Whitehead’s and Erdrich’s use of the postmodern mode of thought for political liberation
E. Agathokleous 2020
The postmodern mode of thought and discourse is one that deals with the past with the intention to revise history and retell it in a way which directly connects to the present while at the same time it protests to established predominant discourses. As postmodernism alludes to works of the past belonging to a canon, it firmly transforms these texts giving them both a historical context in terms of events but also a historical perspective on cultural and intellectual history (Kelly, 391). As Kelly states postmodern work aims to join the past with the present by giving works of the past a different focus making it this way possible for meta-narratives which create fiction out of history to deal with modern politics in an immediate way (Kelly, 396). In this narratives space becomes more important than time which is predominantly fragmented this way creating continuity between the past and the present (Kelly, 394). Postmodern works aim at the subversion of dominant discourses and by being multilayered and open allow for a range of options for resistance by the oppressed (Handler 697). Deconstruction in postmodern literature serves as a tool in order to undermine privileged worldviews, hegemonic institutions and allows for resistance through creating a reality where power balance can shift and can be disputed (Handler, 700). Both Colson Whitehead and Louise Erdrich originate from people who have suffered oppression in inhumane ways and still face it in current times. Their novels take on the task to allow history to resurface and retell the histories of the past in a way that makes them popular to contemporary readers while at the same time their novels become narratives which call for political liberation.
Colson Whitehead is an awarded writer, who published The Underground Railroad in 2016 ("Colson Whitehead"). The novel is a about a young slave’s journey to freedom and deals with slavery in an imaginative way that strays from the slavery narrative of the past. As a postmodern novel it involves a heroic quest towards freedom in a non-linear timeline, magical realism along with actual historical events and presents reality though imaginative fiction which makes it alluring to the reader. Through Cora’s magical journey, which is however filled with both a relentless struggle for freedom and violent horrors up to the last pages, the novel makes a strong political statement about white supremacy and its inexorable nature (Li, 2).
Whitehead uses realism only to describe plantation life which is filled with details about all kinds of violence, physical and mental including slave on slave violence (Whitehead, 23-24). However Whitehead’s novel strays from the slave-narrative genre through its inventive representations of history that show how multifaceted and deeply rooted oppression is, a fact that makes it virtually irreversible and thus it extends to current times (Li, 2). The Underground Railroad, while rooted in the history of slavery, does not claim to document history but rather makes a political statement on current society. Through an action narrative that involves a daring escape Whitehead strays from a narrative of desperation turning it into a fantasy-fiction story that made the novel very popular to current audiences. It entails enough of the expected violence, oppression and threat to meet the expectations of the reader but without the misery that they entail (Li, 5). The novel does abide by rules that expect a slave narrative, however not long into the novel the form of narration changes to become a more artistic representation of actual history depicted through a victim that earns the affection and the admiration of the audience (Li, 3).
Whitehead uses an imaginary magical railroad as a device that will allow him to alter the timelines and blur the boundaries of fiction and reality (Li, 9). History is there but is presented in a very different way and the reader becomes an observer along with Cora who is overwhelmed with the successive forms of violence and cruelty she comes against as her journey progresses. While moving underground, Cora accesses an unknown history of atrocities done to black people like her. In South Carolina, where slaves are supposedly freed, they are used in medical experiments without their knowledge and are sterilized in order for white people to control their numbers and in North Carolina “The negro race did not exist except at the ends of ropes” (Whitehead, 146, 187). While these events happened long after Cora’s time, they are events referring to actual events like “aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment” (Whitehead, 2016). Through these events, a truth that remained hidden underground is exposed and the true extend of cruelty and violence us revealed (Li, 2).
Through this revisioning of history the novel aims to educate a less familiar with history audience and addressing a wider audience increases the chances of the message reaching the intended target, those that still possess a sentiment of supremacy and higher value or those that have the power to change society and politics towards liberation in modern times (Li, 7). Like Whitehead states in an interview, “all the things that the people in "The Underground Railroad" are struggling with, have parallels, echoes today” (Whitehead, 2016). Whitehead had been taught from a quite young age that he had to be extra careful just because of the color of his skin (Whitehead, 2016). The ruthless slave patrollers of the South performed “an early version of stop and frisk” which as Whitehead says “it's a common occurrence for most black people in America” today (Whitehead, 2016). According to the time it was written the novel can also be seen as a response to social movements like the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the effort for awareness about racism, violence and prejudice against black people (Kelly, 1). Barack Obama’s victory brought a burning hope that freedom and equality were actual possibilities for the first time in the long struggle for political liberation, however police brutality that resulted to killings of black people only too often revealed that the struggle for political liberation is more urgent now as ever (Kelly, 18). Whitehead’s novel offers hope for the future since Cora’s journey happens through complete darkness and there is no knowledge about what lies ahead, allowing all possibilities to exist and thus the hope for social change and political liberation is preserved (Li, 2).
While Whitehead’s novel mixes reality with fantasy Erdrich’s novel mixes cultures to produce a post-colonial narrative that protests to imperialism. The novel does not follow a linear timeline nor features a main narrator. Every narrator in the story brings a whole new perspective to events that are presented through anachronisms, flashbacks and repetitions which create both discontinuity and inconsistency in a fragmented narration (Runtic, 115). Erdrich however uses the traditional structure of Anishinaabe stories which repeatedly refer to the same characters and narrate different perspectives in often contradictory versions of the same events (Runtic, 117). Despite the fragmentation and differences in points of views there is a sense of unity and interconnectedness between characters and the themes of the stories, formed in the novel mostly through genealogy, family and marriages but also through the way these characters react to the events in the novel (Runtic, 116). In this way the novel is at the same time both postmodern and traditional at the same time moving from western boundaries and meanings to bring tribal culture and customs to the forefront (Runtic, 118). Erdrich’s novel requires the reader’s active participation because the reader is the only one who has access to all perspectives and thus is put in a place to fill in the gaps along the way (Runtic, 119). This way the reader is forced to submerge into this merging of cultures and understand the Native American reality which demands adjustment between two different worlds and in this way it creates a common ground between white and Native American audiences (Runtic, 120).