Subterranean Worlds and Liberatory Futures

Subterranean Worlds and Liberatory Futures

In recent years, ad hoc efforts to move people and abortion supplies on the down-low have earned comparison to the Underground Railroad, the loose activist network that helped enslaved people flee slave states. The “underground” is a common metaphor for subversive political action, but attaching abortion rights to slavery, a racialized form of oppression, should leave us uneasy at best. Still, this tendency to conflate “underground” and “underground railroad” indicates that historical ideas about the underground slumber under the surface of contemporary discourse. As metaphor, concept, and site, the underground has its own history—one whose often unwieldy politics does not always map onto today’s cultural landscape.

The now-familiar metaphor of the underground as political—as Lara Langer Cohen shows in Going Underground: Race, Space, and the Subterranean in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Duke University Press, 2023)—is rooted in the spatial undergrounds of 19th-century America. Some real, others imagined, these sites were united by their “unsettled character” rather than their politics. Going Underground shows us that modern understandings of undergrounds obscure a more ambiguous history, in which the underground represented a site for grappling with the disruptive potential of the unknown.

Nineteenth-century undergrounds were not consistently liberatory spaces. Going underground in the 19th century could mean finding a cave society ruled by a 16-year-old bandit queen, entering a chthonic world of occult sex magic, or traversing a subterranean river that echoed with the voices of enslaved travel guides. But in their ability to disorient and perplex, Cohen argues, they served as access points to buried social and political possibilities.

Subterranean spaces offered up especially powerful resources for 19th-century Black authors, who made use of undergrounds to “imagine Black life within unfreedom.”  Cohen’s centering of Black writers allows her to examine how 19th-century visions of the underground anticipate later Black studies frameworks that foreground unsettled states over repair. Like Édouard Glissant’s “abyss” or Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s “undercommons,” 19th-century visions of the underground demonstrate the insurgent possibilities of opacity and incoherence. In our increasingly polarized present, these murky subterranean worlds of the past model ways to move beyond reactive and oppositional modes and toward futures not yet seen.

While the underground emerged as a major obsession in both 19th-century Europe and America, it was in the United States that ideas of the underground as a “site of clandestine, unruly activity” began to accumulate. As Cohen demonstrates, American undergrounds first took on figurative meaning through their associations with racialized Blackness. Sites including Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, a tourist attraction famed for its enslaved guides, encouraged analogies between racialized bodies and underground spaces that soon reverberated across 19th-century texts, from newspaper reports to works of speculative fiction.

These analogies proved difficult to regulate. Accounts of Mammoth Cave, for instance, both fueled and undermined white supremacist narratives. Visitors frequently identified guides with the cave itself, reinforcing harmful associations between Blackness and inanimate forms of nature. At the same time, such comparisons implicitly linked Blackness to wonder, mystery, and the sublime. Likewise, visitor accounts of interacting with the knowledgeable guides—among them Stephen Bishop, who mapped and discovered miles of new rooms within the cave—suggested that going underground could also occasion inversions of authority, destabilizing aboveground racial hierarchies.

As with Bishop’s narration of the Mammoth Cave, images of underground spaces as unsettled and indeterminate proved useful for 19th-century Black Americans seeking to articulate visions of liberation. Throughout Going Underground, Cohen analyzes a stunning array of texts—ranging from novels to speeches to songs—in which 19th-century Black authors engage the underground to interrogate systems of power and imagine new possibilities within existing scenes.

The undergrounds these writers invoke are varied: they include subterranean sites as well as “subterranized” locations including the geographic belows of Haiti and Cuba. Cohen notes that these undergrounds lack the specificity of later theoretical frameworks in Black studies, such as Glissant’s concept of the “abyss,” which grapples with the “absolute unknown[s]” of the Middle Passage. The comparative ambiguity of 19th-century visions of the underground, however, does not make them any less generative. Rather, as Cohen argues, the subterranean offered a wide-open space for the development of 19th-century Black radical thought. Different versions of the underground enabled different critical modes—sometimes even within the same text.

In David Walker’s 1829 pamphlet Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, for instance, images of a sunken world capture both the abjection and insurgent possibilities of going underground. Walker’s repeated references to enslaved people working in mines lend material stakes to his claim that white Americans “keep us sunk in ignorance.” As Cohen notes in one of many apt modern comparisons, Walker’s abject vision of “Black sunkenness” anticipates a central motif in later works, including Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man and Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out. Elsewhere, the Appeal invokes an underground that anticipates Frederick Douglass’s 1849 description of Black revolution as a volcano-like force, which rises from below. Walker’s copious footnotes, Cohen suggests, visualize a “voice rising from the depths.” As they threaten to overtake the page, Walker’s footnotes dramatize his insistence that Black educational advancement will make “tyrants quake and tremble on their sandy foundation”; or in other words, literally undermine oppressive structures.

Black radicals depicted the underground as mysterious in order to imagine Black freedom as something that could operate independent of known realities.

Perhaps the most prominent site in which 19th-century ideas about race and underground space intersected, however, was the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was not a literal railroad but an ad hoc network that operated more like the political undergrounds of today. Nonetheless, Cohen shows, popular narratives of the 1840s and 1850s regularly depicted the Underground Railroad as a real underground train.

Nineteenth century railroad fantasies in some ways undermined the agency of enslaved people seeking freedom by casting them as passive “riders.” But in linking secret antislavery work with a subterranean railroad—years before subway travel was actually possible—railroad imagery also contributed to understandings of the underground as a site of freedom, speculation, and mystery.

