Teaching “The Underground Railroad” this semester

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For two weeks now, I’ve been reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad with first-year composition students at Spelman College. In addition to discussing Whitehead’s masterful use of prose and figurative language, we’ve connected his ethos as a writer to Toni Morrison’s calling upon African American literature in “Rootedness” that fiction “must be political” and it “must work.”

Other topics have included Whitehead’s ability to use the past to set a mirror of truth upon the present, specifically issues of racism the United States now faces. Students draw comparisons between the patrollers in the narrative to police officers who have been charged with police brutality today. Other themes/topics present in the novel they’ve found interesting include the impact of sexual assault, womanism within matrilineal lines, toxic masculinity, and the atrocities of slavery Whitehead so compelling explores. To the final point, previously, many of my students didn’t spend much time studying slavery as it existed in the United States. Though fictional, the well-researched details concerning slavery in the narrative has allowed for complex in class discussions about the creation of American Identity through and following slavery–American Exceptionalism, The City Upon A Hill, Manifest Destiny, etc.

Next week, we will apply Aristotle’s Four Causes to selected characters as they’ve developed throughout the novel. We will consider how environment impacts the mental, physical and spiritual self.

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