5 Reasons Why I’m Side-Eyeing ‘Underground Airlines’

I have not yet read Ben WintersUnderground Airlines, and I sure as hell don’t plan to.

The book, which was released this week, tells the story of Victor, a former slave who works for the U.S. Marshal Service to track down other fugitive slaves who have escaped their captivity. The twist? The book takes place in the modern era, in a United States in which slavery has not been abolished.

Victor is black and Winters is white.

Oh, boy.

This book has already lost me because …

1. Winters isn’t qualified to write this book

"Of course I can write about the current plight of African-Americans. Check out this list of black history books I read." — This guy apparently
“Of course I can write about the modern-day experience of African-Americans. Check out this list of black history books I read.” — This guy, apparently

I mean no offense. He seems like a well-intentioned dude. He even studied the works of Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler and Ta-Nehisi Coates to better prepare himself. (So, I guess that makes this his black person dissertation.) But I can already tell Winters is in over his head.

In a review by The New York Times (which itself is a piece of work), he said: “We tend to think of racism and slavery as something that’s appropriate only for black artists to engage with, and there’s something troubling and perverse about that.”

Who is this “we”? Where did he get this impression? Correct me if I’m wrong, but one of the most iconic books about racism in America was written by a southern white woman. It isn’t a perfect book, but I don’t ever remember anyone saying that Harper Lee had no business writing it. And she, at the very least, knew how to stay in her lane.

In another interview with Kirkus Reviews Winters, who is Jewish, discusses the anti-Semitism his family faced while living in Czechoslovakia in the ‘40s.

While their experiences may give him authority to write about prejudice, they do not translate into knowledge of the specific type of racism black men in America face. Hell, I don’t even fully know the black male experience in America. This isn’t his story to tell.

2. The premise makes no sense

Moving beyond the race issues, this book also sounds like a weak example of speculative fiction.

From what I’ve gathered, the story takes place in an alternative future where segregation still exists and slavery is legal in four states. The divergence stems from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln before he’s able to take office in 1860. With no Lincoln, I presume that means there is no Emancipation Proclamation and no Civil War.

Now, here’s where I get lost.

Assuming that “no Lincoln equals no Civil War” is like positing that if George W. Bush hadn’t been in office, Sept. 11 wouldn’t have happened.

Tensions between the North and the South were simmering before Lincoln assumed the presidency. They were stoked by various abolitionist efforts, the Fugitive Slave Act (which serves as the predecessor to Winters’ own fictional Fugitive Persons Act) and the Dred Scott decision. Even if Lincoln hadn’t been president, whoever was president would have inherited these issues.

At best, Winters is lazy with exposition. At worse, he’s denying the strength of the resistance African-Americans had in regards to slavery. Without Lincoln, slavery may not have been abolished under the same circumstances, but black people would not have put up with 200 years of enslavement without some sort of rebellion. The “peculiar institution” may still exist in his alternative universe, but not without bloody interstate skirmishes, terrorist attacks and his own protagonist being murdered as a conspirator. Japanese and European sanctions would be the least of the country’s concerns.

(Also, in one of the chapters I previewed, the protagonist listens to Michael Jackson’s Thriller on cassette tape in what I assume is 2016. Look, I can only suspend my disbelief so far, and it ain’t far enough for that.)

3. The main character’s dialogue is kinda minstrel-y.



I mean, come on.

4. It’s been done before and it was awful

Lev Grossman said of Winters: “This is a white writer going after questions of what it’s like to be black in America. It’s a fearless thing to do.”

No. It’s an amazingly arrogant thing to do. And a cliché thing to do.

White people telling black stories is nothing new, and I don’t have to read Winters’ work to know I probably won’t enjoy his contribution to this tradition.

I don’t want to read how a white man “imagines” the black experience to be when I know there are an innumerable amount of black writers who are struggling to get published, struggling to get recognized and struggling to get reviewed by The New York Times.

I don’t want to waste time reading something I know someone else can write 10 times better.

5. It’s been done before and it was amazing

As many people have noted, Octavia Butler “dared” to write a sci-fi slavery book 40 years ago. It was called Kindred. Just go read that.

Dani reads because she’s too poor to do much else. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri, so really, what did she expect? She’s sick of YA but will read the hell out of some Harlequin novels. She’s a producer of digital content and she lives in St. Louis. Find her on Twitter at @Dani_Lacey.

Join the Conversation


  1. This is a shame. Sorry, but you’re missing out. It’s an extraordinary read. He’s done it “right” and he’s an incredible talent. You ought not pre-judge. You ought not judge at all, actually, till you’ve read the book.

