Some Reflections on a Dissonant Evening with Colson Whitehead

Reynolds Lecture Author Colson Whitehead

By: Thomas Waddill ’19

Memory is political. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan has made that clear in the last few years. “And when was it great?” we ask. During the days of our slave-holding founding fathers? The days when women didn’t have the franchise? Vietnam? The Reagan years, when the government cruelly ignored the AIDS epidemic while illegally selling arms to Iran to fund paramilitary death squads in Nicaragua? The basic impossibility of holding, at once, all of national history in our collective memory requires that our recollections be selective. So when a public figure points toward our history, it is always for a reason. Sometimes, as with Trump’s mantra, this practice is harmful: by nostalgically invoking an imaginary past, we obscure both historical tragedy and the damage that history continues to inflict on its present-day victims. But the practice isn’t always bad; sometimes, we are invited to investigate dark corners of our history anew: times when America was anything but great. In doing so, perhaps we emerge better equipped to deal with past violence as it endures today. This is the case with Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad (Doubleday, 2016), which, in its brutal rendering of both the horrors of plantation slavery and their more subtle and insidious shadow—liberal Northern racism—seems an all-out assault on the American impulse toward nostalgia. In hard, unembroidered, blunt prose, Whitehead’s novel lets the barbarism of the “peculiar institution” speak for itself; reading it, I struggled to comprehend the enduring reality of such a savage and insidious and cruel system.

So Davidson brought Whitehead to campus as this year’s Reynolds lecturer. Dr. Mark Sample’s introduction, after listing Whitehead’s many accolades (including a MacArthur “Genius” Grant), frames Whitehead, unsurprisingly, in the context of our tumultuous political moment: “Whitehead couldn’t have come at a better time,” Sample says, mentioning the rash of alt-right “It’s Okay to be White” stickers that had spread around campus just the week before. He invites Whitehead to the stage.

Whitehead starts with a joke: “I usually spend my Tuesday nights at home weeping over my regrets, so this is a nice change of pace.” We laugh. He talks a bit about himself, a bit about the book, but returns to what will become the tonic note of the key he has chosen for the evening—a kind of flippant, self-deprecatory observational humor that ranges topically from hand models to Star Wars to evolution. For the most part, people are laughing. But there are moments interspersed when he returns to the novel, either to read from it or to talk about it, which strike me as discordant. His two readings, taken from the first and last parts of the book, speak to one another and cohere around an idea of “truth beyond delusion.” They demonstrate the real emotional and literary power of the book. But these abrupt key changes in the lecture between (mostly) comedy and (some) sincerity, between (mostly) flippancy and (some) reverence, feel, above all, dissonant. In March, when George Saunders visited Davidson, his humor seemed generally consistent with the overall style and purpose of his presentation. His speech and readings seemed a part of an intentional, general project that involved equal parts humility, sincerity, and humor. But Whitehead’s lecture felt different.

In my notebook are questions I scrawled into the margins during the lecture. One reads, “What’s going on?”; another, “Is he, like, making fun of us?”; another still, “Maybe he’s critiquing our impulse to invite him and have him speak here??” The take of some people I’ve spoken to has been that his comedy act was a purposeful eschewing of the writerly mantle we wanted to thrust upon him; perhaps, as a black man speaking to a largely white audience in a former slave state, he was deliberately rebuking our impulse to fly him down to enlighten and educate us. (Think, for those who have read the novel, about Cora in the museum in South Carolina.)

The idea that this performance was intentionally discomfiting, though, is improbable for a couple of reasons, foremost among them the fact that almost all of Whitehead’s talks on YouTube about The Underground Railroad contain bits identical to the ones he gave us. But more important still is the fact that his moments of sincerity—the moments when his tone aligned, however briefly, with the tone of Sample’s introduction—threaten the idea that this was all a coherent performance with a singular aim. By the end of the lecture, a lot of students had stopped laughing. Some were appalled, some were bored; most of us were simply puzzled.

*          *          *

The fact is that many of us were primed for disappointment. There was a Q&A session earlier that day in the 900 Room that was almost full of students (mostly English majors, but I spotted many who were not). Some questions Whitehead answered comfortably, but many more he seemed simply to dodge.

When one student asked, “Why make the underground railroad an actual railroad?”—a question that’s been asked by Oprah, Audible, and pretty much every interviewer in every interview available on the internet—Whitehead fired off a response that seemed as practiced as the standup routines he would give later that night. But when Meg Houck ’20 asked him about the circumlocutive language in a rape scene that occurs early in the book, about his being a man writing from a female perspective during a time of sustained and horrific violence against the female body, Whitehead swerved. He responded with a fairly shallow “the violence is there by omission” answer, either failing or refusing to recognize that Meg’s question was specifically about why implicit omission is the strategy he chose. “I wasn’t satisfied with that answer,” Meg tells me. “I understand that he wants to distance his identity from his artistic imperative and what that produces, but it felt like a specific enough question not to cover my reading of the whole novel.”

