Students, community members, faculty and staff filled into the International Ballroom of the Bruce Pitman Center Monday night to hear Pulitzer Prize winner and acclaimed author Colson Whitehead.
Whitehead was selected as the University of Idaho’s keynote speaker for Black History Month.
Yolanda Bisbee, executive director of Tribal Relations, said the event had been over a year in the making. Whitehead’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Idaho Humanities Council.
UI President Chuck Staben gave a brief welcome to the crowd and spoke about his love for reading.
“Author visits like this are really special times in the life of the university, the intellectual life of our university. They foreground something very fundamental to the experience of higher education, and it’s something that we should not take for granted,” Staben said. “Reading is one of the great pleasures in life and it’s also at the heart of university history.”
Whitehead began his keynote with a personal biography, telling the audience of the major struggles he faced early on in his career, such as his first book being rejected by many publishers.
He spoke about his book, “The Underground Railroad,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and other awards. Former President Barack Obama held the book in high-esteem and chose it for his reading list and Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club.
Whitehead said he was inspired by the New York City subway system, which helped spark ideas for the book that eventually became “The Underground Railroad.” Whitehead said he went on to write other books, carrying the idea with him until he was sure he was mature enough to take his idea and turn it into a reality.
Whitehead read passages from “The Underground Railroad” during his address and provided explanations and context around those passages.
Whitehead then answered audience questions after his speech. When asked about how his book relates to today’s world, he said the book was published in August 2016, just months before the presidential election. Whitehead also commented on social justice issues and his personal experience with race relations in the U.S.
“The book does overlap with what’s going on now, because if you write about racism in 1850, you’re also talking about racism now. Because things have changed, things haven’t changed,” Whitehead said. “After the book came out, people started asking about Black Lives Matter and started asking about (President Donald) Trump, because if you write a book about white supremacy and you elect a white supremacist president, obviously writing about the past is writing about the present.”
Izaiah Dolezal, UI senior and international studies and sociology major, introduced Whitehead and spoke about his great appreciation for Whitehead’s works.
“We are honored to have Colson Whitehead with us as we observe Black History Month. In his work, Mr. Whitehead has expertly interwoven fiction, history and more recent events,” Dolezal said. “His work is a challenge to all of us to critically reflect upon the shared history of the United States, because black history is for everyone.”
Elizabeth Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org on Twitter @EJMarshall_