Black History: Hidden Figures and The Underground Railroad

In recognition of Black History Month, this last post in February is about two experiences I’ve had this month related to African-American history. At the start of the month, I saw the movie, Hidden Figures, based on the non-fiction book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly. And during the last half of the month, I read The Underground Railroad, a novel by Colson Whitehead. Both have caused me to reflect about story and history—two themes I write about frequently in this blog.

First, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Hidden Figures. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak to it. But the movie told an unknown chapter in African-American history in a dramatic and engaging way. If Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backward and in heels, then these women “computers” did it backward, in heels, and running half a mile to the bathroom every day.

I didn’t grow up with the Jim Crow segregation laws because I came from a small town in the Northwest. I went to public school with Blacks starting in 1961, there were no separate drinking fountains or restrooms in my town, and there was no public transportation in town so no one worried about who sat in the back of the bus. I didn’t really become aware of racism until the mid-60s when the national news reported marches and riots in large cities.

When the movie was over, I wanted to know more. What was true and what wasn’t? Turns out, the Kevin Costner character is a composite, and no one really tore down the “colored” bathroom sign. Still, there weren’t restrooms for black women in every building at Langley, and Mary Jackson did have to search out a restroom (though Kathryn Johnson just used the unmarked white restrooms). Several other characters in the movie were also composites or fictional, but their attitudes seemed true to the period. As depicted in the film, African-American women at Langley really did work in separate rooms and ate in separate cafeterias.

Most of the salient points in the three protagonists’ histories were true. Kathryn Johnson did ask to attend briefings that no woman had previously attended, and she did verify the calculations for John Glenn’s first American orbit of Earth. And John Glenn did ask NASA to “get the girl to check the numbers.” Dorothy Vaughn was the first African-American supervisor at Langley and was a strong voice for the female computers who worked for her. Mary Jackson was the first African-American female engineer, and she did have to file a petition to get into the school where she could take courses she needed to qualify as an engineer.

So I discovered the story of Hidden Figures was definitely “Hollywoodized.” Nevertheless, I came away believing it was a true depiction both of the racism and sexism of the 1950s and of the intelligence and courage of these African-American women in contributing to the space program.

Shortly after seeing the movie, I began reading The Underground Railroad, which describes a better-known period in African-American history. This era in the 19th Century is filled with dramatic accounts of slave escapes and the elaborate and dangerous routes they took. I’ve read about gun-toting Harriet Tubman’s courageous trips to the South and about slaves hidden for months in barns and attics, much as Jews were hidden from the Nazis a century later. I wanted to read Colson Whitehead’s best-selling version of this epic story.

The book starts with a lengthy section describing life on a Georgia plantation under cruel masters and foremen. I believed his account. His writing is strong. I found Cora, the young female slave protagonist, to be sympathetic and believable. (Some reviews I’ve read have criticized the depth of the characters in the book, but I did not have that problem.) I was rooting for Cora and her companion Caesar to escape the plantation and find the underground railway station.

And then it turned out that the author created an actual underground railway station, complete with locomotive and box car, to spirit Cora and Caesar out of Georgia. The license he took with the truth totally turned me off of the book, though I did finish it. The novel continues with many stops along their journey. I won’t go into those so as to prevent spoilers. I will only say that at each point in the novel where Cora moves from location to location, she does so on an actual railroad located underground.

What a dumb concoction! The “underground railroad” name was a metaphor. It was “underground” because it was a resistance movement, and the people involved only knew a limited amount about the route, so they could not give away information if they were caught. It was a “railroad” because of the labels given to the locations and personnel involved. The stops were called “stations,” they were run by “station masters” with “conductors” and “agents.” But Colson Whitehead turned the metaphor on its head and purported to make it reality.

As a writer of historical fiction, as one who tries to make my fiction truthful, I found this construct a complete distraction from what should have been a compelling story. I liked the writing. I liked the characters, and I was prepared to believe their experiences. Then I was confronted with a “cute” fiction in a serious book. I couldn’t accept it.

I have been cogitating on why I can accept the Hollywoodization in Hidden Figures and not the fictional construct in The Underground Railroad. I’ve certainly read plenty of books that have turned history on its head—many time travel novels (such as Stephen King’s 11-22-63) take obvious creative license and use portals more bizarre than Colson Whitehead’s. But in those books, the reader knows what is coming—the fiction is the purpose of the story, and they are labeled as fantasy or science fiction. In Hidden Figures, the composite characters and the overstatements (such as running half a mile to the bathroom) improve the dramatic arc of the story. They are “truthy” in our current vernacular.

By contrast, Whitehead’s creation of a fictional underground locomotive detracts from the story. I had not read anything about the book containing fantasy before I started it. Moreover, the reality of the slaves’ journeys from place to place was so much more dangerous and dramatic than what he depicted that in my opinion the train chugging into the underground tunnels cheapened the real history he wrote about.

I had other problems with The Underground Railroad, such as its frequent interruptions of Cora’s story to provide a chapter of back story on another character, but I could have lived with those. The major flaw in the book was the underground train. I wanted the book to add to my knowledge of the African-American experience. Instead, his fantastical construct made me question the rest of the history in the book. The history may be at least as “truthy” as the history in the film Hidden Figures, but why did Whitehead give his readers cause to doubt?

In an interview on National Public Radio, Whitehead said:

“once I made the choice to make a literal underground railroad, . . . it freed me up to play with time a bit more. . . . it allowed me to bring in things that didn’t happen in 1850 – skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And it’s all presented sort of matter-of-factly . . . .”

Well, I wish I’d known this before I read the book.

When have you been impressed by or turned off by a historical movie or novel?

Posted in History, Reading, Writing and tagged , , , , , , .

One Comment

  1. As part of Black History month we should all remember Donald Trump’s words ““Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”

    Perhaps you could ask Mr. Douglass to write a letter to Whitehead protesting his liberties with history.

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