This year’s Baird Symposium author, Colson Whitehead, is one of the most well renowned authors of our time. Whitehead has written eight books ranging from a collection of nonfiction essays about New York City to a science fiction novel about a zombie infestation. His most recent work, The Underground Railroad, has gained national and global acclaim since its release in 2016. It won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, as well as being a #1 New York Times Bestseller. President Obama chose it for his summer reading list in 2017, and Oprah named it to her book club.
The Underground Railroad tells the story of a slave named Cora who escapes the plantation she lives on in Georgia via the underground railroad, but there’s a twist. In Whitehead’s novel, the underground railroad is a literal train that runs underground between states. Each state Cora stops in has its own dangers, and her journey gets more and more perilous as she moves north.
As Cora travels from state to state, using train tracks underground, she is trailed by the slave catcher Ridgeway, who is intent on capturing her. Cora also faces new obstacles in each state; in South Carolina, for example, Cora discovers a network of institutionalized medical racism. Cora travels alone for the most part, but meets people who help her in each state; however, none of her connections last long, and she continues moving. The plot is fast-paced and tense, keeping readers hooked until the last chapter.
Although the novel is obviously based on historical events, Whitehead dramatizes the events and injects his signature surrealism into the pages. The most obvious element of magical realism in the novel is the literal train that Whitehead substitutes for the metaphorical underground railroad. Whitehead also includes several historical elements that did not exist all at the same time, such as references to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and forced sterilization of the 1900s. His flexibility with time and history allows the book to speak to modern racism in a unique way.
Over the last month, most of the Upper School has read The Underground Railroad in preparation for Whitehead’s visit. The novel has opened a door for our community to have discussions that are not easy, discussions that are not comfortable, and discussions that we must have. Whitehead masterfully weaves parallels between our world today and the world of 1850s America to make the reader think about their place in society. I believe KO owes Colson Whitehead a debt of gratitude for allowing us to explore topics that we need to be exploring, with The Underground Railroad as our foundation.