Interregnum XIII: "Equality" Is Over ... So What Should I Read Next?

by Ethan Campbell


The Interregnum committee’s choice of “Equality” as The King’s College’s theme for 2016-17 turned out to be prescient in many ways.  Racial equality is always an important issue for our community to grapple with, of course, but the ugliness and overt racism in our national political discourse this year made it seem even more essential.

On a brighter note, the committee’s selection of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) as the school-wide reading dovetailed in an unexpected way with an important event in literary history.  In November, Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award, and this April it also won the Pulitzer Prize, American fiction’s two highest honors. 

Meanwhile, the National Book Award for children’s literature went to Congressman John Lewis’s March trilogy, a series of graphic novels about the Civil Rights Movement, which gives young readers (and those of us who aren’t so young!) a front-row seat to events like the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and the Selma, Alabama marches of 1965, events in which police and white civilians attacked African-American protestors with shocking violence.  Lewis’s trilogy should be required reading for anyone like me, whose American history education covered only the high points of the Civil Rights Movement.  His narrative dramatizes the frustrating and unheralded moments, the seemingly endless grind of the movement’s early years, and just how much organization and persistence were required to win the fight.

But The Underground Railroad has an even more direct connection with our Interregnum reading, since Whitehead writes in an afterword that the novel was directly inspired by Douglass’s Narrative, and by another slave-escape story from 1861, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.  If you’re looking for a good follow-up to Douglass to read this summer, start with Jacobs, then move on to Whitehead, who offers a intensely realistic postmodern take on these 19th-century narratives.

Whitehead’s novel is historical fiction, of a sort, about an enslaved woman named Cora in 1840s Georgia who escapes from a plantation and hitches a ride on a literal “underground railroad,” a fantastical subway system that connects American cities.  Cora makes her way north, only to find herself in a strange and sometimes horrifying dystopian landscape which contains a terrific set of new pitfalls for free men and women who are racial minorities.

As you might guess from this summary, Whitehead got his start writing science fiction.  His first novel was a quirky sci-fi fantasy called The Intuitionist (1999), about a feud between elevator inspectors in New York City, including the “Intuitionists,” an order of mystics who ride elevators and feel their karmic vibrations to determine if anything needs fixed.  Later in his career, Whitehead wrote Zone One (2011), the best post-apocalyptic zombie novel I’ve ever read (not that the competition is all that stiff).

Shortly after that novel’s publication, Whitehead wrote about his sci-fi and horror inspirations in an illuminating essay for The New Yorker titled “A Psychotronic Childhood.”  He describes growing up on the Upper East Side, running home from school to see which weird horror movie matinee was playing on TV.  The essay touches on another important theme that runs through Whitehead’s work—the intersection of race and class in his own life.

Whitehead is African-American, but he grew up with the trappings of what we normally think of as a WASP-ish upper-crust upbringing—a wealthy Manhattan address, elite private schools, summer vacations on Long Island, a college degree from Harvard, etc.  In his autobiographical novel Sag Harbor (2009), he describes the strangeness of encountering racism from this privileged perch—for example, an old white man stops him in front of the U.N. to ask if he’s the young prince of an African country—and the attempts by his parents’ and grandparents’ generations to instill a sense of cultural identity in their kids.  In one memorable scene, the adults tsk-tsk when the kids don’t recognize names like Toussaint L’Ouverture, W.E.B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey.  “What do they teach you at that fancy school I bust my ass to send you to?” his father demands.  “Not ‘Iconic Figures of Black Nationalism,’ that’s for sure.”

I have been an unabashed fan of Whitehead’s work from the start—his book The Colossus of New York (2003), a collection of descriptive essays about various neighborhoods in New York City, has long been a staple of my College Writing syllabus.  One of the deep pleasures of following a favorite writer over time is watching him bring all the strands of his earlier work together and advancing to another level of artistic achievement.  In Whitehead’s case, those strands include historical fiction, sci-fi, deep reflections on the complexities of race and class, and tremendous attention to physical detail in every line, all of which come together in a book which, with no exaggeration, I am confident students of American literature will still be reading a hundred years from now.

As I introduced the novel to my Research Writing and Fiction Writing classes this past year, I said, “I don’t think we’re ready for this book”—its frankness about our nation’s racial history will no doubt be unsettling for many.  But ready or not, the book is with us, and any King’s student who aspires to understand American culture should read it.

Frederick Douglass, as you’ll recall, begins his Narrative with a reflection on the fact that he doesn’t know his own birthday, and a description of the ways slave children were systematically separated from their parents.  From that cue, Whitehead begins his novel with the brief life story of Cora’s grandmother, whom she never knew, followed by a memorable description of a “birthday party” for an old slave who decides at random each year when to celebrate.  The party is disrupted by two white slave-owning brothers, who float into the scene like ghosts but at once become horribly real, as they end the festivities with bloodshed at the end of a silver-tipped cane.  In the world Whitehead depicts, even fake birthdays provide no solace.

