Colson Whitehead's 'Underground Railroad' Is A Literal Train To Freedom

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When author Colson Whitehead first heard about the Underground Railroad as a child he imagined a subway beneath the earth that escaped slaves could ride to freedom. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that when he found out that it was not a literal train, he felt "a bit upset."

Now, in his new novel, The Underground Railroad, Whitehead returns to his childhood vision of an actual locomotive that carries escaped slaves through tunnels. The book follows a 15-year-old slave named Cora who has escaped from a Georgia plantation and must make her way north to freedom. Along the way, the train stops in different states, each of which represent a different response to slavery. "Sort of like Gulliver's Travels, the book is rebooting every time the person goes through a different state," Whitehead says.

Whitehead first conceived of the book 16 years ago. He began reading through slave narratives from the 18th and 19th centuries to get a feel for what life might have been like for Cora and others like her.

"I found a real opportunity to present ... a hopefully accurate presentation of plantation life in a way that hasn't been done before," Whitehead says. "It felt gratifying as an artist to find a corner that hadn't been explored in this exact different way."


Interview Highlight

On his research for the book

I actually didn't research the slave catcher's point of view. I think the slave catcher's point of view is probably the default setting on American history. I think it's the dominators — the slave catchers and the slave masters — who write the chronicle of 17th- and 18th-century America. So I felt I had it down.

My main research was reading slave narratives. The famous ones — Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs — but also the ones collected by the U.S. government in the 1930s by the WPA [Works Progress Association]. ... They sent writers to interview 80-year-old, 90-year-old former slaves, people who were young when the Civil War came around. There are thousands of these accounts. Some are a paragraph, some are three pages, and they're very, sort of, matter of fact of what went on. ...

It was a great resource just to get slang and an idea of, as a writer, the variety of a plantation experience. Slavery was one thing in Maryland in the 1780s. It was another thing in Georgia once the cotton boom starts up in the early 1800s. There are plantations that have two slaves, plantations that have 80 slaves, and just seeing the variety of the slave experience allowed me to have less anxiety about making my own plantation, because there are so many different combinations that existed.

On writing The Underground Railroad and limiting his own exposure to slavery in movies, TV and other books as a result

I wrote 100 pages and I thought I had a good thing going, and I decided to see 12 Years a Slave, which I hadn't seen yet, and while I was able to put all the stuff on the page, seeing the movie made me really upset and I could only get through half of it. It was one thing to put my characters through the reality of slavery, and it's something different to see actual humans, they're actors, but go through some of the things I was writing about, and it was too much. ...

In terms of the remake of Roots and some of the novels that are about slavery that are coming out now, I mean, definitely when I was done with the book I was all slavery-d out. I'm not going to see the Roots reboot until I've had some time away from the material. I had to immerse myself in the material in order to create a realistic depiction of Cora and everyone else on the plantation. I also had to have some distance to shape the material in an artistic way. So you're close to it and also at a remove in order to play the proper role as an artist.

On how some of the stops on his fictional Underground Railroad reflect the extremes of American history

North Carolina, as [Cora, the escaped slave] discovers, doesn't put up a false front of its true intent. In order to solve the problem of slavery they've outlawed all black people. So if you have dark skin and you're found in North Carolina, you can be lynched, executed. So it's a white separatist supremacist state, much in the way that towns in Oregon when they were being settled, were settled on a white separatist, supremacist ideal. So again, it's taking aspects of American history and taking them to a certain extreme.

On 19th-century slave patrollers

In the early 1800s, [slave patrollers] were the de-facto police force in the South, and it was their job to catch runaway slaves and [to] make sure that any black person walking down the street had their papers. They could stop [and] detain any black person, demand to see their papers, and, of course, if you didn't have license to move around freely, you were beaten, taken back to your master, jailed, and it was an early version of stop and frisk. Any white person with the slightest authority could demand to see the bonefides of any black person walking around.

Of course, growing up in the city, I'm acquainted with stop and frisk, with being pulled over by cops, being handcuffed and questioned as I'm going out about my business. ... We have a new name for it — "stop and frisk" — and 200 years ago it was "law and order."

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