Summary and Analysis Chapter 2

 

Georgia

Summary

Cora’s mother ran away when Cora was 10 or 11 years old. Without a mother, Cora became a misfit among the slaves and was sent to live in the Hob, a cabin for women who do not belong anywhere else, including those who are unfit to work or mentally unstable.

Within the slaves’ quarters on the Randall plantation, Ajarry had claimed for herself a tiny three-square-yard patch of land to farm. This land was passed to Mabel, and then, when Mabel escaped, to Cora. Once the land was Cora’s responsibility, other slaves began trying to take it from her. A massive slave named Blake uprooted her garden and built a doghouse for his dog in the space. In retaliation, Cora destroyed the doghouse with a hatchet. Not long afterward, when Cora reached puberty, Blake’s cronies raped her. Blake himself had already been captured and killed after trying to run away.

During the birthday celebration feast of a slave named Jockey, the plantation co-owners James and Terrance visit the festivities. They want to hear a slave named Michael recite the Declaration of Independence, but it turns out that Michael was beaten to death. Terrance commands the slaves to dance, and a young slave named Chester accidentally bumps into Terrance, causing the master to spill a drop of wine on his sleeve. Terrance begins beating Chester with his cane. Cora intervenes, and she, too, is beaten.

James Randall dies of kidney failure, making Terrance the new owner of James’s half of the plantation and Cora’s new master. This change is the impetus Cora needs to escape. She agrees to go with Caesar, who explains that he met an abolitionist named Mr. Fletcher who is willing to transport them to the underground railroad. They set out to Mr. Fletcher’s house in the middle of the night and are unexpectedly joined by Cora’s young friend Lovey.

The runaway slaves are discovered by three white hog hunters, two of whom seize Lovey and drag her off. The third, a young boy, grabs Cora. She strikes him repeatedly in the skull with a rock in order to escape. The boy later dies from his injuries, making Cora and Caesar even more wanted as fugitives because they have killed a white man.

Cora and Caesar reach Mr. Fletcher’s farmhouse. Fletcher feeds them and then drives them to the underground railroad station in his cart, hiding them beneath a blanket. Lumbly, the station agent, takes them underground to an actual railroad, where he loads them into a boxcar and sends them to South Carolina.

Analysis

Cora’s struggle against Blake to keep her tiny plot of land is important for various reasons. First, this land is the only tangible legacy left to Cora by her grandmother and mother. Her struggle to hang on to it is not only a struggle for a few more vegetables to eat each year; it’s a fight to hold on to what little sense of history and collective identity she has. Second, it shows that her character is someone willing to fight back against injustice. Her resistance may cost her, as it does in this case, but she will make sure that the people who hurt her are hurt in return. This character trait will manifest itself again in future chapters. Third and most significantly, the idea of slaves fighting over three square yards of land while they work together in captivity to farm a white man’s acres of cotton is incredibly ironic. The real enemy that needs to be fought against is slavery itself; but, when this enemy seems unconquerable, the Randall slaves fight against one another (and against their own self-interest) because their survival instinct drives them to it. As the novel’s narrator notes, slavery sometimes causes slaves to bond together, but at other times it turns them against one another.

The threat that slaves can pose to one another within the system of slavery is also exhibited by Lovey. Lovey’s choice to follow Caesar and Cora puts all three of them in greater danger. Even though compassion might suggest that a larger number of escaping slaves is always better, there is also a pragmatic concern to consider: How can compassion toward everyone be balanced with the wisdom of avoiding unnecessary risks? Is it better for two people to escape successfully, or for three people to try to escape and fail? These questions become even more urgent after Lovey is captured, and Cora and Caesar try to remember whether or not they took the risk of telling Lovey about their plans to find Mr. Fletcher and follow the underground railroad. Trusting Lovey with this information seems, in one sense, like the more compassionate choice. But, Cora and Caesar realize, there’s a risk that Lovey will tell whatever she knows to her captors. Thus, they can’t help hoping that they excluded her from these plans.

As Cora has already started to discover through tensions such as this one, ethics are difficult to determine within the system of slavery. Is it more “right” for Cora to show compassion to others even when it puts her at greater risk? The height of this tension comes when she bashes in the white boy’s skull with a rock in order to escape capture. In the eyes of the white South, this act makes Cora a murderer and therefore evil. But what if Cora’s only alternative is to allow herself to be captured, and certainly killed, instead? Within Cora’s predicament, there can be no such thing as a “good” slave. There is only “evil” runaway slave or dead slave.

Another slave who lived within this impossible ethical paradox is Michael, the slave who could recite the Declaration of Independence. He was a “good” slave in the sense that he had memorized a sacred American document. And yet remaining “good” according to white ethical standards meant that Michael had to ignore the claims of independence he was reciting. The “good” American slave is an impossible, paradoxical figure who champions independence while remaining in captivity.

According to Lumbly, the station agent, the tension between freedom and captivity is written into the very fabric of America. America is founded on the principle of freedom while being built upon the abuse of slaves and Native Americans. Lumbly describes the underground railroad as a metaphor for the American heart, saying, “If you want to see what this nation is all about . . . you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” In other words, America is both a journey toward freedom and a hopeless, dark-hearted system built by now-invisible subjugation. It is both a great promise and a deep-rooted evil.



 
 
 
 
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