Summary and Analysis
The underground railroad brings Cora and Caesar to South Carolina, where a station agent named Sam meets them. Sam provides forged papers that identify them as free people. To protect their identities, their names are changed: Cora becomes Bessie Carpenter, and Caesar becomes Christian Markson. Cora works as a maid for a white family named the Andersons, and Caesar works in a factory. Cora lives in a dormitory for unmarried black women. White women run both the dormitory and the attached school, where Cora attends. Although Caesar and Cora discuss leaving South Carolina and going farther north, they start to get comfortable and allow three underground railroad trains to come and go without boarding them.
One night Cora sees a black woman from her dormitory running through the streets, crying, “They’re taking away my babies!” The scene reminds Cora of how slave women on plantations would cry when their children were sold away from them to other plantations. She asks Miss Lucy, her dormitory proctor, about the incident, and Miss Lucy lies that the woman temporarily lost touch with reality.
Cora is transferred from her job with the Andersons to a job at the Museum of Natural Wonders. There she works as an “actor” in three of the museum exhibits: one portraying life in “Darkest Africa” prior to captivity, one portraying life on a slave ship, and one portraying the life of a plantation slave. Cora and two other women take turns in each of the displays, mimicking daily tasks as a steady stream of white museum visitors watches them. Cora eventually begins staring back at the visitors, picking one person each hour to “evil-eye” until they become uncomfortable and stop watching her.
During a medical exam, a doctor named Aloysius Stevens tries to persuade Cora to be sterilized. He explains that some colored women—including the mentally disabled and those who have already given birth to two children—are being forcibly sterilized. Soon afterward, Sam warns Cora and Caesar that a drunk doctor at his saloon confessed to being part of a plot to sterilize large numbers of colored men and women so that their freedom will not pose a threat to white society.
Cora starts asking her proctor questions about a group of women who have disappeared from the dormitories. She suspects that they have been sterilized and then sent away; this, she realizes, is what the screaming woman had meant by “taking away my babies.” Miss Lucy tries to convince Cora that she should encourage other dormitory women to be sterilized.
At the end of their conversation, Cora overhears Miss Lucy talking about a slave catcher who has come to the dormitories looking for a murderer. Guessing that the murderer in question might be her, Cora seeks out Sam, who confirms that Ridgeway has discovered Cora and Caesar’s location and is looking for them. Sam hides Cora on the railroad platform underneath his house. From her hiding place, Cora hears a crowd of people invade Sam’s house, ransack it, and set it on fire.
By the standards of the surrounding states, South Carolina is a very liberal state in its treatment of African Americans, which is why Sam tells Cora and Caesar that they may like South Carolina so much that they will want to stay. Free black people are supported by communities and have access to education, which would be unheard of in neighboring North Carolina and Georgia.
But is this “liberalism” really a good thing for people like Cora and Caesar? Certainly, it has its benefits, and Cora’s life in South Carolina is far better than her life in Georgia had been. Even so, South Carolina’s “liberal” attitude toward race relations still has harmful implications.
First, liberalism turns out to be a way of disguising more subtle kinds of racial violence. Under the guise of good health care for free black people, white doctors encourage sterilization and even force it on some. They also secretly collect blood samples to determine people’s origins in Africa, hoping to eradicate certain races of African descent so that the African Americans who remain will be more easily controlled by a white-dominated government. When Cora sees a woman in the street yelling, “They’re taking my babies!”, she is confused at first because she can’t see the kind of violence the woman is describing. But sterilization is a veiled form of the same violence: This woman’s babies really are being taken from her. South Carolina’s “kindness” means that its mistreatment of black people is less noticeable, but mistreatment still exists.
Second, this kind of liberalism allows African Americans to be treated like objects. This problem is exemplified by Cora’s job at the museum, where she is paid to “act” within museum exhibits while white people watch her. Even if the museum spectators’ motivations had been completely generous, something is still unsettling about the notion that Cora has been reduced to a piece of scenery for white people to look at. (Note, too, that no white people serve as actors in the museum: The white sailor in the slave ship exhibit is a dummy.) Cora’s decision to start staring back at the museum’s white visitors empowers her because it means that she is no longer just an object to be stared at. She is a subject with agency of her own, and she is also capable of staring.
Third, South Carolina “liberalism” makes slavery look kinder than it is. The unrealistic exhibits in the museum create a false narrative about slave life. In the museum narrative, slaves are rescued from “Darkest Africa” to become co-laborers with white sailors aboard slave ships. When they arrive in America, they live just like independent farmers live. The brutality of slavery is excluded from this narrative, easing the consciences of white people who want to think of themselves as moral people without the inconvenience of objecting to slavery. South Carolina liberalism improves the reputation of slavery nationwide, which means that it helps to perpetuate the system of slavery.
Despite the problems with South Carolina, however, Cora has no desire to leave until she is finally chased out. Once she has been given a place to belong—however imperfect that place may be—Cora’s instinct is to stay. In this regard, she is like both her grandmother (who could never dream of escape once she settled in the Randall plantation) and her mother (whose homebound instincts become clear in Chapter 11). Cora isn’t inherently a runner; she simply wants to find a place that can be home. But her dislike of running puts her in danger here, as it will again in future chapters.