Sunday, September 25, 2016

Hillary Clinton: A Role Model for Girls. Period

Hillary Rodham Clinton stands poised to make history and shatter, what she aptly called, the 'hardest glass ceiling' by becoming the first woman president of United States and yet women voters have not only been lukewarm to her candidacy but many even consider her in terms that are no less sexist than her male detractors, of whom there are legions. Sexism is a state of mind and has little to do with the gender of the detractor.

A group of women professionals shared a photograph of first ladies, current and former, and went gaga over Michelle Obama while omitting any mention of Hillary Clinton. These professionals, incidentally, also want to encourage, through mentorship, other women to aspire and achieve professional success which they feel needs training to surmount the odds of the working place where women are still seen as less than equals. Asked "what about Clinton" the response was "the jury is still out". This is stunning sexism and would be called out as such if a male had said it. Michelle Obama is a charismatic first lady and remains a traditional first lady espousing non-controversial feel good causes like combating obesity, a national epidemic, with feel good initiatives like growing a vegetable garden in the White House and by exhorting people to exercise more. On the other hand there's Hillary Rodham Clinton, former first lady, first woman senator from New York, first woman to win primaries in a major party, first woman nominee of a major party and former secretary of state. How could a group of strong willed independent minded women, especially those who run a group meant to promote women leadership, ignore Clinton and hold Obama higher? Sexism, albeit of a different kind from the readily recognizable one by males.

Whether it is 2008 or 2016 women in the democratic primaries did not flock to Clinton but they backed Obama and Sanders enthusiastically. In both cases Clinton was seen as not "progressive" enough compared to her rivals. This is not the place to litigate the merits or demerits of those arguments.

The Lady in the Pant Suit. Image courtesy

Lost in the din was the fact that while Clinton got no favors for being a candidate who could make history. She was rather held to a different standard, mostly because the candidate was Hillary Clinton and almost as frequently because it was a woman candidate.

Clinton has been in the national public eye for over 20 years since her husband got elected as president in 1992 and yet it was not until this year did the media unearth a little spoken of speech delivered by her in 1969. Clinton led a group of students and demanded from the dean of Wellesley that a student representative should be allowed to give a speech during Commencement. Clinton herself was the chosen speaker. Echoing FDR she said "Fear is always with us but we just don't have the time for it now. Not now". In her speech Clinton passionately spoke of poverty, student diversity and most importantly, rather shocking  to some, rebuked a sitting senator who was the Commencement speaker. Senator Edward Brooke, first African-American elected to the senate, cautioned against "coercive protests" in his speech. Clinton, ad libbed extemporaneous remarks to say "Part of the problem with just empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn't do us anything" and she went on to say, in words that a Obama or a Sanders would later use, "for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible". A young girl changed tradition at a hoary university and went beyond just rising up to the occasion and verbally dueled with a senator.

In 1995 Clinton gave a rousing classically feminist speech in Beijing that told the world "women's rights are human rights". It was, given the fragile state of US-China relations at that time, a gutsy speech and one that inspired many women.

"Women's Rights Are Human Rights" -- Hillary Clinton in UN Conference at Beijing in 1995
Today voters remember the Whitewater investigation, more appropriately it should be called witch hunt, as the start of the perpetual air of suspicion that would always hover above Hillary. What is less remember or completely unknown is Hillary redefined the role of a spouse of a politician in office. Not since Eleanor Roosevelt had a politician's spouse played a pivotal role in the administration. Whether as first lady of Arkansas or of the nation Hillary lived up to the promise of Bill, "two for the price of one". In Arkansas Hillary chaired the Education Standards Committee that literally reformed Arkansas schools to make them one of the nation's best from what used to be one of the worst.

Hillary Clinton and her campaign have not done a good job of introducing her to the voters. Bill Clinton's speech about his wife in the Democratic convention provided a sweeping view of the person Hillary was. As a Yale student Hillary involved herself in laws regarding child abuse, migrant labor and legal assistance for the poor.  She went on to write an oft cited article in Harvard Law Review titled "Children under the law".

When Bill Clinton lost the 1982 gubernatorial election he became, as he joked, 'the youngest ex-governor'. Hillary worked to get him rehabilitated and in response to suggestion that her retention of her maiden name does not help she changed her name to Hillary Rodham Clinton. That's the price a woman had to pay.

