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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter March 18, 2022

Resisting (through) the Elements of Race: A Fugitive Humanist Reading of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

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Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) offers a meditation on elemental matter and its intersections with slavery, race, and resistance to racialization. Combining Lindgren Johnson’s concept of a fugitive humanism with elemental analysis for a reading of Whitehead’s sixth novel, the article proceeds in three steps. First, I briefly outline ways in which an elemental focus may connect with African American (Studies) perspectives, in particular Johnson’s fugitive humanism. Subsequently, my discussion explores the novel’s representation of an elemental biopolitics of slavery that involves what I identify as three elements of race. Whitehead presents the peculiar institution’s harnessing of these elements of fire, metal(s), and cotton as interconnected processes that not only help extract African American labor power and energy, but also racialize categories of the human. Finally, I focus on fugitive humanist forms of resisting to and through the elements. In this respect, the novel highlights through its protagonist how resistance strategies involve not only an ultimately uncontrollable elemental vitality, but also new forms of labor in which the human and the elemental emerge as co-agents.

In a contribution to the National Anti-Slavery Standard of May 23, 1857, Frances Harper gives an insightful explanation of the persistence of U.S. slavery, remarking that the sight of the thousands of lives sacrificed on plantations

should send a thrill of horror […] through the nerves of civilization and impel the heart of humanity to lofty deeds. So it might, if men had not found a fearful alchemy by which this blood can be transformed into gold. Instead of listening to the cry of agony, they listen to the ring of dollars and stoop down to pick up the coin. (Harper 1990, p. 101)

The central idea of this passage is that of an extreme profitability of slavery that involves equating and exploiting racialized bodies of slaves as elements. This idea has been echoed in various forms by Harper’s contemporaries and subsequent generations. It figures in expressions such as ‘black gold’ or ‘cotton kingdom’ and has become part of recent commemorative and scholarly discourses. The official guide to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C., for example, stresses that the lives of the enslaved “were embedded in every coin that changed hands” (Kendrick 2017, p. 40), and recent studies propel Harper’s thought into new (Anthropocene) contexts when arguing for slavery as a “geological axiom of the inhuman” through which the “biopolitical category of nonbeing is established through slaves being exchanged for and as gold” (Yusoff 2018, p. 5).

Harper’s “fearful alchemy” by which blood is transformed into gold is therefore more than a metaphor. After all, gold, a chemical element, can also be read literally as matter, thus hinting at the elemental exchanges and relations centrally involved in slavery’s biopolitical practices and in the making of race relations in the United States. It is such exchanges and relations, an elemental alchemy of slavery and race, which this essay seeks to explore through Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016). Whitehead’s sixth novel, his most explicit engagement with slavery yet (Konstantinou 2017, p. 15), has been read in various ways by now, for example as speculative satire (Dischinger 2017), living history tour (Dubey 2020), or post-postmodern text (Grausam 2017).[1] Readings have centrally addressed the book’s main structural ruses: the literalized Underground Railroad and the fictional geographical states—presented through chapters named after existing U.S. states—which the protagonist traverses on her flight from antebellum Georgia and the slavecatcher Arnold Ridgeway. The novel connects these fictional geographical states through its de-metaphoricized Underground Railroad, creating a topography marked by glaring anachronisms, even as Whitehead extensively draws from historical discourses.

This arrangement, I want to argue, may not only be read as counterfactual speculation or commemorative mode that suggests continuing effects of slavery. Rather, the book’s fictional geographical states, figuring at the same time as states of elemental composition, and the way in which they are materially interlinked through a literalized Underground Railroad, also serve to address constructions of race in relation to elemental matter. To demonstrate how the novel thereby reveals the elements as part of slavery’s alchemy and as shaping histories of (resistance to) racialization, the following discussion proceeds in three steps. First, I will briefly outline ways in which an elemental focus can be linked with African American (Studies) perspectives, especially with recent ecocritical scholarship on African American literature and culture that seeks to question and renegotiate categories of the human, such as Lindgren Johnson’s work on fugitive humanism. Subsequently, I turn to The Underground Railroad’s representation of an elemental biopolitics of slavery that centrally involves what I identify as three elements of race. Whitehead presents the peculiar institution’s harnessing of these elements—fire, metal(s), and cotton—as interconnected processes that not only help extract African American labor power and energy, but also racialize categories of the human. Lastly, I focus on how the novel at the same time proposes fugitive humanist forms of resisting to and through the elements by making use of their ultimately uncontrollable vitality and by engaging in new forms of labor in which the human and the elemental emerge as co-agents.

