Going Underground: Race, Space, And The Subterranean In The Nineteenth-Century US

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2021

Published In

American Literary History


This essay examines the emergence of the underground as a figure for being in but not of a rotten world. First popularized by newspaper coverage of the Underground Railroad in the 1840s, the underground offered a metaphor for subversive activity that has remained central to our political vocabulary. My forthcoming book, Going Underground: Race, Space, and the Subterranean in the Nineteenth-Century US, excavates the long history of this now-familiar idea, but most of all, it seeks out versions of the underground that got left behind along the way. To do so, it traces images of the subterranean from David Walker’s Appeal (1829) to Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood (1902–03), and from anarchist periodicals and exposés of the urban underworld to the initiation rites of secret societies and manuals for sex magic. In this essay, an adaptation of the book’s introduction, I focus on how early visions of the underground were shaped by literal subterranean spaces and associations with racialized Blackness. I argue that nineteenth-century undergrounds can expand our thinking about political agitation outside the familiar framework of resistance and suggest some new—which is to say old—modes of world-making and world-breaking for a time when this world feels increasingly untenable. "At times going underground is an effect of subjugation, but at other times it is an act of refusal. Some undergrounds are sites to carve out other worlds … and some are sites to prepare the destruction of this one."

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