We forget that before Obamacare there was Hillarycare. Clinton fought a bruising battle for Universal Healthcare. The battle almost derailed her husband's nascent presidency. Her mastery of the subject remains unrivaled. In 2008 Obama airily promised universal healthcare without a provision called 'mandate' unlike that of Clinton's. Clinton's plan that included a 'mandate' was derided as a 'tax'. As president Obama's plan included a mandate and the US Supreme Court later called it a tax. While her efforts to overhaul the nation's healthcare burned to the ground Clinton gained a small but very significant victory by working with her Republican detractors to create a Children's Health Insurance Plan (CHIP). Today that plan helps millions of poor children get lifesaving health care. If this is not leadership what else is?

Hillary Clinton's run for the US Senate showed her at her best. Ridiculed a 'carper bagger' Clinton worked her heart out to earn the votes and her opponent's sexism helped. During a debate Clinton's opponent Rick Lazio walked up to her podium and glowered above her and hectored her into signing a declaration.

Asked about her high unfavorables recently Clinton opined that her favorability ratings are usually very high while she's in office as First Lady or Senator or Secretary of State but drop, precipitously, when she's running for office. It was an astute observation that says she shares an interesting relationship with the  electorate. Her brilliance and experience is never in question and, to be fair, she herself is in question when she is seeking office but, to be equally fair, some of those questions are often in the tone of "any woman, but this woman". This is despicable cop out by those, men and women, who hold Clinton to a harsher standard because she is a woman to pretend like they would vote for a better woman. No and No and not at all.

Clinton has sponsored more successful bipartisan legislation than Obama and Kerry. In the Senate Clinton earned the very grudging respect of her GOP colleagues who had declared earlier never to do anything that would even remotely help her look good when she decides to run for the presidency. Though she entered the senate as a former first lady she played by the rules in a chamber that has archaic rules of seniority. A landmark work of her in the senate was getting the healthcare help that firemen of New York City who worked at the World Trade Center needed. She took on the Bush administration and got billions for New York City. A representative of the Firemen Union, a traditional republican supporting group, expressed admiration recently for her work. How this work even rated as "jury is out" category by a group that purportedly exists to help women become leaders? Pray, what kind of leaders do these women want to create? Ah, the politically correct woman leader who'll plant vegetable garden and talk about healthy diet. If a man had drawn such a distinction he'd be called, correctly, a sexist and these women should not be spared that label either.

8 years later things were not much different when she ran for the presidential nomination. At New Hampshire two men stood in a Clinton rally holding up a T-shirt that read "go home and do laundry". Clinton, running for elected office, had to manage an adroit chuckle to brush it aside with a "the last vestiges of sexism are alive". Charged endlessly that she's icy and does not show 'human warmth' Clinton partly won the state when in a candid moment she almost choked answering how she picked herself up every day despite the drumbeat of defeat from all quarters. Nobody thought it was abominable when a debate moderator cheerfully asked why she is not liked by many, because, after all, a woman should be liked by all. Never mind that all politicians, male or female, are not universally loved. Obama and Bush remain hated by half the country and yet it is only Clinton who gets that question. Obama, in an unfortunate moment for him, interjected to answer, without even looking at her, "you're likable enough Hillary". Clinton won New Hampshire, narrowly. The world loves a woman when she acts, well, 'womanly', looking askance for support and craving public approval but hates her when she is strong and is a rampart of strength.

The millenials we're told don't think it's a big deal anymore to elect a woman to office. That is wrong. Dead wrong. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in her memoirs recalled how she was taunted by her male colleagues for her appearance. It took Obama 8 years to acknowledge that Clinton, as a woman candidate, was measured by different standards.

It is ok for male candidates to strut about in the same dark suit, white shirt and red tie combo every day but Clinton's wardrobe was closely scrutinized for including when she wore tops that, horror of horrors, seemed to show just a hint of a cleavage. The storied Washington Post screamed "Hillary Clinton's Tentative Dip into Neckline Territory". From exposing Nixon and Watergate The Post's journalism had dipped, not tentatively, into 'neckline territory'. Defending the article the columnist said that how a candidate delivers the message, "the tone of voice, the appearance, the context", matters. Really? How many articles are devoted to any male candidate's wardrobe choices in that context? The Post's then media critic Howard Kurtz wrote an explanatory column about the scurrilous post article and helpfully titled it "Cleavage & the Clinton Campaign Chest".

