"This song poses an enigma," he said, earning laughter from those in attendance before drawing a parallel between his early manuscripts rejected by publishers and Summer's cake left out in the rain.
Whitehead has a dry wit and an understated style of delivery, so it was jarring when he began to read from The Underground Railroad, his story of an escapee from slavery who rides a literal railroad across the antebellum south. The book is serious and critical: It won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Moonlight Director Barry Jenkins has signed on to adapt it into an eight-part miniseries for Amazon. It was the reason for Whitehead's visit to Boise as part of The Cabin's Readings & Conversations series. Whitehead, however, is a jokester with a penchant for genre fiction and a wariness of being pegged as a beacon of social consciousness or activism.
"You get cast as a spokesman for black America, and really you're just a spokesman for yourself," he said.
His reading Tuesday evening—a selection of pages that described the protagonist's experiences in Georgia—stressed the true violence of American slavery. In it, several slaves are forced to dance and two are viciously beaten. In other chapters, however, Whitehead cleaves from the particulars of history: There were no steam engines on the Underground Railroad, and Great Society-esque education and economic programs for African-Americans didn't actually appear in the South prior to the Civil War. His aim, he said, was for fidelity in depicting white supremacy.
"When I was writing the book, I wouldn't stick to the facts—I'd stick to the truth," Whitehead said. "I wanted to be realistic, and that means showing the depravity of slavery as it actually was."
The Underground Railroad and Whitehead's comments drew numerous questions from the audience, and during the Q&A that concluded the evening, The Cabin Director Kurt Zwolfer summarized several of them when he asked whether the "scar of American slavery" would ever heal of be forgotten. Whitehead's response was brief: "Not in the lifetime of anybody in this room," he said.