    1. Nah. Look, any other time I would agree with you, but I do not have the patience for his foolishness right now. I woke up to news that another black man was fatally shot by the police yesterday. Before that, I read about a petition to get Jesse Williams fired from “Grey’s Anatomy” just because he gave a speech saying white people need to stop talking over us. So I don’t care how “right” he is, Winters is profiting from an experience that isn’t his and suffering he’ll never experience. I can’t deal with that right now, and will probably never be able to.

      I read his blog, I read the excerpts posted on Facebook and B&N, and all the lit reviews I could find. The prose is only alright, and as I said, the speculative part did not feel well done. If Winters was really brave, he would have written about being white in America. So, yeah, I’m passing on this one. I have too many other books on my TBR list to bother with this.

  2. Thank you for your review. I mean, I know it’s not a proper review in the sense of someone who has read a book reviewing it… but shared your feelings about whether it’s worth reading to begin with and there’s so many reviews out there that look like they were most likely written by white people… not that there’s anything wrong with white people reviewing books, just, since it’s a book intended to be about the black experience, it seems that black opinions about black experience are more relevant and deserve to be heard. And I’m annoyed that the search engine made it so much easier to find white opinions, though I suppose it’s not the search engine’s fault since it’s just a computer program.

    I know I’m rambling… I just wanted to thank you for sharing your opinion.

    — Confused white physically disabled person

    1. Thanks for commenting! Not a review; more just an sharing of feelings. The reviews are probably definitely part of the reason why I reacted so badly to this book. That and all the sad events happening in the news. And the more I thought on it, I realized something else that bothered me: Winters’ world where black men are treated like second-class citizens is not sci-fi and doesn’t just exist in his crazy alternate history. It’s the present. If he had just wrote about race in America as himself, as a white man living in this actual day and age, that would had been something worth reading. The book he actually wrote just feels inauthentic.

      Thank you again for commenting. =)

      1. It is the present. But I think a lot of people are afraid to write about the present, directly, because if you get the details wrong, or you don’t have the proof to back up your suspicions, you can be sued for defamation and libel and that sort of thing. Science fiction is less risky. Fictional companies can’t sue in the real world, even if they’re only fictional in so far as some superficial details like the name and the place being changed. Well, maybe they could, but first they’d have to prove that they actually were the fictional company in question, and who’d want to admit to that?

        Being a white person in this day an age… it’s hard to be authentic, because it’s not really something you’re aware of. Being white that is. Not until you get separated from the herd, metaphorically speaking, from the expectations that other white people expect you to live up to — being strong, healthy, successful, having an expected aversion to certain neighborhoods, having the typical political beliefs, not the ones Democrats and Republicans are always arguing about, but the ones both sides take for granted. But even when you get separated, you still don’t feel it too much. There’s always people wanting to welcome you back to the herd, bring you back in, even if they keep you more on the fringe of it than before. Even when you’re outside, you never really feel what it’s like to be black, or native american, or whatever. You can get a closer look. Interact with other people, people with different experiences, try to expand your empathy to include them too. But not matter how hard you try to feel empathy, there’s always that gap there. That gap between watching and listening and actually experiencing for yourself.

        Just because being authentic is hard is no excuse not to try of course. I suppose my story starts the same as everyone else. A baby, completely oblivious to race. Babies aren’t born prejudiced after all — privileged, yes — but all the racial stereotypes and whatnot, the expectations, the self-righteousness, the senses of superiority, however subtle they might manifest — that’s all learned afterwards, generally picked up from older generations. But I guess like most white children, I was permitted to hang on to that obliviousness much longer than I suppose others are.

        I went to integrated schools as a child. Not necessarily well-integrated. Not in the sense of actually being proportionately balanced. Not that I had any awareness at the time of what would’ve been proportionate. But I had the opportunity to meet children of a variety of races, and it felt so normal to me that even when it was explained in history class about how people had to actually fight to end segregation, it seemed like something that must’ve happened a long long time ago. The dates didn’t register. Not that I was good with dates anyway. I really didn’t think about the races of my classmates much outside of those history lessons, unless they brought it up themselves.

        My high school, though it had representatives of a wide variety of peoples, was predominantly white and asian, so when people did bring up racial justice issues, it was usually from asian perspectives. Which didn’t really prepare me for meeting more black, hispanic, and native american people later in life, because, well, asians have different experiences.

