Oprah Talks to The Underground Railroad Author Colson Whitehead
I was at home in California when I received an advance copy of Colson Whitehead's novel The Underground Railroad. I'd never read anything by Colson (he's published five previous novels and two works of nonfiction and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist), but everything I'd heard about the book—the way it shape-shifts and refracts time and history through the figure of one 16-year-old girl—made me eager to start.
The opening sentence got my heart pumping right away: "The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no." I thought, Okay, you got me. What exactly is Cora saying no to, and why? Who is Caesar, and how many more times will he have to ask? I wanted to know everything. I found out that Cora is a third-generation slave living on the plantation where her grandmother died, where her mother abandoned her. She has no intention of trying to leave. But Caesar gets her thinking. He leads her to an actual train, one that travels underground and can transport them out of Georgia to a new life. Here I paused. I've been fascinated by Harriet Tubman for many years, and I knew that the Underground Railroad—the network of secret routes and safe houses that evolved in the 19th century to help the enslaved escape north—didn't involve real trains. But Colson's conjuring was so vivid, I could visualize it. The telling was so convincing, I had to double-check to be sure I had my facts right.
As I read, I found myself feeling what Cora feels, being horrified all over again by slavery, and then marveling at the grace and kindness of strangers. Time and again, people risk everything to help this girl. I thought about what real strength is—how Cora keeps getting up even though she doesn't know what new atrocities might be right around the corner. I couldn't read the book in one sitting. I had to stop, process what I'd read, let the anger and tears come, and then go back in. Cora is a fictional character, but her odyssey—a true heroine's journey—helped me to better understand the past, as well as where we are as a people today. And in the end, that's what great literature does. It doesn't tell you what to think or how to feel. It simply creates the space for those thoughts to happen on their own.
After turning the final page, I knew immediately I'd read something that would never leave me. It had to be my next Oprah's Book Club selection, and I couldn't wait to sit down with the author.
OW: How did you come up with the idea of having the Underground Railroad be an actual train, with conductors, stations, and tunnels?
CW: A lot of people, when they first hear about the Underground Railroad, think it really is a subway or a locomotive. When they find out it's not, they feel a little disappointed. So I thought, What if it was a literal underground train network traveling from state to state, with each state it goes through representing a different opportunity or danger?
OW: You zero in on something in the book that puts me in mind of what Toni Morrison writes in Beloved, about the slaves who never "leave the yard," yet eventually make the decision to try to get away. I imagine myself in that position and know for sure I was born at the right time. I couldn't have done what Cora does. I would never have left the yard. I wouldn't have had the courage.
CW: I wanted to explore how a character who knows only the tragedy of the plantation finds it in herself to take that first step. And once you take that step, how do you keep going on a trip that will probably take years—if you aren't caught or killed first—that might require you to wait for a full moon to guide you at night or to depend on a complete stranger not to betray you?
OW: None of your previous books tackle race or slavery head on. Why now?
CW: For years I felt that I wasn't ready to take on slavery. It's a huge topic, and I didn't want to mess it up. Plus, I knew I would have to put Cora and my other characters through horrific events in order to be realistic. I had to know I could get it right. Which is probably why it took me about 16 years to finally write it.
OW: Sixteen years?
CW: I wrote other books while this idea was germinating. I'd think about it, and then feel I didn't yet know enough to do it justice. But finally I had to go forward.
OW: The methods of "punishment" the slave masters dreamed up and that many people in the book experience—you took a lot of that detail from the slave narratives you read in the Library of Congress.
CW: Yes, and I didn't exaggerate. In the 1930s, the government paid writers to interview 80- and 90-year-old former slaves, and I read those accounts. I came away realizing—not surprisingly—that many slave masters were sadists who spent a lot of time thinking up creative ways of hurting people.
OW: And those punishments were often staged like shows, for entertainment. Did Cora emerge from a specific story you read that really stuck with you?
CW: Cora has left the plantation and taken the Underground Railroad to South Carolina, then into North Carolina. She spends the entire chapter hiding in an attic, never trusting that she won't be found and turned in. That was inspired by Harriet Jacobs.
OW: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl?
CW: Yes. Harriet Jacobs spent almost seven years in the crawl space above her grandmother's shed hiding from a cruel master, waiting for a boat to carry her north. I kept thinking of Linda Brent—that was Harriet's pen name—when trying to figure out how to place Cora in challenging situations and then have her rise to overcome them.
Freed slave Harriet Jacobs and a page from her memoir, published in 1861.
Photos courtesy of Open Road Media and University of California/Hathitrust Digital Library
Five generations on a South Carolina plantation, circa 1862.
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Laura Plantation, circa 1888, where Whitehead conducted research.
Image courtesy of the Zoë Company
OW: I remember, when I was promoting the movie Beloved, an African American journalist asking me, "Why do we need another story about slavery?" I said, "How many have you seen?"
CW: We still don't really know or understand what it was like, how deep a travesty it was, or how it continues to affect us. Being a slave meant never having the stability of knowing your family would be together as many years as God designed it to be. It meant you could come back from picking cotton in a field to find that your children are gone, your husband's gone, your mother's gone. It meant knowing you are property that could be sold to the highest bidder, of value only to continue to support the plantation economy.
OW: Yet for all the brutality, I came away from the book feeling inspired by the courage it took to be a slave. The desire to be free wasn't extinguished. The will to try, the will to fight—that didn't disappear. I thought, Wow. That's the stock I come from. Those are my people. I came away from the story feeling emboldened, more centered. You have two children, a son and a daughter. Was it especially important to you that you write this book, for them?
CW: Yes. They're 11 and 3. I wouldn't have written the same book if I were not a father. Having a wife and kids drove home the brutal reality of the slave system for me—the price it exacted on families. On the other hand, whenever I despair over our history, I am brought back to hope, the hope that things will get better, for my children.
OW: Thank you, Colson.
CW: Thank you, Oprah.
NEXT: The books that inspired Colson Whitehead
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