuse to stand by Cora in return, examples of Whitehead’s overall theme of betrayal. When Blake destroys her garden to make a place for his doghouse, Cora faces a test of her mettle. Blake is a formidable adversary, undefeated in his wrestling matches, a man large and strong enough to be given double rations of food. Cora, a child described as slender, does not stand a chance against him. Yet when she stands before him with the hatchet, Blake backs down, seeing in the ferocity of her determination that defeating her will cost him. This improbable victory for Cora foreshadows her unlikely escape from slavery. The image of Cora threatening Blake with the hatchet recalls Mabel’s telling Cora that Ajarry had protected the garden plot by threatening anyone who thought of taking it that she would “dig a hammer in they heads.”

Jockey’s birthday illustrates how enslavement makes joy fleeting and fragile. Jockey announces a birthday when the tension in the village has grown high, and the celebration provides a much-needed release for the enslaved population of Randall, possibly the reason James Randall allows it. Although the feast seems like a moment of freedom, the moment of celebration calms the workers of Randall so that they return to the fields rather than fighting or rebelling, either of which would make them less productive. Whitehead particularly cites the power of music and dancing to allow most of them to feel briefly liberated, though Cora fears the loosening of social rules, since a dance at Jockey’s birthday is when Edward and Pot raped her. Even for those who do enjoy the music, its escape is only momentary. The appearance of the Randall brothers at the feast shatters the illusion that they were ever free from the threat of violence, even for the length of the birthday party.

The story of Michael is an example of irony in the text. There are several layers of irony in Michael’s history. Michael is enslaved, a clear violation of the Declaration’s statement of a right to liberty. Enslaved people are not treated as equal to white people, a contradiction of the Declaration. In recounting Michael’s history, Whitehead includes several comparisons of his intelligence to that of animals to emphasize that white people do not consider him human. Whitehead quotes the Declaration’s line “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations” to draw attention to the literal injuries Michael has endured. Even when the Randall brothers are informed that Michael is dead, beaten to death by Connelly, they refer to him as property. In addition, there is irony to the fact that the white men who taught Michael to recite the Declaration, who believed themselves more intelligent than him, did not themselves understand the words in the text. Finally, Whitehead’s inclusion of this text subtly underscores the inherent irony that the document declaring the United States’ independence from Britain on the basis of individual rights was written by Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves.

Terrance uses Big Anthony’s torture and death as an occasion for a grand party, an example of Whitehead’s motif throughout the novel of festivals. The festival Terrance arranges is a grotesque celebration of brutality. Whitehead contrasts the barbaric punishments Big Anthony undergoes with the trappings of wealthy white sophistication, showing the violence and cruelty underlying the grandeur of a world made rich by the cotton trade. The stocks he dangles in are carved with scenes from Greek mythology, inviting a comparison of his captive body with frolicking monsters. While he is whipped, white guests slowly enjoy a gourmet meal and a London reporter takes notes on the party as an example of American high society. The presence of an English observer suggests the ways slavery enriched a global economy built on the trade and manufacture of cotton. When Big Anthony is roasted alive, in a deliberately horrific imitation of the preparation of a feast meal, the assembled guests continue their party while Terrance addresses the enslaved people, describing the increased labor and cruelty they can expect now that he owns the whole plantation. In this scene, Whitehead makes clear the connection between the brutality of the plantation and the genteel wealth of the white upper class.