How To Teach Colson Whitehead in College Classrooms

This semester, I’ve read novels by Colson Whitehead in two of my classes. The experiences were different since in this class I read the novel as a student, becoming aware of plot twists at the same time as everyone else, but I also read Whitehead for a class that I’m TAing for. For that class, I had read the novel (The Underground Railroad) before the students and I helped plan discussion questions and was pretty involved in deciding what we were going to focus on in class.

Depending on who you ask about the merits of an English major, sometimes I feel the need to defend teaching contemporary novels in the classroom. So I’m writing this post in an attempt to both reflect on my experiences with Whitehead in college classes and in anticipation of anyone who might think these novels don’t “fit” with their idea of an English literature/college writing class. I thought it might be fun to switch up the structure of how I usually post and include a list and flex my educational mindset a bit.

How To Teach Colson Whitehead in College Classrooms:

  1. Establish some context: In his writing, Whitehead is constantly using allusions to different times or experiences in American history, even if they are anachronistic or don’t clearly follow the chronology of his novel. This is seen in Zone One multiple times, but here is one example: “He was on the roof, the brown floodwaters pouring around the house. Why do these yokels build a house there when they know it’s a flood zone, why do they keep rebuilding? He says, Because this disaster is our home. I was born here (228). This quotation reminded me of When the Levees Broke and the criticism that people faced after Hurricane Katrina. Some people, rather than trying to help, thought it was appropriate to ask why these people chose to live there in the first place, almost blaming them for not knowing better. Though we didn’t read the novel in class, I figured I’d add another example from The Underground Railroad, a novel that details a young woman’s journey on a literal underground railroad to escape slavery. Whitehead writes, “His patients believed they were being treated for blood ailments. The tonics the hospital administered, however, were merely sugar water. With this line, Whitehead is alluding to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, which took place much later than the era of the Underground Railroad. Giving the context to these allusions is important, but it is worth asking why Whitehead chooses to draw from other events in his novels.
  2. Connect Whitehead’s Novel to Course Concepts: Spencer has done a great job in his post of tying Zone One to the concepts of memory/forgetting that we’ve been studying all semester. I see lots of connections to memory/forgetting in The Underground Railroad as well because Whitehead challenges the reader’s expectations about what the underground railroad was and subverts the notion that escaping slavery meant the end of hardship for African Americans. Also, I think one of the traps we can fall into when reading Colson Whitehead is to say, “well, he speaks about truth or memory or [insert abstract concept here].” Students should be pushed to develop these ideas in writing explaining what is Whitehead saying about truth and why is it effective?
  3. Pay Attention to Whitehead’s Construction of Architecture: More so than many authors I’ve read, Whitehead is concerned with the literal structures in his novels. We see this in Zone One when he breaks Manhattan into “zones” and “grids,” but also in his descriptions of the city skyscrapers. For example, towards the beginning of the novel, Whitehead writes, “He remembered how things used to be, the customs of the skyline. Up and down the island the buildings collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another’s shadows” (6). Whitehead too uses architecture as a way to talk about the Underground Railroad because he constructs a literal Underground Railroad line (not factually accurate, but really cool) with station masters, platforms and hulking train cars. For example, Whitehead writes, “The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden cross ties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus” (67). Thinking about how things get built, and who builds them, is a great springboard to get students to talk about the importance of origins.
  4. Enjoy: Colson Whitehead is a remarkable writer and he truly “has a way with words.” His novels are fun to read and engaging, in my opinion, but they also showcase just what good writing looks like. It’s worth stepping back and acknowledging the beauty of his prose sometimes. In that spirit, here is my favorite line from Zone One: “Relieved of care and worry, the stragglers lived eternally and undying in their personal heavens” (197). While the majority of the book is focused on how the characters need to destroy these stragglers and skels, this line reminds me that these were (are?) people too and gives some comfort in their deaths and eternal hauntings.

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