Ben H Winters ‘Underground Airlines’

—Yes. She sniffed. —Your Negro will need to be cleared.
Again, as at the border. Scalp and armpits, teeth and tongue; pants down, shirt up. img_0982They had a room for it, just off the lobby, and an attendant, a tired-looking free black man who scowled and said nothing as he ran his clumsy fingers over my body. I stood absolutely still. I held my arms out. It would have been the school at Bell’s, the first time, the first of such searches I had endured in my life. Lesson 1: your body is not your own.

I an ending 2016 with this book from the BBC’s 10 best books of 2016.

The USA, today, slavery was never eradicated, and remains constitutionally enshrined in the Hard Four, Alabama, Louisiana, Carolina and Mississippi. Written in the amendments to the constitution at the moment of the compromise that avoided the civil war as in this quote from the eighteenth amendment:

—No future amendment of the Constitution shall affect the five preceding articles … and no amendment shall be made to the Constitution which shall authorize or give to Congress any power to abolish or interfere with slavery in any of the States by whose laws it is, or may be, allowed or permitted.

The main protagonist in this book, whose true name we never learn, He is known as Victor or Brother or Mr Morton or Mr Dirksen (we will call him Victor here) and is an undercover operative in a dangerous line of work, he is a slave catcher, employed by the US Marshals Service to track down escaped  P.B’s, (Persons Bound to slavery), which the northern states by law must return to the slave states, the escaping P.B’s being clandestinely helped by the Underground Airlines of the title.

This book lets us imagine an alternative future, but I do believe that descriptions of this twisted world, where the proximity of the slaving south has a negative impact on the way the white northern states see there black citizens, seen in the following quote from a northern state town, are also supposed to make us think about today’s actual world:

—Freedman Town serves a good purpose—not for the people who live there, Lord knows; people stuck there by poverty, by prejudice, by laws that keep them from moving or working. Freedman Town’s purpose is for the rest of the world. The world that sits, like Martha, with dark glasses on, staring from a distance, scared but safe. Create a pen like that, give people no choice but to live like animals, and then people get to point at them and say Will you look at those animals? That’s what kind of people those people are. And that idea drifts up and out of Freedman Town like chimney smoke, black gets to mean poor and poor to mean dangerous and all the words get murked together and become one dark idea, a cloud of smoke, the smokestack fumes drifting like filthy air across the rest of the nation.

Victor at the beginning of the story picks up a case from his handler and everything seems wrong, and we as readers will follow this case as does he, Victor is himself an escaped slave being manipulated by the Marshals Service who have trained him, his descriptions of the different black people he meets is chilling at first:

—“Late-summer honey, warm tone, #76” is one of 172 varietals of African American skin tone delineated in the US Marshals Service field guide in a chart called “Pigmentation Taxonomies,” located in chapter 9 (“ Identifiers/ Descriptors”). I, myself, am “moderate charcoal, brass highlights, #41.”

Victor follows the leads he digs up, realising he is being manipulated and that there is a secret that could strike at the very heart of the system he is being asked to retrieve. After following the chain of the Underground Airline, Victor eventually needs to go back into one of the Hard Four to continue his search giving us the reader a chance to contrast and compare the north and he south and as in the initial quote, to imagine some of the ideas the system must hinge on. This is a dark book, but a page turner and worth the read.

First Published in English as “The Underground Airlines” in 2016 by Century

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