1 African American Fugitive Humanism, Ecocriticism, and the Elements

The interdisciplinary contact zone created by the elemental turn in the environmental humanities (see the introduction to this issue) enables productive interaction among diverse fields including, I want to suggest, African American Studies. For the latter, approaches that take “into consideration […] elemental places, forces, and phenomena of the surrounding and sensuous world” have specific implications (Macauley 2010, p. 1). To begin with, an elemental ecocriticism, which “discovers in imaginative and critical texts a lush archive for thinking ecology anew” (Cohen and Duckert 2015, p. 4), is particularly promising in relation to African American literature and environmental thought, where a forgetfulness about the elements often lamented by scholars of the elemental turn seems less pronounced. African American literary and cultural traditions, that is, appear to have engaged more in elemental thinking than Euro-American, Western traditions. One possible reason of this is that some of the latter’s traditional environmental aesthetic lenses, such as the sublime or the (plantation) pastoral, have racist legacies, which encouraged African American writers to create and use alternative environmental (for example, elemental) frameworks. This tendency is even visible in some of the titles of publications on African American environmentalism and ecocriticism—such as bell hooks’ influential “Touching the Earth” (1999), Glave and Stoll’s “To Love the Wind and the Rain” (2006), Ruffin’s Black on Earth (2010), Wardi’s Water and African American Memory (2011)—which often suggest a strong engagement with the elements. Nonetheless, intimacy with the elements in an African American historical and cultural context remains ambivalent. It manifests in empowering ways, for example in folklore and the literary tradition (Charles Chesnutt’s conjure tales are a prime example in both respects), but also in traumatic relations, for example to the classic elements of water (Middle Passage) or earth (toil in the fields). Whether as concrete substances or in aesthetic representations of such substances, the elements, while arguably taking up more space and having a distinct life in African American traditions, can therefore evoke mixed and contradictory feelings and can be, in allusion to Kimberly Ruffin’s (2010) formulation, both ‘beauty’ and ‘burden.’

While such a longstanding elemental engagement may make African American literature a particularly rich archive, I want to propose productive links specifically between elemental ecocriticism and recent ecocritical scholarship on African American literature and culture that seeks to question and renegotiate categories of the human, for example the studies by Johnson (2017), Yusoff (2018), and Jackson (2020).[2] Lindgren Johnson’s concept of “fugitive humanism” can be a particularly fruitful tool in combination with elemental analysis because Johnson’s approach explicitly addresses the human as a category that emerges in the interplay between the material and the conceptual. In Race Matters, Animal Matters, Johnson argues that “African American literature attests to both the incredible dangers—and opportunities—of a closeness not only to nonhuman nature but specifically to nonhuman animal nature” (Johnson 2017, p. 13; original emphasis). In developing the idea of a “fugitive humanism,” she urges us to

examine that space before the human, that space most dangerously, tenuously, and often beautifully occupied by African Americans in the long history of humanism’s discriminations and exclusions: what comes before the subject that is the human, I argue, offers as ethically challenging and fertile ground as, from the framework of posthumanism, what comes after the subject. (Johnson 2017, p. 17; original emphasis)

Johnson, thus, establishes three key ideas. Firstly, her concept opposes an “extensionism” she diagnoses in “the way posthumanism is done” (Johnson 2017, p. 17), meaning the mere extension of a humanist ethics to the more-than-human after achieving civil rights and inclusion in an already set (but historically racialized) category of the human. This view relates to claims in other recent studies (Jackson 2020; Yusoff 2018) that renegotiate forms of humanism by arguing against traditional interpretations of African American and Black diasporic literature as reacting to racialization with a mere “plea for human recognition” (Jackson 2020, p. 1). Secondly, Johnson’s approach questions specifically “one of the grand narratives of African American studies—the heroic struggle to demonstrate and claim the human status that slavery so violently denied” (Johnson 2017, p. 9). Thirdly, by arguing that “while African Americans certainly fled slavery and other forms of violent dehumanization, they also often fled some of liberal humanism’s most cherished assumptions in the process” (Johnson 2017, p. 20), Johnson crucially opens up a field of thought that links the material with the conceptual while granting openness to the status of the human.

It is especially this last idea of a dual trajectory of material and conceptual ‘fugitivity’ with respect to categories of the human that I want to adopt into my analytical framework and conjoin with a focus on the elemental. Fugitive humanism, for my purposes, is crucial not for Johnson’s focus on animality (which is important in its own right) but for its emphasis on an intersection of material flight with conceptual flight within African American engagements with the human, an idea that is akin to the elemental as hovering between matter and metaphor. The elements, after all, are what Cohen and Duckert describe as “metaphor magnets […]. Through their action metaphor becomes matterphor, […] word and substance together transported: of language but not reducible to linguistic terms, agentic and thick” (Cohen and Duckert 2015, p. 10–1). Such elemental agency and thickness productively relate to a fugitive humanist questioning of the category of the human via the notion of fugitivity, if this term is conceptualized as denoting a shared potential and interrelated openness of the human and the elemental. In this sense, the elements, on the one hand, are marked by fugitivity: their double status as both substances and conditions, and their never simply being “things” but always “processual, dynamic, and intra-active” (Starosielski 2019, p. 3), can be part of an interrelationship with the human, without postulating fixed categories. On the other hand, the fugitivity of the human appears in such African American flights from both white and human exceptionalism that fundamentally reject the human as a fixable category or a ‘fixed fiction’ (the Foucauldian idea of the human as face drawn into the sand) via relations to the elemental. Johnson’s “before,” for the purposes of this article, is not to be taken temporally or in relation to animality, but suggests the human and the elemental as parts of a field of shared potentiality through which they mutually shape each other in both their material and conceptual emergence. The “before” thereby, combined with an elemental focus, enables and urges us to identify moments in African American letters that discover the human in elemental interactions without positing humanism’s pre-conditions. In this way, an elemental fugitive humanism denotes a categorical move against fixity in the material and conceptual realm. It rejects firming the species and/as elemental matter and strives instead for making visible the fugitivity emerging from the interactions between the two.