A popular cop out admonition about Hillary Clinton is her standing by Bill Clinton despite his peccadilloes. Women, who anyway hate Hillary, often say with righteous indignation "oh I'd have left my husband". Did not Tolstoy teach us that "each unhappy family is unhappy in it's own way"? It never strikes many that Hillary and Bill could possibly love each other too much and love in such a way that it triumphs the pain. These are two very politically active spouses with a deep strain of activism in their veins. They, as a couple, have done much to shape up the Democratic party after the humiliating landslide loss of Hubert Humphrey. Marriages are complicated and the Bill-Hill marriage is complicated too but it is none of the voter's business. Let's not forget that Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy, not to mention a long list of others including most recently the wife of David Petraeus, all have stood by their philandering husbands.

Google the words "Hillary Clinton screaming" and you'll be surprised by the number of articles on that. Obama, Sanders and, of course, Trump all scream at the top of their lungs but it is Clinton who is considered a shrew because she speaks at the top of her voice. If she speaks softly she's seen as weak, not just weak but 'woman like weak', and if she speaks loud she's screaming. Late night comedian Jimmy Fallon mansplained to her how as a woman candidate she can never catch a break on her decibel.

Ask any working woman today and she'd confide how a male boss would look disapprovingly at her taking a sick day off or god forbid a day off to take care of a sick child. Yes, Clinton has a penchant for secrecy that is fueled by how her privacy has often been violated by witch hunting opponents and a public that simply thinks she's a congenital liar. But, it was not just her penchant for secrecy that made her to be less than forthcoming about her pneumonia afflictions. She later confided that as a woman, especially as one who's stamina is being questioned by her misogynist opponent, she thought she could downplay the news and work through the sickness. No, it is not easy to run as a woman for the highest office of the land even today.

If Donald Trump delegitimizing Barack Obama's birth and thereby the presidency is correctly labeled as racism then why is delegitimizing Clinton winning the nomination not labeled sexism? If it was ok for Obama to win the nomination powered by unprecedented turnout of the black vote why is it any less when Clinton does the same? Who gave Sanders the right to run down Clinton's victories as something she won "in the south"? First they said she won the primaries in the South. Then she won the Mid West. Then she won the North and then she won the very liberal California. Two days before the New York Primary pundits were musing over a possible humiliating loss for Clinton in her home state after Sanders held rallies attended by raucous tens of thousands, twice. Clinton won by a wide margin and then pundits and others brushed it as "oh well it's her home state".

The Sanders candidacy has cast a shadow on how brilliantly Clinton won against heavy odds. Nothing illustrates this better than what happened in the Dakotas. North Dakota had a caucus, a format that heavily favored Sanders's motivated youth vote, and Sanders won by 40 points. South Dakota had a traditional primary, a format that is truly democratic and tends to favor Clinton whose voters are older, and Clinton won by 2 points. But the real story is within. The total votes cast in North Dakota were 400 and Sanders got 250, Clinton 101 and uncommitted 10. The total votes cast in South Dakota were 53,00 and Clinton got 27046 to Sanders's 25,958. Sanders carried the Alaska caucus by 63 points by taking 440 votes to Clinton's 90 votes. In the much anticipated California primary, Clinton got 2.7 million votes and bested Sanders by 9 points to his 2.3 million votes. In New York out of 1.8 million Clinton garnered 1.05 million and beat Sanders by 16 points for his 750,000 votes. When all was done Clinton led Sanders by millions of votes and hundreds in delegate count. Yet, on the night she officially crossed the threshold and made history by becoming the first woman nominee of a major party Sanders not only refused to even acknowledge that but he even went to the extent of disputing her win.

Clinton showed what leadership is in 2008 when after a very hard fought primary Obama barely edged her, unlike how she beat Sanders handily in 2016, she not only bowed to the inevitable she turned herself into the most committed soldier to getting Obama elected. A group of African-American women told NPR that Clinton's conduct earned their respect. How Clinton conducted herself vis-a-vis Obama earned the votes of a critical section of the Democratic party and it is precisely those voters that Sanders brushed aside.

The sexism of Sanders was very latent and couched within his perfectly democratic rights to fight for an electoral victory that he thought he should get but many of his followers did not bother with any fig leaves and flaunted their sexism against Clinton. A Washington Post analysis of sexist tweets showed that of all the sexist tweets against Clinton nearly 14% came from Sanders's supporters. When Sanders's combative campaign manager Jeffrey Weaver said Clinton's "ambition" could tear the Democratic party US News rightly called it out as sexist by saying that running for the presidency, indeed, takes ambition and Sanders himself was no less ambitious by calling for a revolution and therefore to single out Clinton, a woman, for ambition is sexist. Sanders acted so sexist during a debate that left wing economist and columnist Paul Krugman said Sanders was beginning to mirror the "Bernie Bros", a virulently sexist group of Sanders supporters.

