UD Reads 2020 choice: The Underground Railroad

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Photo courtesy of Doubleday Publishers

As any undergraduate student at the University of Dallas knows, the journey through the rich literary experience starts with the UD Reads book, sent to students the summer before orientation. 

Dr. Debra Romanick Baldwin, Associate Professor and Chair of the English Department, described the 2020-2021 choice, Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” as “recent, topical, and highly acclaimed.”  

The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017,  portrays the hardships of a Black woman named Cora who flees from slavery on a cotton plantation in Georgia.  

Dr. Mark Petersen, Assistant Professor of History, explained that Whitehead uses “magical realism” to represent some of the less historical narration. For example, Whitehouse paints the Underground Railroad as a physical railroad–conductors, engineers and all—under the actual soil of the South. 

Although it is incredibly timely, “The Underground Railroad” was not chosen for UD Reads in response to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The Underground Railroad was chosen well before the heightened talk of race relations,” Cherie Hohertz, co-chair of UD Reads and the Dean of Cowan-Blakley Memorial Library, wrote over email. “We have a UD Reads committee who carefully selects each year’s title based on a number of criteria, most especially the ability of the book to be used across the curriculum.”

Undoubtedly, the book choice aged well. Freshman Luke Ortwerth was worried about coming to UD after seeing accounts of discrimination at the @poc_at_ud Instagram page.

“I was honestly nervous, I was like, ‘Am I going into a community that wasn’t really accepting?’” Ortwerth said. “When they sent the book out, and when we actually did have those discussions in our small groups and everything, I realized that this is a very accepting community.”

Freshman Sebastian Gutierrez also said the conversations about this topic helped to affirm the acceptance of the UD community. Receiving the book in the mail was especially exciting for Gutierrez.

The book arrived “two days after I’d gotten back from a Black Lives Matter rally,” Gutierrez said. “It just helped me solidify that UD was a really cool place to end up going.”

However, this enthusiasm was not the universal perspective of the class of 2024. “I thought it was a mild political statement for us to be reading this book,” freshman Ella Martin said. “I wasn’t really opposed to it, but not really excited.”

Freshman Joe Dunikoski was simply interested in opening up these types of conversations, especially in light of recent events. “It would be really cool to see what my classmates [thought]… I’m going to be spending the next four years with [them] in going to UD, which is intellectually independent thinkers,” Dunikoski said.

Ortwerth commented on the emotional aspect of the work. He expanded on his favorite part, where Cora decides to remain on the plantation for some time even under hellish conditions.

“She still sees the beauty in everyday life and in the area that she’s in,” Ortwerth explained. “She kind of found her humanity when no one else gave her humanity.”

Baldwin emphasized a similar insight the book had to offer, focusing on one scene in particular.

“It had her looking up into the sky and hearing the sounds of the natural world and cherishing a freedom that allowed her to reconnect with humanity that all the violence she had suffered had almost bludgeoned out of her,” Baldwin wrote. 

“I think that insight is not only true historically but applicable universally – that constant abuse can distort one’s very vision, and that one needs a space to be able to look upwards without fear of being hit, or worse, and that doing so can allow one to reconnect with the right order of things and with one’s humanity,” she continued.

However, the book was not an easy read. Ortwerth’s first impression was that the story was very dark. Baldwin also grappled with the book. 

“I must say that I first struggled with the book, especially with its disorienting pastiche of history, magic, and metaphor – a feature of much postmodern fiction that I worry risks dulling readers’ historical awareness,” Baldwin wrote in an email. “I had to figure out the things that were bothering me and then find the things that brought the work into focus for me – where the weight of it, the truth of it, might rest.”

Petersen explained the significance of the modern perspective of the book.

“Reading this modern take on those traditions has advantages. For example, it highlights the continued relevance of these traditions to our own society and our own times,” he said.

“In addition, the book speaks to many of the big questions that we encounter elsewhere in our liberal education curriculum, including the human yearning for freedom from tyranny and the dehumanizing effects of violence for the victim as well as the perpetrator,” Petersen continued.  “As such, it’s an appropriate text for students about to launch into liberal education.”

Petersen also commented on the timeliness of the work and the universality of its topics.

“The book seems particularly appropriate as it addresses the legacy of slavery in the United States — a legacy our society continues to confront. Recent events have highlighted the work that still needs to be done,” Petersen stated. 

“The students were engaged and willing to think out loud about some difficult questions raised by the book and challenging perspectives on the past and how the past interacts with the present.”

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