Understood in this way, a fugitive humanist lens through the elements that links African American ecocritical perspectives with thought of the elemental turn has a threefold critical potential. First, it is crucial that such a lens offers alternatives to concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘environment.’ Since both have been contested in African America, the observation that the elements are “smaller than Nature, […] the animated materialities with and through which life thrives,” and therefore “constitute the most promising of inhumans with which to ally” (Cohen and Duckert 2015, p. 13), is fruitful in providing analytical categories that allow moving beyond traditional ecocritical frameworks. Secondly, the elements “are the threshold beyond which the post-human awaits” (Cohen and Duckert 2015, p. 13), thus offering space for an analytics that moves through material and conceptual dimensions beyond established categories of the human and that acts as a productive contact zone between an elemental focus and notions such as Johnson’s fugitive humanism. The notion of ‘fugitivity’ in this respect emerges as one possible conceptual link, denoting the mutually shaping openness and non-fixability of both the human and the elemental. Thirdly, engaging African American literature via a fugitive humanist lens through the elements enables addressing questions of agency and environmental justice in new ways. On the one hand, African American Studies, while traditionally committed to agitating for racial and social justice, has increasingly stressed the significant environmental dimensions of such forms of justice, for example in relation to the environmental justice movement or to contemporary forms of activism ranging from urban gardening to Black Veganism. On the other hand, recent elemental scholarship, too, promises an explicit focus on environmental justice concerns (cf. Cohen and Duckert 2015, p. 4–5), as the simultaneous status of the elements as (shaping) conditions and (enabling) substances provides ways to rethink questions of resistance and agency—a potential that may well have played into the elements’ noted prominence in African American culture. An approach that mobilizes the notion of ‘fugitivity’ to connect the elemental and the human, thus, also offers means of connecting and combining different approaches to questions of agency and environmental justice and may become fruitful not only for a novel such as The Underground Railroad, which explicitly plays with agencies between matter and metaphor, but for African American literature more generally.

2 Harnessing the Elements: Slavery’s Fire, Metal, and Cotton

One way in which The Underground Railroad engages with the elements is by depicting an elemental biopolitics of slavery: the novel portrays how the peculiar institution involved elemental arrangements that underpinned and deeply shaped U.S. race relations. Whitehead’s novel gives an account of how slavery harnessed various kinds of elements, bent them to exploitative ends, while constructing the category ‘human’ as ‘white.’ In this, the text revolves around three central elements of race, which, although belonging to different elemental categories, interconnect in the novel’s universe as parts of an ‘alchemical,’ elemental biopolitics of slavery: fire, metal(s), and cotton. Read in this light, the protagonist Cora becomes more than a runaway moving through fictional geographical states, which make up the novel’s topography and which function, as others (including Whitehead himself) have noted, as speculative states of possibility in response to New World slavery (cf. Whitehead 2016) and anachronistically arranged episodes of U.S. racial history. As the novel weaves fire, metal, and cotton into its plot, its fictional geographical states emerge as a series of elemental states as well: aggregate states of matter in which the elements function as shaping and changing substances and conditions, and which, while implying continuities of an ongoing elemental biopolitics of slavery, also hold transformative potential. These elemental states of The Underground Railroad reveal transforming elemental relations and combinations that show how elemental matter constructs race in the evolving “afterlives of slavery” (Hartman 2008).

The functioning and vital presence of the three elements of race that emerge from slavery is visible from the outset in the novel’s antebellum Georgia, which functions as a ‘state’ in the proposed dual meaning. The episode depicts fire and metal as elemental means of slavery’s fearful alchemy, which becomes iconic in the practice of branding. Cora’s grandmother Ajarry, for instance, after enduring the Middle Passage, makes physical contact with both elements in the transaction that brings her to Georgia. As the novel describes in retrospect, she is bought by an agent with “metal” rings she feels “cool on her skin” as “he pinched her breasts to see if she was in flower” before being “branded” (Whitehead 2017, p. 6). Here, fire’s power, which, Harris generally suggests, “alters and shapes,” thus creating “new or unfinished realities” (Harris 2015, p. 28), is mobilized in conjunction with the arresting power of metal in a property-making act that literally fuses fire, metal, and flesh in a material interaction that manifests social status and the enslaved’s social death. Such mobilizations of metal and fire as means of establishing slavery’s racialized power relations persist throughout the Georgia episode. They figure most strikingly in punishments: for instance, when a recaptured runaway, Big Anthony, “was doused with oil and roasted,” or when Cora is beaten into unconsciousness with the plantation owner’s cane, a “silver wolf” with “silver teeth,” for defending an enslaved boy against the master’s wrath (Whitehead 2017, p. 55, 40). Moreover, the novel stresses that the marks of fire and metal are imprinted not merely on those who directly receive punishments or brandings but also those forced to witness the work of the elements in such material transactions, thus highlighting the sociopolitical and psychological effects of slavery’s mobilization of the elements. Cora retrospectively muses that “we have all been branded even if you can’t see it, inside if not without” (Whitehead 2017, p. 305), stressing the various links between the peculiar institution’s material exploitation of fire and metal and the realization of its concept of human property—links that cause continuing trauma.