Another popular trope to discredit Clinton is to accuse anyone or any organization supporting her as being "in the tank" or, oh the horror, "establishment". This came mostly from the Sanders supporters. Sure, not every criticism of Clinton should be tagged sexist and there is ample in Clinton's conduct and ideas that could be subject to fair criticism. But criticisms often descend into delegitimization of her candidacy and her wins. Editorial boards of newspapers sympathetic to Sanders's policies gave him latitude to explain details regarding his foreign policy and his central theme of taking the financial industry to the woodshed and Sanders, to their surprise, came out woefully uninformed or to be blunt, clueless. Naturally, they all endorsed Clinton and for that sin alone they were tarred with the "establishment" brush. Commenting on a Washington Post article that sought to explain to Clinton why she's not winning by a large margin against a horrible opponent like Trump a reader listed a whole litany of epithets, "lying, imperious, vindictive, harridan". Harridan? My foot. The comment was a top pick comment. Clinton, as per the fact checking site politifact, is no more lying than Sanders and way more truthful than Trump who has no notion of what truth is. Calling for a 'revolution' is not imperious but Clinton is. Let's not fool ourselves that Clinton's candidacy is something that's not historical and that her struggle in the polls is only because it is a Clinton.

Amongst the so called progressive it is an article of faith that Clinton is hawk compared to the peacenik Sanders. Sanders is a hypocrite when it comes to war. He often claims that he voted against the Iraq War resolution because he felt it did not meet his criteria owing to lack of specifics, plans etc.  By that standard he should've voted against the Afghanistan war too but he happily voted for it because he realized that voting against it would cost his senate seat and he did not, in his own words, want to lose an election for the sake of a war vote.

The Iraq vote has been used to literally pillory Clinton for nearly 8 years. What is little known is how Obama very adroitly cast only "present" votes, not even abstentions, as state legislator in Illinois and cast every vote for Iraq related resolutions later just as Clinton. Unlike Obama Clinton was not known to shy from action. Senator Tom Daschle advised freshman senator Obama to prepare a run for the presidency as early as possible and not be inhibited by lack of experience. Daschle reasoned that a freshman senator will have little or no votes to defend. Yes, Obama mounted a successful campaign because, unlike Clinton, he had nothing to defend.

From Madeleine Albright to Samantha Powers and Hillary Clinton it is interesting that strong willed women have persuaded American presidents to initiate a military action in the interest of preventing genocides. If this is hawkish then so be it. Rarely has a presidential candidate been so experienced and shown such deep engagement with issues as Clinton has. If there is one thing that Clinton will never be accused of it is inaction.

There is endless prattle about Clinton and Benghazi but little note of the fact that as Secretary of state Clinton worked with republicans to increase "survivor benefits for military families" from a paltry $12,000 to $100,00. Pray what is Sanders's legislative record, that too with bipartisan support? Nothing. Zilch. To say that he does not have a commendable legislative record because he's a puritan warrior only insults the process of democracy.

Clinton has a great record of working with republicans. As member of the Senate Armed Services committee she earned the respect of senators like John McCain. Today, faced with a Trump takeover of the White House, droves of republicans, diplomats and others, have endorsed Clinton. This is a stunning act that is often taken little notice. Newspapers in deep red states that have never endorsed a democrat in many decades have endorsed Clinton. If this person is not a role model for women who else is?

For those sexist doubters of whether a woman can be a commander-in-chief another woman from another era answered best when her island nation was threatened total annihilation by an armada.

"I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and thin foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonor shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field".

