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The (Underground) Railroad in African American Literature

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Darcy A. Zabel

The (Underground) Railroad in African American Literature offers a brief history of the African American experience of the railroad and the uses of railroad history by a wide assortment of twentieth-century African American poets, dramatists, and fiction writers. Moreover, this literary history examines the ways in which trains, train history, and legendary train figures such as Harriet Tubman and John Henry have served as literary symbols. This repeated use of the train symbol and associated train people in twentieth-century African American literature creates a sense of literary continuity and a well-established aesthetic tradition all too frequently overlooked in many traditional approaches to the study of African American writing. The metaphoric possibilities associated with the railroad and the persistence of the train as a literary symbol in African American writing demonstrates the symbol’s ongoing literary value for twentieth-century African American writers – writers who invite their readers to look back at the various points in history where America got off track, and who also dare to invite their readers to imagine an alternate route for the future.