A third (and the most ubiquitous) element of race exposed in the Georgia episode is cotton, which is the anchor of the Randall plantation’s existence in the first place, considering that the pioneering elder Randall was the first in the region to switch to cotton. Cotton, as a commodified botanical element, determines the plantation’s temporal and spatial order, its material, discursive, and emotional arrangements, so thoroughly that it shapes even language and the mind. This shows for example in Cora’s continual thinking in terms of the “plantation’s cotton scales, her hunger and fear piling on one side while her hopes were removed from the other in increments” (Whitehead 2017, p. 171). Whitehead demonstrates that the elemental mechanics involved in Harper’s “fearful alchemy” are only explicable in relation to this botanical element, which is intimately woven into the fabric of the plantation and depends on the plantation’s broader elemental arrangements and conditions (climate, soil fertility). The antebellum abolitionist image of the South as a ‘prison house’ thus gains specific elemental dimensions in the novel as Whitehead’s evocation of Georgia as not only geographical but also elemental state stresses how the exploitation of elemental matter through a powerful ‘alchemy’ of fire, metal, and cotton pervades not only the plantation settings but also other, less likely places. These include even the first Underground Railroad station Cora encounters, a place one might expect to signal release from the elemental biopolitics of slavery rather than its continuing presence. Even here, however, the protagonist finds “chains first. Thousands of them dangled off the wall on nails in a morbid inventory of manacles and fetters” (Whitehead 2017, p. 78). Manacles, fetters, muzzles—the extensive description leaves no doubt that such metal goods, forged through fire, join with ‘king cotton’ in a triad of elements of race central to Whitehead’s portrayal of slavery, which deploys Georgia as both geographical and elemental state.

As hinted above, none of the subsequent states, whether understood as fictional geographical states or as elemental (aggregate) states of matter, leaves behind an elemental biopolitics of slavery entirely. In different ways and to varying degrees, compositions of fire, metal, and cotton hauntingly persist as slavery’s elemental shadows, thereby re-emphasizing the continuing power of the three interconnected elements’ ‘alchemy’ in upholding racialized power relations beyond the formal existence of the peculiar institution. South Carolina moves metal from Georgian chambers of horror to doctors’ examination rooms with their “collection of imposing metal instruments,” where painful exams, secret sterilization efforts, and experiments modeled after the Tuskegee syphilis studies leave no doubt that despite the state’s professed “enlightened attitude” an elemental biopolitics of slavery remains in force (Whitehead 2017, p. 120, 108). The next stop, North Carolina, puts more emphasis on cotton, drastically exposing the exploitative, ultimately genocidal logics of slavery as an “energy institution” (Nikiforuk 2012, p. 2). Apocalyptic Tennessee focuses once more on fire and metal, as the chapter finds Cora back in chains, highlighting how, to use ecocritic Jane Bennett’s phrase, “metallic materiality can act as an absolute no” (Bennett 2010, p. 60).

The Tennessee chapter is particularly revealing with respect to the portrayed elemental biopolitics of slavery as it focuses on one of its most haunting and diabolical representatives, slavecatcher Arnold Ridgeway. As Kathryn Yusoff points out, U.S. racial slavery involved a radical “division of matter into nonlife and life [that] pertains not only to matter but to the racial organization of life as foundational to New World geographies. […] Slavery was a geological axiom of the inhuman in which nonbeing was made, reproduced, and circulated as flesh” (Yusoff 2018, p. 5). Ridgeway, I want to suggest, is Whitehead’s primary means of addressing what Yusoff describes as slavery’s production of “nonlife” and “nonbeing.” The novel uses the character to deal with Yusoff’s idea in two ways: first, in relation to the peculiar institution’s general ideology, politics, and economics; second, and more importantly in the present context, in relation to the specific role of the elements in extracting African American labor power and racializing the category of the human. The slavecatcher, that is, serves not merely to expose and attack slavery’s immoral ideology, which he represents linguistically (referring to enslaved persons as “it”) and through his accounting practices that fix all kinds of matter into numbers in ways that easily justify murder. Rather, Ridgeway thereby becomes Whitehead’s philosophizing representative of an elemental biopolitics of slavery, especially through his relationships with fire and metal.

Fire is both benevolent and potentially hostile from a human perspective, which correlates with what Harris describes as the “paradox of the pyrotechnic paradigm,” meaning “that under human sway, fire’s operation became both more useful and more mysterious” (Harris 2015, p. 34). In the novel’s Tennessee, an ashy wasteland ravaged by wildfires, the manner in which fire resists (benevolent) containment and manifests in (hostile) destructiveness is significant as it serves to illustrate fundamental principles of Ridgeway’s and slavery’s relation to elemental vitality and the human. Upon hearing “that homesteaders had started the fire while trying to clear some scrub,” Ridgeway merely replies by acknowledging fire’s ultimate uncontrollability: “Just a spark that got away is all.” (Whitehead 2017, p. 247–8) The phrase is significant not only because it pointedly demonstrates Ridgeway’s equation of elemental vitality with disobedience and implies (in light of the wildfires’ immense destructiveness) a necessity to control and subdue such disobedience.

