The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Richard A. Wright
Professor of Geography
Orvil Dryfoos Professor of Public Affairs
I recently read Colson Whitehead’s newest book. The Underground Railroad is not a historical novel. Instead, magical realism meets black history written by a black man. There are flights of outrageous fantasy--not least of which is that the underground railroad is not a metaphor: it is, literally, “an underground railroad.” I’m getting used to reading books with unreliable narrators, like Gone Girl and Girl on the Train (what’s it with all these “girls” who are really women?). Whitehead's book is narrated by a woman, Cora, a slave who escapes the terror of the plantation where she labors. Her narration never wavers; it is the history and geography that are offset and unsteady. That said, the book homes in relentlessly and accurately on the original sin of the United States--the one that haunts us to this day.
Martin Luther King Jr. is also on my mind at the moment. I always read part of one of his speeches to any class I am teaching the week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. [This year] they received my rendition of part of the “I have a dream” speech in which King talked about "the fierce urgency of now"—the theme for Dartmouth’s MLK week celebrations— where he asserts that this is “no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” It wasn’t the time then, nor is it now.