The speculative fictional central narrative device chosen by the author, is a physical, industrial railroad, that literally runs underground, was questioned. The reasons for questioning the wisdom of this choice were reasonable: "white people's kids are going to believe it and there are too many phony ideas about the underground railroad already." By this are meant the quilts with special designs, secret maps, white people ran the escape routes, by the means of a secret organization were able to whisk thousands of people from the Deep South's Cotton Kingdom states to free soil states in the north, and many more phony ideas of what the means of escape from antebellum slavery were.*
Whitehead's novel has joined the talking points in the African American community concerning the depictions of slavery being made in popular culture / entertainment, including the controversy that sunk the fortunes of Nate Parker's (2016) film, Birth of A Nation, which seemed poised at the BAFTAs for Oscar recognition until social media revealed to the mass audience that he'd been accused of rape back in college, found not guilty but the woman had committed suicide later. Then of course, there are the Tarantino's massive violence revenge fantasies in which a black slave shoots up evil white slave owners and their henchmen.
I've had long conversations with people, black and white, about the films, but until this occasion hadn't discussed The Underground Railroad. Thinking as both an historian and a fiction writer, the reason the book is called The Underground Railroad and that the author creates a speculative fiction device that is a literal (within the terms of fiction, the novel itself) railroad that runs underground, is that this allows him to recounts all the stations of the African American Passion (it was Easter dinner after all), which history has literally been kept underground, but yet has continued to run in legal and financial documents and in memory.
There is another reason too, which is that the author could then employ the device as form, structure and even to a degree style, all three of which are armors for the novelist's psyche, as well as part of the tool kit for making a coherent story (which often as we know real life is not -- a coherent story).
Beyond that too, the author was allowing himself some sardonic play with white people's -- and black too -- capacity to romanticize the idea of escape route, and generally get so very wrong. He pushed that anti-historical determination to the very limit. In many ways I thought this was brilliant, particularly in aspiration.
Whitehead is not alone among younger novelists who recently have published work that aspires to bring the penetration of the history of US slavery into the present. But White Tears (2017) by transplanted from England to hipster Brooklyn, Hari Kunzru is not successful in his execution.
Like Colson's novel, White Tears has a spec fic aspect also -- or magical realism as so many love to call that kind of thing (I don't). Though in a sense possession of a so-white guy by a long dead (fictional) blues man who suffers horrendous abuse in prison after murdering with a knife his girlfriend -- and then somehow gets the white boy to murder people with a knife too and suffer terrible abuse in prison -- is perhaps more horror than spec fic?
Maybe Kunzru was attempting to make fun of white guys grasping for personal authenticity by going for 'authentic' black stuff? (Want something good, steal if from black people . . . .) The author further attempted to mate these white boys' quest for cool authentic identity with our carcel state which historically and currently specifically targets black men by giving one of the boys a fabulously wealthy family, whose current wealth comes from private prisons as with Eric Prince and his ilks. Then he tries to hook up young white guys' putting on black identity to make themselves 'real' with the colonial - imperial war machine too. This doesn't work, particularly as almost all the book is focused on two souless white boy geeks, one rich the other not, about whom honestly who gives a shyte?
If Kunzru wanted to show that white people have no culture of their own, this book doesn't do it. Well, it does it, by the conscious choice to center specifically USian contemporary brand of socially and emotionally incapacitated white geek guys.
The Guardian recently ran a piece on Black writers engaging with both lit and spec fic here. **
Supposedly The Underground Railroad is going to be an amazilla television series.
Marlon James (his A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) got the Booker Prize) is currently engaged in an epic African fantasy project, titled Dark Star. Seven Killings was optioned for an HBO series.
Junot Díaz's Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) might be considered the gate opener for this successful combination of literary and genre fiction. It won both the Pulitzer and National Book Awards, as well as other prizes. It was optioned for a film, if I am recalling correctly, back then, but there doesn't seem to be any recent news about that.
* For the most complete and factual account of the means of who and how and to where slaves escaped their condition, from the earliest colonial era to the end of the Civil War, one cannot do better than read Fergus Bordewich's Bound for Canaan.
** The brilliant fiction work that African American women are doing, with or without the inclusion of speculative fiction / genre tropes, seemingly is mostly ignored when it comes to the prestige prizes. The women who are first generation African immigrants, or from the Caribbean, seem to do somewhat better though, when it comes to the Big Validations, particularly in the UK. I'm not sure of this though, since I haven't gathered numbers and stats. Somebody must have though!
Have any of their works been optioned for prestige television?