Moreover, in the broader context of the novel’s representation of the peculiar institution, his words are crucial because they express an urge to control and subdue disobedience in a dual sense: an elemental disobedience and the disobedience of the enslaved. The slavecatcher, after all, sees his primary task in striving to regulate material and conceptual relations among humans and/as elements in accordance with his vision of the nation’s prime principle: “if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative” (Whitehead 2017, p. 95). Through this imperative, Ridgeway’s version of “Manifest Destiny” (cf. Whitehead 2017, p. 266), the urge to restrain disobedience interconnects with notions of both property and race. With respect to the latter, it is significant that only the “dirty white flood” arriving on “magnificent ships from Europe” will be permitted in Ridgeway’s scheme of America to “leave their mark on this new land […] making it theirs through unstoppable racial logic,” with all (racial) others “taking their assigned places” (Whitehead 2017, p. 95, 266). Racialization of the human, through the “American imperative” and the dual urge to control and subdue disobedience, becomes vital to the portrayed elemental biopolitics of slavery, for which elemental matter, including ‘elementalized’ Black bodies, figures not as (inter)active, dynamic, and vibrant, but as (supposedly) isolable, static, and dead. Here lies, according to Whitehead’s representation of slavery’s harnessing of the elements, what Yusoff identifies as the racializing “nonlife” and “nonbeing” so central to the peculiar institution’s proliferation: in the production of elemental matter as “extractable matter [that] must be both passive […] and able to be activated through the mastery of white men” (Yusoff 2018, p. 5, 2–3).

At the same time, Whitehead links Ridgeway’s “American imperative” and his striving against disobedience to notions of property. Property, in The Underground Railroad’s simultaneously geographical and elemental states, often figures in its etymological ambivalence as both ownership (fixed legal property, including in enslaved humans) and trait (fixed material and conceptual properties, for example of the elements). Whitehead thereby highlights fundamental historical ties between notions of property, the elements, and racialized categories of the human. Sometimes, the novel stresses the nexus of property, race, and striving against disobedience overtly in relation to the human, for example when highlighting the slavecatcher’s renown for “his facility for ensuring that property remained property” (Whitehead 2017, p. 95). At the same time, however, there are moments that play with the elemental and the human in conjunction, suggesting how the fundamental urge for control interlinks the two within slavery’s biopolitics and its making of properties. Perhaps the most significant of these moments is the above-cited idea of “the spark that got away” (Whitehead 2017, p. 248). Even if overtly relating to Tennessee’s blaze, in the broader context delineated here this idea also describes a fundamental principle of the elemental biopolitics of slavery Ridgeway represents.

For while his claim no doubt acknowledges fire’s elemental power, the slavecatcher understands his admittance of the element’s (and of enslaved persons’) inherent vitality and agency only as an incentive to ensure that the exception (a fire’s spark, a runaway) prove a rule (fire’s properties, property in the enslaved) on which his “American imperative” relies. Even when experiencing the vitality of elemental matter, the elemental biopolitics of slavery depicted by Whitehead seeks to control such facets as flaws and aberrations. It strives for restraining elements as radiating permanence, bearing what the novel calls the “always-quality” of the plantation (Whitehead 2017, p. 15). The portrayed elemental biopolitics of slavery thus relies on a fundamental urge to control and subdue disobedience, of the elements and the enslaved, in a process that fuses white supremacy with striving for absolute control over matter and that creates properties and racialized categories of the human. In its desire to fix and arrest, this kind of biopolitics represents a ‘firmative’ rather than a ‘fugitive’ humanism.

The same urge for order marks the slavecatcher’s relation to metallic elements. Bennett points out that metals, generally speaking, often invoke a “trope of fixity” in their longstanding “association […] with passivity or a dead thingness” (Bennett 2010, p. 58, 55)—a notion that figures as the backbone of an elemental biopolitics of slavery as represented in Whitehead’s novel. Ridgeway’s father, the blacksmith, is arguably the most pronounced expression of this power of metal to produce, in conjunction with fire, a world that radiates permanence through metallic “passivity” and “dead thingness.” For the father, the (ultimately fictive) stability and passivity of iron products rendered through fire becomes a life-determining, addictive fantasy. Whitehead emphasizes the spiritual dimension of his elemental encounter, describing how the “sunset glow of molten iron bewitched him,” as the father realizes “his mission to upset, mash, and draw out the metal into the useful things that made society operate: nails, horseshoes, plows, knives, guns. Chains” (Whitehead 2017, p. 87). At the same time, the novel makes clear that this thought of producing things and ‘thingness’ is transmitted from father to son, persisting as a fundamental principle of the elemental alchemy of slavery. As Ridgeway points out upon reaching adulthood, “We’re both of us working for Mr. Eli Whitney,” both being “parts of the same system” (Whitehead 2017, p. 91). Here, the “American imperative,” linked to thinking elemental matter as passive, extractable matter, becomes visible through metal and fire in the blacksmithing father and the slavecatching son as “pyrophiliacs,” personages who “collapse the metaphors and realities of fire into their own tormented minds and bodies, and perceive the transformative, purgative power of fire most acutely” (Harris 2015, p. 38). While the “spirit” of metal and fire enchants the father, who experiences its destructive powers “coughing soot on his deathbed,” the son’s pyrophilia extends further, as he claims to be “not the smith, rendering order. Not the hammer. Not the anvil. He was the heat” (Whitehead 2017, p. 96). Ridgeway at this point imagines himself as materially fusing with (two of) the elements of race. His tormented mind fantasizes about being a catalyst of slavery’s alchemy and its production of those “trope[s] of fixity” that metals often invoke (Bennett 2010, p. 58). Within his own fantasy of becoming one with the elemental, Ridgeway thereby materially embodies an elemental biopolitics of slavery, which is consistent with claiming himself on a conceptual level as “a notion of order” (Whitehead 2017, p. 268). Ironically, this fantasy at the same time implies once more the powerful presence of that very elemental vitality that his role as slavecatcher so violently seeks to control, arrest, and deny. Whether in an ‘elementalized’ runaway or a ‘disobedient’ substance, elemental vitality figures for Ridgeway—and, more generally, for the elemental biopolitics of slavery Whitehead depicts—as “a flaw in the American scheme,” a flaw that according to slavery’s biopolitical logics demands striving to fixate elemental matter in a process that simultaneously racializes the human (Whitehead 2017, p. 317).

