Colson Whitehead: ‘I’m Sticking to My Truth. The Larger, American Truth’

Pain is evident throughout Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, Underground Railroad. You could argue pain as the main character if Cora, the main character, wasn’t so damn strong.

There’s no pleasant sheen on slavery in Whitehead’s novel. It’s harrowing, it’s cataclysmic, and it’s painful. The spark of slavery rebellion or even banding together for familial support is close to nonexistent. The want to escape exists in few, mainly those who had tasted freedom. Most look to survive and avoid beatings. Once slaves escape, they fight to avoid capture or lynchings.

It’s no mistake the characters were formed this way, Whitehead explained at a Tuesday night event at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Hope, grace, unity have have been tenants fictionalized U.S. slave narratives. Only recently has trauma been considered. This made more sense to Whitehead; life as a slave is traumatic, from beginning to end.

Trauma, as in real life, changes almost everything, stamping out hope and the expectation of humanity. “The Body Keeps the Score,” a book by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, founder and medical director of Brookline, Massachusetts’ Trauma Center, explains recent research discovered that trauma “produces actual physiological changes, including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, an alterations in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant. We now know that trauma comprises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive.”

Get 100 people in a room, any average room, Whitehead said to the crowd, and ten people will be great, 10 people will be terrible, and the remaining 80 will vacillate between the two. Slaves, after a lifetime of rape, beatings, sunrise-to-sunset workdays in the sun, and separation from families don’t have the chance to fall into the “great” category. The part of their brain that communicates the feeling of being physically alive has been more than compromised, its been destroyed. “They’re not post- anything,” he said after saying that some may consider this post-traumatic stress disorder.

Figuring out how to get through the day when you’re traumatized is like trying to fight for a piece of the earth, a piece of status, a piece of yourself, Whitehead said.

Children in slavery, from the time they were born, were sized up for their profitability. How much can they produce? Are they a picker or will we use them to breed new slaves? Is this enough of a beating to teach a lesson, or should I beat this one to death to prove a point? The world of Underground Railroad, where trauma was more prominent than hope, was Whitehead’s sense of slavery. It was the rule of the world of his book just as it was likely the rule of the times when black men, women, and children could be kept as chattel, mercilessly used up until they died or were sold.

While Underground Railroad is fictionalized (Whitehead imagines if the Underground Railroad was a literal underground subway system, an idea he had 16 years ago and has been allowing to percolate), Whitehead drew his ideas from history. He cited inspiration from Frederick Douglass’ autobiographies, Harriet Jacobs’ story (who hid in an attic for seven years, much like Cora), and Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, which featured 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery.

Born in Slavery, in particular, worked well for what Whitehead wanted to achieve. After reading so many accounts from former slaves, some quotidian, some harrowing, some absolutely numb to its own horrors, he was able to create his own fictional plantation. The plantation setup had to feel real, he said, so that he could make the plot more fantastical city-to-city via the Underground Railroad, which Cora traversed in a way akin to Gulliver’s Travels. Real history was seamlessly melded with events such as the Holocaust, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments in South Carolina, and American social policy of the 1960s.

Whitehead wanted to write about race in America and how it’s changed, or perhaps how it hasn’t, and he used a wormhole of history to delve into the question.

“I guess my motto was I’m not sticking to the facts but I’m sticking to the truth,” Whitehead said .”The larger, American truth.”

Part of the American truth is undoubtably, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has stated and written many times, that the black body is not and has not been owned by the person inhabiting the body. Whitehead drew the comparison between stop-and-frisk in New York and cities across America and the way slaves and freemen were treated by slave patrols before real police forces existed.

There are now, of course, also consistent video reminders, with Grand Jury decisions following and seemingly reminding Black America where they stand.

“Your body wasn’t yours in the same way your own body isn’t yours in some ways now,” Whitehead said.

As for his process in writing the book, Whitehead said it was tough getting through the maladies and pain he put Cora and other slaves through. The book, in all its empathy and imagination, took a toll on Whitehead. He explained that after he wrote the first 100 pages and avoiding slavery themed films during research, he tried to watch “12 Years a Slave.” Halfway through, he had to turn it off. It was too upsetting.

“In writing the material, you have to be into it to be involved in the subject,” he said. “I could read about it, I could write about it, but I couldn’t actually see it acted out.”

Whitehead said he tried to draw inspiration by re-reading part of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and, 30 pages in, thought, “I’m totally fucked.” However, he quickly regained composure and realized he, as a writer, had his own spin to add.

“Whatever you’re doing, someone better and more talented has done it,” Whitehead said. “All you can hope is you have something to contribute.”

He certainly has contributed something new and unique to the canon of slavery literature. Even though Whitehead said he now feels “slavery’ed out,” Underground Railroad has drawn praise from President Barack Obama and was added to Oprah’s Book Club. It’s also received dozens of loving reviews, many honing in on just how much Cora’s story affected the reviewer.

Personally, I couldn’t put the book down. As Cora’s hope for freedom grew and shrunk, mine went with her. I kept reading on to see her successes and read on faster during her failures to hope for a success soon to follow. It’s a great book to read and I’d have to imagine will be a frontrunner for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

One of the highest compliments I can pay work of fiction or nonfiction is that it made me want to study and read more about something else. Ever since reading Whitehead’s latest, I’ve delved into learning about midwest Underground Railroad stops, such as Indiana’s Lick Creek. It’s intriguing to see just how much life in America has changed over the last 150 years, but I’m often left cold. Why did it have to be so damn painful in the first place?

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