In 2016, I started writing the “Fiction through an Archival Lens” column for Archival Outlook. For four glorious (to me) issues, I got to talk about books that spoke to me as an archivist. I submitted a fifth column at the end of November 2016 and soon learned that Archival Outlook was cutting its page budget and that column five would not appear.
Although I understood that Archival Outlook wasn’t able to save space for matters of archives and fiction, I was saddened to lose the column and the venue. I wanted to keep writing it, and I really wanted that last column, about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad to run as I felt it actually said something I hadn’t managed to say before. And then the indecision came . . . . not being sure what to with it (despite helpful suggestions), I just didn’t do anything. And time passed. And passed. So, when Eira said that she’d like to get Reading Archivists up and running again, I knew what I wanted to contribute.
So, anyway, here’s my “time capsule” column five. I haven’t changed anything, although on the rereading, I can see a few changes I would make.
FICTION THROUGH AN ARCHIVAL LENS: COLUMN FIVE
Truths, Lies, and The Underground Railroad
Although this is my first column for 2017, I’m writing it as we head into the last month of 2016—a year of transformation and trauma and one that has left a sense of loss in its wake. As an archivist, perhaps one of the most perplexing issues 2016 was the proliferation of fake news stories and people’s willingness to prize beliefs over proven and documented facts. How will we tackle documenting what really (and falsely) happened this past year while separating truth from lies?
One of the best books of 2016—Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award-winning The Underground Railroad—focuses on truths and lies and seems particularly suited for where we are now. Facts, inventions, and time slips exist side by side in this story of oppression, brutality, and the search for freedom. Accompanying these are questions and assumptions about authenticity and agency, truths and lies.
The book tells the story of Cora, a slave who runs away from a Georgia plantation via the Underground Railroad, depicted as an actual railroad transporting slaves, hopefully toward freedom. As she travels to different states, each one bringing new sights, lessons, and horrors, Cora is hunted by Ridgeway, a slave catcher intent on taking her back to Georgia.
I especially wanted to read The Underground Railroad after hearing Whitehead’s summer 2016 interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, in which he spoke about his research. His use of the Works’ Progress Administration Federal Writers Project oral histories helped him get the details of the slaves’ lives right and made him realize “how much I was going to have to put my protagonist and all her friends through.”
Whitehead also spoke about the runaway slave advertisements in the book, which came from the digitized collections of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Although he wrote one of the advertisements, he took the others directly from the collection because “sometimes you can’t compete with the actual historical document.”
Along with its use of historical sources, The Underground Railroad plays with history and its interpretation along with the written word. “Lies” (or counterfactuals) coexist with the truth: the pre-Civil War America of the nineteenth century not only features underground trains, but also skyscrapers and advanced medical programs. One of the book’s most striking themes is how falseness can become the truth. In seemingly “civilized” South Carolina (the reality is sinister and chilling), Cora works in displays at a museum meant to portray American life, depicting a sanitized and inaccurate version of life as a native in “Darkest Africa” and as a slave in a “Typical Day on the Plantation” exhibit. When Cora tells the curator that one exhibit is not authentic, the curator responds that, of course, authenticity is important, but ranks below other concerns.
Cora learns she cannot always recognize the truth as easily as she does when at the museum, but comes to see that all written words and experiences are not equal. She progresses from illiterate to a critical reader. Her early exposure to texts is via recital (another slave can recite the Declaration of Independence). As she learns to read, she learns to question what she reads. After arguing with her protector about what the Bible says about slavery, Cora “blamed the people who wrote it down. People always got things wrong, on purpose as much as by accident.” Just like at the museum. She turns to reading almanacs and loves them largely because they are facts that “couldn’t be shaped into what they were not.” Ridgeway also notes that newspapers present false images of slavery to “impress the fantasy of the happy plantation and the contented slave.”
Cora also visits a library where she reads accounts of slaves, describing the “miseries of their bondage and then their hair-raising escapes. She recognized their stories as their own.” It is here that Cora feels the written word reflects rather than lies to her.
Cora’s struggle to create her own future and escape her past takes her on a multipart journey via the Underground Railroad and to a better understanding of her own identity. As a book to close out 2016, The Underground Railroad serves as a reminder that thinking critically is a tool that can lead to transformation and possibly, a brighter future. And it left me thinking that archivists will indeed spend 2017 doing what we’ve always done, rolling up our sleeves and working to document and preserve the world we live in.