3 Resisting (through) the Elements: Fugitivity, Vitality, and Cora’s Labor

Beyond exposing an elemental biopolitics of slavery, Whitehead’s novel also suggests fugitive humanist forms of resistance to and through the elements: resistance via a perspective that seeks to escape both conceptually and materially the elemental relations of dehumanization that mark slavery, without merely ‘joining’ a (racialized) mode of the human. Resistance, in relation to the identified elements of race, is therefore to be understood in a doubled sense, as always involving both resistance to the elements as exploited in racializing practices and resistance through the elements as ultimately non-fixable, vibrant substances and conditions marked by vitality and—in relation to the human—fugitivity. The novel realizes its fugitive humanist potential in two strategies that relate to the elements of fire, metal, and cotton. First, and with respect to fire and metal, Whitehead highlights through Cora that the elements may offer ways to resist through their ultimately uncontrollable vitality, by remaining outside the grasp of human powers as “inherently creative, motile, experimental, impure” (Cohen and Duckert 2015, p. 3). Secondly, the novel suggests, often in relation to cotton, how resistance to and through the elements becomes possible via new forms of labor in which the human and the elemental emerge as co-agents. In both cases, the elemental and the human become marked by fugitivity through their mutual interaction, their combined resistance to being arrested and fixed.

An example that demonstrates how fire and metal provide a subtle resistance potential through their vitality despite being harnessed by slavery’s continuing elemental biopolitics may be found in South Carolina’s museum scenes. Hired as a living exhibit by a curator whose scrutinizing gaze sets the tone for her subsequent (visual) objectification, Cora begins to work “in three rooms” behind “large glass windows that separated them from the public” (Whitehead 2017, p. 130). The functioning of the elements in these dioramas, which display a horrifically distorted and euphemized African American history, is significant. To begin with, the dioramas represent the continuation of the delineated elemental biopolitics of slavery in two ways. On the one hand, they show how racial hierarchies emerging from antebellum slavery persist, as the dioramas mark only Black bodies as “extractable matter” (Yusoff 2018, p. 2). The African American “types,” after all, “were the only living exhibits. The whites were made of plaster, wire, and paint.” (Whitehead 2017, p. 137) On the other hand, the dioramas exemplify how the elemental biopolitics of slavery continues to revolve around a dual urge to control and subdue disobedience of both the elements and racialized humans.

In the scenes, this urge to eradicate elemental vitality is represented through their play with ‘fake’ elements. While the non-fakeness of Black bodies in Cora’s dioramas marks racial hierarchies through the implied disposability of such bodies (as they are equated through the fake white bodies with substances such as plaster, wire, and paint), the fakeness of the other elements displayed in the dioramas is an expression of slavery’s urge to fix and arrest matter. By faking elements such as the “cooking fire” or the “imaginary seed” for “chickens stuffed with sawdust” (Whitehead 2017, p. 130–1), the dioramas allude to the deep desire of the elemental biopolitics of slavery to turn elemental matter into properties that radiate permanence. The elements’ presence through substitutes in the scenes highlights slavery’s attempt to fix them conceptually and subdue their inherent vitality that emerges through their simultaneously being word and substance. This presence shows, in other words, how the depicted elemental biopolitics of slavery is rooted in an urge to strip elements of their vitality as “matterphors” (cf. Cohen and Duckert 2015, p. 11).

Crucially, however, Whitehead, while once more exposing this persistent urge of an elemental biopolitics of slavery, suggests through the setup of the dioramas that this strategy is doomed to fail. He employs Cora to subvert such a reductive vision of the elements and a racializing, ‘firmative’ form of humanism, locating resistance potential in an ultimately uncontrollable vitality of the elements. In the diorama scenes, this resistance potential becomes visible in the elemental matter that marks the material threshold producing the racializing power of the scenery—in the frame that seeks to arrest elemental and Black life, namely the glass windows. The glass, a product of fire, is transparent, displaying an inherent material quality that cannot be controlled and subdued and that becomes a means of resistance for Cora, as she begins to evil-eye one patron per hour. After some time,

[s]he got good at her evil eye. Looking up from the slave wheel or the hut’s glass fire to pin a person in place like one of the beetles or mites in the insect exhibits. They always broke, the people, not expecting this weird attack, staggering back or looking at the floor or forcing their companions to pull them away. It was a fine lesson, Cora thought, to learn that the slave, the African in your midst, is looking at you too. (Whitehead 2017, p. 151)

