Summary and Analysis
When Caesar, a new slave on the Randall plantation in Georgia, approaches Cora and suggests that she escape with him, she turns him down. The novel’s narrator says that this response is “her grandmother talking”; three weeks later, when she agrees to run away with Caesar, it is “her mother talking.”
The chapter turns to the history of Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, and how her history has influenced Cora. Ajarry was born in Africa and kidnapped by slavers as a child, along with the rest of her village. Ajarry’s father, who had been kidnapped in a previous raid, was killed by slavers when he wasn’t able to march as fast as the other captives. Ajarry was taken to the port city of Ouidah (part of modern-day Benin), where she was sold onto a different ship than the rest of her family.
Ajarry tried to take her life twice aboard the ship but was thwarted both times. She reached the American South, where she was sold multiple times before finally being bought by a representative of the Randall plantation. Once there, she married three times; one of her husbands was sold off of the plantation, and the other two died. Four of her five children died as well; Mabel, Cora’s mother, was the only one who lived past the age of 10.
At first Whitehead’s choice to spend the entire first chapter talking about Cora’s grandmother, a woman who otherwise does not appear much in the narrative, might seem strange. Yet this attention makes sense in the broader context of The Underground Railroad for several reasons.
First, every odd-numbered chapter of the novel is, such as this one, a short character study of someone other than Cora, the protagonist. Some of these short character studies provide relevant information that affects Cora’s story in significant ways. Other chapters have little to do with Cora’s life story but still illuminate some of the novel’s themes. This first chapter does both.
Second, this chapter sets the emotional mood of the entire novel. Ajarry’s life is full of tragedy after heartbreaking tragedy: her mother’s death, her father’s kidnapping and murder, her own kidnapping by slavers, her separation from her relatives, her failed suicide attempts, being sold repeatedly, the loss of three husbands and four children. These events could be the subject of a long and painful novel of their own. Instead, they are summarized dispassionately in a few short pages. The message of such an opening chapter is clear: This book will be full of horrors, but it won’t dwell on those horrors in sentimental ways. Evil doesn’t need to be embellished. By talking about Ajarry’s life so matter-of-factly, Whitehead prepares his readers to make ethical judgments for themselves instead of relying on the narrative for guidance.
Third, this chapter demonstrates the importance of family heritage as a theme throughout the novel. Cora’s own identity is inseparable from her mother’s and grandmother’s in some ways. When she refuses to run away with Caesar, she says that “it was her grandmother talking”; when she later accepts the invitation, “it was her mother talking.” In both cases, Cora’s choice is inseparable from the legacies of the women who have preceded her. All of the facets of Cora’s identity—the way she comes to understand herself as African, as slave, as runaway, as independent, as isolated—can be traced back to her family. This legacy is part of why the plot of land in Chapter 2 will be so important to Cora: It is the one physical possession she inherits from Ajarry and Mabel.
In what sense is it “her grandmother talking” when Cora declines Caesar’s offer to run away with him? Ajarry spends much of her life in physical and relational transition. She is sold again and again, moved from place to place, and she loses most of the people she loves. Thus, for Ajarry, the idea of relocating yet again doesn’t sound like freedom; movement and uncertainty are the logic of her captivity. To have a place to call her own—even if it is only a tiny plot of land—is, for Ajarry, better than the alternative: death, or nothing at all.
Note also the emphasis that this chapter gives on the fluctuations of Ajarry’s price each time she is sold. This fluctuation heightens the sense of uncertainty in Ajarry’s world. Simultaneously, it calls attention to the arbitrariness of the slave trade. The monetary value of a human life keeps changing not because the value of humanity changes but because money isn’t meant to be a measure of human value.
Other than the names of port cities she travels through, Ajarry’s locations in this chapter are purposefully vague. In fact, the entire novel tends to be vague about specific locations, relying mostly on state names alone. This vagueness speaks to the novel’s broad applicability. The novel implies that it’s not necessary to name a specific city because stories like this one could have happened anywhere and, indeed, did happen everywhere.