(The following post includes spoilers for the movie Samurai Rebellion and the novel The Underground Railroad. Neither of them are new, but if you care about not knowing the ending before you begin, you are hereby warned…)
I recently finished reading Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, and long before I got to the end, I found myself rooting for some sort of enduring romance to realize itself between Cora, who I think it would be fair to call the story’s protagonist, and Royal, a free black man who rescued her from a runaway slave patrol. But that’s not what happens. Instead, Royal is murdered by white racists and Cora has to make her way without him. I found his murder sad, and heartbreaking, but came to realize that it was also incredibly honest, because for every living body who made it out of slavery, who escaped that evil, tyrannical, racist system, there must have been almost countless others who fell victim to it. Also, the number of almost countless others is colossal, and exponentially greater than the ones who made it out. And the ones who made it out must have borne deep and wrenching psychic (and physical) scars not only from living through their own pain, pain caused in the case of slavery by the colonialism and racism of others, but from sharing time, and space, and hopes, and dreams with those who didn’t escape.
It occurs to me that one of the effects of writing/reading truly unhappy stories of people caught up in history, in the lash of events caused by malignant humans and governments (which are made up of humans), is that when we write/read the scenes in which these people live, we are not just living with the success stories, if you will, by which I suppose I simply mean that staying alive in the face of odds counts as a success story, we are also looking into the lives of the people who have, in other, nonfictional, official history book terms, been swallowed whole. (Swallowed whole, I mean, in the sense that we don’t know their names or the details of their lives.)
I love a ‘happy’ ending, but accept the honesty of Royal’s death, and that, speaking historically, there have been a lot of Royals.
Classifying The Underground Railroad as historical fiction would be incorrect, mostly because of the contemporary feel of how the railroad itself is treated. Whitehead’s creation is just that, an actual railroad that traverses dug-out underground passageways. To my knowledge, the existence of certain government structures described in the novel is also fictional, but nonetheless grounded in the very real history of racism and in real events with racist motivations.
Jump to another piece of art, my favorite film, Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion, released in 1967. The story takes place in Japan in 1725 and revolves a lifelong loyal swordsman who, for the love of his son, daughter-in-law, and infant granddaughter, defies his feudal lord. The story is such: Kiku is a courtesan who gets kicked out of court after a fit of postpartum jealousy. She’s shunted off to the swordsman’s son. They fall in love against the odds. The lord’s heir dies and he demands to have Kiku back, because she is the mother of the new heir. The swordsman (played to great effect by Toshiro Mifune, by the way) refuses. The film is based on a true story. In the film, everybody who is disobedient is killed in the end (although there’s a ray of hope at the end when we see a servant rescuing the baby granddaughter). Maybe anything else would be a lie. Maybe anything else would lie outside of strict historical possibility.
Samurai Rebellion differs from The Underground Railroad in that it is based on a single, historical incident, whereas perhaps we could say that The Underground Railroad is based on an entire history, even as the story insists we realize that the history in question is made up of individual people with separate and unique hearts and minds. However, both stories serve as examples of how writing/making art within/about the past comes with responsibility. As writers create characters within the possibilities of the timeframes in which their characters exist, readers should accept that the tragedy embedded in some of these stories comes from the very real friction between the striving of warm, beating human hearts against the virtual and sometimes literal prisons of a brutal world. What furthers the tragedy? That world isn’t cold or impersonal. No. It’s full of the warm, beating hearts of antagonists who work actively against the humanity of the protagonists. In The Underground Railroad, the motivation of the antagonists is racism (and the ‘beneficial’ economics behind the ‘free’ labor enabled by chattel slavery, no doubt). In Samurai Rebellion, the antagonists’ motivations seem to be linked to the authoritarianism inherent in upholding strict feudal structures.
That’s all I’ve got. Just something I’ve been thinking about.