The Underground Railroad: Facts and Fictions

I’m currently reading Colson Whitehead‘s historical novel, The Underground Railroad. It is a remarkable work, worthy of all the accolades. I had been eagerly awaiting it having been a fan of Whitehead’s earlier work (especially The Intuitionist and John Henry Days) and it is everything the critics say it is, monumental, original, and brilliant. Working off historical facts, Whitehead has created a profound work of fiction. Like others it makes me think of  the magical realism of García Márquez as represented in his One Hundred Years of Solitude.  It is intense and is taking me time to read it as I have to take breaks as I go. But it is worth it — I can’t recommend it enough.

I also recommend ‘s New Yorker essay, “The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad” where she considers Whitehead’s novel and Ben Winter’s alternate history novel, Underground Airlines within the context of history, historians, and how it is all playing out today. Most powerful to me was her thoughtful commentary on our current way of considering this particular past. She concludes:

One of the biases of retrospection is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own—that, had we been alive at the time, we would have recognized them, known what to do about them, and known when the time had come to do so. That is a fantasy. Iniquity is always coercive and insidious and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and the kind of clarity that leads to action comes not from without but from within. The great virtue of a figurative railroad is that, when someone needs it—and someone always needs it—we don’t have to build it. We are it, if we choose.

Powerful, powerful stuff.

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5 responses to “The Underground Railroad: Facts and Fictions

  1. I read the excerpt in the NYT. You are motivating me to read the whole thing. I teach at Guilford College and attend New Garden Friends Meeting, where Levi Coffin began his involvement with the Underground Railroad. It would be super cool to create an interdisciplinary course on the Underground Railroad and use Colson Whitenead’s book.

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  2. It’s great to finally see his work getting more attention paid to it now, isn’t it?! I’ve yet to get a copy of the latest, but it certainly sounds amazing! I’ll check out TNY you’ve referenced when I get to the novel too: thanks.

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  3. I read Schultz’s New Yorker essay and found it quite thought provoking in relation to children’s books. Related to this, I’ve noticed that picture books that have to do with slavery frequently focus on stories of escape. While these stories are often well told and wonderfully illustrated, does their prevalence obscure the fact that most enslaved people did NOT escape?

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  4. I, too, thoroughly enjoyed Schultz’s New Yorker article. As a school librarian and quilter interested in history, I often try to debunk the myth that quilts were used as signals on the Underground Railroad. There is no evidence of this in any primary sources. The book that promotes it cites a story to orally to that author. The article says,
    “As for the notion that passengers on the Underground Railroad communicated with one another by means of quilts: that idea originated, without any evident basis, in the eighties (the nineteen-eighties).”
    I look forward to reading Whitehead’s book!

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