African American History Month - The Underground Railroad


For February, our theme for our book selection was a work of recent fiction that addresses race in America. We chose The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead tells the story of Cora, a runaway slave on the underground railroad and through his choice of structure and decision to incorporate fantastical elements is able to reveal the journey of African Americans up to present day.

In getting ready for our discussions and after reading many articles and listening to podcasts I have gathered what I think was helpful and interesting and included the links here so that you can delve deeper into the material as much or as little as you desire.

I have also included discussion questions that I found thought provoking and good points to kick off a discussion of the book.

You'll also find a section with Colson Whitehead's other published works. 

Finally, I have listed other books and media that you may find to your liking.


The following podcast is an interview with Colson Whitehead. Michael Silverblatt always has interesting insights.

KCRW's Bookworm with Michael Silverblatt

The following is an article from The New Yorker regarding the real underground railroad and it's resurgence in our popular literature and media. It provides alot of factual information that is a good supplement to our reading of the novel.


The following is an interview with Colson Whitehead on Salon.

"Why Colson Whitehead made the Underground Railroad real: “It’s fanciful and childish, but it also had many possibilities”

The following is the Slate Audio Book Club

Check out these images of the underground railroad 


Oprah picked The Underground Railroad for her book club

Oprah Talks to The Underground Railroad Author Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead talked about his novel, The Underground Railroad

at the 33rd annual Miami Book Fair 

Fresh Air's Terry Gross speaks with Colson Whitehead

“If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America. It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.”
— Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Discussion Questions

1. How does the depiction of slavery in The Underground Railroad compare to other depictions in literature and film? 

2. The scenes on Randall's plantation are horrific—how did the writing affect you as a reader? 

3. In North Carolina, institutions like doctor's offices and museums that were supposed to help ‘black uplift’ were corrupt and unethical. How do Cora's challenges in North Carolina mirror what America is still struggling with today? 

4. Cora constructs elaborate daydreams about her life as a free woman and dedicates herself to reading and expanding her education. What role do you think stories play for Cora and other travelers using the underground railroad? 

5. "The treasure, of course, was the underground railroad... Some might call freedom the dearest currency of all." How does this quote shape the story for you? 

6. How does Ethel's backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora's use of her home affect you? 

7. What are your impressions of John Valentine's vision for the farm? 

8. When speaking of Valentine's Farm, Cora explains "Even if the adults were free of the shackles that held them fast, bondage had stolen too much time. Only the children could take full advantage of their dreaming. If the white men let them." What makes this so impactful both in the novel and today? 

9. What do you think about Terrance Randall's fate? 

10. How do you feel about Cora's mother's decision to run away? How does your opinion of Cora's mother change once you’ve learned about her fate? 

11. Whitehead creates emotional instability for the reader: if things are going well, you get comfortable before a sudden tragedy. What does this sense of fear do to you as you're reading? 

12. Who do you connect with most in the novel and why? 

13. How does the state-by-state structure impact your reading process? Does it remind you of any other works of literature? 

14. The book emphasizes how slaves were treated as property and reduced to objects. Do you feel that you now have a better understanding of what slavery was like? 

15. Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked? 

16. Does The Underground Railroad change the way you look at the history of America, especially in the time of slavery and abolitionism? 

Discussion questions provided by the publisher

Other Books by Colson Whitehead

Books Colson Whitehead Used in Writing

The Underground Railroad

Other Works You May Like