Summary: Tennessee, Part 1

“Jesus, carry me home …”

Shackled and chained to Ridgeway’s wagon, Cora is brought west through Tennessee. The first days of their journey, they travel through a landscape ravaged by fires accidentally set by the white settlers. They encounter desperate settlers at burned-out towns. Ridgeway points out that the road was made by the Cherokee nation driven out of the state, the famous Trail of Tears and Death. Ridgeway travels with the frightening Boseman, the man wearing the necklace of ears, which he took from an Indian named Strong, a former assistant to Ridgeway. The wagon is driven by a young Black boy named Homer whom Ridgeway bought for five dollars then set free the next day. Homer never left, however, thinking he had no future as a Black boy alone, and at night he chains himself to the wagon to sleep. He knows how to write and keeps a diary of expenses and events along the journey. Cora is confused about why they are going west, and Ridgeway explains they have to pick up another runaway slave in Missouri before heading south to Georgia.

A few days into the journey, Ridgeway tells Cora what happened to Lovey when she was returned to the Randall plantation. She was hung with a metal post driven through her, and two similar gallows were set up for Cora and Caesar’s return. Cora collapses in grief. They pick up a runaway named Jasper, who sits on the bench and constantly sings hymns. Boseman regularly punishes Jasper, but he keeps singing, until one day Ridgeway climbs into the wagon and shoots Jasper in the face.

Summary: Tennessee, Part 2

“Tennessee proceeded in a series of blights …”

Once beyond the reach of the fire, the wagon can’t go through towns because of signs warning of a yellow fever outbreak. All of Tennessee seems like a wasteland. Finally, they reach a large, active town. On their way in, a Black man with glasses nods to Cora. Homer buys Cora a blue dress and ill-fitting wooden shoes, and Ridgeway takes her to dinner, where he tells her Caesar was killed by a mob in South Carolina. Ridgeway explains to Cora his understanding of his place, and hers, in the American story of Manifest Destiny, the story of white Americans laying claim to the country, pushing off everyone else, and maintaining power. After dinner, they move the wagon to a spot beyond the town, hoping to stay ahead of the yellow fever outbreak. 

During the night, Boseman grabs Cora to rape her. She pretends to agree, hoping he will take off all her shackles and she can run away. Ridgeway intervenes, knocking Boseman’s tooth out. Boseman is worried Ridgeway will kill him. Then three Black men, led by the man with glasses, armed with guns and a knife, intervene. One shoots Boseman in the stomach, one runs after Homer, and the man with glasses fights with Ridgeway, almost losing until Cora throws herself on Ridgeway’s back and half-strangles him with the chains binding her arms. The Black men invite Cora to join them. Homer escapes. They shackle Ridgeway to the wagon, Cora kicks him in the face three times, and they depart. 

Analysis: Tennessee, Parts 1 & 2

The Trail of Tears, described in this chapter, is a symbol of the suffering at the root of manifest destiny. Throughout the book, Whitehead has developed a theme of the oppression and cruelty behind American economic growth. In this chapter, the Trail of Tears illustrates the death and dispossession of Native Americans, in this case the Cherokee and other nations from the Southeast, who were forced from their land so that white settlers could take it over for farms. Ridgeway describes the death by starvation, disease, and exposure that claimed thousands, examples of white disregard for the lives of people considered less human than whites. The road Ridgeway takes them down is a physical representation of the progress created through that cruelty. Thousands of deaths built the road, just as the suffering and death of enslaved Black people built the cotton economy. The empty land white farmers occupy represents the removal of its original inhabitants. The triumphant story of the United States as the land of opportunity for white people depends on the oppression and suffering of people of color. 

In the Tennessee chapter, Whitehead explores the theme of the inconsistency of justice through the symbols of the landscape destroyed by fire. While Cora is tempted to see the burned farms they pass as evidence of white people being punished for slavery and for stealing Native land, that satisfying vision of the world raises questions about her own suffering, which she has done nothing to deserve. While human justice can show consistency, like the plantation’s constant cruelty, misfortune in the real world is arbitrary, as demonstrated by fields that burned and nearby ones that were spared for no apparent reason. By the same logic, the violence and oppression Cora and other Black people face is not a punishment for their sins, as Ethel argued when reading the Bible to Cora, but a cruelty not tied to fairness at all. The source of suffering is not God’s judgement but random chance, as symbolized by the spark that lit the fires in Tennessee.

Throughout the book, Ridgeway refers to Black people as “it,” an indication of his view of them as property rather than people. Whitehead uses this dehumanizing language in his dialogue to reveal Ridgeway’s disdain for enslaved Black people. To him, they are tools, not people with full identities. The use of the impersonal pronoun also shows how Ridgeway holds himself apart from the daily world of slave ownership, despite his role in maintaining it. While he doggedly pursues Cora and takes pleasure in telling her about the deaths of Lovey and Caesar, he looks down on the passionate violence of men like Terrance Randall. Ridgeway sees enslaved Black people as tools at the service of the American imperative and himself as serving that destiny by returning property. When he briefly owns Homer, he immediately sets him free, having no interest in owning slaves himself. He uses the pronoun “he” to refer to Homer, showing that he does not view him as a tool like the enslaved people he hunts down. Ridgeway’s choice of pronoun illustrates whether or not he believes the person he is talking about should be regarded as fully human.