The genre-bending, Pulitzer Prize-winning author knew he wanted to be an artist when he was a student at Harvard. Now he will will receive the award that honors his arrival.
By Sabrina Li '20
Colson Whitehead has won just about every honor a literary intellectual could hope to receive: a National Book Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize for his most recent novel The Underground Railroad, a magical realist narrative reimagining the historic Underground Railroad as an actual railroad and the horrors of life on the plantation and the escape from it. On Thursday, April 26 during the annual ARTS FIRST festival (April 26-29), Whitehead will be receiving yet another honor to add to his impressive resume: the Harvard Arts Medal.
When I interviewed Whitehead, I asked him what receiving this award meant to him. “Certainly, when I was 18-years-old and 19-years-old, I wanted to be an artist in the world and didn’t know how,” he said. “It’s very odd 20 years later to have finally figured out how to do it and make a living and keep going. So it’s a marker of who I was 25
In his first semester at Harvard, Whitehead was exposed to the novelist and short story writer Robert Coover, in his second, a class on modernism. Being at Harvard, Whitehead discovered “a different sort of way of being a writer and talking about the world.” He took many classes in the African American studies department and he studied theater – not performance, plays. He continues to draw upon the foundational texts he was exposed to during his education. “You can’t pay someone back for introducing you to Ulysses or for brining you to Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs,” he said. “You can’t really repay that debt.”
Whitehead has done more than just respond or imitate these traditional texts from his younger years. He has gone on to bend genre, form, and time – creating a style and voice of his own. In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead weaves the brutal with the fantastical in a jarring narrative of slavery. By using magical realism, Whitehead alters chronology and aligns disparate historical episodes with each other. “By bending reality, by deforming what actually happened to create a new narrative I’m allowed to have a different sort of view and relationship to American history that I couldn’t do in a straightforward realistic story,” he said.
Whitehead balances the surreal and the brutal – making sure that the fantastical never detracts from the very real violence that was inflicted upon his ancestors. He was adamant about telling events in a matter-of-fact fashion. “Former slaves, when they saw horrible things that were happening to them when they were younger, they didn’t dramatize it. They didn’t adorn it. The terrible events speak for themselves,” he said.
The Underground Railroad is first and foremost a work of art. In the literary world recently there has been much conflation over fiction being turned into pure, historical fact. The Underground Railroad hasn’t been spared from this crticism; however, the good that has come out of it, at least from Whitehead's point of view, is that people have been moved to do further research after reading the book. While it was not Whitehead’s intent for his book to be seen as a historical text, he notes that there is “some essential truth” that students and teachers in literature and history classes have come away with, and that is something Whitehead embraces.
Nor is The Underground Railroad a reaction piece. It is not a response to racism today even though, as Whitehead said, “when you talk about racism way back when, you are talking about racism now [too].”
When Whitehead wrote the novel three years ago, he did not have an intended audience in mind or a specific political takeaway. He just wanted to fulfill his own ambitions and complete the project successfully. He wanted to immerse himself in the world he was creating and the forces and political energies of the era he was inhabiting. Whitehead said that those forces are still prevalent today.
Whitehead’s novel comes at a time in which there has been a surge of black voices coming into the pop culture mainstream through art. Whitehead believes that his book is not helping or hurting anyone, nor does he see this representation of black history in art hurting anyone either. “In terms of slavery movies and books now,” he said, “it’s really a fraction of the books and movies we have, say, about World War II, but no one says: Oh, we have all these World War II movies [and] we [are] thinking about things differently. Maybe there’s, you know, Django Unchained, the TV show Underground, Twelve Years a Slave and [my] book. That’s five or six things. It’s not a lot.”
What The Underground Railroad doesn’t allow is for readers to be complacent in revisiting American history and how it has been traditionally told to us. And that is a lot.
Colson Whitehead ’91 will be honored with the Harvard Arts Medal, presented by Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, 4 p.m. Thursday, April 26, at Sanders Theatre. The actor John Lithgow ’67, ArD ’05 will conduct an onstage conversation with Whitehead, and National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman ’20 will offer a poetry reading. The event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required. Contact the Harvard Box Office by stopping by Farkas Hall, 10-12 Holyoke Street, by calling 617.496.2222 or visiting boxoffice.harvard.edu.