Is a resurgence of interest in the history of slavery in the U.S. now taking place? If so, Colson Whitehead’s latest book, The Underground Railroad, has joined the conversation.
“There always have been writers who wanted to tackle [slavery],” said the 2016 National Book Award-winning author in a recent MSR interview. The novel’s main character, Cora is a young female slave on a Georgia cotton plantation in the antebellum South. Seen as an outsider, even to her fellow slaves, the young woman escaped after a new slave arrives and tells her about the Underground Railroad.
Whitehead takes the reader through Cora’s “kinetic adventure tale of the woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage,” according to the book’s website (undergroundrailroadnovel.com). Whitehead quickly points out that his historical fiction “is a sliver” of what Blacks endured during slavery.
“The hard part was putting a realistic representation on the page,” he explained. “You think about your own family history and how they barely survived in that system and what they went through.”
Among his research sources were not only well-known writings by Frederick Douglass, but also less familiar narratives. “The Works Progress Administration in the 1930s hired writers to interview former slaves, people who were teens and children during slavery,” Whitehead said. “There’s hundreds and hundreds of oral testimonies and interviews. Some are two paragraphs long. Some are 10 pages long. Some worked on big plantations and [others on] small farms, so [there are] many voices discussing their experience.”
These sources “gave me the language, the nouns and the adjectives” to use for dialogue, explained the author. “The variety of their experience allowed me to create my own plantation” for the book.
Whitehead was in town as part of his book promotion tour. He appeared at the November 3 “Talking Volumes” series hosted by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theatre. The New York-born author told host Kerri Miller and the live audience, between reading aloud excerpts from his book, that while he did watch Roots with his family as a youngster in 1977, that was only part of the inspiration behind writing Railroad, which Whitehead said he began writing 16 years ago.
“I’m imagining my own family in slavery…in Georgia and Florida,” said Whitehead, who told the audience that a relative of his mother told him that they are descendants of slaves once owned by James Madison in Virginia. “I wanted to represent experiences that were [part] of Cora’s journey. People find it terrible and disturbing, but that is how it was. Slave masters brutalized, tortured their slaves… [They did] weird, sadistic things to keep their slaves in line. It is not a lighthearted slavery story.”
Asked during the Q&A if he had current race relations in the U.S. in mind while writing the novel, Whitehead responded, “I wasn’t thinking about Ferguson and Black Lives Matter,” noting it was only coincidental that the novel was released during this time when police-related shootings of Blacks seem commonplace.
However, he pointed out that there may be a direct correlation between “slave catchers” hired by slave owners to find and bring back runaway Blacks and how “police [are] described today when it comes to Blacks and law enforcement. What’s happening now always has been happening” throughout this country’s history.
Whitehead’s novel made both Oprah Winfrey’s and President Barack Obama’s reading lists this summer. Whitehead said, “There is no intended audience.” If there is, he told the MSR, “My ideal reader is a 16-year-old Black kid like me” whose readings as a teenager during the late ’70s and early ’80s included Marvel comics, Stephen King and Ralph Ellison among others.
This is his eighth book. “People have responded differently to this book than my other books,” he said. “I am getting a much bigger audience” for this latest effort.
“I haven’t finished the book,” said Vivian Anugwum of St. Paul, who was in the audience that evening and got her copy signed by the author afterwards. She told the MSR, “I think [Colson has] a very interesting perspective on how to bring in history using modern fiction.”
Said Alissa Jones of Minneapolis, “The way he described the Underground Railroad and the underground tunnels were so unique. It gives you another glimpse at how it was back then.”
Whitehead told the MSR that his book, the current movie Birth of a Nation, and other works on slavery “is a generational thing. There is a critical mass of people writing on different aspects of slavery.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.