Summary: South Carolina, Part 1

“The Andersons lived in …”

South Carolina is a place where Black people can live freely, and this step in Cora’s life is much improved over her circumstances in Georgia. Cora is given fake papers and the alias Bessie Carpenter and a job working as a maid and nanny for a lawyer’s family, the Andersons. Caesar is given the alias Christian Markson and a job in a factory. Technically, Bessie and Christian were bought by the US government when their slave owner went bankrupt, but Sam, the station agent in South Carolina, assures Cora and Caesar they can live as free people in town. Sam is kind and friendly, a local bartender, and will let them know when trains are passing through. Cora lives in a newly built dormitory for Black people, where she is fed, housed in a large room with 80 beds, and given her job. The dormitory is run by a white woman, Miss Lucy, a proctor who encourages Cora to attend classes to learn to read and write and to speak more like a white person.

Summary: South Carolina, Part 2

“Miss Handler must have been …

Cora attends school and asks Miss Lucy to look through her records to see if she can find her mother, Mabel. Meanwhile, Cora is examined by a government doctor on the tenth floor of the Griffin Building, a twelve-story building with an elevator. She is given intelligence tests, asked questions about her origins and general health, then given a physical examination that ends with a blood test. She interprets this as a sign that the white people of South Carolina care about her health and want to help her. 

At a Saturday night social for “colored” people, Cora and Caesar meet and tell each other about their lives. Caesar tells her about his job in a factory. They complain about the high prices at the emporium that sells goods to Black residents and the money that is deducted from their wages to cover their room and board. Cora and Caesar, nevertheless, decide to stay in South Carolina and see if they can make a life for themselves. On the way home from the social, Cora witnesses a disturbing sight — a young woman screaming that someone is taking her babies from her. Everyone assumes she is experiencing a flashback to slavery, when children were often taken from their mothers and sold to a new owner. She learns that the young woman is named Gertrude and has been put in a special dormitory, number 40, for women who are traumatized and disturbed. Cora sees it as a version of the Hob.

Analysis: South Carolina, Parts 1 & 2

The South Carolina chapter marks the beginning of Whitehead’s using manipulation of time and geography to explore the history of American control and oppression of Black people. This use of science fiction elements shows how the white supremacy underlying slavery extended into a continued need to control the bodies of Black people in settings beyond the plantation, both in terms of time and space. The South Carolina chapter takes place in an urban setting in a time resembling the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century, with very different social structures and labor needs from the plantation in Georgia. Although Cora enjoys more freedom of movement in South Carolina, she and the other Black people there are still property, now of the US government. They can buy goods and walk around town, but they cannot choose their work or where to live. Sam explains that many Black people in South Carolina were sold by white people leaving farming for city life, illustrating how increased urbanization lowered the need for farm labor, yet the government still demanded control of Black people.

Cora’s dresses in this chapter represent her changed quality of life as she moves away from the plantation. The first dress Sam gives her shocks her with its fine weave. The clothing she wore at Randall was rough and stiff, but this dress is supple, woven of much finer threads. Cora reflects that the difference in cloth shows how cotton changes during the production process. In this sense, the softer cloth represents the luxury afforded by the hard labor on plantations. At Randall, growing and harvesting cotton ruins the bodies of the enslaved people working the fields. The rough cloth of their clothing reflects their low status and the hardship of their lives. In the urban setting of this chapter, people are removed from the brutal realities of cotton agriculture, experiencing only its softness. The new dress makes Cora feel clean, showing how coming to South Carolina has changed her quality of life. She is eager to leave the harsh side of cotton production behind her, as demonstrated by her spending a week’s wages on the prettiest new dress she is allowed to buy. Both dresses symbolize her change in quality of life, a change she embraces.

Howard’s speech, a mixture of an African language and plantation speech, symbolizes the culture and heritage taken from Black people by slavery. Although the other students in Cora’s class make fun of Howard, Whitehead compares the words his speech has retained from Africa to treasure, acknowledging the value of the culture taken from kidnapped Africans by the white people who separated them from others of their groups, in order to take away their identities and better control them. Even though Cora knows that Howard’s speech contains aspects of a lost language, she is too impatient to value it. The pragmatic need to escape the world of the plantation means all the students are eager to assimilate into the spoken language of white America. In this scene, Whitehead shows how slavery resulted in a loss of cultural heritage and a situation that discouraged Black people from valuing what aspects of that culture had managed to survive.