Culture  /  Argument

The Supernatural and the Mundane in Depictions of the Underground Railroad

Navigating the line between historical records and mystic imagery to understand the Underground Railroad.

There were, however, always those who told a different story, one that kept alive the central role of African Americans in the Underground Railroad. This meant fugitive slaves themselves, of course, but also the networks of Black communities, North and South, that did the lion’s share of work aiding fugitives in their flight from bondage. The crucial text here was Still’s Underground Rail Road, first published in 1872. This massive volume, nearly 800 pages of text, based on records he had kept over his years in the struggle, provided an essential corrective to the white legend of the Liberty Line. Nevertheless, for decades, this legend continued to dominate popular understandings of the Underground Railroad.

Fortunately, that has changed, not only among scholars who have largely embraced Still’s fugitive-centric account of the Underground Railroad, but increasingly among a public which is more likely to see fugitives-turned-agents like Harriet Tubman as the face of the Underground Railroad rather than the white saviors of earlier generations. Recent film, television, and fictional depictions attest to the triumph of this Black-centered vision of the Underground Railroad. Just in the last few years, we have seen the release of a film account of Harriet Tubman, Harriet; a critically acclaimed television show, Underground; and novels by acclaimed writers Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (which has itself spawned a television miniseries), and Ta-Nehisi Coats, The Water Dancer. Notably, Still looms large in much of this work. He is a major character in Harriet and a minor character in Underground; Coates draws extensively on Still’s story.

Curiously, however, a number of these recent works have contributed to a different sort of legendary vision of the Underground Railroad. Whether on the page or on the screen, these works have frequently turned to the supernatural as a way of depicting the flight of fugitive slaves. Whitehead transforms the Underground Railroad into a literal underground railroad. Coates depicts agents of the Underground as space-bending “water dancers.” In Harriet, Tubman’s visions, which historians have often attributed to head trauma she suffered as a young woman, are shown instead as genuine visions that guide her in her forays back into Maryland, making possible her seemingly miraculous feats of rescue.

Each of these depictions is successful within the context of the works themselves. My point here is not to criticize the choices of novelists, screenwriters, or directors, who are, of course, free to diverge from the historical record in a way that historians must not. We might ask, though, what draws these different artists to embrace the supernatural as a way of making sense of the Underground Railroad? Does magic somehow capture something about the Underground Railroad that historians have failed to? Perhaps even more importantly, what are the consequences of such choices for popular understandings of the work of those who fled slavery and those who aided them in their flight?