Indeed, “mystery” emerges as a key term throughout Going Underground. Before “underground” crystallized as a metaphor, Cohen argues, mystery’s midcentury associations with “disorientation and perplexity” helped 19th-century commentators frame undergrounds as sites detached from familiar social and political norms. Black radicals such as songwriter Joshua McCarter Simpson, who deployed images of literal underground railroads in his songs, depicted the underground as mysterious in order to imagine Black freedom as something that could operate independent of known realities.

If the first half of Going Underground traces how the underground emerges as a “spatialized, racialized concept,” the book’s second half pivots toward sites in which 19th-century authors begin to link spatial undergrounds with figurative undergrounds, moving closer toward today’s understanding of the “underground” as a political metaphor.

As the 19th century wore on, the underground’s early associations with racialized Blackness sank from view yet remained foundational to popular understandings of the underground as an “unruly” site. Cohen suggests that the underground’s conceptual growing pains are particularly evident in the “city mystery” novel, a 19th-century genre obsessed with the crypts, basements, and other subterranean spaces of urban modernity. City mysteries rarely featured Black characters, but the “profound otherness” that mystery authors imagined undergrounds could enable reflected sublimated ideas about racial difference.

In city mysteries, physical undergrounds are home to what we might now call cultural undergrounds, which range from secret societies to a “Black Senate” that meets in a subterranean chamber beneath New York City. Lurid and sensational, the novels are also politically incoherent; their alternate realities intermix fantasies of class struggle and multiracial solidarity with racism, misogyny, and other forms of bigotry. Without denying these contradictions, Cohen proposes that city mysteries function as “theoretical texts,” which deny totalizing demands for clarity. By digging down into urban spaces only to uncover further mysterious scenes, city mysteries invited 19th-century readers to locate power in the unseen and unrecognizable.

The underground’s ability to incline audiences toward “worlds we do not yet know” also appealed to 19th-century Americans interested in the occult, including the radical Black author and “cosmic sex magic” practitioner Paschal Beverly Randolph. Cohen devotes an entire chapter of Going Underground to Randolph, whose esoteric interests and unsuccessful attempts to found secret societies at first seem incongruous with the work of activists like Walker and Douglass. Yet by invoking the subterranean to explain the relationship between our world and the spirit realm, Randolph helped figurative meanings of the underground come into their own.

Randolph explicitly understood himself as engaged in forming collectives that would challenge the existing social order. As he writes in multiple texts published between the 1850s and 1870s, occult study promised “the ability … to drop beneath the floors of the outer world, and come up, as it were, upon the other side.” This passage recalls earlier 19th-century ideas of the underground such as Douglass’s revolt-as-volcano, which imagines a system that gains force without answering to what lies on the surface. Randolph, however, goes one step further toward contemporary understandings of the underground, aligning the subterranean with alternate ways of living.

Going Underground concludes by reconsidering late-19th-century anarchist movements in light of earlier undergrounds. Anarchist groups such as the International Working People’s Association, whose English-language newspaper Cohen examines at length, are readily identifiable as underground organizations in the contemporary sense. Even as the concept of the underground turned figurative, however, its literal meanings continued to surface. From describing anarchism as a “subterranean fire” to fantasizing about discarded workers rising from the dead in scenes that recall Randolph’s occult undergrounds, anarchist imagery aligned the underground with political efforts to exceed state control. Though the spatial undergrounds of the earlier 19th century would eventually fade from popular memory, they left deep impressions.

The details that Going Underground recovers establish the underground as a significant site of 19th-century American thought and will certainly interest readers concerned with histories of race, literature, and the political imagination. By following where the subterranean leads, Cohen highlights overlooked thinkers such as Randolph while offering fresh perspectives on well-known figures and scenes. Antislavery activist John Brown’s famous 1859 rebellion at Harper’s Ferry, for instance, appears in Going Underground not as a culmination of Brown’s planning, but as part of a larger scheme that included plans to construct a “Subterranean Pass Way” that would house militant antislavery cells. If the history of the underground is subversive, in Cohen’s hands it also subverts stories we think we know.

Cohen’s materials belong to the 19th century. Yet her incisive readings frame the undergrounds that modernity has filed away as resources for inhabiting the present. Going Underground is in some ways an extended response to a question that Cohen poses versions of throughout her book: “What are the political affordances of visualizing insubordination as a space where one could dwell?” While she ultimately answers this question in multiple ways, the undergrounds she showcases connect political thought with scenes and activities of world-making. In their tangibility, 19th-century undergrounds invite readers to move beyond abstract speculation.

More concretely, the “refusal, respite, and possibility” that Cohen finds in 19th-century subterranean literature resonates with action-oriented work by contemporary political thinkers, including American organizer, educator, and prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba. For Kaba, abolishing the prison-industrial complex demands “that we imagine and organize beyond the constraints of the normal.” Without rejecting resistance and dissent as modes of political action, she encourages her readers to construct a more just world by imagining new, radical ways of living in it. Even when they exist only in fantasy, the undergrounds that Cohen examines in Going Underground similarly affirm that it is possible to operate beyond known social, political, and epistemological structures. Like the acts of imagination Kaba calls for, 19th-century visions of the underground insist “there are always further depths to go.” icon

Featured image: Tunnel_Train (2009). Photograph courtesy of Timothy Vogel / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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