Summary: Indiana, Part 1

“Then she became the one …”

After her rescue, Cora travels to another stop on the underground railroad and reaches Valentine farm in Indiana, a haven for free Black people, runaway slaves, and members of the Black abolitionist movement. The farm belongs to John Valentine, a light-skinned Black man who sometimes passes for white, and his wife Gloria. Cora attends school where, despite her attempts to improve her education through reading in the Wells’ attic, she realizes she has much to learn. Cora lives with another runaway slave, Sybil, and Sybil’s daughter, Molly. Cora asks everyone she meets if they know anything about her mother, Mabel.

On Saturday nights, the residents of Valentine farm have a barbeque hog feast followed by entertainment like speakers, poets, and musicians. One Saturday is hosted by Gloria Valentine, who acknowledges Mingo, a resident who is making a controversial proposal about the future of the farm. Because the farm has grown in reputation and in number, Mingo is worried that white settlers will fear a Black rebellion and attack the farm. He wants to move out people like Cora, runaways and other marginal Black men and women, forcing them west or north to Canada. After the meeting, when dancing begins, Cora goes home where she finds Royal, the man with glasses who saved her from Ridgeway in Tennessee and who is a conductor on the underground railroad. Cora has developed feelings for Royal, and they share a tender moment.

Summary: Indiana, Part 2

“Royal took her to the ghost tunnel …” 

This section covers Cora’s arrival and early days on the Valentine farm. The weekly Saturday night entertainment often includes a speech by Elijah Lander, a free Black man who has a college education and travels the country speaking on abolition topics and reading his “Declaration of the Rights of the American Negro.” Hearing him makes Cora nervous that she will be cast out of the farm. Royal suggests they take a buggy ride to see more of Indiana. The outing ends at a decaying house, beneath which is an abandoned and minimal station of the underground railroad. The tunnel is too narrow for a train and contains only a handcar. No one knows where it leads and it doesn’t seem to connect to any other stations. The sight of it troubles Cora deeply. 

The station here is unlike the well-run station in Tennessee where she caught the train to Valentine farm. That station had white tiles and while they waited, Royal and Cora and the other two men who rescued her, Red and Justin, drank wine at a table covered by a white tablecloth. Justin is a runaway slave who Royal and Red were sent to rescue. When Royal saw Cora in town in Tennessee, they decided to rescue her as well. The train that arrives is a real passenger train, clean and comfortable. Royal explains that the Valentine farm can just be a stop on the way north. Justin executes his plan to go to Canada, where he has relatives. Cora, however, is tired of running, and decides to stay on Valentine farm. Although Indiana is now a free state, there are still dangers from white people. Cora understands the risks, but desperately wants to settle down.

Summary: Indiana, Part 3

“November sapped them with Indiana cold …”

Sam, the station master from South Carolina, shows up on Valentine farm. After the night Caesar was killed and his house was burned down, Sam fled north and kept working for the underground railroad. Sam tells Cora that Terrance Randall is dead and no one is looking for her anymore. Ridgeway and Homer are no longer taken seriously after they were outsmarted by Royal in Tennessee. Sam stays three days and visits, participating in a corn shucking contest, before continuing west to California, where he hopes to work as a bartender.

Cora spends a lot of time reading in the Valentine farm library. One night John Valentine, the owner of the farm, arrives and visits with her. She says she is afraid Mingo’s plan to reduce the population on the farm means she will have to leave. Valentine and Cora have both witnessed growing hostility from whites in town. Valentine is thinking of selling the farm and moving everyone west to Oklahoma to begin again. Cora doesn’t want to start over, but it seems like it might be inevitable.

Summary: Indiana, Part 4

“The final gathering on Valentine farm …”

The night before the violent ambush on Valentine farm by a gang of white men, Royal brings Cora a brand new farmers’ almanac for the next year. She tells him her life story, and he ends up spending the night. The next evening, everyone excitedly gathers to hear a debate about the future of the farm between Mingo and Lander. The crowd includes Black people who own nearby farms.

Mingo argues that the farm is too large and angering whites, and that only those who are not too damaged by the experience of slavery, who can fit into white society, should be allowed to stay. Lander argues that they “rise and fall as one,” united by the color of their skin, and whatever they do they must do together. No sooner does Lander finish speaking than he is shot in the chest by an intruding white mob. Royal runs to him and is shot in the back. The white mob keeps shooting as people try to escape the slaughter. Cora holds Royal in her lap for a short time, then escapes the building. The whole farm is on fire and absorbed by violence. Cora is grabbed by Ridgeway and then Homer appears, saying he heard Royal tell her to go to the underground railway station.