The words of Queen Elizabeth spoken to her troops at Tilbury will be vindicated by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Let us then elect Hillary Clinton, not only because she's a woman but because, today, she's the best choice. Anyone voting for Trump, directly or indirectly is a traitor to the American dream and such votes have the danger of making November 8th "a date that will live in infamy". Hillary Rodham Clinton is all that stands between a racist, misogynist, bigot and the Oval office. Let's get Hillary Clinton elected so that we can make the words of Longfellow, that FDR quoted in his handwritten letter to Churchill amidst another era of great peril, come true:

Sail on, Oh Ship of State!
Sail on, Oh Union strong and great.
Humanity with all its fears
With all the hope of future years
Is hanging breathless on thy fate


1. North Dakota Caucus
2. South Dakota Primary
3. Alaska Caucus
4. California Primary
5. New York Primary
6. Washington Post Analysis of sexist tweets
7. Sanders campaign and charges of sexism
8. Queen Elizabeth speech to troops
9. Jimmy Kimmel mansplains to Hillary Clinton
10. Hillary Clinton and Surviving families benefits
11. Obama's "present votes"
12. FDR's letter to Churchill
13. Hillary Clinton's Commencement speech at Wellesley
14. Why Hillary Clinton's Beijing speech matters
15. Washington Post article on Hillary Clinton's 'neckline'
16. NYT article about the Post article on Clinton's 'neckline'
17. Washington Post article by Howard Kurtz "Cleavage & Clinton Campaign Chest"

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Underground Railroad: Slavery in America and Colson Whitehead's Searing Fiction

Steven Spielberg's chose to depict the Allied Army landing on D-Day for a gut wrenching and blood soaked 30 minutes only so viewers cannot but escape the gore by looking away for a minute or two. Colson Whitehead's much acclaimed 'The Underground Railroad', a fictional narrative of a slave trying to escape to freedom, is riveting and from the get go assaults the reader in unremitting prose the horrors of slavery until the last page. Whitehead pulls no punches in his depictions of the physical and moral cruelty of Slavery as an institution.

The book opens with the story of Ajarry, grandmother of the protagonist Cora. The price Ajarry was sold for in an African town to slave buyers could not be determined because she was part of a 'bulk purchase, eighty-eight human souls for sixty crates of rum and gun powder'. 'Able bodied men and children bearing women fetched more than juveniles, making an individual accounting difficult'. Whitehead is relentless in depicting the horrific fact that slaves were looked at as commodities and sometimes less respectful than furniture and sometimes valued more, especially when they disobey or worse, runaway, only so that they can learn that had they behaved no wiser than a stool they may not have suffered the unspeakable tortures or grisly death. Seen as property the slaves were subject to the vicissitudes of commodities trading. When the ship carrying Ajarry reaches America she is sold for $226 because of the "season's glut in young girls". Being sold repetitively Ajarry is taught the lesson's life by life. "She learned to quickly adjust to the new plantations, sorting the nigger breakers from the merely cruel, the layabouts from the hardworking, the informers from secret keepers". 

Ajarrys granddaughter Cora was born in a Georgia plantation and abandoned by her mother Mabel, who went in search of freedom, when Cora was just 10. We raise our children today in a cloistered environment and cannot even begin to fathom how a mother could abandon a child and go in search of her own freedom and how a child would even survive in horrendous conditions, all alone. From holocaust to civil war torn areas of today we see this time and again. Whether it is a teenage Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen or a blood soaked and shell shocked toddler in Syria the life of Cora echoes across the ages and different horrors. In bringing that horror home Whitehead succeeds. Whitehead's book is not just about the darkest chapter of American history but a retelling of how wicked human soul can be and how the story can be taken as metaphor for current events. Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz, recalled how young sons abandoned their parents to survive. Once torn asunder each member of the Frank family then focuses on just his or her survival alone with probably wistful thinking, like Ajarry thinks of her cousins, that their other family members would've somehow survived the tragedy better.

During a party a boy spills "a single drop of wine staining the cuff of" the brother of a slave owner at the Georgia plantation. Terrence, whose cuff was stained, rains blows at the boy's head with his cane. "One drop" think Cora and rushes to defend the boy. Cora is no stranger to slaves being brutalized. "She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with cat-o'-nine tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres". The boy and Cora are flogged by Terrence. Terrence's bother James is annoyed only that his brother infringed upon his own property rights by overstepping and punishing his slaves. The slave overseer is incensed at the carelessness of the boy and the impudence of Cora. Both are stripped and flogged to their bones and washed with pepper water. 

Colson Whitehead - From

Big Anthony, a runaway slave who gets caught, is barbarically brutalized and Whitehead spares no details. Big Anthony's punishment is arranged as a spectacle and guests, other slave owners, were invited to watch. "Big Anthony was whipped for the duration of their meal and they ate slow". "Visitors sipped spiced rum as Big Anthony was doused with oil and roasted. The witnesses were spared his screams, as his manhood had been cut off on the first day, stuffed in his mouth, and sewn in". The brutal murder and disfigurement of Emmett Till, a 14 year old boy, comes to mind. Till's murder in 1955 and the open casket funeral held by his mother set off the Civil Rights struggle just a few decades ago.

