Posts Tagged ‘Colson Whitehead’

The “South Carolina” chapter of The Underground Railroad finds the protagonist, Cora, recruited to work as a living model at the Museum of Natural Wonders. In a series of three rooms that trace the American slave experience from Africa to the plantation, Cora poses in costume, silently critiquing the scenes she inhabits, pointing out their inaccuracies. For author Colson Whitehead, Cora’s stint at the museum offers a frame story within the novel’s sprawling alternate history, one that prompts readers to reflect on Whitehead’s juxtaposition of fact and fiction.

In the room “Life on a Slave Ship,” where Cora dons a sailor outfit, she observes that “[t]here had been no kidnapped boys swabbing the decks and earning pats on the head from white kidnappers. The enterprising African boy whose fine leather boots she wore would have been chained belowdecks, swabbing his body in his own filth” (116). And in the room “Typical Day on a Plantation,” she notes that “slave work was sometimes spinning thread, yes; most times it was not. No slave had ever keeled over dead at a spinning wheel or been butchered for a tangle” (116).

Readers witness Cora’s reflections knowing them to be the observations of a fictional character but realizing as well that that the tableaux vivant of the Museum of Natural Wonders are as fictional as the novel, itself. Cora is not a historical figure, but her plight parallels the harrowing experiences of real-life fugitive slaves, a truth that Whitehead underscores by prefacing his state-titled chapters with runaway slave advertisements  (from the digital collections at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). The chapters named for characters are free of those ads, symbolically liberating them from the Fugitive Slave Laws that impede their journey on Whitehead’s literal Underground Railroad.

Some readers may question Whitehead’s choice to create an actual Underground Railroad, turning the metaphor into a series of subterranean tracks, noting the apparent irony of such deviations even as the novel’s central character meditates on historical inaccuracies. But Whitehead is a novelist, not a historian. His aim is not to produce a history but to breathe life into characters who speak truths from their fictional worlds—not our current terrain of alternative facts but a reimagined past where Cora astutely critiques what Whitehead called a  “sanitized history” in his recent appearance at Lenoir-Rhyne University.

Sanitized versions of the past deny truths laid bare by Whitehead’s novel and other alternate histories. Notably, last year marked not only the publication of The Underground Railroad but also Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines. The fictional worlds of both novels evoke the legacies of slavery that remain, though the truths of those legacies—police brutality and anti-immigration policy, among them—may be obscured by rhetoric and mythos. As Cora in her role as a living, breathing mannequin observes: “Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach” (116).  At the novel’s close, readers unsettled by the difficult truths within the fiction, can at least find solace in the last image of Cora, still headed north and still out of reach.

Works Cited

Whitehead, Colson. “An Evening with Colson Whitehead.” 14 Sept. 2017, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

—. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.

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Colson Whitehead / Madeline Whitehead

Colson Whitehead grew up listening to the Donna Summer version. Others of you know the Richard Harris version, he said, and some of you have no idea what I’m talking about. And then for anyone in the audience who belonged to the last group—who may have said, “Huh?” when he started talking about “MacArthur Park”—he held his tablet up to the mic so everyone in P.E. Monroe auditorium could hear the Disco Queen sing: “MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark/ All the sweet, green icing flowing down/ Someone left the cake out in the rain/ I don’t think that I can take it’ ‘Cause it took so long to bake it/ And I’ll never have that recipe again.”

And then as Donna Summer, began to cry, “Oh no!,” Whitehead joined in, losing himself for a moment in song. He had the audience then, at “Oh no!,” if his self-effacing humor hadn’t already won them over. What’s not to love about a writer who says, “I usually spend my Thursday nights in my apartment weeping over my regrets, so this is a nice change of pace”?

Whitehead’s remarks began with a false start, as writing often does. But his false introduction was intentional: “I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin’ on the porch with my family, singin’ and dancin’ down in Mississippi,” riffing on Steve Martin’s opening scene of The Jerk. After that, Whitehead turned to the real beginning.

I wasn’t one of those writers who spent time indoors because I was a sickly child, he said. (Marcel Proust comes to mind.) He was just a kid who liked to stay inside and watch The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and read comic books. I wanted to be a writer because you didn’t have to go out, he said. As a teenager he wanted to write the black Salem’s Lot or the black The Stand. He wanted to write the black-anything Stephen King, he said, until later he read literary fiction and was drawn to the stylings of the modernists, noting in particular the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez.

After college, while working as a TV writer for The Village Voice, Whitehead penned his first novel: the later-in-life adventures of a former child star, a Gary Colemanesque character. That novel was never published. He received rejection after rejection, which brought him back to “MacArthur Park.”

The song was an enigma, he said, until he realized that it was an investigation of the author’s journey. Why, he asked, did you leave my cake out in the rain, Alfred A. Knopf? Why did you leave my cake out in the rain, Houghton Mifflin? “I don’t think that I can take it/ ‘Cause it took so long to bake it/ And I’ll never have that recipe again.”

Rejection after rejection—or layer after layer of soggy cake—led Whitehead to rethink his decision to become a writer. He considered other professions, but he didn’t seemed well-suited to any of them—surgeon, for instance. Surgeries can last for more than twenty hours. What if you have to go to the bathroom? he asked.

And then there was the matter of the minuscule audience. A literary novel might sell 5,000 copies, and if there’s ten readers for each copy, that’s still only 50,000 readers in a world with a population of over seven billion. So if you’re a writer of literary fiction, “you aren’t the gnat in the butt of the elephant,” he said. “You’re a microbe in the gnat in the butt of the elephant.” Colson Whitehead kept writing anyway, realizing that he had no choice—that’s who he was—so he started over.

Seventeen years ago, he got the idea to create a fictional antebellum America where the Underground Railroad wasn’t a metaphor, but the literal railroad he imagined as a child. He didn’t think that he was up to the task then, but three years ago he decided to give it a try.  That try became The Underground Railroad, which has now received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the heartland Prize, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Though he’s become one of the most celebrated novelists of his generation, as a writer Whitehead still finds himself filled with uncertainty.

Near the end of the Q&A session that followed his talk, a woman asked what is was like for him, that stay-inside, work-at-home guy, to be the public figure that he has now become. He answered that it’s very different from being a writer and having all these doubts . . . is this paragraph too long? It’s a very lovely thing.


Whitehead, Colson. “An Evening with Colson Whitehead.” LR Visiting Writers Series. 14 Sept. 2017, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.