Analysis: Indiana, Parts 1–4

In this chapter, Whitehead presents Valentine farm as the most positive example of the theme throughout the book of the power of community. At Valentine, Black people work together to achieve shared goals, as represented by the joyful festival they make of the Shucking Bee, a marked contrast to the suffering of harvest time on the plantation. Throughout the novel, Whitehead explores the tension between the necessity of putting individual needs first for survival and the duty to uplift the whole community. Valentine is the only place Black people find the freedom and the sense of plenty necessary to fully support each other without placing themselves in individual danger. Molly and Sybil can welcome Cora into their lives without needing to sacrifice their own safety or comfort. Valentine himself can share his land and use the privileges granted him by his light skin to help others buy land, without worrying that helping others will endanger his family. Nevertheless, Mingo and others who see their position as more fragile draw the line at helping all Black people, believing limitations will ensure their safety. The community at Valentine has immense power, but even so, it cannot escape the danger of white supremacy forever.

The relationship between Molly and Sybil symbolizes maternal love and, like many aspects of life on Valentine farm, has a healing effect on Cora. Unlike Mabel, Sybil left slavery carrying her daughter. They maintain a close relationship, quilting together, making their home beautiful, and caring for each other with a quiet assurance. With them, Cora tries sewing again, something she has not done since Mabel left Randall. Although her attempts are clumsy, they encourage her. Cora is willing to keep trying for them, suggesting she experiences their care as similar to the care she lost from Mabel. At the same time, their example makes her envious, as shown by the bitter thoughts she has about Mabel, that she is hiding out of shame for having left her daughter behind. She spitefully wishes cold on Mabel, who she imagines in Canada. Molly and Sybil provide an example of mother-daughter love that is both moving to Cora and troubling.

Lander, Royal, and Valentine, all born free, symbolize the possibilities of a generation born outside of slavery. Royal, born free to free parents, credits his ability to avoid trouble with comparisons to his gait. He claims freeborn people walk differently, and white people can tell. His declaration that the difference is in his bones implies that people born free are innately different from those who have been enslaved. Royal devotes himself to the Underground Railroad, showing that freedom has not led him to consider himself better than enslaved Black people. On the contrary, his freedom gives him the opportunity to help, in contrast to the scarcity of plantation life that breeds distrust. Lander represents the possibilities of education beyond Cora’s dreams, a life of the mind begun in early childhood, impossible under slavery. Like Royal, he uses his talents to help the cause of freedom for all Black people. Valentine, too, uses his privilege to help, welcoming people to the farm and helping others buy land. These freeborn men represent a Black excellence that devotes itself to lifting up the community.

The library at Valentine farm is the apex of Whitehead’s theme of the connection between literacy and freedom. The abandoned schoolhouse at Randall has fallen to ruin, representing the lack of education for the enslaved people there, and in South Carolina, the primers used for teaching Black people are falling apart, representing their second-class status compared to the white children with their brand-new books. But the library at Valentine is a temple to learning, representing the joyful idealism of the farm, built by people hungry for freedom and education, as shown by their eagerness to build it. Not only is the library a place Black people can go freely to read, a strong contrast with the violent enforcement of anti-literacy laws in Georgia and North Carolina, but it is also a collection of books written by Black people, showing its importance as a symbol of Black intellect. The books contain histories of and literature by African people and enslaved Americans, representing the rebuilding of heritage stolen by slavery and recognition of the growth of Black culture even in a white supremacist system. The library represents the power of learning to support the future triumphs of Black people.

In the section of the book set at Valentine farm, Whitehead continues to develop the theme of the ways white supremacy destroys the innocence and joy of Black children. The children of Valentine are starkly different from those at Randall. They represent the possibility Cora has imagined in South Carolina, that a child of hers born in freedom might be more like the spoiled and pleasant Maisie than the children of Randall, whose joy is ground out early by the brutality of slavery. Like Chester at the plantation, Molly chooses Cora to be her friend. They are the same age, and Cora can imagine Molly thriving in her gentle way, without the violence that rips Chester from his childhood. Mingo’s daughters recite the Declaration of Independence with a confidence so different from Michael’s meaningless rendition that Cora does not even recognize it as the same text. Homer’s involvement in the massacre reflects how slavery has taken his innocence. Even though he is now free, he is left without the sense of belonging to the Black community. He allies himself with white supremacy out of a need for safety, another example of the theme of the destruction of Black children’s happiness.