Emmett Till's brutalized face. Courtesy Wikipedia
Whitehead's novel is not just a gory retelling of a past but it connects, a tad subtly but explicitly, with current events. Black Americans are too frequently stopped while driving and checked by police in today's America. Slave catching patrolmen in Whitehead's novel "stopped any niggers they saw and demanded their passes. They stopped niggers they knew to be free, for their amusement but also to remind the Africans of the forces arrayed against them, whether they were owned by a white man or not".

The Underground Railroad that existed in the ante-bellum era was a metaphorical references to a loose network of abolitionists and slaves who had escaped who took it upon themselves to help others escape. Harriet Tubman, herself an escapee, was a 'conductor' on one such railroad. Whitehead takes the metaphor and makes it a Gabriel Garcia Marquess-like realism with a fictional but physical underground railroad that snakes from Georgia to the North Eastern states. Slaves are approached by station masters who then conduct them to a train that runs underground and accessed by a trap door. The trapdoor is a multi-layered symbolism. 

Slavery was not a monolithic uniform institution but varied across the states. While Georgia and the south were drenched in blood states like the Carolinas had their own hypocrisies and brutality, albeit more refined, like sterilization of blacks by stealth. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the most notorious experiment in American medical history where blacks afflicted by syphilis were given placebos and studied for the effects of progression of disease, finds a mention. Till today the experiment affects how blacks perceive medical professionals in America and a chastised medical fraternity is aware of the deep distrust of African-Americans towards them. 

Cora escapes from the Georgia plantation and reaches South Carolina where a doctor gently suggests to her that she should get sterilized. One night Cora hears a woman scream that her child was stolen. She at first thinks the woman is having nightmares remembering of perhaps a child stolen from her and sold off and only later learns that having been sterilized by stealth the woman had gone mad realizing what was stolen from her. 

Slavery was justified by one too many that it was Biblically sanctioned. While Cora convalesces at a safe house in South Carolina the white lady taking care of her recites Bible verses to her and gently tells her that if God had not intended for slavery to exist they'd be free. Cora bitterly remembers the overseer at the Georgia plantation reciting those verses punctuating them by lashing the slaves with a cat-o'-nine tails. 

Cora had even heard the 'Declaration of Independence'. A slave boy, Michael, used to recite the Declaration and it was an amusement to the Whites who marveled at a slave boy narrating it. "Michael's ability never amounted to more than a parlor trick, delighting visitors before the discussion turned as it always did to the diminished faculties of niggers".

Hearing Michael's recitation of the Declaration Cora "didn't understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn't understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom". The jab at slave owning Thomas Jefferson is all too explicit. George Washington freed his slaves in his will but while he lived he hunted anyone who escaped from his clutches. The US constitution included what is now shamefully called one-fifths compromise whereby slaves were counted as property.

Benjamin Franklin had famously cautioned that "people who give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety  deserve neither liberty nor safety". South Carolina, not wanting to be a safe haven for slaves fleeing southern states, instituted slave patrols that would barge into homes of whites and inspect for slaves who might be harbored by abolitionists. "Cora thought that the whites would be loath to give up their freedoms even in the name of security" but was shocked to learn that those desirous of being seen as patriots "boasted of how often they'd been searched and given a clean bill". It was common for neighbors, servants and even children  to inform on those who harbored slaves. The perils of nationalism could not be more tellingly illustrated. From the slave holding south to Stalinist Russia to today's 'see something, say something' America one can hear the echoes of that. In Stalin's Russia it was common of husbands to denounce wives and children informed on their parents.  

Cora is hidden in an attic by a family in South Carolina until the maid, tempted by reward, informs on the family. Cora is dragged away by a slave catcher engaged by the Randall family in Georgia while the family that sheltered her are hung from a tree. The story of Anne Frank comes to mind. Again and again the story that Whitehead tells is not just about slavery but of how people behave in circumstances not too different. This is a story of humanity at large told with slavery as central theme but one could see the stories of Holocaust, the horrors of Stalinism, the grotesqueness of India's caste system and more.

