Once my college roommate and I were English majors together, so I was surprised that she hadn't heard about August Wilson's ambition with his plays to write a play representing the African-American experience in the 20th century, 10 plays, one for each decade. But I'm not sure I'd have known that fact if I hadn't spent so many years teaching the Introduction to Lit class, which often included Fences or The Piano Lesson in the standard textbooks.
I had August Wilson on the brain as I read Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. I didn't expect to have time to read while my roommate visited, but a week ago, my spouse took my roommate to see the Everglades, and they timed the traffic wrong--so my friend got to experience both the natural wonder of the Everglades and the human-made misery that can be Miami rush hour.
I took advantage of that time to devour Whitehead's book--what a masterpiece. In some ways, the book does what Wilson did, by showing the wide variety of the African-American experience in the U.S. in the 19th century--but in some aspects of its alternative history chapters, Whitehead uses history from the 20th century too. It's an interesting weaving together.
I have heard many reviewers speak highly of the main character Cora, but that's not the element of the book that will stay with me. I am most intrigued by how each chapter analyzes a different element of slavery in the U.S. and all the ways that institution has shaped the country. But it's so much more than that--for example, Whitehead also uses Native American history as part of the book.
It's a book that doesn't shy away from all the varieties of brutality present in plantation life. As a child, I knew about cruel overseers, at least from the time I read Uncle Tom's Cabin and saw Roots, but I never realized how cruel the slaves could be too each other. And the book is quite clear about the way that exposure to cruelty quickly blunts the horror of it as it becomes acceptable.
I had thought about buying the book because I worried that I wouldn't be able to read it quickly enough in the 2 weeks that our public library allows for new releases. But it's not a homework kind of book--it's a speedy read, a compelling, can't put it down kind of book.
Many have talked about the book as important in terms of remembering our history and how we got to this point in race relations in our country. But it's a much bigger book than that--it reminds us of how the powerful will prey on those with less power, and in all the ways we can resist.
And yes, I would still be saying that even if we had a different administration in the White House. But at this time in history, as we see the rise of populist leader after populist leader, especially the type who is not interested in preserving progress made towards human rights, the book's message seems ever more essential.
This Year's Summer Reading List: Take a Look!
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