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The Underground Railroad
A magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave's desperate bid for...
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How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?

Created: 10/27/16

Replies: 12

Posted Oct. 27, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
davinamw

Join Date: 10/15/10

Posts: 1303

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How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?

How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?


Posted Nov. 03, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
kariner

Join Date: 07/20/16

Posts: 13

RE: How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?

In my opinion Ethal was a spoiled and sheltered child. She wanted the kudos of helping the underprivileged but she didn't want to step up to really "help" them. she seemed a little hypocritical to me.


Posted Nov. 03, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
JLPen77

Join Date: 02/05/16

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RE: How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?

I found sympathy for Ethel after learning of her story. Growing up in a household where her only friend, Jasmine, was a slave about her age, but then she was forbidden to play with her, and ultimately had to watch her own father sexually abusing Jasmine and impregnating her. The only way her mother can respond is to find Jasmine a new owner. What would this do to a person, living in this world? Even white women were, in a sense, "slaves" kept in their place by a lack of options, particularly in the South.... That obviously made the thought of marriage repugnant to Ethel, but she has no other future. She would like to be a missionary, but that was never a possibility. (I think that reveals, apart from her uncritical acceptance of her father's biblical argument for racism, that Ethel wanted to have some kind of purpose and power in her life that as a woman she lacked. ) We learn she finds marriage even worse than she feared, apart from her daughter, but her daughter grows up... and she learns that her husband has inherited a role in the Underground Railway that she disagrees with on principle, but worse, this puts her in mortal danger, regardless of her own views. She is even more powerless to make her own choices. She is lonely, too. In Ethel we have a compassionate effort from the author, to show us how racism (and sexism) hurt whites and well as blacks. For reasons that are humane as well as twisted, Ethel responds to Cora's illness, which ends up costing her and Martin their lives, it seems.


Posted Nov. 03, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
christineb

Join Date: 10/13/11

Posts: 46

RE: How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?

I agree- I also had some sympathy for Ethel after learning about her background. I can't imagine what it must have been like to always fear for that knock on your front door. Also, if you were discovered hiding a slave there were no equitable solutions- you would be killed. What a hard decision to make- not sure what I would have done living in that time. It is easy to think now that I would have done the correct thing and helped hide them. Reminds me of Anne Frank - same repercussions- same outcome.


Posted Nov. 03, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
kdowney25

Join Date: 01/25/16

Posts: 42

RE: How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?

Absolutely agree, Christineb. When Cora was hiding in Martin and Ethel's secret nook in the attic, I immediately thought of Anne Frank, the fear she lived with every day, as well as those hiding her and the others. Cora concluded that "freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it...being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had." (p.179) Martin and Ethel were prisoners like Cora was, shackled to fear.


Posted Nov. 05, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
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bestmartin

Join Date: 02/20/13

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RE: How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?

I had sympathy for Ethel once I learned her backstory but I also wondered why she wasn't motivated to do more for slaves, like participate in the railroad in the memory of Jasmine.


Posted Nov. 11, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
edie

Join Date: 04/05/12

Posts: 44

RE: How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?

Having arrived to the discussion ten days late, I found that much of what I’d thought of contributing had already been said, articulately and effectively, leaving me little to contribute—that is until I read everyone’s response to Ethel. This one surprised me because I had little or no sympathy for Martin’s wife. I even returned to her chapter to see if I’d missed something, but rereading did nothing to alter my initial reaction.
Yes she entertained dreams of being a missionary, but those dreams are built on self-aggrandizing fantasies: images of her being carried on a “magnificent schooner with sails like angel wings” (a marked contrast to the slave ship that transported Ajarry to her fate); her as a courageous and heroic savior received by grateful and adoring natives “lifting her to the sky, praising her name: Ethel, Ethel” (I thought missionaries served to praise God, not Saint Ethel).
Yes, her first playmate was Jasmine, the daughter of her father’s slave, but she never doubted her father’s explanation of the different roles played by black and white. But she did not see her missionary purpose as helping them to achieve the freedom that their shared humanity deserved. It was to guide them to understand their place. She found it easy to accept her father’s nightly visits upstairs as a defining aspect of the roles held by the races.
But that is the child Ethel, one who would naturally be shaped by a parent’s views. Even if she never did learn to thing for herself, we would expect Ethel’s views to be tempered by her husband’s gentler attitude. However, learning that he harbored a slave in their house only made her livid. “Slavery as a moral issue never interested Ethel. If God had not meant for Africans to be enslaved, they wouldn’t be in chains. She did, however, have firm ideas about not getting killed for other people’s high-minded ideas.”
Ethel’s motive for helping Cora is far from admirable. She’s merely mixing her preference for women over men with her childhood fantasy of being worshipped by this “termite” in the attic. She goes upstairs like her father before her from purely selfish reasons, to find at last “a savage to call her own.”
When Cora gets the better of her in a discussion over the issue of slavery as depicted in the bible, Ethel snaps at her and ends the conversation. When her actions end up with their being caught and brought to the park for judgement, she denies her involvement and blames a silent Martin. No, I do not feel sympathy for Ethel.


