By Cindi Schwartz, Hamilton
Several years ago a friend of mine suggested I read “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead. The story follows an enslaved woman named Cora who lives through and witnesses atrocities at the hands of white supremacist enslavers. She is able to liberate herself via the Underground Railroad, which in this book is envisioned as an actual railroad with safe houses, conductors, train stations, and trains that run via secret underground tunnels throughout the southern United States.
Time and time again Cora witnesses white supremacy in its many forms. She witnesses the lynching of enslaved men and the raping of enslaved women. For a time she lives in a commune of well-meaning whites who try to “teach” self-liberated black men and women how to “live white” while simultaneously sterilizing them. She finds a community of self-emancipated Black entrepreneurs who work together to build a meaningful business only to be massacred by white supremacists who feel that free Black folks are getting “uppity.” People she loves are murdered.
Despite this, a tenderness exists in this book between enslaved people who have meaningful friendships, between the workers of the Underground Railroad and fugitives from slavery, and between Cora and the two different men she falls in love with over her lifetime.
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Recently I discovered that the book was adapted into a mini-series of 10 episodes and can be found on Amazon Prime. Neither reading the book nor watching the series is easy. The violence is real and graphic. Although the story is fiction, all of these incidents or ones very similar occurred in our 402-year history of white supremacy in the United States (and colonies beforehand). I think it’s worthwhile to both read the book and watch the series. I learned something from each that I somehow missed from the other. The story became more complete.
It also made me think about my own family history. I am a 16th-generation direct descendant of a young man who left England via Amsterdam in 1630 to come to the colonies. As with many families, we kept and retold the stories that we’re most proud of — and there are definitely stories to be proud of.
But I have no doubt that I have ancestors who were white supremacists and enslavers. How can I not with 392 years of family history on this continent, for 246 of which chattel slavery was legal? Yet those stories are lost because they are hard to bear. So I find myself thinking about what kind of ancestor I choose to be for future generations.
After reading and watching “The Underground Railroad” I wanted to learn more about what it means to be Black in the United States, so I started reading more stories written by Black authors, listening to podcasts by Black women, and watching films by Black directors . Slowly I am learning. I hope that my choices will make a difference in the lives of Black Americans, where a 246-year legacy of chattel slavery and its aftermath of Jim Crow, voter suppression, and lingering white supremacy live on today.
I will be forever grateful to my friend who suggested this book. I hope you will take the time to read it as well, and I hope it inspires you to wherever start your own personal journey, it may lead you.
— Cindi Schwartz, Hamilton
Valley Women’s Voices is a Sunday feature in the Ravalli Republic. Send submissions to OnMyMindMFT@gmail.com