Pulitzer Book Club Inclusion Guide
"The Underground Railroad" by Coleson Whitehead
• DC residents first to choose X as gender marker for driver's licenses and ID cards
• Danica Roem first openly transgender candidate elected to state legislature (Virginia)
Inspiration for the novel was Coleson Whitehead’s childhood belief that the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad system built underground. Whitehead became the third author to win two Pulitzer Fiction Prizes in 2020 with “The Nickel Boys.”
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Margaret O’Neill, Philadelphia, PA
This is the harrowing tale of Cora, an enslaved young woman whose sense of herself as an individual gives her the courage to face and overcome many terrors met on her journey on an imagined railroad.
There is nothing welcoming or pleasant about the atmosphere in which we meet Cora. She picks cotton on the Randall plantation in Georgia as her mother and grandmother had; but although her family history has landed her here, she doesn’t feel much connection to the other slaves. In fact, she finds herself dispatched by them to the cabin that houses the oddest outcasts among them. As in most parts of her life, Cora has no say in the matter. This exclusion and Cora’s natural intelligence, courage, autonomy, grit, and even humor, take her on a terrifying journey through the antebellum South along an underground railroad. She must decide whom, if anyone, to trust along the way.
Colson Whitehead describes some of the horrors of our shameful shared history as experienced by Cora and other enslaved people. He also writes about courage, hope and kindness. As one of his characters John Valentine says, “As long as one of our family endured the torments of bondage, I was a freeman in name only”. This is an important book; our future depends on how we see and treat each other.
Margaret’s Inclusive Cause: The Gesu School, Philadelphia, PA
Enslaved woman escapes via actual underground railroad, finds other hells
Slave catcher Ridgeway discovers Cora hiding under a bed.
The metaphor of the Underground Railroad is actualized via magical realism and reimagined as a metaphor for the intelligence, bravery, work of those who deliver people from slavery and a fate of murder, torture, abuse, privation, loss and humiliation.
A fast but painful journey through 320 pages, 10+ hours.
Know your history. America is a place that not only enslaved people, but informed on and hung escaped slaves and abolitionists, and conducted medical experiments and involuntary sterilization on Black Americans.
All about exclusion, not just between enslaved people and those who operated plantations, but also the abuse of enslaved people by peers on plantations, the willingness/desperation of people who trade a quick buck for informing on abolitionists and escapees, the horror of
lynched victims on the Freedom Trail and medical abuse, and the mindset and practice of Manifest Destiny.
Raw turnips that taste of marsh and freedom, followed by badly-made lumpy stew that you are hungry enough to eat with someone eager to deliver you to back to hell.
“She wondered where he escaped from, how bad it was, and how far he traveled before he put it behind him.”
Somewhere terrifying, say a cave with a railroad stop vibe or the woods at night.
What do you know now about aspects of American history that have been “underground,” such as the Freedom Trail and medical experimentation on Black Americans?
Compare the behavior and character of slave catchers to plantation owners and informants. How did life change for “free” Blacks. What was the worst part of the struggle for escaped slaves? Why did characters in the novel inform on escaped slaves?
What did it mean to be an outcast on a plantation?
What is the difference between self-defense and murder?
Compare the ability to read to the capacity to navigate via nature.
Walk, bike, hike/camp a section of the Underground Railroad and visualize the struggle of those who walked before you and an uninterrupted row of the lynched corpses of escaped slaves and those who aided their cause.
Go to Ohio and visit the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing https://www.ugrrf.org/index.html and Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
A limited series adaptation of “The Underground Railroad” is due from Amazon.
This was Coleson Whitehead's first Fiction Pulitzer for “The Underground Railroad.” Whitehead’s "Harlem Shuffle" was published in 2021.