Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. 


The swamp bordering the Randall plantation represents the possibilities and dangers of escape. The swamp can hide the fugitives but also harm them. It is a kind of no-man’s land. After Mabel escapes and cannot be recaptured, Randall has a spell put on the boundary to keep Black people from entering the swamp. Hiring a witch woman to do this work indicates that he knows he does not actually control the boundary. Indeed, enslaved people continue to enter the swamp to hunt and fish. It is a valuable source of resources for them, including food and moss to sell. However, even as they enter the swamp for those purposes, they feel “invisible chains” pulling them back to the plantation. The swamp is not freedom, but a place of possibility.  When Cora, Caesar, and Lovey travel the swamp, Caesar’s knowledge guides them to firmer ground and the swamp itself shields them from discovery. However, although Mabel can also navigate the swamp, knowledge cannot fully protect her from its unknown dangers, and a snake bites and kills her. The swamp itself swallows her, leaving her disappearance a mystery to enrage the white men and give hope to the enslaved people of Randall.


Almanacs represent Cora’s hope for a self-sufficient future. Cora discovers almanacs while trapped in Martin’s attic, wholly dependent on him for her safety and every physical need, from eating to emptying the chamber pot. Almanacs bring her comfort because they list phenomena that take place without human assistance. Almanacs allow her to imagine a life where she can use their practical advice. They allow her to dream of places and things she has never heard of. When Ethel cares for her as she recovers from illness, she requests the almanacs instead of the Bible, in part because they do not require others to explain them, avoiding the arguments they have had over the Bible. Whitehead elevates the almanacs to a spiritual plane, referring to their charts of the phases of the moon as “prayers for runaways,” since the full moon provides light for escapes. By the time Royal presents her with a current one, they are so important to her that just seeing the coming year on the cover allows her to hope for the future. When she emerges from the tunnel in the North, she draws on what she has learned from them, identifying the cold water as snowmelt.

Garden Plot

The garden plot Cora inherits from Ajarry and Mabel represents independence and stability. Ajarry begins planting there soon after she arrives on the plantation. Loss and instability have marked her life since she was kidnapped, as she has been taken from her home and traded many times. By establishing her plot, she creates a means to feed herself beyond rations and a place she can own. She defends the plot fiercely because as an enslaved person, she has rare opportunities for independence. Ajarry passes the plot down to Mabel, and Mabel to Cora. In this way, the plot represents an inheritance that connects them and gives stability to their lives, even as the plantation changes. For these reasons, Cora in turn risks her life to take the plot back from Blake. For her, as for Ajarry and Mabel, the plot is “the most valuable land in all of Georgia.”