"What Race Problem?": The Satirical Gaze of (White) History in The Underground Railroad Academic Article uri icon


  • Abstract This essay brings critical discourse on whiteness into conversation with African American satire to demonstrate how Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad (2016) engages in both traditional and postmodern forms of satire to trouble our assumptions about the function of historical fiction in a post-truth era. Whitehead satirizes various moments in American history to show how white power is maintained through a dialectic of fear. Whitehead's novel claims control over the white gaze by asserting a satirical black gaze, rendering established (white) history the subject of scrutiny. Through an engagement with W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of White Folk (1920) and bell hooks's The Oppositional Gaze (1992), I demonstrate how Whitehead utilizes satire to subvert this white gaze of history. When, in our contemporary post-truth moment, facts are ignored or repudiatedwhen reality looks disturbingly similar to fake newsand when the US president is a former reality television star with a nostalgic desire to make America great again, satire emerges as a way to throw the ridiculous into sharp, biting relief. The Underground Railroad exposes how an underlying (white) fear of black liberty and power contributes to the violence committed against black people throughout history, thereby demanding we take an oppositional look at American history in the ongoing project of emancipation.

published proceedings


author list (cited authors)

  • Heneks, G.

citation count

  • 3

complete list of authors

  • Heneks, Grace

publication date

  • March 2020