        I remember once, I got lost on my way home. Got directions to a different road by the same name. Wound up in completely the wrong neighborhood. I remembered feeling curious about the place. It was different from other neighborhoods I’d been in before. The two things that struck me as the most obvious were the children outside playing, and the clothes hanging outside on clotheslines. The children — fairly young children, in some cases — gave me a sense of safety. If it wasn’t a safe neighborhood, children wouldn’t be allowed to play outside. And the clothes seemed to be part of a theme of poverty. Apparently people couldn’t afford driers. The townhouses seemed run down too. Poorly maintained. I wondered what else they were missing besides driers. I didn’t stay there long. It was obvious to people that I did not fit in there. I got help finding my way home. No one tried to hurt me, though from the lectures I got when I did get back home you’d think I’d been saved from the jaws of death. How if I kept wandering off like that I’d end up in drugs or prostitution or dead in a ditch somewhere. It only occurred to me afterwards — and not right away, it took me awhile to process it — that what everyone was making such a big fuss over is that I’d been wandering in a predominantly black neighborhood. That what was expected of me was to be afraid by virtue of the color of the neighborhood, rather than reassured by the presence of children playing outside. Not that they could tell me so in so many words. They couldn’t, because, then they’d have to admit to not being color blind, and to them color blind meant not racist. But it felt, hollow, like all that talk about individuality and opportunity was something that far more people paid lip service too than there were people who actually believed in it.

        Though my high school was predominantly white/asian, with a speckling of other peoples, there were Hispanic folk living in the area and my first job had a hispanic manager. A number of my coworkers were also hispanic. In fact, apparently a number of them lived right next door, sharing the rental house between them. One of them asked me once if there were a lot of hispanic people at my high school. I thought about it and could only think of a few. Which struck me as odd, when I actually thought about it. Before, if you’d asked me about why my high school was predominantly white/asian, I’d probably have assumed that it was simply because there were a lot of white/asian people around. Not because I’d actually looked at demographics, but because I’d never really thought about it. But he was right. His high school wasn’t far away and apparently there were a lot of hispanic people there. And apparently the quality of education there wasn’t near as good. That much made sense; my high school was a sort of magnet high school, the sort you have to test and essay and teacher recommendation your way into. But what didn’t make sense is why there weren’t more hispanics there with me. I guess I understand better now. Most of the hispanics in the area probably somehow weren’t getting the same educational opportunities early on, and so they didn’t test as well. But back then it was just an unexplained anomaly to me. Something that didn’t feel quite right, but I couldn’t explain why it didn’t feel quite right.

        When I got older I moved to the Southwest. And there were a lot of hispanics and native americans there. The undercurrents of racial prejudice were a lot stronger there. Closer to the surface. Easier to see. Apt to pop out. But even with all that there was still the, “At least we’re not in Arizona. Things are much worse in Arizona.” People got mad about the racist laws over in Arizona. And Columbus Day felt like the saddest holiday ever there. No one celebrated it. People wouldn’t have even acknowledge it was a holiday were it not for the fact that federal employees were required to take the day off because it was a federal holiday. Never in my life have I seen people so resentful about taking a day off from work. Private businesses stayed open. And it was all for good reason. Considering the aftermath of Columbus’ journey, what happened to the native americans, if Columbus day is to be remembered, it should be as a day of mourning, not a day of celebration. I heard it was worse in Denver Colorado, that there Columbus Day was a day of riots not just mourning, but that St. Patrick’s Day in Denver was the opposite, a day when everyone was Irish, no matter what they looked like. Not that I was ever actually in Denver — that’s just what I heard.

        There weren’t all that many more black people in that part of the country than in the communities that grew up in, but it was there that some of the few black people I did meet first started talking to me about their experiences with being black. First, my sales partner in one job I held for awhile. It was a lot to take in, though he didn’t throw it at me all at once. But in sales you can see that sort of thing a lot more clearly. My sales partner goes in, fails to make his pitch. I go in, less experienced, making it the way he taught me, and succeed. He was black, and he explained that hispanic business owners would tend to relate to him more, but that white ones would tend to relate to me more. He never said outright that they were racist. Well, not unless they actually did say something overt, but that was rare, for the most part, the business owners we talked to were professional. But it seemed… sad. Sad that people could harbor prejudice in their subconscious and not even be aware of it. Of course, I suppose it’s possible that I give some of them too much credit, that it actually wasn’t subconscious, but, that would just be even sadder.

