Author Colson Whitehead to Speak at Shasta College
● By Laura Christman
A Prized Guest
By Laura Christman
Photo by Madeline Whitehead
Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Oprah’s Book Club selection, Carnegie Medal for Fiction, Arthur C. Clarke Award, New York Times Bestseller.
“The Underground Railroad” has received multiple awards and much attention. The novel by Colson Whitehead published in 2016 by Doubleday tells the story of strong-willed Cora, an enslaved teen fleeing the brutality of a Georgia cotton plantation in the mid-1800s. The book imagines the Underground Railroad – the secret network of safe houses to help African Americans in the South escape slavery – as an actual subterranean train. It transports Cora to states that become stages of her journey where different forms of racism from different times converge. A mix of surreal and real, the book centers on the cruelty of slavery and Cora’s fierceness for freedom. It is an invitation to introspection on how the darkness of our shared past reaches into our present.
Whitehead has been on a book tour that’s taken him to cities throughout the United States and to other countries, including Norway, Italy, Poland, France, China and Australia. In October, he comes to Redding.
Whitehead will speak at 7 p.m. Oct. 16 in the Shasta College Theatre. The free event is part of The Community Speaker Series, a project of Shasta College Foundation and The McConnell Foundation. The visit is a special opportunity for both students and the community, says Shasta College Foundation Executive Director Scott Thompson.
Shasta College English instructor Kathryn Calkins, a member of The Community Speaker Series Committee, says Colson’s novel “fits into American literature – not as African American literature – but as a story that needs to be told.”
“The Underground Railroad” shows “how damaging slavery was to every part of the community. We’ve been shattered in many unmendable ways,” she says.
Calkins and Thompson went to work to bring Whitehead to Shasta College after reading the book. It seemed a great fit for the speaker series, which aims to offer fresh ideas and perspectives to the campus and the community.
“New information – I hope that is what we are bringing to the front,” Thompson said.
Among those who have shared insights and ideas since the speaker series launched in 2015 are United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, environmental activist Rick Bass, author Terry Tempest Williams and University of California President Janet Napolitano.
The series is a revitalization of the popular lecture series retired Associate Dean Bill Fitzgerald started in 1967. It ran until 1972, bringing photographer Ansel Adams, Olympic track and field gold medalist Jesse Owens, author Truman Capote, lawyer Melvin Belli, television producer Rod Serling and other influential people to Redding. Thompson was a student at Shasta College then and says his world was widened by the speakers he heard.
“Exposing people to new information and new ideas is part of a college’s mission,” he says.
Shasta College Foundation found a willing and supportive partner for reviving the series in the philanthropic McConnell Foundation. The two foundations split expenses. Redding public television station KIXE helps with promotion. The price tag to bring a speaker to Redding – typically $15,000 or more – is much higher than the $400 to $1,000 fee charged when the original series was in play.
Informing, inspiring and encouraging meaningful conversations about important topics are the core of the speaker series. Shasta College teachers tie the speaker visits to the classroom.
Students are “reading the works of the speaker, understanding the context and writing about it,” Calkins says.
The free lecture series also is a valuable way for the college to connect with the community and bring people to campus, Thompson says.
A lecture series might seem a bit old school. It’s so easy to access video talks and presentations by well-known people online. But Thompson says it’s a much different experience to hear someone in person – to be in the same room, listen to readings, hear a different perspective and have a chance to ask questions face-to-face.
“Hearing someone speak is like hearing live music. It’s human being to human being,” he says. •
Talk and readings by author Colson Whitehead
7 pm October 16, free admission
Shasta College Theatre, 11555 Old Oregon Trail, Redding
Presented by The Community Speaker Series