Nothing is black and white in the story. The pun is unintended. While there are whites who inflict such brutalities there are the white abolitionists who put their lives in harms way to liberate slaves and there were slaves who cooperate with the white man. Whether it is the Judenraat, the Jewish councils, in the concentration camps or the vast hundreds of thousands of Indians who served the British Raj or the groveling communists in the Stalin era or the members of the Vichy France the stain of collaborating with the oppressor is a human history not all too unique.

Having captured Cora the slave catcher Ridgeway lectures her on the 'American imperative': I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old world to the New, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription - the American imperative.

Having indicted the 'American imperative' through the slave catcher Whitehead then gives voice through Elijah Lander, a mulatto abolitionist, about what Freedom is: Work needn't be suffering, it could unite folks...Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and rare.

Controlling access to education from those seen as unworthy of wisdom by those who think they've a god given right to wisdom is seen across cultures with sickening regularity. From an ancient Indian treatise that forbade knowledge to those called Shudras to white plantation owners who thought "the only thing more dangerous than a nigger with a gun was a nigger with a book" it is a common thread. A slave being seen reading a pamphlet, not even a book, could suffer an agonizing death.

Colson Whitehead's book is an urgent read in a year where a racist and xenophobic demagogue is within striking distance of the American presidency. After I visited the 'Topology of terror" museum in Berlin I wrote that America too needs such a museum to teach Americans of the nation's darkest chapter. It so happens that the Smithsonian museums just opened up a museum about African-Americans in Washington DC, thanks to the ceaseless efforts of Civil Rights icon and Congressman John Lewis. It is worth noting that Lewis had to prevail over a racist congressman, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who time and again was resolutely against such a museum. The museum fulfills an urgent need. 

Whitehead wrote a column titled "Rules for Writing" in New York Times. Reading his book one could say that Whitehead has diligently followed the rules he had set forth. His very first rule was 'Show and Tell'. He disagrees with the "Show, don't tell" school of writing and calls for 'show and tell' because "when writers put their work out into the world they're like kids bringing their broken unicorns and chewed up teddy bears into class in the sad hope that someone else will love them as much as they do". Whitehead strikes the delicate balance in 'show and tell' where the telling could degenerate into total lack of nuances or subtleties. Referring to a dead dog of a slave owner he writes "the mutt was loved by man and nigger". The subtleties are packed into the sentences.

Rule 2 is "don't go searching for a subject, let the subject find you". 16 years in the making the subject had indeed found the author.

Saul Bellow, Whitehead quotes in Rule 3, said "fiction is higher autobiography". Whitehead lays down as dictum and adheres to "write what you know". 

Rule 4 is "never use three words when one will do" and rule 11 is "revise, revise, revise". Again, Whitehead practices what he preaches. The prose is sparse and completely shorn of unnecessary ornate phrases or metaphors. 

Having told writers to 'show and tell' he cautions in rule 6 that "what isn't said is as important as what is said. In many classic short stories the real action occurs in the silences". While he gives graphic details of the physical nature of the violence inflicted upon the slaves he  only implies the lurking moral corruption. No one, neither the slave owner or the slave, escapes the moral corruption of a society plagued by such violence. When Cora becomes a woman her fellow slaves gang rape her. Nudity is no sacred secret offered as token of intimacy because Cora is whipped naked in full view of her fellow slaves and others. Musing about sex with Ceasar, who had hatched the plan  to escape, Cora thinks to the day she was whipped naked and how Ceasar had looked at her unflinchingly even when other slaves, shuddering at the prospect that one day they certainly would be in her place, avert their eyes. After Cora's mother escapes scheming slaves make the 10 year old abandoned child's life miserable. The moral corruption of a violent system is hinted at. Again, the moral corruption of Stalinism and socialism in India came to my mind. 

'Underground Railroad' deserves to be read, re-read, re-read and reflected upon. The book is about the past but it shows how the past is never truly past and the present not only is an echo but is a progeny. This is not a story of one country's dark past but the story of humankind that even today murders and pillages in the name of race.

Whitehead's 'Underground Railroad' should become required reading in schools. I wish the book gets a Pulitzer next April.


1. 6 Questions for Colson Whitehead - Time Magazine interview
2. The Real Underground Railroad
3. Michiko Kakutani's review of the book in NYT
4. Colson Whitehead interview with NYT on writing the book
5. Colson Whitehead's rules for writing in NYT
6. Emmett Till
7. Civil Rights icon and Congressman John Lewis on the opening of Smithsonian museum about African Americans