The University of Michigan’s Bicentennial is accompanied by events which explore the role the University has played in U.S. history. The bicentennial events begin Thursday with “Symposium 1817: Nation Building in the Old Northwest and the Making of the University of Michigan.” The first session is a panel discussing the development of the Michigan territory in the years that UM initially took shape, led by American Culture professors Michael Witgen and Tiya Miles. These events will be free and open to the public at the Mendelssohn Theater.
The second session features author Colson Whitehead, author of “The Underground Railroad,” which won the 2016 National Book Award. “The Underground Railroad” tells the story of Cora, a slave girl from a cotton plantation in Georgia who decides to attempt escape. The path to freedom is a literal railroad, tracks humming underground, crackling with desperation and bravery. Whitehead’s story is not bound by the time period it is set in, but has aspects and plot points that are derived from other, later periods of American history.
“The original conception of the book was that the underground railroad was real, and that every state [Cora] went through was an alternative America,” Whitehead said. “And from the very first day I had the idea to play with time, play with history in order to create a larger conversation so the book is not just about a teenager running north, but about race and different periods throughout history.”
Whitehead said readings of this novel are different from those past.
“In general, I like to pick short funny passages,” Whitehead said. “But there are no short funny passages in the book.” He added that a large part of writing the book felt like testifying for the experiences of those who are no longer here; while he can’t predict how people respond to the book, he hopes that for people who haven’t studied this part of history or thought about slavery in a while, the book “drives home the true brutality of the system.”
While there were no specific scenes that were hard to write, Whitehead had other challenges in conceptualizing the novel.
“Getting ready to start the book and realizing I was going to have to put my characters through so many terrible things … that hadn’t happened in my other books,” Whitehead said. Being realistic was a terrible burden in general.”
For students interested reading about history or politics, Whitehead recommends “Bound for Canaan; The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement” by Fergus Bordewich and “The Half Has Never Been Told; Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist. Both books are thorough explorations of the Underground Railroad and how slavery as an institution functioned as a tool of capitalism.
Whitehead said what he strives to help his students in his writing workshops learn is how to write from multiple perspectives.
“I always urge my students over the semester to try different voices, workshop is a place to fail and try different things. So if you always write from the point of view of a nineteen year old from New Jersey, why not write from a 25 year old from Alabama?”
Whitehead will be reading from “The Underground Railroad” at 7 P.M. on Thursday, January 12 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. More events centered around the bicentennial can be found here.