Douglass’s story, for all its power, is at times hampered by the restrictions of 19th-century literary decorum—he describes sex, for example, through euphemism (though it’s still horrifying!).  Whitehead, however, is under no such restrictions.  From the opening scene on a slave ship, he describes with physical precision exactly what happens when men have absolute control over women’s bodies.

Men’s bodies, too—perhaps the most haunting scene in a novel full of them is the torture and execution of a captured runaway slave.  Whitehead leaves the action mostly to the reader’s imagination ... until he doesn’t, and the picture snaps into focus with bone-cracking horror.  Even more horrific than the torture itself is his depiction of a group of impassive white observers, who hold a garden party and sip lemonade while listening to the wretched man’s screams.  One of them, a Northern journalist, dutifully takes notes.

After Cora escapes, the story shifts from this type of hyper-realism to dystopian science fiction, though every challenge she encounters off the plantation parallels a real-life horror from some point in American history.  For example, she finds employment at a “Museum of Natural Wonders,” which puts her on display in living exhibits like “Life on a Slave Ship” and “Typical Day on the Plantation,” while white audiences gawk.  Such institutions existed, but they came somewhat later in history—the first one in New York City opened in the 1870s, and as late as 1906, an African pygmy man named Ota Benga was on display at the Bronx Zoo.  In other words, Cora escapes slavery but stumbles into a different form of racism, seemingly a few decades in the future.

In another scene, Cora learns that many free black men in her new community have contracted syphilis, and that the local hospital is intentionally keeping them sick for “scientific” purposes.  This mirrors a true-life story known as the Tuskegee experiments.  Long after penicillin had been proven to cure syphilis, researchers at Tuskegee University in Alabama continued to give African-American men placebo pills, in order to study the long-term effects of the disease (“science”).  Dozens of patients who thought they were receiving treatment died, but not before they had passed the disease on to their children.

By pulling this story from history and placing it within Cora’s fictional narrative, Whitehead accomplishes several interesting feats.  First, he underlines the fact that examples of mind-boggling racism can be found in every era, not just the pre-Civil War South.  The Tuskegee story actually seems more plausible as something that could have happened in the 1840s, but in reality it is far more recent—the experiments started in 1932, and whistle-blowers didn’t put an end to them until 1972.

This collapsing of history into a single person’s story of escape has the potential to create a powerful sense of claustrophobia and disillusion in the reader.  At the end of the novel, Cora is still running, and the implication is that she will never stop.  Even if she makes it to the furthest corner of the nation, even if she time-travels hundreds of years into the future, she still won’t escape, not entirely.

In one of the novel’s many disorienting moments, Whitehead devotes a chapter to a minor character, a middle-aged white woman named Ethel.  She reminisces about her childhood, when her father would walk past her bedroom at night on his way to sexually molest her playmate, a 14-year-old slave girl named Jasmine, whom he impregnated.  The scene seems at first gratuitously perverse, until you realize it is effectively the true story of Sally Hemings, the personal slave of Thomas Jefferson’s young daughter Mary.  Most historians believe the elder Jefferson began taking advantage of Hemings when he was 44 and she was 14, and eventually she bore six of his children.

Whitehead’s version of this story is disturbing enough on its own, but the true history behind it adds another layer of deep darkness.  One of our most celebrated presidents, the man who wrote “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence, was also a child rapist.

Stephen Dedalus, the hero of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”  But Whitehead’s fantastical novel reminds us that we can’t awake—this is reality, and we have to face it.  In fact, those of us at King’s who most have to face it are those who, like me, were raised on a steady diet of American patriotism, untroubled by any sense of continuing injustice.  We are the ones who most need to feel Cora’s inescapable dilemma, the legacy of slavery still nipping at our heels.

This hard look at American history prompted some uncomfortable responses from students in my courses this semester.  One wrote, “While I read this book, I noticed in myself that I was feeling extremely embarrassed for my country.”  This is understandable, but the feeling doesn’t have to stop there.  The same student concluded, “I feel like this is a book that should be required for everyone to read, especially in our current political climate. This book made me think and truly analyze the history of this nation and how much racial inequality there currently is.”

I have to assume that Whitehead would be pleased by that reaction. A week after the 2016 presidential election, as he took the stage to accept the National Book Award, he declined to deliver a scathing political speech, as many thought (and hoped) he might.  Instead, he offered succinct advice for anyone disturbed by the history recounted in his novel, past or present:  “Be kind to everybody, make art, and fight the power.”