Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Psychic Damage of Slavery

In addition to showing the physical brutality of slavery, Whitehead develops a theme of the lasting psychic damage to enslaved people. Ajarry’s kidnapping and repeated sale leaves her believing enslavement and the plantation represent the “fundamental principles” of her life. In South Carolina and beyond, Cora consciously works to force thoughts of the plantation from her mind, which she cannot achieve completely. Homer provides a particularly striking example of this theme. Although Ridgeway frees him as soon as he buys him, Homer carries on serving him as if he were enslaved, even going so far as to shackle himself to the wagon every night. Whitehead presents him as a caricature in order to show that slavery has left him without the ability to imagine a different life for himself. Homer provides a more exaggerated version of the same damage Mingo suffers from. Mingo is proud to be free, but he disdains Black people who could not buy their freedom or who he thinks attract white disapproval. His body may no longer be enslaved, but slavery has left him unable to feel solidarity with other Black people. Although they are free, both he and Homer ally themselves with white power structures that support slavery. This shows the lasting damage of the institution of slavery. 

The Connection between Literacy and Freedom

Throughout the novel, Whitehead explores the connection between literacy and freedom. In the novel as in American history, enslaved people are barred from learning to read, by law or by owners and overseers. On the Randall plantation, Connelly blinds Jacob for attempting to learn. In South Carolina, Miss Handler tells her students that North Carolina state law would fine her and whip the students, in addition to likely punishments from a master. As with the practice of separating kidnapped Africans from others who speak their language, literacy is outlawed in order to make it harder for enslaved people to communicate with each other and therefore harder for them to organize revolts. Literacy is a particularly powerful organizing tool, since it allows people to share ideas across distances, without needing to be in the same place at the same time. Preventing enslaved people from reading and writing is an important aspect of control of the enslaved population, a source of great concern for whites throughout the book. A teamster at Valentine farm notes that his former master said a literate Black person was more dangerous than an armed one and compares the library there to a pile of gunpowder.  

Because literacy is such a powerful and forbidden tool, throughout the book, Black people value it highly. Caesar takes the risk of hiding a book at Randall because reading lets him feel mental freedom. Cora feels “nourished” by the opportunity to learn to read in South Carolina and believes it would make her mother proud, since it is part of pushing plantation life away from herself, creating a free identity. In the confinement of the North Carolina attic, almanacs allow her to imagine a future life where she will use their practical advice. Those almanacs have another association with freedom, in that Martin’s father used them to keep track of the cycles of the moon for the sake of helping those escaping slavery. The people of Valentine farm value reading so highly that they build a library, a daring temple to literacy and freedom. When the mob burns it, Cora’s first instinct is to run toward it. Literacy and freedom are deeply connected in the novel.

The Power of Community 

During Cora’s journey across the country, Whitehead shows examples of different ways people live together, developing a theme of the power of community. At the Randall plantation, Connelly and the Randalls work to prevent the enslaved people from forming a strong community. Selective punishment and small extensions of power turn people against each other. Moses becomes mean after Connelly makes him his eyes and ears. Scarce resources cause Ava and others jealous of Cora’s plot to turn against her after Mabel runs away. In South Carolina, Cora sees the fear white people have of Black people forming communities. South Carolina uses medical experiments and forces sterilization to attempt to lower the population, while North Carolina forces them from the state and kills those who remain. Valentine farm in Indiana shows her how a community built on freedom and mutual uplift can create a place so strong it begins to heal the wounds of slavery, giving children space to thrive and families a chance to love each other without fear of forced separation. Valentine offers a model of the power of a community to create possibility.