The novelist Colson Whitehead just wrapped up a visit to Davidson College as our 2019 Reynolds speaker. The annual Reynolds Lecture was established in 1959 through a gift from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. Every year this endowed lecture brings a distinguished guest from the humanities, arts, or sciences to campus. Former Reynolds speakers have included Alison Bechdel, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nicholas Kristof, Maya Angelou, Junot Díaz, Zadie Smith, Gloria Steinem, and many others.
I’m the chair of the Reynolds Lecture Committee this year, which means I had the honor of introducing Colson to a packed house in our main performing arts hall. After Colson’s talk (performance, really), a few people asked me about my introduction. I’m sharing it here, in hope that it does some good in this world beyond the 500 or so people who heard it tonight.
It’s tempting to say that whatever Colson Whitehead’s novels are about, they’re always about something else.
His debut novel The Intuitionist wasn’t really about a divide between two factions of elevator inspectors in an alternate reality New York City. It was about race, about passing, about postmodern blackness.
Likewise, Colson’s 2011 novel Zone One wasn’t about a zombie apocalypse in present-day Manhattan. Not really. It was about identity, the loss of identity, about the monstrous other, and the question of, as the poet Gil Scott-Heron posed it in 1970, the question of who will survive in America.
Colson is here tonight to talk about his latest novel, The Underground Railroad, which won both the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and the National Book Award. Unlike his other novels, The Underground Railroad is resolutely about what it appears to be about. It’s about slavery. The long, brutal legacy of slavery.
In the novel the underground railroad—that death-defying perilous journey out of the slave-owning South—it’s an actual railroad, an actual railroad that runs underground. It seems fantastical and it is, but it lays bare the comforting lies America has told itself about its past. Oh, the underground railroad, you just hop aboard and you’re on your way to freedom. No. The truth, as Colson insists by paradoxically using fiction, the truth was much harder to bear.
Colson’s visit couldn’t come at a better time. In The Underground Railroad each state finds its own way to deal with the problem of slavery, a parody of the patently false notion that the Civil War was about state’s rights. In North Carolina slavery is replaced with a kind of indentured servitude just as dehumanizing as chattel slavery. Meanwhile today in North Carolina the General Assembly wages a war on democratic values with racially based gerrymandering and open attacks on the state judiciary, motivated by a goal that goes all the way back to the end of Reconstruction, which is the goal of disempowering black voters.
Colson’s visit couldn’t come at a better time. Just last week at Davidson signs cropped up all across campus, overnight. The signs read simply, “It’s okay to be white.” If you don’t know, this superficially benign affirmation originated on 4chan, an anonymous Internet message board and the spiritual home of the alt-right. The signs were essentially the materialization of white supremacist Internet trolls into our physical world. Like Colson Whitehead’s novels, the signs say one thing, but they also mean something else.
In times like these, times marked by hate, vulnerability, precariousness, we turn to literature. Cora, the fugitive slave at the heart of The Underground Railroad, faces, as Colson puts it, “travesties so routine and familiar that they were a kind of weather.” Such travesties continue apace today. And Colson Whitehead, by looking to horrors of the past, gives us light for the present. And for that, we are grateful. His visit—his novel—could not come at a better time.
Everyone, please join me in welcoming Colson Whitehead.