Wednesday, November 06, 2019

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead - Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Colson Whitehead's monumental work, "The Underground Railroad," is richly deserving of its Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. What stood out for me as I followed the harrowing journey of Cora from a cotton plantation in Georgia to freedom in the North was the lack of homogeneity among the slaveholding states. These insights are among Whitehead's unique contributions. As Cora travelled a tortuous route from Georgia to South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and beyond, we see that racial attitudes varied dramatically from state to state. Georgia and its laws were ruthless when it came to enforcing punishment of runaway slaves. South Carolina on the surface seemed more humane, allowing slaves and Freemen to be educated. North Carolina was more brutal in its laws and treatment of slaves and runaways.

Cora had been an outcast from the beginning. Her mother, Mabel, abandoned her when she fled to the north without warning. Cora claimed the small garden between cabins in the slave quarters as a statement of her individuality and desire for independence. Initially planted by Cora's grandmother, Ajarry, that plot serves as a metaphor for her desire to claim a place for her to stand on her own in the world. She is eventually persuaded by Caesar to join him in fleeing the hellish Randall plantation. One of the many things that make this saga so memorable is that Whitehead literalizes the Underground Railroad metaphor, envisioning actual tunnels and stations carved out beneath remote barns and farmhouses along the routes heading North.

There is a quotation that is repeated several times during the narrative that reveals the author's point of view that if you want to know this country, view it through the windows of the train as it makes its journey northward. The writing is painfully graphic. The strange fruit of the bodies of lynched runaways and their accomplices hanging from trees along a main road haunt the imagination. Cora's claustrophobia in being caged in a small garret while awaiting the next stage of her journey is palpable. Cora's journey to freedom runs in parallel with her journey of growth as a woman standing on her own, surviving savage beatings, mourning the death of loved ones and fellow travellers. and pursuing freedom in a still imperfect world.

This novel is a rich and evocative addition to the already robust collection of novels and histories that seek to give us a glimmer of understanding into the peculiar institution of slavery and the heroes who risked their lives to build a system that delivered many to freedom.



"Building Blocks" by Gary Shamis - Case Studies of a Serial Entrepreneur

Author Gary Shamis has written a memoir of his experiences as an entrepreneur over the course of several decades. The resulting book is both instructive and inspiring. The book is offered in two parts. The first section deals with the stories of his role in building eight different businesses and organizations. One of the things I most appreciate about this writer's voice and style is the generous and effusive praise he offers to those who have helped him and encouraged him in is entrepreneurial journey. The enterprises he has led over the years include accounting firms, trade organizations, consultancies, non-profits, and civic organizations.

The second half of the book chronicles specific lessons the author has learned during his career. Among those chapters, these stand out:

  • Passion, Patience, and Commitment
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Accountability
  • People, People, People
  • Transparency

Shamis demonstrates that transparency as he takes responsibility for mistakes he made along the way, and then details how he applied the lessons learned from those mistakes in subsequent endeavors. It is clear that the author has made a lasting contribution to scores of businesses, organizations, foundations, the state of Ohio, Hillel at Kent State, the profession of accounting, and realms beyond. With those building blocks, he has erected a lasting legacy.