        It was also there in the south west that I started becoming physically disabled. Falling ill and not getting better, first suddenly, but, after the initial onset, just gradually worse over time. And, other black people starting talking to me too… trying to reach out. With empathy. To try to make me feel less alone. To explain to me that what they went through as black people all their lives was similar in some ways to what I was starting to go through as a disabled person. Not the same, just similar. Similar enough to give us something to talk about. I know a lot of white people feel like they’re being guilt-tripped other people try to approach them about white privilege, and that’s why some get all upset and start acting out as if their hurt feelings are somehow worse than all the injustice in the world, today and it the past, but it didn’t feel that way at all to me. It didn’t feel like that to me. It felt like people reaching out with empathy, to help, and with patience to correct some of the prejudices and lack of awareness of how to be polite that had contaminated my mind. Not that I didn’t feel guilty at all, not on a personal level so much as just the awareness of how contaminated our culture, our economy, so many little things are with violence in the past, violence in the present. Chocolate. Coffee. Those are two I was aware of even when I was younger. Slavery in other parts of the world. Actual chattel slavery. Couldn’t understand how people could stomach to buy chocolate and coffee that wasn’t at least fair trade certified or something. I mean, how could someone proclaim their pride in their country and our emancipation proclamation, how at some point in the past we finally decided to prohibit something that decent people never would have done in the first place, and then go and buy a product where that violence is simply outsourced elsewhere, to another part of the world. I’ve asked people about it, too. I mean, there’s, “I didn’t know”, and that’s one thing, but then when it’s the same person I’ve talked about it to before, and they’re still buying the same chocolate or the same coffee, well, they can’t claim that they still don’t know at some point. And the excuses people come up with. “It’s not my fault. It’s the company’s fault.” “I’m too poor to afford fair trade certified.” “It’s the government’s responsibility to make sure the chocolate is slave free.” “Don’t you know its the slave that makes the chocolate taste good?” “Well, slaves have to eat too. How will they be able to afford to eat if I don’t buy this chocolate?” So many excuses. Such new heights of ridiculousness. But the violence isn’t just offshore. It’s still here too. I can see that now. Maybe not all of it, probably far from all of it, but, a glimpse here and there. It took me awhile. It’s less obvious now. It’s changed. It’s more hidden. But it’s not just in the Ivory Coast and places like that. It’s still here too.

        Another thing in the southwest I become more aware of was environmental issues… since my illness was caused by pollution, it was rather inevitable. Apparently a lot of native americans are concerned about the environment too. People of all races, really, in that part of the world. You often hear from the right wing, the complaint that environmentalists care more about animals than people. And maybe that’s true of some. But people live in the environment too. Water pollution, air pollution, contamination of the soil, these things harm people. Apparently there’s a long history of native americans being harmed not just directly, via massacres and the like, but by harming their environment, slathering the buffalo some tribes depended on, en masse, mining and drilling all kinds of natural resources out of their land and leaving them to live with the pollution. Different peoples experience racism differently, of course, but for a lot of native americans, it seems so far as I can tell that environmental issues and racial oppression issues are linked.

        Later in my life I spoke to a Holocaust survivor. Listened to his story. How he survived. How so many around him did not. The horrible conditions. The disease. He was Jewish, and he told his story from that perspective, but, in an effort to relate better I think, he also mentioned that disabled people were killed too… he said that the Nazis were so racist, that they were even racist against their own race… Germans who failed to meet their idea of perfect German health and superiority.

        And even after having talked to so many people, so many good, kind, empathetic people, I honestly still don’t know what it feels like to be black, or to be native american, or to be hispanic, or to be jewish. But you deserve better than a world where some police officers shoot unarmed black people and get away with it. You deserve a lot better.

        I’m not sure where Winters book fits into all that. You understand better, I’m sure. And thank you for explaining your feelings.

  3. You might actually enjoy the book, if you weren’t already pre-disposed to hating it. The book’s premise that slavery still exists is an accurate metaphor for our reality today. The author does a good job of putting the issues out there for thought: getting pulled over for being black, the moral boundaries states and countries draw about what is “okay” or “not okay” for engaging with slave states, slave labor, and slave-made products. You aren’t really doing anyone a service by ranting about something you haven’t read. You’re just contributing to the echo chamber of negativity that exists online. If your bio is accurate and you read Harlequin novels, Underground Airlines is worth your time just as much as anything else you might be reading. It isn’t a perfect novel, but it’s very good.

    1. You know, I was with you until you pulled out this line: “If your bio is accurate and you read Harlequin novels, Underground Airlines is worth your time just as much as anything else you might be reading.”

      First of all, me reading Harlequin novels has nothing to do with my criticisms of Ben Winters’ and his very problematic book. Like … at all. My reading habits are not the focus of this discussion. Now, I get what you’re implying. That romance novels are a lesser type of fiction. That if I have time to read something as frivolous as genre fiction, I should be able to find time to read this. I won’t touch on that argument for now. Just know that I find it sexist and inaccurate. I read Harlequin novels because I like them and appreciate that they know how to stay in their lane (unlike the author of Underground Airlines).

