Everybody’s talking about The Underground Railroad. Everybody. It’s the most award-winning, imagination-stretching, racially charged novel of 2016, and, because it’s written by an African-American author, taken to some extent (not that its author deemed this) as holy writ in our racially charged society.
What if I told you that Virginia Woolf, that whitest and most privileged scion of British literature, had addressed Whitehead’s theme—not at length, mind you—in her 1929 A Room of One’s Own? That theme being that the buying and selling of humans is harmful and evil.
What particularly interests me is Woolf’s feminist spin on that theme. In a passage referring to how anonymity runs in women’s blood (according to men), she notes with deep sarcasm how women “are not even now as concerned about the health of their fame as men are, and, speaking generally, will pass a tombstone or a signpost without feeling an irresistible desire to cut their names on it. . .”
The male desire, Woolf reckons, involves “obedience to their instinct” of ownership. From their earliest days as boys, members of the male gender/sex (being careful to note that one is determined above the belt, the other below) manifest a tendency to say “Mine!” about everything from toys to monuments.
“It is one of the great advantages of being a woman,” writes Woolf, “That one can pass even a very fine negress without wishing to make an Englishwoman of her.”
The sarcasm deepens.
For, as Woolf well knows, no man of her era passing “a very fine negress” actually wishes to make an Englishwoman of her. Women of color in English society would definitely have been looked at with possessive eyes, but those eyes greedily wished to use those women for their own purposes: Servants, sex workers, slaves.
In asserting this “great advantage of being a woman,” Woolf also asserts a belief that women do not participate in the world of possession—perhaps a fair and true belief in her 20th-century milieu of recent women’s suffrage, where women had only ceased being their husband’s chattel by a handful of decades. But does the then-womanly quality of non-possessiveness still hold true in our era of Kardashians and consumption?
Let’s go back to the phrase “a very fine negress.” Woolf knows, as much and perhaps more than anyone, that those words are harmful and evil. She uses them deliberately to show that male possessiveness is more than skin-deep, no matter the color of that skin. She’s purposefully pointing out that both the terms “negress” and “Englishwoman” are male coinages.
White male coinages.
Deep in the heart of early twentieth-century Britain, before independence for India, before the Civil Rights Era in the United States, before any sort of true independence for African nations, Virginia Woolf dreamt of a world in which these coinages would hold no power, would only be used in pointing up their inadequacy to define the fierce, independent women they attempt to proscribe.
She dreamt of Colson Whitehead, of a man who would one day understand the inadequacy on both sides of the racial divide. That no one wins when women of either color are called by names not their own, that even those like the villain in The Underground Railroad, Ridgeway, lose when a slave woman has to change her name to evade capture or a white woman’s fate is tied to the name she takes upon marriage. We all lose our essential humanity when we try to possess other humans.
The Underground Railroad, for those who have not read it, is a slave narrative that turns into socially relevant sci-fi when several enslaved people from a Georgia plantation escape via an actual underground railroad to a somewhat enlightened South Carolina. That’s hardly even the book’s midpoint, and the device that concerns me most here is the series of newspaper ads that act as section openers, ads that sometimes follow the enslaved Cora as she slips from one state to the next and changes her name along with her status.
In each of these “wanted ads,” different pieces of the women are cited to help pursuers identify them. Sometimes these pieces are general: “a bright mulatto” skin, “a dark brown complexion,” “straight hair,” etc. Others seem to be directly tied to female gender: “A shrill voice,” “very neat in her appearance,” “possessed of a. . .devious nature.”
However, the most chilling “pieces” are those particular to the women described. A scar on her neck. A star-shaped mark on her temple. These aren’t simply descriptors; they are marks given by white people—largely men, probably only men—to women they regarded as their property. Those marks aren’t part of the women’s nature or individuality. They are brands. Even an elbow scar described as a burn might have come from punishment, or a kitchen accident—but remains a brand, because its origin came in slave labor.
A white woman’s cooking burns or dishpan hands don’t symbolize the same pain as Cora and her sisters’ injuries, yet they can, do, and did—for Woolf—help some white women gain some understanding of what it’s like to live in metaphorical chains.
Yes, Woolf dreamt of Whitehead. But Whitehead won’t be dreaming of Woolf, at least not where substance is concerned. Consider the North Carolina white couple who hide Cora in their attic crawlspace. Ethel Martin’s first words to Cora are “You’re going to get us all murdered.” Her husband believes in abolition and always treats Cora kindly, but it takes Cora becoming seriously ill to bring out Ethel’s own kind nature. Colson Whitehead sadly recognizes that racism knows no gender boundaries. Whitehead understands that too many white women have forgotten that unless women of all colors can be treated equally, there will be no true equality.