The act alone feels strangely transgressive and proudly defiant at the same time. If you haven’t read Whitehead’s new, Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Underground Railroad”, stop what you’re doing and read it immediately. Seriously: stop what you’re doing. Whatever you were about to undertake is not as important as spending the day with this work and then discussing it with the next person, who should also be reading it.
Some books come freighted with implication. Open a copy of Das Kapital while sipping a Starbucks latte and some people start regarding you as sympathetic to communist ideals, regardless of why you might be curious. Open a copy of The Bell Curve, even in an academic setting, and it’s hard to avoid the tarnish of something far, far more dangerous. There are strange complexities that attend a copy of The Fountainhead. (Is it even possible to read Rand in an airport lounge without getting furtive glances from fellow travelers peering over the tops of their iPhones?) Books themselves are the conveyors of thoughts and ideas and memory. To read something, especially something provocative, presents an exposed wire to the world. Some ideas are so charged, so freighted with history and implication, that it’s impossible not to wonder what a reader’s goals are for spending the time. Is it even possible to justify opening a copy of Mein Kampf? The question almost becomes it’s own answer. Almost, but not quite. For ideas to matter, or even be refuted, source works must be read if for no other reason than to understand why the ideas they contain are so incendiary. Words have a vitality that cannot be left to their own intellectual ghettos, no matter how problematical.
The Underground Railroad is a novel, which means (in case you’ve forgotten about books) that it purports to be a made-up story. Don’t delude yourself. The genius of this book is that it isn’t made up—not the soul of it that sticks, anyway— and the part about the impossible locomotive tracks tunneled under the cities of the pre-civil war American south is a spectacularly courageous bit of narrative license. Even to dare think of fantastical details with regard to one of humanity’s great impeachments is to court creative calamity, even cultural insult. To create the literary contrivance of a working underground railroad in service of exploring the eponymously real Underground Railroad is itself a declaration of profound freedom. It’s also a superb conveyance for taking readers on a journey they simply might not undertake otherwise.
Recently I was traveling across the American South on a production assignment, setting up cameras and interviewing people about subjects entirely separate from American enslavement. To put a sharp point on it, the South is not like the North (nor the West, nor the Midwest) and one cannot help but be aware that different political calculations and codes accrue. I have never been afraid of the contents of a book before and I stubbornly resist those stains now. I maintain that the province of writers should remain practically sacrosanct in terms of legal and cultural protections when speaking directly to readers. Of course, nothing so important is ever so simple, especially when presented in foreign cultural contexts.
What occurred to me as I opened the book early one morning in a ubiquitous, unavoidable Waffle House was that it essentially dared any passerby who knew the implication of the book’s title to take sides. (There shouldn’t be anybody in the country who doesn’t know the term, but alas, I fear that’s probably not true.) The title alone demands that an observer form an opinion. Segregationists? (We shouldn’t pretend: there are still many, everywhere.) Here was a white guy reading something sympathetic and liberal. African Americans? Here was a white guy reading something that couldn’t possibly explain how it felt to be African American. To simply hold the book was to assert interest in the subject, and the subject itself insists on a magnetic polarization. I found myself surprisingly self-conscious at the restaurant counter. I could only imagine the cultural echoes that rang to the largely African American population surrounding me. I was a aware that simply stating the title by showing its spine was to amplify that echo, to give it unexpected voice and velocity. Was that bad? I’d like to think not. I’d like to think that if I spotted a traveler reading a book about the Holocaust I’d be curious as to their motivations, but not predisposed to presupposition. I’d like to think that, but I’d be naive to think it’s true. I’ve encountered more than my fair share of people fascinated reading World War Two history, who then refract their arm-chair exploits into practical, even appreciative considerations about the Third Reich’s remarkable efficiencies, as if processes could be divided from purposes.
Not everyone fits into simple categories, of course. Not everyone is so touchy and supersensitive. Nonetheless, the spectral range of views about what’s socially appropriatecan mystify those of opposing views. It’s like the strange litmus test that describes when an untested group gets challenged with a deceptively serious examination of the politics of Star Wars. Conservatives see the Rebellion as a group of cowboy libertarians, determined to protect homesteads in complete independence out on the range. Liberals see the Rebellion as a group of reluctant protectors of civil rights and social order, trying to hold off an oppressive oligarchy. Everyone takes a side, and each side believes it’s on the correct one. More to the point, each side can hardly understand what the other is talking about, and yet they’re all looking at the same cast of characters and circumstances. (There are even those, troublingly, who think The Empire might not be so bad, either!)
Which brings me back to race relations in America and its direct intersection with Whitehead’s superb work of art. His book exists today because examinations of American history have hardly begun to resolve the causes and effects of our nation’s stunningly painful incongruities. The book is a contemporary reaction to a history that’s hardly in the past. In fact, one hardly needs to look around very hard to see enough examples of racism’s profound sustainability, or how deeply it’s dug into the national ethic. Art, as always, responds. That includes literature. That includes photography and music and theater and fashion. That’s why there’s Colson Whitehead’s extraordinary refraction of something deep and profound and real, and if I’m seen reading it in the Deep South and that makes me an outsider of dubious intent—regardless of who might be paying attention— so be it. But defiance and fearlessness is hardly enough. Until the act of reading this book or other analogues doesn’t come fraught with suspicious subtexts, we will continue to be a nation divided. Until that time comes to be, reading this extraordinary book is a good a place to start in terms of reclaiming the worst parts of our collective identities and making a more honest, more equal future.