‘Underground Railroad’ author Whitehead to speak at Carter Center

Award-winning novelist Colson Whitehead got two endorsements for his latest, “The Underground Railroad,” that other authors may only dream about.

His critically acclaimed novel about a woman’s perilous journey from slavery on a cotton plantation in Georgia to freedom on the Underground Railroad was recommended reading by President Barack Obama and Oprah’s Book Club.

The novel also debuted on the New York Times Bestseller list.

“‘The Underground Railroad,’” writes Winfrey, “kept me up at night, I had my heart in my throat, almost afraid to turn the next page. Get it, then get another copy for someone you know because you are definitely going to want to talk about it once you read that heart-stopping last page.”

The big-name support means a lot to Whitehead.

“This is a president who interviewed Marilynne Robinson for the NY Review of Books — when has something like that ever happened? When my publisher Doubleday emailed me, I was obviously very excited. It’s great to be on his (Obama’s) bookshelf with writers I admire like Helen Macdonald and Neal Stephenson,” said Whitehead, who will discuss and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Cecil B. Day Chapel at the Carter Center, 453 Freedom Parkway.

There have been numerous books about the Underground Railroad, a network of safe spaces and routes that ferried enslaved African-Americans to freedom in the North.

In his book, though, Whitehead, 46, takes an unusual view of this system: “The Underground Railroad” blends historic facts with the “what ifs.” For example, what if the Underground Railroad was actually a working rail system?

Whitehead, whose other work includes “Sag Harbor,” “John Henry Days” and “The Intuitionist,” conceived of the book’s concept a few years ago. Too outlandish or genius? He did a quick internet search and discovered that the idea it was an actual rail system was indeed a common misconception, especially among young people.

Cora is the book’s main character. She is convinced by Caesar, another slave on the plantation, to risk the journey to safety. It’s the same journey her mother took many years earlier, leaving her daughter behind. There is danger at each stop as they are followed by Ridgeway, a slave catcher who is determined to take them back to the plantation.

The story is as much about her escape as it is about her new life, where she “is trying to figure out what freedom means,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead read some of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, and he toured some of the South’s old plantations.

“Slavery turned people into objects,” he said. Slave masters had the view of runaways “that this is your property and you want to get it back.” He also hoped to show the brutality of slavery. “The only way to keep them in check was to impose severe penalties like public torture,” he said.

Deadline Hollywood reports that Plan B and Adele Romanski are teaming up with Barry Jenkins for a limited series based on Whitehead’s novel.

Whitehead’s book has relevance today.

Certain populations are still being demonized.

“Whether we’re talking about Mexicans or Muslims or stopping and frisking black teenagers,” he said. Roughly “150 years since the end of slavery and it’s still reverberating through society. … We still have a lot of work to be done.”

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