Colson Whitehead offers look into creative writing process and themes in ‘The Underground Railroad’

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Colson Whitehead Unnderground Railroad

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead, who wrote the critically acclaimed The Underground Railroad, delivered the MLK address at Lehigh University on March 6.

Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, challenges the reader to face the injustices, racism, and the emotional plight of the characters within its pages. The book examines the conditions and painful truths about slavery, leaving a lasting impact on the reader. In his lecture, Whitehead spoke about how American history does not address the injustices endured by the African American, and how most middle school to high school curriculums skip from the Civil War to Abraham Lincoln, bypassing much of the history of the African American slave.

Whitehead conveys, in powerful and sobering words, the story of his protagonist, Cora, a mid-19th century teenage slave. Whitehead took the audience on an emotional and discomforting journey, unflinchingly describing the miseries and inhumane treatment of Cora and other slaves. In one passage, he read about birthday “celebrations” on the plantation that would not end well for Cora and other slaves. Later in the book Cora and others are trying to pick a birthday by stating “In fact, today might be her birthday. What did you get for that, for knowing the day you were born in the white man’s world? It did not seem like the thing to remember. More like the thing to forget.”  

In the weeks leading up to the lecture, Lehigh Libraries facilitated several book discussions, where students described how the novel brought them new awareness of the realities of slavery and the injustices African Americans endured. The stories were shocking, and for some, emotionally painful. The book groups provided the Lehigh community a place to discuss history through the eyes of Whitehead’s complex characters and discuss how important it is for students to go beyond textbooks and read more works by different authors.

Colson talked about how he used primary resources of slave narratives to research and form his characters in this book. Specifically, he read about Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. He discovered and listened to oral histories of slaves. He re-read the great fictional works of Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison and many more.

For further discussion, read the Kerner Commission Report written 50 years ago this year and think about, what has changed in America and what has not changed for African Americans? Did you as the reader know about the plight of the slaves in America? How did this book affect you? What were some of the most upsetting things you encountered in this book?

We encourage the campus community to continue the conversation about The Underground Railroad, and thank the librarians and library staff who helped with these book discussions and to all those who attended, including many LTS staff. We also thank the MLK Committee and the Friends of the Lehigh Libraries, whose support made this event and the library and community book discussion groups possible.