Books and Bagels and Morning Book Break Book Discussion Groups on
Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Books and Bagels Book Discussion group members all gave the book a 4.0 with the following exceptions: one member gave the book a 4.5 and another member gave the book a 5.0. The average of the ratings was 4.12.
The Morning Book Break Book Discussion group rated the book between a 4.0 and 5.0, with one member giving the book a 3.0. The average of the ratings was 4.32.
All of the members felt the book was graphic and brutal in its description of slavery in the United States. They all agreed that the book was well-written but it was difficult and uncomfortable to read. It was written with such vivid language and imagery that many members stated that the scenes will forever remain in their minds. All of the members expressed a hope that someday we can move beyond racism, but agreed that acknowledging the past is essential in moving forward. The Underground Railroad assists readers in acknowledging the past, but also leaves readers with this question: where do we go from here?
Where Do We Go From Here? is the theme at the National Civil Rights Museum for the year-long commemoration of Dr. King’s assassination. This was the title of Dr. King’s final book as well as the title of the speech he delivered on August 16, 1967 at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Several members had difficulty with Whitehead’s use of the metaphorical Underground Railroad. They had difficulty transitioning between the magical realism of the Underground Railroad and the historical elements of the novel. Many members were disappointed with the flow of the book and found it to be a challenging read. Some members thought Whitehead rambled too much and his composition included too many characters which made the novel convoluted and difficult to track.
Many members felt the discussion was timely in light of current events. Members felt the book is an important read and that it should be a part of required high school curriculum. Members agreed that the serious nature of racism requires that books continue to be written to address the issue and to never allow the past to be forgotten.
The group discussed the concept of freedom as presented by Whitehead in this novel. The group also discussed what freedom meant to Cora and how her view changes over the course of the novel. The group talked about Cora’s personal view of freedom especially after her sexual assault by a group of other slaves and her personal journey to freedom with fear as a constant pursuer (personified by Ridgeway the slave catcher).
The above discussion led to discussion about Ridgeway’s perspective as a slave catcher. We discussed whether this added to a better understanding of the historical period. We discussed the significance of Ridgeway’s behavior and treatment of Cora when he bought her a dress and took her out to dinner. Many of the members were puzzled at this behavior and troubled by the insertion of it into the narrative. It definitely doesn’t fit the narrative of historically cruel slave catchers. One member thought of Ridgeway as a bounty hunter whose goals were purely financial and that he seemed to personally distance himself from the brutality of slavery. Additionally, he dehumanized the slaves by calling these human beings “it.” He considered them property. Colson Whitehead in an interview said, “I wanted to create a proper villain (Ridgeway) and a proper hero (Cora).”
We discussed the cruelty and brutality in the novel and how this affected us as readers. Many members had to take breaks while reading and many felt they needed to skim/skip sections.
We discussed the state-by-state structure of the novel and we discussed issues presented in each state that Whitehead created. We discussed the “South Carolina” section and the presentation of the doctor’s offices and the museum designed to help “black uplift” and yet, they were corrupt and unethical. Whitehead’s “South Carolina” addresses eugenics, sterilization, and medical experimentation without consent. The group discussed how this mirrors what is still happening in America today. One member is currently reading Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington. This nonfiction book provides a provocative study of the history of medical experimentation on African Americans, from the colonial era to the present day, revealing the experimental exploitation and poor medical treatment suffered by blacks, often without any form of consent, and offering new details about the infamous Tuskegee experiment and other medical atrocities.
The experiments without consent reminded some members of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This nonfiction book documents the story of how scientists took cells from an unsuspecting descendant of freed slaves and created a human cell line that has been kept alive indefinitely, enabling discoveries in such areas as cancer research, in vitro fertilization, and gene mapping. It has been made into a major motion picture starring Oprah Winfrey.
As we continued to discuss the state-by-state structure, we included discussion about Whitehead’s “North Carolina.” This state addressed genocide and alludes to Nazi Germany with the main character, Cora hiding in an attic, much like Anne Frank.
We discussed Whitehead’s “Indiana” with its presentation of black utopia and philosophical underpinnings regarding strategies for political movement forward.
The club discussed Cora’s mother’s decision to escape the Randall plantation and how our opinion of her changed after we learned about her fate.
We discussed how the depiction of slavery in The Underground Railroad compared to other depictions in literature and film. Several movies mentioned were: Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Amistad, Amazing Grace, and The Abolitionists. The Morning Book Break book discussion group had previously enjoyed and discussed The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. The story follows Hetty “Handful” Grimke, a Charleston slave, and Sarah, the daughter of the wealthy Grimke family. The novel begins on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership over Handful, who is to be her handmaid. “The Invention of Wings” follows the next thirty-five years of their lives. It is inspired in part by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke (a feminist, suffragist and, importantly, an abolitionist).
We discussed how Whitehead creates emotional instability for the reader and how this sense of fear impacts the reading of the novel. This led to talking about the end of the novel. We discussed why Cora accepts help from one man but not the other men who are willing to assist. We also discussed the ambiguous ending. Some members disliked this ending and other members felt it was a great choice to make the novel impactful. One member noted the cycle of freedom and visiting different states will most likely continue for Cora as this is perceived as being part of the struggle of black people in America. Sadly, Cora was on her way to “Missouri,” a slave state in Whitehead’s arbitrary cut-off of 1850 for his novel.
Members discussed the timely reading of this novel and the relationship to current events such as;
Martin Luther King Jr. Assassination – 50th Anniversary
National Geographic– April 2018– Race Issue—featuring fraternal twins Millie and Marcia (The Race Issue)
Several members mentioned they watched the 60 Minutes report Inside the Memorial to Victims of Lynching: “Oprah Winfrey reports on the Alabama memorial dedicated to thousands of African-American men, women and children lynched over a 70-year period following the Civil War.” Additionally, 60 minutes visited the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice which will open its doors for the first time on April 26, 2018.
Read Colson Whitehead’s website to learn about him and his other fantastic novels: https://www.colsonwhitehead.com/
The facilitator selected the novel for book clubs for all the following reason stated below and to allow the reading of the novel to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination.
“THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD had quite a year.
It won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the Heartland Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Hurston/Wright Fiction Award, was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize. It became a #1 New York Times Bestseller, got picked by Oprah for her book club, President Obama chose it for his summer reading list, and it was a Best Book of the Year for the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsday, GQ, Publishers Weekly, Esquire, and Buzzfeed. It’s being translated into 40 languages.
Now I’m back to work, I think.”
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee has been honoring MLK with a yearlong celebration starting on April 4, 2017 and ending on April 4, 2108. http://mlk50.civilrightsmuseum.org/
PBS Books interviews Colson Whitehead on The Underground Railroad at
Book Expo 2016—Chicago
Colson Whitehead is interviewed at Politics & Prose Bookstore
(A Washington D.C. favorite)
For books and audiobooks in our collection by Colson Whitehead, please click here.