The passage is revealing in its subtle deconstruction of slavery’s racial logics and fantasies of elemental controllability. Whitehead’s wording is significant, as “glass fire” stresses the link between fire (an element aligned with slavery) and glass (its product), while Cora’s “looking up” literally means gazing through “glass fire” as well (windows), making use of an elemental transparency that helps resist her objectification. The mutual visibility that emerges cannot be prevented because of an elemental vitality that arises through fire itself (or, more precisely, fire’s touch that produced the window’s glass). Although the window is spatially fixed, a supposedly confining boundary for those inside the diorama, its elemental quality—which in this case manifests in its transparency—renders an openness and uncontrollability that seeps into human relations of visibility and thus bears the potential to (re)distribute agency among human and material elements. This process leaves the human and the elemental as co-agents in ways that enable Cora’s resistance within social realms. Not alone but conjoined, the human and the elemental emerge in resistance that relies on both fire’s elemental disobedience to absolute human will and control, and on distinctly human visual capacities that can translate into changing social power relations.

However, the scene does not only play with fire’s (and its products’) paradox of serviceability and insubordination. It also attacks the idea that metal—and by extension matter more generally—is permanent, when describing how Cora “picked the weak links out from the crowd, the ones who broke under her gaze. […] To seek the imperfection in the chain that keeps you in bondage” (Whitehead 2017, p. 150). The image of the chain links the scene to the metals encountered throughout the novel as elements of race, so that breaking the “weak links” of chains, even if at this point used metaphorically, is significant for denoting a general principle of resistance through elemental matter. The image counters the fixity of chains and metal that is essential for the biopolitics of slavery with an actual “protean activeness of the metal itself” (Bennett 2010, p. 59). Metals are, after all, never pure or inactive, neither as alloys nor in their microstructure, which “consists in irregularly shaped crystals that do not form a seamless whole” (Bennett 2010, p. 58). Elemental matter is always heterogeneous and porous, offers to merge as co-agent into unexpected forms of resistance if its potential is recognized, so that a position that “seek[s] the imperfection in the chain” is not merely a metaphor in the context of the novel, but signals a core quality of fugitive humanist resistance through the elements (Whitehead 2017, p. 150). Cora ultimately realizes her own status as human not because she denies the life of another form of matter, but because she recognizes an elemental vitality, “the capacity of things […] to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (Bennett 2010, p. viii) that enables moving against the enslaving principles governing her surroundings.

A second strategy of resistance through the elements arises from new forms of labor, often in relation to the ubiquitous cotton. Against the drudgery under the peculiar institution, Whitehead sets humanizing forms of labor that realize a fugitive humanist ethos by reinterpreting work and movement in relation to elemental matter. Cora’s tilling of her plot on the Randall plantation, for instance, offers (minimal) empowerment even under the most horrific circumstances as fighting and working for the plot means “own[ing] herself for a few hours every week” (Whitehead 2017, p. 15). South Carolina, too, despite its severe flaws, offers a glimpse at reinvigorating forms of labor, for example in the “unexpectedly fulfilling” work in a machine factory where workers “witness the complete product, in contrast to the disembodied toil on Randall” (Whitehead, 2017, p. 123). Indiana’s utopian Valentine Farm is the place where uplift through labor becomes least elusive, even as it remains a temporary refuge eventually destroyed by a white posse.

Most importantly, however, the ways in which forms of labor intersect with alternative elemental relations becomes visible through Whitehead’s most striking structural ruse, the literalized engine that connects the novel’s elemental states and renegotiates elemental relations. The machine itself and its infrastructure are both elemental compositions and representative of a broader, characteristic quality of the elemental. In Cohen and Duckert’s terms, the machine is the text’s “matterphor […], word and substance together transported” (Cohen and Duckert 2015, p. 11; original emphasis). It is not merely a composition of various elements but also elemental in itself, through its convergence with laboring co-agencies that ultimately make it a fugitive humanist device.

Perhaps the most revealing comment to this effect comes from Lumbly, an Underground Railroad conductor, whose response to the question “Who built it?” is “Who builds anything in this country?” (Whitehead 2017, p. 81). Lumbly’s (rhetorical) question is answered clearly by the novel, for example when it describes how Elijah Lander often “was the first colored person to set foot in the buildings apart from the men who built them” or when Cora realizes that “[c]olored labor had erected every house on the park” that hosts the Friday night lynchings in North Carolina (Whitehead 2017, p. 304, 212). The labor that nourishes the Underground Railroad, however, is of a different quality, emerging through elemental relations that resist the elemental biopolitics of slavery. In this respect, Whitehead’s machine fuses with the elements of race while withstanding the functions slavery ascribes them. It resists simultaneously to and through the elements of race. It becomes heterotopic through the elements as Cora strands in “the guts of a mountain”; as water marks the way to a station; as the “iron horse,” powered by fire, runs over “steel rails” with “wooden crossties” (Whitehead 2017, p. 178, 313, 80). The Underground Railroad moves through the elemental underground of the United States; it is indeed “the secret beneath us” (Whitehead 2017, p. 359), not merely spatially but also in the sense of a materially laboring part of an elemental underground of the nation.

