It isn’t often one gets to attend a presentation by a Pulitzer Prize winning author. On Oct. 6, 2017, Colson Whitehead, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad, gave a presentation and a reading at Goodwin College in East Hartford, CT, as part of the college’s Roots at 40 academic conference program.
The author of six novels, Whitehead said the idea for a story that envisioned a real underground railroad to carry slaves to freedom came to him years before he started to write the book. At the time, he wasn’t ready to write it. Fast forward to 2014 and Whitehead was working on an uninspiring project and the idea took root. He told his agent, who called him back and said, “I can’t stop thinking about that idea of yours.”
In crafting Cora, the main character, Whitehead drew on slave narratives by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. Also helpful to his research was Fergus Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan, a history of the underground railroad. He also read accounts of former slaves that were transcribed under a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program in the 1930s.
By reimagining the underground railroad, Whitehead sought to illuminate larger truths. “If I stuck to the facts, I wouldn’t get to the larger truths about oppression,” he said.
The story takes place in the 1850s. Each state where Cora hides out on her journey to freedom is its own place with its own set of rules. South Carolina is a relatively benevolent place, but there is a hospital that conducts disturbing experiments with sterilization. When Cora gets to North Carolina, she finds a white supremacist state where lynching of blacks is so common that it is done weekly in the public square as Friday night entertainment. Cora ends up in Indiana, a “black utopia,” where an enlightened farmer provides housing and jobs to former slaves. All the while, she is pursued by a relentless bounty hunter.
As a way of story telling, the technique of creating unique “places” in the various states on Cora’s journey drew on the structure of Gulliver’s Travels, a series of allegorical tales. “The structure is really old, but it’s a natural way of story telling,” he said.
“I wanted to stick to the truth of the black experience of slavery, but not necessarily the facts…I’m playing with history and time, moving things up to talk about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the Holocaust, and the eugenics movement.”
Cora’s journey is harrowing, but Whitehead didn’t feel the need to over-dramatize events. In researching slavery, he found that the matter of fact accounts of the violence inflicted on slaves were the most powerful. “You don’t have to dramatize the violence. The facts speak for themselves.”
He said he wrote The Underground Railroad in 14 months to meet a publication deadline. For the most part, he wrote chronologically, except for the chapter that introduces Ridgeway, the slave bounty hunter. Initially, Whitehead didn’t have the character developed so he went back once he had a fully drawn character.
The Underground Railroad is a powerful story that contributes to our understanding of the reprehensible institution of slavery in all its dimensions.