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NewsOct 29, 2018

Fact and fiction in ‘The Underground Railroad’

Lesley professors discuss Colson Whitehead’s award-winning novel

Colson Whitehead author photo (standing in the woods) and the cover of his book.

By Georgia Sparling

In anticipation of Colson Whitehead’s visit to campus, three Lesley professors held a symposium in Washburn Lounge to discuss fact, fiction and fantasy in the author’s acclaimed novel, “The Underground Railroad.” Approximately 40 students, faculty and staff participated in the event.

If you haven’t read it yet, here’s a summary. The story centers on Cora, a young woman enslaved in Georgia who attempts to escape via the Underground Railroad. At first glance it seems like many a historical novel, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning Whitehead turns a number of familiar literary tropes upside down in his genre-bending story. In particular, he writes the railroad as a physical, underground mode of transportation that conveys Cora from state to state. Needless to say, the journey, like those of real escapees, does not go smoothly.

Whitehead employs creative license to great effect, but it can also lead to some confusion said Assistant Professor Tatiana Cruz.

“My biggest concern is that my students walk away thinking it was an actual train,” she joked, mentioning a reality TV star who was confused on that point.

Cruz enumerated some facts about the true underground railroad, which was mostly run by “everyday black folks,” not white abolitionists, and which was primarily operated in states bordering free states, as it was too dangerous to run such an operation in more southern states.

Young men, unencumbered by families, were most likely to reach freedom, but the journey was hard no matter the season — from scarcity of resources and cover in winter, to oppressive heat and disease-carrying bugs in the summer. Slaves were largely illiterate, and the inability to decipher maps and signs added a layer of danger to the already treacherous trip. Those who did make it to free states weren’t guaranteed freedom due to laws that allowed southern property owners to claim runaway slaves.

The story of Cora, however, does portray a woman on a journey.

“The feminist in me is cheering that Whitehead’s hero is a woman,” said Professor Mary Dockray-Miller. “Usually in literary traditions, the woman’s journey is a journey toward love. The man’s journey is the journey toward self-knowledge.”

Dockray-Miller noted literary influences, such as Frederick Douglass’s autobiography and “Gulliver’s Travels,” that appear in “The Underground Railroad,” but said, “he’s remixing it and making it his own.”

Associate Professor Clara Ronderos suggested that Whitehead has created a literary trope for which there isn’t yet a term. While many label the novel as magical realism, Ronderos rejected that classification, saying it was too realistic.

“This book creates an alternative reality but a reality that perhaps is not outside of reality.” That is, the essence of the story — from the brutality heaped on enslaved people to the ruthless hunting of escaped slaves — is depicted truthfully, even in the novel’s fantastical elements.

Ronderos noted that the novel’s style and voice are inherently modern. And according to Dockray-Miller, while the novel focuses on the past, it has something to say to the present and the future.

“I think Colson Whitehead is brilliant in many ways,” she said. “He’s an artist who knows the beauty of the English language and uses it to great effect.”