Author Colson Whitehead spoke last week at UNC Greensboro’s University Concert and Lecture Series (UCLS), opening with a personal comic monologue and reading several selections from his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Underground Railroad,” for which he used documents from UNCG’s Digital Library on American Slavery (DLAS).
As part of the special 125th anniversary lecture, he took questions from the audience reflecting on his creative decisions and the historical realities portrayed within the book.
Whitehead also held an intimate discussion with students from a variety academic programs and levels of study. Whether they were students of library science adding to the DLAS, history students who had used the resource for research, African American and African Diaspora studies students analyzing Whitehead’s work for their dissertations or MFA in Creative Writing students at the beginning of their careers, they came prepared with serious, thoughtful questions concerning the novel and Whitehead’s interpretations of its contexts.
Central in their discussion was the way that “The Underground Railroad” includes vivid scenes and settings that illustrate the literal truth of slavery in the United States, but also contains a strong speculative element that Whitehead described as “states of American possibilities.”
“I think that each scholar who attended the discussion with Colson Whitehead left with a better understanding of the author, his works and our own scholarship,” said senior history major Victoria Starbuck, who is presently completing an honors thesis that examines the lives of women depicted within the DLAS’s runaway slave advertisement collection.
Starbuck, along with other students, appreciated the opportunity to hear from a writer who had worked with the same six to eight-line advertisements that may be the only record of the women who are the focus of her research.
“Whitehead’s visit with students emphasized the vital intellectual culture of UNCG that is at the heart of its mission to be an ‘inclusive, collaborative, and responsive institution making a difference in the lives of students and the communities it serves,’” said Associate Professor of English Noelle Morrissette, who facilitated the discussion. “It was an occasion for us as a university to reflect on the meaning of the Digital Library on American Slavery, the nature of contemporary fiction and our essential role as readers and interpreters of the past, present and potential future.”
On March 1, Morrissette will lead the Friends of the Library Book Discussion of Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” in conjunction with the exhibition of work by Sanford Biggers, currently on view at the Weatherspoon Art Museum. The talk begins at 7 p.m., with a pre-talk reception at 6:30 p.m., at the Weatherspoon.
Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications
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