Summary: North Carolina, Part 1

“She lost the candles. …”

Cora waits in the station below Sam’s cottage for days before another train arrives. She is hungry, the station is dark and full of rats, and she can’t escape her nightmares about what might have happened to Sam and Caesar. Finally, a train passes by, then backs up to the platform. The young conductor tells Cora he isn’t supposed to pick up passengers, but she convinces him to let her ride on the open flatcar. He tells her the Georgia station has been closed, presumably discovered. They travel at an alarming rate into the dark.

Summary: North Carolina, Part 2

“A careful pattern of colored stones …”

The train stops in a station blasted out of the rock of a mountain. Cora wants to go farther, but the conductor explains he is in maintenance and heading back south to report on the condition of the line. She gets out in North Carolina to wait for the station agent.

Cora is found by the station agent, Martin Wells, who helps her up out of the underground station. What she thought was a cave-in and collapse is actually a diversion so no one discovers the station in the mica mine. Wells is alarmed to find her, as he was just coming to leave a note that he couldn’t accept any more passengers and to close the station. He tells her that “night riders” have come to town and the situation has become very dangerous. Hidden in his wagon on the way to town, he stops and shows her “Freedom Trail,” ironically named because it is lined by trees from which hang numerous Black people have been lynched. 

At his home in town, Martin introduces Cora to his wife Ethel, who is not happy to see the girl, but takes her to the attic to a small hiding space and tells her to be quiet. A hole in the hiding place looks out on the town square and Cora takes in the idyllic activity of this new place.

The town is preparing for the Friday Festival, and at first Cora enjoys the band performances, although she is disturbed to realize that everyone in the town square is white. However, things quickly turn dark. The second act is a “coon show,” where white men in blackface, “burnt cork” rubbed into their skin, act in very stupid and silly ways to amuse the crowd. After that, another man in blackface tells a story of a slave who runs away to the north, only to discover his boss is crueler than his plantation owner, so he tries to get back on the plantation. Finally, a young man joining the “night riders” is introduced and then a badly beaten Black runaway girl that he captured is brought on stage. She is led to a platform under an oak tree and before an enthusiastic crowd she is hanged. Cora moves to the far corner of her nook to sleep, realizing the horror of the town.

Summary: North Carolina, Part 3

“To explain why …”

Cora lives like a prisoner in Martin and Ethel Wells’ attic. Martin Wells brings her food at night and tells her what has happened in North Carolina. Fearing uprisings by Black people who outnumbered whites, the white leaders of the state decided to get rid of the Black population, free and slave, and replace them with cheap white labor escaping poverty in Ireland and Europe. They began by buying up slaves and selling them south to Louisiana and Florida and elsewhere. They chased out free Black men and women and sent patrols and night riders to murder those who wouldn’t leave. They enforce the system with hideous lies of the threat posed by Black people, and by regular Friday Festivals where captured runaways and others are lynched. They also kill whites who are caught hiding Black people, and that is why Ethel and Martin are terrified. During the day, Cora has to be completely silent because the Wells’ Irish maid Fiona works downstairs while they are at work. For months Cora lives this way, also continuing her education by reading old almanacs, newspapers, and a Bible in the attic, watching the park, and visiting with Martin who brings her food each night.

Analysis: North Carolina, Parts 1–3

In this section of the text, Whitehead introduces a different approach powerful white people take to the problem of needing agricultural labor while simultaneously fearing the presence of large numbers of Black people. In the North Carolina of the novel, Black people have been outlawed altogether, with immigrants from Europe brought in to replace their labor. This most nearly resembles the Black exclusion laws passed in Oregon in the mid-19th century, an example of Whitehead’s relocating real events to fit Cora’s story to show a broader history of systemic racism. Enforcing the laws in the book requires constantly searching for hidden Black people, an example of the theme throughout the text of the necessity of surveillance to control the population. In North Carolina, white supremacy has led to white people being subject to constant surveillance and the risk of betrayal. Night riders search white people’s houses and white people turn each other in for harboring Black people, as shown by the example of Fiona reporting on Martin and Ethel. 

In the North Carolina chapter, Whitehead continues the motif of cotton as the driving force behind the American economy, American laws, and the control of Black people. He compares cotton to an engine consuming African bodies as fuel, a metaphor built on the industrialization inspired by cotton production. As the industrial revolution made factories capable of milling cotton and producing finished goods more quickly, demand for raw cotton created demand for cheap labor, leading to the large enslaved Black population whose possibility of rebellion frightens North Carolina political leaders into enacting their exclusion laws, eliminating Black people and creating an all-white state. All of these ways of controlling Black bodies grow from the desire to produce cotton. Martin gives cotton as the ultimate force compelling Cora’s confinement in the attic, since those laws make leaving the house a deadly risk for her and the Wells family. Cotton controls the economy, the political scene, and the bodies of Black people, whether on the plantation or not.

The Friday Festivals in North Carolina provide an example of the necessity of reinforcing the values of white supremacy within the white community, a theme throughout the book. While Black people are punished at the weekly gatherings, their principal purpose is reinforcing the white community’s belief that the laws are just and necessary. In other areas, the efforts of planters and slavecatchers to keep out abolitionists is enough to ensure the system goes on as usual. However, North Carolina’s laws demand a high level of surveillance of the white community, and the Friday Festival works to keep them committed enough to allow it. In addition to giving speeches glorifying the new laws, dignitaries at the festival praise those who catch Black people and those who would aid them. The blackface performance of the coon show presents Black people as unintelligent. The play that follows suggests enslaved Black people are ungrateful and therefore unworthy of life in the state. Finally, the townspeople take turns assisting in the lynching of any Black person discovered that week, cementing their commitment to the exclusion laws. The festivals serve to bond the white community to the cause of white supremacy. 

North Carolina’s Freedom Trail is a gruesome image of the violence white supremacy enacts against Black bodies. The name is an example of irony in the text. While the name suggests a road that leads to freedom, the trail is instead lined with corpses as proof of the inescapable nature of white violence against Black people in the state. The freedom in the name of the trail refers to the freedom the new laws promise white people, the freedom to live without fearing the retribution of the Black people they have held in bondage. Replacing enslaved Black labor with immigrant workers from Europe gives them the freedom to engage in wanton violence towards the population they most fear. In abolishing slavery, North Carolina lost the only incentive white supremacy had to keep Black people alive, that is, their labor. Without the need for Black people to pick the state’s cotton, racist whites are free to murder indiscriminately. However, even for whites, the name holds an irony, since the new laws require constant surveillance and encourage betrayal by other whites. In these ways, the Freedom Trail is an example of irony in the text.