Colson Whitehead and the paradoxes of racial complexity

Colson Whitehead has a story, “Sag Harbor,” in the New Yorker winter fiction issue.   It’s pretty interesting , an excerpt from his forthcoming novel of the same title.   There’s lots to say about the story, but I was struck by one passage:

According to the world, we were the definition of paradox: black boys with beach houses. What kind of bourgie sellout Negroes were we, with BMWs (Black Man’s wagons, in case you didn’t know) in our driveways and private schools to teach us how to use a knife and fork, and sort that from dat? What about keeping it real? What about the news, the statistics, the great narrative of black pathology? Just check out the newspapers, preferably in a movie-style montage sequence, the alarming headlines dropping in-frame with a thud, one after the other: “CRISIS IN THE INNER CITY!”; “WHITHER ALL THE BABY DADDIES”; “THE TRUTH ABOUT THE WELFARE STATE: THEY JUST DON’T WANT TO WORK”; “NOT LIKE IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS.”

Black boys with beach houses. It could mess with your head sometimes, if you were the susceptible sort. And if it messed with your head, got under your brown skin, there were some typical and well-known remedies. You could embrace the beach part–revel in the luxury, the perception of status, wallow without care in what it meant to be born in America with money, or the appearance of money, as the case may be. No apologies. Or you could embrace the black part–take some idea you had about what real blackness was, and make theatre out of it, your own 24/7 one-man show. Street, ghetto. Act hard, act out, act in a way that would come to be called gangsterish, pulling petty crimes, a soft kind of tough, knowing that there’d always be someone to post bail if one of your grubby schemes fell apart. Or you could embrace the contradiction. You could say, What you call paradox, I call myself. At least, in theory: those inclined to this remedy didn’t have a lot of obvious models.

This is a tricky sentiment, especially for Whitehead to express.   Whatever else you think of Whitehead’s fiction (and I haven’t yet had time to read Apex), his approach to race in his texts is entirely novel, and the passage above suggests a retreat to conventionality, to what cantankerous old Ellison would dismiss as mere sociology.   The Intuitionist, after all, turns the passing narrative on its head, making a formerly transgressive act into an inside joke, a case of office politics gone seriously wrong.   In John Henry Days the protagonist spends most of the novel trying to hollow out the traditional racial uplift narrative, even as he struggles with the responsibility of properly apprehending John Henry’s cultural meaning.   Sutter seeks to forestall the burden of the racial knowledge for as long as possible while still being able to profit from it.    He wears his race lightly.

Sag Harbor, at least the excerpt published in the New Yorker, suggests that Whitehead is saying goodbye to all of that.   Social mobility, producing and protecting Black boys with beach houses, has been a quiet obsession for Black folk since Du Bois founded the Crisis.   As a result “Sag Harbor” seems like well mined territory and I am curious as to whether Whitehead can treat it with the same originality as in his earlier work.   If he cannot, or chooses not to, he may wind up with a best-seller, since an easily consumed coming of age story about Black boys astride two different worlds seems tailor made for this cultural moment.   Still, this seems a time for more complexity, especially from an author who intimately understands the curiousities of race and racial performance in post-civil rights America.

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One response to “Colson Whitehead and the paradoxes of racial complexity

  1. Nice writing. You are on my RSS reader now so I can read more from you down the road.

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