Summary: Georgia, Part 4

“Who could she tell? …”

To spare them punishment, Cora doesn’t tell anyone of her plan to run away with Caesar. 

Caesar has skills from his earlier life as a slave in Virginia that help them find the underground railroad. In Virginia, he learned to read and lived under the promise that he and his parents would be freed when their owner, a widow named Mrs. Garner, died. However, Mrs. Garner didn’t leave a will and her daughter sold the family of slaves, splitting them up, and sending Caesar to the Randalls. Because Caesar is a skilled wood worker, he makes a connection with a white man named Fletcher at the Sunday market where Caesar sells wooden bowls. Fletcher hates slavery and sees that Caesar can read. Fletcher tells Caesar that if he can make it the 30 miles to his shop, he will take him to a stop on the underground railroad, and a train will take him north to freedom.

Caesar and Cora take off at night through the fields and swamps. In the swamp, they are joined by Cora’s friend Lovey. They have no choice but to allow Lovey to go with them because if Lovey returned, she would give them away. They make it out of the swamp and sleep in a hidden spot during the day. The second night, they are walking in the woods alongside farmland and a group of men hunting hogs try to capture them. After a fierce fight, Cora and Caesar make it away, but Lovey is dragged off into the woods and lost to them, along with most of their provisions. To get away, Cora strikes a 12-year-old white boy in the head with a rock. 

Summary: Georgia, Part 5

“Caesar scouted a promising spot …”

Caesar and Cora reach Fletcher’s house and he feeds them, tells them about the furious search for them, and takes them to their first stop on the underground railroad. Lovey, he says, was captured and returned. Rumors are that the boy Cora struck has died, making them murderers as well as runaways. Fletcher hides them in the back of his wagon and they travel all day and into the night until they reach a farmhouse, under which is a train station. 

Cora and Cesar are met by the farmer, Lumbly, who gets them onto a train. Lumbly has a horrifying collection covering the side of his barn of all kinds of handcuffs, leg irons, and restraining devices used on slaves. He identifies himself as “a kind of station agent” and takes them into the barn, down through a trap door in the floor, to the platform where the trains will arrive. There are two trains on the schedule, he says. Cora and Caesar decide to take the next one, not knowing where either one will take them. After an hour, the train arrives, and they board the sole boxcar pulled by a black steam engine and proceed through many miles of dark tunnel. When the train stops, they come up into daylight. They see a tall building and learn they are in South Carolina.

Analysis: Georgia, Parts 4 & 5 

The story of Caesar’s life with Mrs. Garner illustrates the theme of white supremacy used to control Black people, which Whitehead expands on throughout the book. Although Caesar and his parents are enslaved in Virginia, Mrs. Garner allows them to live almost as if free, giving them passes to move freely around the county, encouraging Caesar to learn a trade, and teaching him to read. She claims she intends them to be free at her death, which seems kind compared to the permanent, brutal forced labor Caesar encounters at Randall. However, a belief in the fundamental superiority of white people over Black allows Mrs. Garner to justify continuing their enslavement, ultimately leading to their being sold at her death, rather than enjoying the liberation she promised them. Mrs. Garner does not set them free during her lifetime because she believes they are not intelligent enough to manage their own lives. Although she seems to care about the family, her selfish failure to free them in her lifetime condemns the family to forced separation and likely death working on plantations. In this way, Whitehead shows that how even in settings less cruel than Randall, belief in white supremacy leads to the torment of Black people.

The shackles covering the walls of the barn above the Georgia Underground Railroad station provide an arresting image of the brutality of slavery. When Cora first sees them, it is unclear whether they represent freedom, in the sense that those who wore them have escaped their bonds, or danger, in the sense that she and Caesar can be caught in them again. When Lumbly arrives, he describes them as “souvenirs from my travels,” suggesting that they represent the people he has set free. Throughout the book, Whitehead returns to a motif of iron as a metaphor for control of Black bodies as an aspect of the industrial and economic development of the United States. The shackles in the barn are a vivid evocation of the human suffering underlying the production of cotton that drives the economy in this period. Some are thick enough to hold the strongest men while others are sized for children, showing the intention to hold people in bondage for their whole lives. The shackles vary in age, some ancient and some brand new, representing the long history of slavery and the commitment to continuing it.

Cora and Caesar escape Georgia in a boxcar pulled by a locomotive through an underground tunnel. This scene introduces Whitehead’s most important metaphor in the book, the literal Underground Railroad. The historical underground railroad was a loose network of people helping enslaved people escape mostly by offering safe places to hide. Whitehead uses magical realism techniques to imagine a real series of trains and tunnels. The built environment of Whitehead’s railroad makes visible the immense labor necessary for enslaved people to escape, both their own heroic efforts and the work of those who helped them. While the actual underground railroad left few artifacts, in the novel that work is metaphorically represented by stations and tunnels and locomotives. Cora, astonished, asks who built it and is told it was built by the same people who have built America, in other words, Black people. In this way, Whitehead emphasizes the labor of Black people in the real underground railroad, rather than the more usual emphasis on the white people who aided them.