      That leads to my second point. You have no clue what I’m currently reading. None whatsoever. You assumed a lot from that very short blurb and most of it is false. I’m currently reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn and Bernice McFadden’s The Book of Harlan. Books that I’m sure even you would consider worthy of a reader’s time. I’m also currently reading an Avon historical romance novel because, amazingly, reading one type of book doesn’t mean you can’t read the other. I have a great deal more (worthy!) titles on my TBR list: The Book of Night Women, The Fire This Time, and Underground Railroad (another piece of speculative fiction about race in America that’s actually written BY a man who has to deal with racism in America).

      It’s funny that you mentioned time in your comment, because that leads to my third point: I’m not reading this book because I don’t want to read this book. With an infinite number of books to read and a finite amount of time to read them, I decided early on that I don’t want to waste any energy on this title. As I stated, I thoroughly researched the book and the author before reaching that decision.

      I find it pretty damn offensive (and hilarious) that you’re telling me I need to read what this white man has to say about the “reality” of being black in America. Trust me, I know all about it. I experience it daily. I’ve read plenty on the very topics you mention: The Souls of Black Folks, Between the World and Me and All-American Boys (which is, in fact, co-written by a black and white author). But, yes, please proceed to tell me that despite all of that, I should give Winters’ and his imperfect novel a chance. At this point, I’m disgusted enough with it to actively burn any copies I come across.

  4. Thank you thank you thank you for this witty and eloquent piece. These thoughts should be on the mind of everyone considering this book. I’m surprised it’s so hard to find this discussion. More links please?

  5. Thank you for this post, your perspective helped seal the deal for me. I received this book from my dad, a well-meaning science fiction fan (who is white, as am I). I was curious, having not heard of it, but immediately distrustful once I saw that Ben Winters is a white author. As a woman, I often prefer to read and support female writers, in general (I will give most things a chance), and am more drawn to the female perspective. The white male perspective is veeeery old to me, because, as you are very aware, it is everywhere, and it crushes me that it pervades everything. I went ahead and read the first chapter, and cringed when I found that Winters’ first-person protagonist is a black man. I thought, actually, how dare he. Anyway, I was led to your post after I decided to do a little research to see how people feel about it, and now I’m officially fine with putting down the book. The writing is totally average, as well. I’m going to look into the books you recommended, and will definitely pass on Kindred to my dad 🙂 he needs to be shown, as do I. So thank you!

    1. Thank you for reading! Yeah, every once and a while I get the urge to at least try the book, but I can’t. If he had written this book from the perspective of a white abolitionist or something, I problem wouldn’t have found it nearly as problematic. But alas!~ Thank you again for reading! I’m very glad you’re checking out the other titles. =)

  6. Thanks for your review. I totally agree. Any review from a black perspective was hard to find. Apparently no one had time for such an offensive premise. When I heard about the book I was immediately angry that someone would advance the notion that we would have put up with that shit for another century? What would have been speculative and fearless for Mr. Winters, is to imagine that slavery still exists in the present, but now Africans have enslaved Europeans. Please add me to your mailing list.

  7. I want to state very clearly at the outset of this post that I’m a white guy living in Australia, so everything I say I openly acknowledge is without any kind of lived experience regarding these issues.

    I grabbed this book off the shelf at the library, simply because I wanted another book to read during downtime. I didn’t have any knowledge of the background of the author, although after finishing the book, I did a quick search and noted that he is a white Jew.

    I thought the book was grounded in good intentions, but that the entire endeavour was misconceived. The author has stated in interviews that, due to his Jewish faith, this gave him a perspective on prejudice. Okay – then do an alternate history involving Israel, or the Jewish faith etc etc.
    My (speaking personally) main problem with the main character was that he was basically a cypher. Sure, he had a tragic backstory, but he was essentially a superspy James Bond character. He was charming, a master of voices and disguise, expert shot, devastating in hand-to-hand combat, and expert hacker and catnip to the ladies. Boring, to say the least.
    Finally, it was wearying to have you write a thought-out, well-reasoned post on your decision to abstain from a certain book, only to have cuckoos in the comments flatly tell you that you were wrong and you have some kind of ‘obligation’ to read a particular novel.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I appreciate the review of the book, as well. Two years out from this post and I still sometimes consider checking it out. It’s nice to have it confirmed that I’m not missing out on anything great.

      And I agree with your first point. I don’t think he wrote this book maliciously and I’m sure his intentions were good. And if he’d written an alt-history of a Jewish experience, I would have definitely checked that out. There aren’t many of those stories told by actual Jewish people.

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