Pulitzer-Prize Winning Novelist Colson Whitehead Speaks at Centre College


BY ROOP PATEL – STAFF WRITER

Renowned author Colson Whitehead delivered a convocation on October 2nd to discuss his award-winning sixth novel, The Underground Railroad. This year the First-Year Book Committee, comprised of six Centre College faculty, chose The Underground Railroad for the New Student Book Discussion.

The novel follows Cora—a young slave on a cotton plantation—to depict the brutality of slavery and the horrors for the African American population preceding the Civil War. He illustrates the plantation as a cruel and callous murderer from which Cora escapes. Upon fleeing, Cora embarks on a journey and Colson Whitehead employs an actual railroad rather than a metaphorical one. Each state holds new challenges for Cora and no place proves to be perfectly idyllic. In the end, the railroad continues to chug through the nation as Cora attempts to find freedom.

First-year students all read and discussed The Underground Railroad amongst themselves and with their academic advisors. Students River Fuchs and Melody Roth pointed out the questions of morality and justice in the novel. “Injustice arises from misunderstanding,” Fuchs said. “subjectivity of history is a problem,” Roth said. “The fact that the book was left very open ended signifies the fact that her story is yet to be completed.” “We can’t be happy and just move on,” Professor of Biology and member of the First-Year Book Committee Peggy Richie said of the end of the novel.

Fuchs and Dr. John Harney, Assistant Professor of History and First-Year Book Committee Chair, commented on the implications of “The Underground Railroad” in the present. “In today’s world, people don’t really want to talk to each other— they want to shout at each other,” Harney said. “More people need to be cognizant of the brutality of slavery.”

First-year students Meg Whelan, River Fuchs, and Melody Roth shared the parts of the novel that most engaged them. “[The] historical allusions were the most gripping part for me,” Fuchs said. “[The novel] deeply broadened my cultural horizons.” For Whelan, it was the use of “the freedom road as a physical embodiment of oppression”. “The scientist trying to make medical advancements and committing progressive oppression” clung to Roth the most.

Professors on the First-Year Book Committee shared the criteria they used in choosing The Underground Railroad. “The novel was shocking and engrossing,” Dr. Richey said. “It causes students to think…[and] creates engaged conversation.” A chief reason for Dr. Harney was how “the book contextualized and drew parallels to now.”

Student Meg Whelan said “the book was chosen because Centre wants to establish a liberal arts root and expose us to new ideas. We read a hybrid of history and fiction which spans the liberal arts spectrum.” Harney said he “looked for what kind of conversations it would create” and how “the book allows you to think without telling you what to think.”

In all, The Underground Railroad dealt with the brutality of slavery and the injustice of a past era – but the novel still speaks volumes on today’s society.


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