Colson Whitehead is the author of The Underground Railroad (2016), the 2018 Common Book for all first-year students at Otterbein University. On Tuesday, October 23, I had the privilege of hearing this Pulitzer Prize finalist expound on his metaphoric use of “underground railroad,” meaning the travel through “human hands” of those who are sacrificing their lives to help runaway slaves. Metaphoric engineers and conductors operate a network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil to allow Cora, a 15-year-old, and Caesar to risk escape from the Randall plantation in Georgia during the 1850s. The “train” stops in different states, each reporting a different response to slavery. Cora’s kinetic adventure encapsulated atrocities of “the corpses hung from trees” on Freedom Trail (155); Cora meditates on killing a white boy who attacked her; She is offered sterilization to her colored population; Sickness for Cora was as “the afternoon stretched the shadows like taffy” (185); Cora wondered about a world making a living person fond of owning human property; Above all, the crucifying treatment of Ridgeway, the slave catcher, was a gross injustice and torment since Cora was chained to the wagon. Ridgeway returned Cora to her original Randall plantation. The Underground Railroad is “one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share”
As a guest speaker, Colson Whitehead was charismatic, witty, novel in his ingenious conceptions, and intellectually captivating in his literary knowledge. He began his lecture relating his life story from Mississippi to Manhattan among a family in which none of his sisters or brothers had ever gone to college. The family imagined Coison would become a doctor or lawyer or businessman with his education at Harvard University. Instead, the power of ideas wooed Whitehead into a writing career. He claimed he would rather “sit on my butt” than scramble through other careers. Attempts to produce a romantic novel from the Russian Revolution or science fiction or space crackheads ended in rejections of his work. However, writing The Underground Railroad brought him accolades of success.
Whitehead confessed that ten books he read helped him write The Underground Railroad. Among these books, as a political tract, he read autobiographies of Frederick Douglas, DuBois, and Booker T. Washington as prime texts for the abolitionist movement. The book, The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Rights Movement by Ferus M. Bordewich, gave him “an eloquent and thorough history of the railroad.” He “had trouble getting a handle on Ridgeway, the slave catcher…but tales of the brinkmanship between abolitionists and slave masters in New York gave me an idea” in Gateway to Freedom by Eric Foner. Whitehead was haunted for days, but it “inspired parts of the novel. A bleak, illuminating chronicle of racism in the name of science.” James Baily in The Diary of Resurrectionist, 1811-1812, included “research about night riders and the Ku Klux Klan (which) led me to early 19th century stories of grave robbers…and the grave robbing trade.” A plethora of books read by the author throughout his life influenced his intellectual proclivity.
At the end of Whitehead’s lecture, the audience was given a chance to ask questions. One individual asked why he wrote another book about slavery when so many books are available on that subject. Whitehead replied that Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, came to his attention. “I hadn’t read this in 30 years, and I read 30 pages before I had to stop and say, ‘Damn, you can’t do better than Morrison.’ But whatever you write, whether it’s about slavery, or war, or marriage, someone more talented than you has done it better—all you can do is hope you have something new to add.”
Another question asked was why he portrayed a woman, Cora, as the protagonist in The Underground Railroad instead of a male character. The author replied, “Cora is least like me.” Again, his answer inferred the influence of a novel he had read, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, a true story. “Jacob’s seven years hiding in the attic (of her Grandmother’s home) inspired some of the episodes in the ‘North Carolina’ chapter. Her perspective on the distinct horrors of the female slave helped shape Cora’s reactions.” Furthermore, “we can’t escape slavery. Freedom is a trick.” In this world there were no places to escape, only places to flee. August Carter provided a place for Cora to flee. He was an abolitionist with a printing press, but when authorities can’t control you, they destroy you with a beating (275). That’s what happened to Carter. Finally, Cora resigns herself to her fate: “Nothing’s going to grow in this mean cold, but we can still have flowers” (290).
Having read The Underground Railroad and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, I considered it a privilege to be exposed to an author of such imagination and compassionate resilience to conceive of the life and fate of Cora, a runaway slave. Colson Whitehead’s metaphoric technique is unique and original; he fulfilled his “hope you have something new to add” to the voice of slavery. The power of words inspire a writer to hope to write something “new” and “better,” trusting his or her own dimension.
Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. New York: Doubleday, 2016.
—Reference bulletin. Lifelong Learning Community, Otterbein University, 2018.