In James Olney’s 1984 essay “I Was Born: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature,” Olney addresses that most slave narratives follow the same format, which makes them both straightforward and repetitive. He argues that these strict conventions are essential because slave narratives exist for ex-slaves to add their story to the ever-growing testament about slavery, not for the author to explore and take ownership of their history. As a work of fiction, Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad is not bound to the format of the slave narrative; however, Whitehead pays homage to many of its conventions throughout his novel by challenging them. In the chapter “Caesar,” one convention that is subverted is the relationship of the slave to literacy. Caesar’s experiences of learning to read and interacting with literature are presented differently than in slave narratives. His narrative also does not end the way most slave narratives do, with the establishment of a home somewhere in the North and a free life helping the abolitionist movement. Though Caesar does not successfully find his way to a physical home, his experiences with literacy alter the way he approaches the idea of home. He begins to conceptualize his own life through writing, performing an act of creation that slave narratives cannot accomplish. His construction of his life allows him to find intellectual freedom. As a result of various experiences with literacy, Caesar creates his own home through narrative, which results in his achievement of intellectual autonomy.
Olney details how literacy is typically included in a slave narrative: a “record of the barriers raised against slave literacy and the overwhelming difficulties encountered in learning to read and write” (50). Caesar’s experience of learning to read is not represented exactly as an “overwhelming difficulty.” Before being sold to Randall, Caesar and his family lived in Virginia with a master who allowed them a great deal more privileges and better treatment than the masters at Randall. He remembers that when he learned to read, the old white woman “held [him] in her lap” which makes the slave and master relationship feel oddly like that of a mother and child (Whitehead 233). He also notes that every time she “taught him a word,” it felt like she was “tightening the knots” around him (Whitehead 233). Rather than presenting reading as a goal that Caesar works tirelessly to attain, the white mistress’s kind treatment creates cognitive dissonance. By combining education, the treatment of Caesar as a loved child, and a vision of strangling, the mistress uses literacy as a means to further manipulate Caesar’s trust. Here, literacy seems to be just another twisted tool of the white master. Caesar and the white mistress’s initial interaction with reading sets the groundwork for a future complicated relationship with literacy.
When the white woman betrays Caesar’s family and sells him to the Randall Plantation, Caesar reads, but he does not read books. He states, “the only thing to read was what came written on a bag of rice. The name of the firm that manufactured their chains, imprinted in the metal like a promise of pain” (Whitehead 235). Caesar interacts with physical markers of slavery through reading the sack of rice and his chains. He becomes aware of a world beyond the plantation where companies benefit from manufacturing these items, which indicates the reach of slavery beyond the plantation. Literacy serves only as an additional reminder of his enslavement.
Caesar’s experience changes when Fletcher, a kind white storekeeper, provides him with one book. Reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift provides an experience for Caesar that differs completely from his past experience reading words around the plantation. The book is introduced slowly, which affects how readers understand Caesar’s experience with it. Throughout the chapter, the book remains unnamed. In the penultimate paragraph, a direct quote from the book is integrated: “What became of my companions in the boat, as well as those who escaped on the rock, or were left in the vessel, I cannot tell; but conclude they were all lost” (Swift qtd. in Whitehead 235). Given the context of Caesar’s story, the references to a boat, rock, and vessel, can lead the reader to believe Caesar is reading another slave narrative. It fits neatly into Caesar’s experience in slavery, and it follows logically that by reading another slave narrative, he would be inspired to escape. As the paragraph moves on, the title “Travels into Several Remote Nations” reveals that this book is not a slave narrative; however, the tone still reads as an autobiographical travel tale (Whitehead 235). In the final paragraph, Caesar reveals the book to the reader as he describes how “the white man in the book, Gulliver, roved from peril to peril, each new island a new predicament to solve before he could return home” (Whitehead 235). Caesar’s summary demonstrates that not only can he read, he can summarize and gain insight from the novel, which is a very different experience from previously aforementioned experiences with literacy. It is important that Caesar and readers understand that this book is fiction because as Caesar reads, he becomes aware of the power an author of a fictional story holds. He engages with how an author can create their own fictional story in order to strategically present ideas.
Returning to the conventions of the slave narrative, Olney argues that they are so formulaic that writers cannot be considered to be expressing any original ideas, certainly not in the way that Gulliver’s Travels does. Olney explains that in a slave narrative, “it is the writer’s claim, it must be his claim, that he is not emplotting, he is not fictionalizing, and he is not performing any act of poiesis (=shaping, making)” (Olney 48). Olney uses repetition of “not” to emphasize the importance of a slave narrative following this prescribed set of rules. The restrictive conventions of slave narratives undercut a major idea of writing, which it is to articulate original thoughts and ideas to the world. Olney continues that these narratives were even exploitative, claiming that “the narrative lives of the ex-slaves were as much possessed and used by the abolitionists as their actual lives had been by slaveholders” (51). The abololitionist exploitation of narratives reinforces the idea that slave narratives are primarily a moving piece of the abolitionist movement. They are not a medium for enslaved people to express themselves and work through their own struggles.
By observing that the book Caesar reads is not a potentially carbon-copied or exploitative slave narrative but rather a work of fiction, readers understand that Caesar engages with a carefully crafted story. Caesar even analyzes Gulliver’s struggle, saying “that was the man’s real trouble, not the savage and uncanny civilizations he encountered—he kept forgetting what he had” (Whitehead 235). Caesar’s analysis of Gulliver indicates an engagement with literacy in a way that affects how Caesar views his existence in the world, a skill he would not have achieved without completing various stages of literacy. Caesar then extrapolates Gulliver’s experience to white people as a whole: “That was white people all over: Build a schoolhouse and let it rot, make a home then keep straying” (Whitehead 235). Through his frustration with Gulliver, Caesar begins to form a view on what home means. He specifies that both Gulliver and white people “make” a home, which differs from the idea of finding or returning home. For the first time, readers see Caesar think of home as something he can create rather than a place to run towards.