The elemental relations of Underground Railroad labor become clearest at the end, in the “ghost station” that only offers a “small handcar” (Whitehead 2017, p. 357, 306). Here, Cora ultimately realizes just what such labor, as a fugitive humanist interrelationship with the elements, consists of. Running away for the last time and shaking off Ridgeway, she moves into the tunnel:

She pumped and pumped and rolled out of the light. […] She discovered a rhythm, pumping her arms, throwing all of herself into movement. Into northness. Was she traveling through the tunnel or digging it? Each time she brought her arms down on the lever, she drove a pickax into the rock, swung a sledge onto a railroad spike. (Whitehead 2017, p. 362)

Three facets of the elemental labor of the Underground Railroad become apparent in this passage and help clarify Whitehead’s fugitive humanist perspective through the elements. First, Cora’s pumping and discovery of a “rhythm” implies an interaction of the human with elemental matter, as her body (“all of herself”) makes contact with and is experienced in relation to elements such as metal (“pickax”) or earth (“rock”). Movement being positively connoted throughout the novel, the answer to the question posed in the passage should be taken literally, meaning that Cora is indeed “digging” the tunnel at this point, entering into direct contact with the elemental underground of the nation. Secondly, it is significant that such elemental interaction means losing direction (if not purpose). Cora moves “into northness,” implying that labor for and movement through the Underground Railroad demands accepting the fugitivity and alternate directionality that emerges in human interrelationships with elemental co-agents in Underground Railroad work, something that the novel hints at throughout via flight movements that head “[a]way from here” rather than toward fixed destinations (Whitehead 2017, p. 81). Thirdly, the novel suggests that accepting the parameters of such fugitive human-elemental co-agencies may lead to recognition and transformation. It leads to recognition in that laboring away through the elemental underground can help discover “the true face of America,” which, however, cannot be seen but must be “felt” through the “fingers” and the “heart” (Whitehead 2017, p. 83, 363). The “contours of a new nation hidden beneath the old,” Whitehead thus points out, can only be perceived through material, multi-sensorial, and emotional interactions with the elemental (Whitehead 2017, p. 363). Furthermore, such elemental labor can lead to transformation as it ensures that “on the other end a new person steps out into the light” (Whitehead 2017, p. 363). Thus, in addition to highlighting through fire and metal how elements may offer ways to resist through their ultimately uncontrollable vitality, the novel also shows how resistance to and through the elements becomes possible via new forms of labor in which the human and the elemental emerge as co-agents. In both strategies, the elemental and the human are marked by fugitivity—their combined resistance to being arrested and fixed—that arises through interaction, thus creating the novel’s elemental fugitive humanism that bears the potential to resist an elemental biopolitics of slavery and its legacies.

Ultimately, both the “matterphor” of the railroad speeding through Whitehead’s book and the novel’s engagement with the elements more generally resist what Bennett calls “demystification,” which at the core always uncovers “something human” (Bennett 2010, p. xv). While The Underground Railroad no doubt exposes and attacks a (human-driven) elemental biopolitics of slavery and its perpetuation in social constructions of race, it does not “screen from view the vitality of matter” nor “reduce political agency to human agency” (Bennett 2010, p. xv; original emphasis). On the contrary, Whitehead introduces fugitive humanism as a mode of resistance to and through the elements that counters slavery’s harnessing of fire, metal(s), and cotton. The novel thereby invites readers to consider how material relations of and to the elements were involved in racial biopolitics that dehumanized Black life. It also indicates how such relations could inform resistance strategies of African America, while alerting readers to the continuing effects of such an elemental history.

Moreover, reading Whitehead’s novel via a fugitive humanist lens suggests how elemental scholarship may offer new ways of addressing environmental dimensions of African American literature both in the tradition at large and in the twenty-first century. With respect to the former, a (fugitive humanist) elemental lens can help identify distinct perspectives on the elements in African American literature that enrich and refine mainstream concepts. Beyond the discourses addressed and alluded to in this article—for example Harper’s “alchemy,” (neo) slave narratives, and Chesnutt’s conjure tales—scholarship could explore in other (literary) historical contexts what made the elements an attractive environmental lens in the African American literary tradition. With respect to contemporary African American literature, an elemental focus might be particularly promising in light of the broad range of Black identities present in African American culture today, which also include an increasing number of diverse environmentally oriented positions, for example environmental justice, Black Veganism, and African American ecocriticism. An elemental focus that puts the emphasis on materiality and introduces an alternative descriptive vocabulary may become fruitful not only for a novel like The Underground Railroad, which explicitly plays with agencies between matter and metaphor, but for contemporary African American literature, culture, and (televisual) entertainment more generally. Especially in times of an Anthropocene discourse that often “neatly erases histories of racism” (Yusoff 2018, p. 2), alternatives to traditional (eco)critical frameworks are called for if one seeks fully to explore the meanings of African American cultural production in a global context.

Corresponding author: Dr. Matthias Klestil, Department of English, University of Klagenfurt, Universitätsstr. 65-67, 9020 Klagenfurt am Wörthersee, Austria, E-mail:


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Published Online: 2022-03-18
Published in Print: 2022-03-28

© 2022 Matthias Klestil, published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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