First-year students to read The Underground Railroad

Posted by Centre News in New Student Orientation, News 10 Apr 2017

First-year students entering Centre College this fall will read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a riveting novel about the human costs of slavery set in the decades before the American Civil War.

Colson will be on campus Oct. 2, 2017, to give the annual First-Year Book Convocation at 7:30 pm in Newlin Hall. The College will award him an honorary degree during the convocation.

The book won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction on April 10.

The book turns the metaphorical name for the secret routes used by 19th-century slaves to escape north into a network of actual trains.

And although the story takes place more than 150 years ago, its author sees plenty of parallels with contemporary life.

“Slave patrollers in the early 1800s were the de facto police force in the South,” Whitehead said in an NPR interview last year. “[T]hey could stop . . . any black person [and] demand to see their papers. . . . It was just an early version of stop and frisk.”

Each year Centre selects a book for all first-year students to read over the summer and later, during orientation in the fall, to discuss over dessert with their faculty advisors.

The first-year book typically addresses a major question or an important topic of discussion, explains John Harney, chair of the first-year book committee and assistant professor of Asian history.

It also needs to tell a good story that challenges students to think.

“Will they like the book, will they find it inspiring?” asks Harney. “As they are sitting at home, weeks away from joining us here at Centre, does the book give them a sense of the kinds of ideas they will be exploring and discussing in their years at college?”

Harney adds, “It doesn’t hurt that the book itself is extremely well written.”

The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award in 2016 and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in 2017.

Harney also notes an additional benefit to the first-year students of their shared read.

“Small and cozy we may be, but we are still a new place for these young people,” he says. “I personally think it is of great value that in such a hectic and formative period in their Centre careers, they have to stop for a couple of hours, have some ice cream or a doughnut, and both listen to others and share their own opinions about an important piece of writing.”

by Diane Johnson
April 10, 2017