Living Alternate Histories with Underground Airlines

Angela Davis

My grandmother once told me a story that stretched the limits of my understandings of racial fear. Years ago she was relocating with her family for my grandfather’s job. They planned to drive to their new home and considered taking a detour through the South as an add-on to their trip.

At this time however, Angela Davis had just been added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and the entire country was focused on the story. My grandmother, who is a light-skinned black woman that used to wear her hair in an Afro, was afraid of being mistaken for Davis, particularly in the South, where they perceived greater hostility. So after some deliberation, she and my grandfather decided not to travel through the South after all, bypassing it on their journey.

Now, aside from being light-skinned, I personally don’t think my grandmother looks anything like Angela Davis. When I first heard the story I had a hard time understanding what it would feel like to be alive and black during that period in time. Because of the relatively safer and calmer context I grew up in, it is almost impossible for me to fully relate to that generalized sense of racial fear. To really understand my grandmother’s story, I had to imagine a completely different world from the one in which I came of age. (Though as #BlackLivesMatter shows, racial fear is still alive and well in the world. Unlike my experience, all too many young black people grow up quite aware of it.)

Underground AirlinesReading Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters reminded me of my grandmother’s story because it is also about using the imagination to understand another world. It’s about using the tool of speculative fiction to cultivate empathy for what it can be like as a black person living in a geography of racial fear. The particular context here is slavery.

Underground Airlines is told from the perspective of the main character, who goes by Victor. Victor lives in the modern-day U.S. with one big difference — slavery still exists in four states. He’s a black man who works for the U.S. Marshall Service to help find and return escaped slaves from the slave states. As the story goes along you learn more and more about seedy things that have been going on in the background of reputable organizations on all sides. Victor has to face his own past and what he’s willing to do to keep his personal freedom.

Underground Airlines, though a thriller at its core, explores deep moral questions. Winters leads you to think about what you would do to preserve your own safety in such a compromised society. The people you would betray. Those you would manipulate. Just as interesting is the exploration of corruption among modern-day abolitionists. Winters plays with what the desire to be a “savior” can do to the psyche, and how it can corrupt. He suggests that individual people can begin to matter much less than the cause as a whole. The book is a fascinating look at what happens when who we are collides with who we imagine ourselves to be.

I’d be remiss not to mention Octavia Butler’s Kindred in reviewing Underground Airlines. In Kindred, a black woman is involuntarily trapped in a cycle of going back in time to the plantation where her ancestors were enslaved. The book explores the very real and painful ways in which the institution of slavery corrupts all morals and good intentions. Kindred was a groundbreaking mashup of the modern world and the old establishment of slavery, and Winters’ work follows in that tradition. Constance Grady’s article in Vox captures some important ways that Winters draws upon Butler’s cannon.

I am white, and I wrote this book because I think it is incumbent on white people, white authors very much included, to think about racism, to grapple with racism, and to engage with it.
Ben H. Winters

One of the great strengths of speculative fiction, is that the literal worlds it forces you to consider are often based on real world “what if” questions with current day implications. Just as the world of my grandmother’s story pushed me to expand my understandings of what her life experiences encompass, speculative fiction can take you to a new mental place, to a new body. It can play with your world in subtle ways to make you consider new possibilities and perspectives. We have to leave our entrenched beliefs behind a little when reality gets slightly warped. We don’t always know who we would be in the story.


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Note: I received an advance reading copy of this book from the publisher for review.

Image Source: About.com

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Why I Can Only Read So Many Slavery Narratives

slave shackles
National Museum of American History via Flickr

I read Kindred a few months ago and had a hard time functioning normally for a couple of days afterward. The book followed Dana, a black woman from the late 1900s who is involuntarily drawn back to time travel onto an American slave plantation. On the plantation she experiences or witnesses all manner of indignities and injustice – she must contort her spirit to a back-breaking system to stay alive.

I had a similarly strong reaction reading An Untamed State, which, while not about slavery in the 1800s sense, was about modern day sex slavery of a woman kidnapped in Haiti.

Many people have recommend to me A Known World by Edward P. Jones, which does look like a fantastic book and I happen to own it now, but at the same time I’m finding myself reluctant to actually pick it up and read it. Why? Because, the setting of the novel is slavery, and sometimes I just don’t feel up to the emotional toll of reading another book about slaves.

When I was a kid, I lived in a city of very few black people. Most folks were white, some were Asian or Latino, and just a couple were black. I remember in class when we’d talk about slavery and all of the kids would turn to look at me, to see… I don’t even know what they wanted to see, maybe how I was handling it or to try and imagine what it would have been like if I were a slave. The word “slave” was thrown around on the playground as a joke to any other kid, regardless of color. I’m going to make you my slave! The point is, as a young person it was pretty traumatizing to talk about slavery, which meant that I didn’t really decide to think about it or process my thoughts about slavery until I was much older.

As I grew up I came to think about slavery in the Ta-Nehisi Coates sense, of how this one period of intense oppression, of physical and mental hurt has lead to systemic poverty and perpetual criminalization and marginalization of black bodies. Books and movies like Kindred reminded me of the intense servility and subservience that slavery forced upon African Americans. While we’ve now had decades of black pride and racial justice movements to try and recoup some of what we lost, during the time of slavery’s peak and Jim Crow you didn’t have a choice – you had to be obedient and obsequious to whites. Living in Oakland, with the strong history of the Black Panthers grounding my feet, this past is sometimes hard to reconcile with. Quite simply, sometimes, I just don’t want to visualize that subservience.

It’s not that I want to ignore my history or that I don’t think slavery narratives should exist. To the contrary, they are ABSOLUTELY important and I firmly believe in studying the history of oppressed communities. White people in particular need to understand slavery and the legacies it wrought. But for myself as a black woman, there is a point where I’m not sure what more I get out of slavery media. Do I need to see a man getting whipped naked in front of his children one more time? To read about another black woman being raped by her white master? When these scenes and moments are literally a part of my family tree, at what point do I get to look away for a moment to catch my breath? There are times when I just need a little space before I’m ready to go through the trauma of re-visualizing my ancestry. Never ever to forget, only to keep moving.