Summary North Carolina, Part 4

“It was a week before …”

In June, there are three bad omens about Cora’s safety. First, she accidentally tips over the chamber pot and the maid Fiona hears it but gets distracted. Second, a group of patrollers looking for Black people search the house, coming within inches of Cora’s nook in the attic. Finally, a local couple is hung for hiding two Black boys in their barn. Martin and Ethel are scared, and Martin tells her how he became part of the underground railroad, taking over for his father who built the station at the mine. He had never wanted the position and had not known of his father’s involvement. 

Cora gets very sick. Martin dismisses Fiona for a week, telling her they need to quarantine because he has “Venezuelan pox.” Ethel takes good care of Cora in the guest bedroom and also talks to her about Christianity. They discuss the contradictory messages about slavery in the Bible. That Friday night, Cora is feeling better and they decide she will move back to the attic the next morning. However, as the Friday Festival is beginning, a group of patrollers, tipped off by Fiona, barge into the house and drag Cora out to the porch. With them is Ridgeway, the slave catcher, who takes Cora into his possession, chaining her to a wagon driven by a young Black boy and accompanied by the tall white man wearing a necklace of human ears. Fiona gets reward money, and Ethel and Martin Wells are hanged. 

Summary: Ethel

This short chapter tells the early story of Ethel Delany Wells. As a child, Ethel dreamed of being a Christian missionary in Africa. Her family owned a slave, Felice, and Ethel played with Felice’s daughter Jasmine until her father forbade it. Felice and Jasmine lived in the attic, and Felice kept house for the Delany family until she died, then Jasmine took over. Ethel’s father went to Jasmine’s room regularly at night and raped her. Ethel’s mother arranged for Jasmine to be sold and replaced by an old woman. Ethel became a teacher and eventually met and married Martin. They had a good life in Virginia, but then moved to North Carolina to settle Martin’s father Donald’s affairs. When Martin took over Donald’s role in the underground railroad, they were stuck. Ethel was very upset about taking in the runaway slaves, which threatened her life. However, when Cora got sick, she softened, feeling that this was her time to realize her childhood fantasy of ministering to an African.

Analysis: North Carolina, Part 4 & Ethel

During Cora’s time in North Carolina, Whitehead uses an extended metaphor of a ship to symbolize her enforced passivity at this point in her journey. During her time at the Wells house, Cora cannot do anything to move herself towards freedom. She’s trapped inside, waiting for the next stage of her journey. Whitehead describes her as “becalmed,” like a sailing ship unable to move when the winds have died. He compares her attic nook to a ship’s hold. The night riders who search the house are metaphorically sharks, separated from their prey only by a few planks of wood, like the hull of a ship. These metaphors recall the journey Ajarry and other Black people kidnapped from Africa were forced to take across the ocean. However, although Cora is trapped in the Wells’s house as surely as Ajarry was trapped on the ship, Cora is a passenger on a journey out of slavery, with the hope of freedom to come. 

In this section, Whitehead alludes to Plato’s allegory of the cave to explore strong beliefs in ideas that are only false substitutions for real things. As Cora lies in the attic, observing the world outside, she notes how the townspeople move through the park like ghosts, as if they cannot interact with the real world. They see the park as a site of freedom, but Cora sees how the townspeople are imprisoned by their fear of Black people and of each other. In turn, she reflects on how her garden plot, which she prized as her own, was a “shadow” of the real idea of property. Although she behaved as if the garden plot belonged to her, in fact it had always belonged to the plantation. Similarly, Michael’s rote recitation of a Declaration he did not understand, taught to him by people by people who did not understand it, only aped a statement of independence from someone allowed to enjoy the rights it claims. Seeing what she has of the country makes her wonder if America is also an idea with nothing real behind it, a ghost of the ideals it claims to represent. 

The character of Fiona in the North Carolina chapter embodies the motif of self-interested betrayal that runs throughout the text. Fiona, Ethel and Martin’s maid, betrays them to the night riders, leading to their deaths and Cora’s capture by Ridgeway. This incident illustrates the way white supremacy also hurts white people. The systems built to control Black people create incentives for white people to hurt each other as well. Fiona reports on Martin and Ethel for the sake of the reward money, which she sees as taking care of her own interests as an immigrant building a life in the United States. Although North Carolina claims to have built a state that protects white people, maintaining its exclusion laws relies on white people betraying each other out of self-interest. In this way, the system of white supremacy harms white people as well as Black.