On Sunday, authors Colson Whitehead and Ben H. Winters sat down with Virginia Prescott of NHPR to discuss their latest literary offerings. Here is a brief takeaway of the public discussion and a list of related readings that were mentioned during the interview by the writers.
The Legacy of Slavery hangs heavy over the history of the United States. In many ways, its reach extends into the present – an idea that authors Whitehead and Winters express through their novels The Underground Railroad and Underground Airlines. Their novels tap into the national discussion about race that have been increasingly urgent the past few years, but a discussion our history forces us to grapple with on a daily basis. Railroad and Airlines present the issues through a lens of fantasy and make the abstract issues tangible through literal representations.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead makes the railroad into its namesake – a railroad with tracks that literally transports its refugees to freedom. Whitehead evokes an image he’s carried around with him as a child when he first heard about the history of the Underground Railroad. The children’s fantasy stands stark against the harsh reality of slavery in the United States. Underground Airlines stresses the fact that the effects of slavery are still very present in the culture and society of the United States today. It presents a world in which America did not fight the Civil War. Winters states that he wanted to “make literal” the fact that slavery is still very much with us. It’s an attempt of “spreading consciousness of systemic racism” in which racism is not just the sin of the individual, but something baked into the fabric of our society. As Colson had said earlier in the discussion, “slavery doesn’t have to exist to feel enslaved in everyday life.” His statement echoes the issue both novels attempt to convey in a way everyone can grasp. By making the issue literal, the complexities become more concrete.
In addition to contributing to important national discussions, both novels tell great stories. Railroad tells the story of the slave Cora and her search for a better life. Airlines is a mystery with a rich backdrop of alternative history. Both of these fantastic novels are in the Meredith Public Library’s catalog!
- Linda Hough, Library Aide.
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Both authors named many books and other resources that had helped them write their fiction. Here is a sample of titles mentioned throughout the program.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
- Colson Whitehead stated that Jacobs inspired parts of Cora's narrative. Cora's agonizing sojourn in a South Carolinian attic mirror's Jacobs' own life, hiding in an attic for seven years.
- Recorded interviews with former slaves in the 1930s conducted by the government. Whitehead cited these as an important resource for building an accurate depiction of plantation life.
- Read by Ben Winters while doing background research on the economic aspect of slavery for Underground Airlines.
- Another book listed by Winters as a part of his research.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Library of Congress.