Evan Yi ’18 asked Whitehead a question about the genre of science fiction, its historical investment in an Enlightenment ideal of science as “automatic progress,” and this idea’s anti-black underpinnings. “He deflected my question entirely,” Evan says. “I think he didn’t want to be made a prophet for all questions black, or a scholar, but understood only as a writer of craft . . . But given that his writing has historically intertwined questions of blackness and science fiction, I was hoping for more than a gimmick to get out of any abstract responsibility to the subject material.” Whitehead’s default mode in the 900 Room might be described as, simply, a kind of autopilot in which questions that don’t have programmed responses were evaded: their terms deliberately misread, misheard, misunderstood, or ignored.

Maybe the Q&A was a lesson about how we should read—a lesson in how the author is not the ultimate demystifying force, about how we ought to privilege our own reading and decoding of a text over the intentions of its creator. Roland Barthes had this idea in 1967: in his seminal essay “The Death of the Author,” he argued that the polyphony and intertextuality of a literary work should be left to speak for itself. Barthes’s idea was that meaning is often generated despite or beyond authorial intent. My question during the Q&A with Whitehead was about how Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West influenced his portrayal of the antagonist, Ridgeway, and his gang. His response was something to the tune of, “Well, I don’t really remember reading Blood Meridian, but I definitely read The Road during the time I was writing this.” I was surprised and confused: the references to Blood Meridian were overt, patently obvious to a careful reader of both works. Ridgeway as the physically imposing, eerily charismatic, strangely scientific villain was a direct invocation of Judge Holden; one of Ridgeway’s cohorts wore a necklace of human ears, exactly as David Brown from Holden’s gang had; and, at one point during Cora’s captivity with Ridgeway, the sunset is described as “the red in the west.” I thought my question would be a softball. But it wasn’t; Whitehead made a joke about reading The Road in a Dallas BBQ restaurant and moved on.

The fact of the matter is that Ridgeway was indirectly written by McCarthy, whether Whitehead intended it or not. I don’t think it’s outlandish to say that there are things in The Underground Railroad—which, I’ll reiterate, is a great, timely, and valuable novel—that no longer exist, and perhaps never existed, inside the man that spoke to us. Barthes would certainly agree.

However, Barthes be damned, the college paid Whitehead an impressive sum to come and speak with us; and Whitehead, a writer who has chosen to write about slavery in a political moment that is racially charged to fever point, accepted our invitation. As Jalin Jackson ’19 told me, “Perhaps a simple comment on any issue would have been sufficient. He didn’t offer the reflection we know he’s capable of. Whitehead may be a great writer, but while ignoring the great responsibility that comes with that is understandable, it’s reckless.” It’s no coincidence that the first accolade on the cover of the novel that the eye is drawn to—on the top left corner—comes from the nation’s first black president. We’re not talking about Whitehead’s zombie novel, Zone One, which he mentioned several times throughout the Q&A. We’re talking about his novel about slavery: about the selling, buying, beating, raping, and killing of black people.

*          *          *

Jalin is in a class with me called “African American Literature since 1900.” In it, we’ve read the works of W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison—all writers whom Whitehead mentioned at some point during either the Q&A or the lecture. One overarching theme of our curriculum has to do with the role of the black writer in a country that understood (and understands) its black population as subhuman. In stark contrast to Barthes, African American literature throughout the 19th century involves an understanding, often explicit, of the black writer as someone who can use prose as a sociopolitical tool for uplift and advancement. Du Bois famously claimed, in his 1926 essay “Criteria for Negro Art,” that he “does not give a damn for any art that is not propaganda,” positioning the intentionality and politics of the writer at the forefront of aesthetic consideration. “I stand in utter shamelessness,” he writes, “and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always . . . for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy.” In his 1937 essay “A Blueprint for Negro Writing,” Richard Wright argues, “the ideological unity of Negro writers and the alliance of that unity with all the progressive ideas of our day is the primary prerequisite for collective work. On the shoulders of white writers and Negro writers alike rest the responsibility of ending this mistrust and isolation.” So the writer in African American literature, far from being “dead,” is understood as crucially alive: a voice with agency that uses poetry or prose for social or political change. We can debate the theoretical soundness of this philosophy of the author all we want; either way, this is probably why many students—myself included—who have been reading the black writers of the past century were surprised and troubled by Whitehead’s Q&A and lecture.

When Whitehead finished speaking and the floor opened up for questions in the Duke Family Performance Hall, the first person to the microphone asked about the kind of obligation he felt to characters who, albeit fictional, represented real historical struggles and horrors undergone by many real people. Before a lengthy, wandering, and ultimately noncommittal answer, the first words out of the author’s mouth were: “Well, I think, in an abstract sense, nobody really has any obligation to do anything.” I would venture to say that many students had the same question in their heads as I did in that moment: Really?

The Underground Railroad deserves its praise; it is an immensely readable, intensely provocative piece of historical speculative fiction, and I would suggest it to anyone who asked me for a recommendation. So I guess it’s the very value of the novel that fueled our disappointment. Yes: it is unfair to expect Whitehead to be a declamatory prophet of race in America. But I don’t think that’s what we were asking for. What we were asking for was, at the very least, something more than a joke, a wink, and a shrug.

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