As a woodworker, Caesar thrives on the concept of creation, the “poiesis” that Olney asserts slave narratives cannot accomplish. Readers know that when Caesar lived in Virginia, his dreams included being “apprenticed to another of the town’s craftsmen” (Whitehead 233). Once he was sold to Randall, however, the slave labor “ruined his hands for delicate woodwork” (Whitehead 233). Though he had always been enslaved, the move from Virginia to Georgia stripped him of a freedom that he had previously experienced: the freedom to create. Through Gulliver’s Travels, Caesar learns that he can once again create, this time through storytelling. By analyzing how Caesar builds his reality in “Caesar,” readers can understand how Caesar’s construction of the world provides him with a sense of autonomy that leads towards a home.
On some level, the entire chapter exists as Caesar’s own creation. He resists the traditional slave narrative opening by starting not with himself, but with someone else. The chapter beings with how “the excitement over Jockey’s birthday allowed Caesar to visit his only refuge on Randall. The dilapidated schoolhouse by the stables was generally empty” (Whitehead 230). The text recalls the convention of “I was born” by referencing Jockey’s birthday, but it turns the focus away from birth and towards Caesar’s haven, the schoolhouse. Caesar’s traditional opening is delayed until a page later, when he states, “I was born on August 14th. My mother’s name is Lily Jane. My father is Jerome. I don’t know where they are” (Whitehead 232). Here, Caesar acknowledges the traditional slave narrative while asserting that he is here to tell his own story. Scenes and memories are staggered and the use of birth is integrated strategically throughout the story in order to be part of “patterned significance” (Olney 47). The chapter as a whole is carefully crafted, a reflection of Caesar’s experience with literacy. The patterns created throughout this chapter suggest to the reader that literacy and experience with fiction allow Caesar to create his own narrative.
The chapter as a whole is Caesar’s creation, but within it, there are specific moments that highlight how Caesar constructs his own reality in order to create a home. These moments happen when Caesar views Cora from inside the schoolhouse. The schoolhouse is linked clearly with literacy, as “in the schoolhouse it was as if he were not there at all” (Whitehead 230). For Caesar, being inside the schoolhouse specifically allows him to become the author rather than a character in his life. As an author, when he looks “through the schoolhouse window,” he writes about Cora as he chooses to see her: “She smiled—quickly. She smiled at Chester, and Lovey and the women from her cabin, with brevity and efficiency. Like when you see the shadow of a bird on the ground but look up and nothing’s there” (Whitehead 232). He integrates metaphor and takes her physical existence into the realm of speculation, imposing his own thoughts and experiences onto her. He analyzes her actions and describes her in literary terms, which changes her from a mere slave into a person of importance. Readers know this is specific to Caesar’s view of Cora because it contradicts how the other enslaved people view her. When Caesar speaks of Cora outside of the schoolhouse, in the loft, Martin describes her as a “Hob woman” who will “cut your thing off and make soup with it” (Whitehead 232). Evidently, Caesar views Cora in a different way from other men on the plantation, and he crafts her into his story. In the schoolhouse, Caesar can choose the way he views her; in the loft, Cora must be what the other enslaved people see her to be: a mad woman. Later, inside the schoolhouse again, Caesar thinks about Cora in terms of woodworking: “Cora set her hands on her hips, head tilted as if hunting after a tune hidden in the noise. How to capture that profile in wood, preserve her grace and strength—he didn’t trust himself not to botch it...the slope of a woman’s cheek, lips in the midst of a whisper” (Whitehead 233). Though Caesar cannot physically sculpt her, his description of her in craftsmanship terms shows how he uses words to breathe the Cora he needs into existence. The reader sees Cora as Caesar sees Cora, and readers understand that he crafts her, romanticizes her, and creates her into the person he needs her to be. The final line in the chapter reads “with Cora, he’d find the way home” (Whitehead 235). Readers know that Caesar does not truly have a home to return to, and readers also know that Gulliver’s Travels has helped him to comprehend the idea of making a home. Caesar is a maker, and he makes what could have been a more traditional slave narrative into his own exploration of existence. More specifically, he makes his home through how he envisions Cora. Concluding that Cora will allow him to find the way home is an act of poiesis, of creation, and gives Caesar autonomy over his existence, despite the fact that during this chapter, he is still on the plantation.
Olney presents that slave narratives exploit former slaves for the purposes of dismantling the institution of slavery, but do little to hear the genuine voices and recollections of personal ex-slave stories. Caesar learns the importance of creating his own story through his experiences with literacy. He ultimately achieves what Gulliver cannot: he realizes what he has and finds home by elevating Cora through writing. Home, for Caesar, does not become something to return to, but rather, it becomes an idea that he actively constructs for himself. When readers reach “Caesar,” they already know that he has been killed. They know that though Caesar makes it to freedom, he does not complete his journey to a hypothetical home in the fabled North. In many of the other chapters, readers are brought into the character’s life and learn about what caused his or her death, but this is not the case for Caesar. His chapter serves not as his final moments but instead as a prequel to where his story intersects with Cora’s. From his chapter, readers can learn that freedom does not only lie in a physical escape from the master. Literature allows Caesar to achieve autonomy while he is still on the plantation. Beyond autonomy, this section asserts that for Caesar, home is something that he creates through his interactions with Cora. His relationship with Cora does not by any means make up for his enslavement. Rather, his ability to create a home for himself while enslaved asserts his personhood in a way that reveals him not only as a victim of slavery, but also an artist who successfully shapes aspects of his private life.