Posted Nov. 13, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
CarolynSC

Join Date: 12/02/13

Posts: 8

RE: How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?

Edie, for the most part I agree with you about Ethel. She was an unhappy woman who lacked the character to help with the Underground Railroad, although she was in a position to do so. But I do not think she deserved her fate; none of those who aided the runaways did.


Posted Nov. 14, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
edie

Join Date: 04/05/12

Posts: 44

RE: How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?

Carolyn, I can see how my rant made you think I was cheering as Ethel met her fate; I was certainly wound up. But, I did not mean she deserved the hanging or any kind of sentence. I meant that I had no sympathy for her viewpoint--that her childhood experiences under her father's influence and tutelage could, in no way. justify her bigotry, her view of Cora and all blacks as subhuman and cursed children of Ham. Cora's childhood experiences on the Randall plantation certainly prepared her to hate and mistrust white men. Yet she never lumped those who were kind to her with the Randalls and Ridgeways. Rather she mourned the deaths of Ethel and Martin, and even young boy she killed during the altercation with the hunters who captured Lovey. Cora's list of those who died or met with an uncertain fate was a tribute to the people whose lives were affected because of her--her way of honoring and grieving for them. Had Cora been hung instead of Ethel, Ethel would not have thought twice about the girl's death. She was only interested in self preservation.


Posted Nov. 15, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
JLPen77

Join Date: 02/05/16

Posts: 130

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RE: How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?

Interesting that there are such different reactions to Ethel. I am not blind to how unattractive Ethel's uncritical acceptance of racism was, to the extent that I think she buried in denial how painful it was to be separated from her only friend, and then see that friend be raped by her father. I am not blind to how racist and presumptuous her desire to be a missionary was, and I agree, it was not founded on real faith, but I also think this was the twisted result of a society that gave her no other outlet for finding her own purpose in her life, apart from marriage and motherhood. She wanted to achieve something, which is a very natural desire for women as well as men, but that desire had absolutely no outlet in her world. So my sympathy for her is not because she is an appealing character, far from it, but because she was trapped and damaged by racism and the institution of slavery in spirit as much as (in the end) she was physically damaged. I feel Whitehead as an author was very generous in showing us that even ugly white people can be victims of the system they defend -- so blinded by the false teachings they were raised on, that they can't even admit they too are deeply hurt by it. That is Ethel's tragedy, and that is why I feel sympathy -- not empathy, but just sad for a life that was lost to self-delusion instead of the light of a greater humanity and self-fulfillment. I feel that way about the angry, ignorant white people today who would rather blame their economic struggles on people of color than to hold accountable the people who have the power and call the shots.


Posted Nov. 16, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
joycew

Join Date: 06/13/11

Posts: 75

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RE: How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?

I think you have to realize the courage it took to shelter a slave, the fear you lived in, and the changed lifestyle you had to maintain. Ethel also did not want her husband killed. Until you walk in her shoes, you don't know what you would do in a similar situation.


Posted Nov. 22, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
alisonf

Join Date: 01/31/13

Posts: 82

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RE: How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?

Ethel's character was complicated and somewhat sympathetic although it is unclear why either would stay where weekly lynching ceremonies took place. Hatred had affected Ethel but she was not able to take on the inequity of it in her position. She and her husband were quite vulnerable and their fears sadly played out.


Posted Nov. 22, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
marganna

Join Date: 10/14/11

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RE: How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you?

Ethel's backstory certainly shed new light on her & I have sympathy for her. She, her husband & the 1000'a of others killed in the name of slavery did not deserve death nor the hideous inhuman ways of behavior. Ethel's heart had been wounded over & over again; it is somewhat astonishing she would be involved with protecting a runaway. The author used Ethel's story to help us understand this convoluted time & the slavery horror. Ethel was a product of her time -I don't know how I would have reacted given her circumstances so I cannot cast too many stones on her. I can forgive her piousness even though that is the hardest part for me.


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