Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead speaks during Presidential Lecture Series
There is, baked into many of Colson Whitehead’s most famous stories, an element of escape.
Escape from slavery. Escape from a brutal reform school in the Jim Crow south. Escape from a zombie apocalypse.
For Whitehead, escape means hope for safe refuge. And that, the author said, “is what keeps you going.”
“Whether the stakes are low ... or much higher … I’m dramatizing this need for a place where you can be yourself,” Whitehead said. “Where you can be free from institutional stresses.”
Whitehead, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, spoke Tuesday night during the third installment of Creighton University’s Presidential Lecture Series. The series, which this year focuses on the topic of race, featured previous presentations from authors Edwidge Danticat and Damon Tweedy, MD.
The series concludes March 22 with a presentation by Isabel Wilkerson, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns.
Whitehead’s discussion was at least two years in the making. Originally scheduled as an on-campus event in March 2020, it was one of the first events Creighton canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tuesday’s talk was held virtually.
Following an introduction from Sarah Walker, PhD, vice president for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Creighton, Whitehead read an excerpt from his latest novel, Harlem Shuffle, which follows a Harlem businessman who becomes embroiled in several criminal escapades during the 1960s.
After the reading, Whitehead took questions from Tracy Leavelle, PhD, director of Creighton’s Kingfisher Institute for the Liberal Arts and Professions, and, later, from the audience of viewers.
He spoke about his childhood as a “shut-in,” devouring superhero stories and Stephen King novels and burning his way through the VHS collection at the local video store. He discussed his music library (“a 3,000-song playlist that ranges from punk to hip-hop to disco … one or two opera songs”), which he often listens to as he writes.
One question from Leavelle noted the brutality present in many of Whitehead’s works, including The Underground Railroad, which deals with slavery, and The Nickel Boys, which is set in a fictionalized version of the real-life Florida School for Boys, in which children were regularly physically and sexually abused.
“American history is often quite terrible, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t teach it,” Whitehead said, responding to a question that noted both novels are now being taught in some college courses. “I understand the impulse to not engage all the time … But you can always vary your syllabus between the heavy and the light. Those are both parts of the human experience. All of us are veering from the tragic to the absurd in our lives.”
Whitehead also noted the fundamental tension in many of his stories between hope and skepticism that the world will get better. It’s tension, he said, that feels all too relevant given recent events.
“I haven’t heard the words ‘nuclear war’ so often since I was a little kid,” he said. “How much can we hope that things will get better for us or our kids, and how much is the world telling us that things won’t get better?”
He said he was never able to bring himself to visit the Florida School for Boys. He said after researching the school and learning about the abuse the children there suffered, the thought of going made him feel “incredibly sick.”
After covering such weighty topics, Whitehead said he wanted to veer in a more lighthearted direction with Harlem Shuffle. His body of work as a whole, including his post-apocalyptic zombie novel Zone One, and coming-of-age story Sag Harbor, he said, encompasses both the tragic and comic side of the human experience.
“The world can be quite a terrible place, and also, we have to believe, perhaps vainly, that the world can get better,” he said. “The tussle between tragedy and comedy, the light and dark, is in a lot of my work. And it’s in a lot of our hearts and minds over the course of the day.”
*** Creighton’s Presidential Lecture Series is presented in partnership with the Kingfisher Institute for the Liberal Arts and Professions, the Division of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and the Creighton Intercultural Center.