Colson Whitehead is the voice black America desperately needs
“I am not worthy of sitting next to her,” Colson Whitehead, now the winner of two Pulitzers for fiction, said in a live webinar last week. He was talking about Tony Morrison. When the host asked him if he still thought he wasn’t worthy, he just shook his head, with the humility and credence of his protagonists.
Whitehead’s two Pulitzers make him only the fourth author in history to have won the honour. His personal story of privilege has little to do with his characters who are outrageously removed from his life in Manhattan and Harvard. Theirs is silent suffering and consistent abuse. And he is not reluctant to face it. In his talks and interviews, his reserve energy underlines the implicit frustration with the system. His characters, on the other hand, are candid and self-assured about their attitudes. Although, they cannot cheat the system, or escape it, they refuse to accept their assigned position in it.
Whitehead’s people are in the straitjacket of a systematic brutality, fed by a problematic ideology of race relations. Pause for a moment and look at the timing of his two books, The Underground Railroad (2017) and The Nickel Boys (2019). The first is set in a plantation in Georgia before the Civil War, and the latter in a juvenile correctional facility for young boys during Jim Crow Era in Florida. More than two centuries. One condition.
Cora, from The Underground Railroad, is a slave girl born on a cotton plantation. She has her dead grandmother’s resilience, but also her mother’s anger. She is treated like a pariah by her own people, after being abandoned by her mother Mabel, now a runaway. What Mabel leaves behind is a surly, unlovable child who, thanks to her grit, becomes a tough nut the white man can’t crack. The slave quarter, removed from the main house, becomes her only mentor with its share of secret politics. Here, she navigates to be her own woman and meets Caesar who encourages her to accompany him through the tracks of the underground railroad to their freedom. The story follows Cora’s journey from one state to another, from one version of racism to another. Some things never change.
The 2020 Pulitzer winner, The Nickel Boys, is based in a segregated Florida, at the peak of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. Elwood is a young, bright black boy, raised by his grandmother who works in the hospitality industry, his childhood spent hanging out in the kitchen with coloured help. Studious and curious, Elwood, gets into a college for underprivileged coloured men. On the morning of his first class, unable to keep up on his half-broken bike, he gets a ride from a black trucker. His saviour turns out to be a fugitive, sending Elwood to the correctional facility instead of his first class of the morning. What ensues is a remarkable tale of pain, humiliation, and human degradation in post-war America.
It is the delusion of freedom that the black man keeps hanging on to. The white man, for his part, keeps throwing him the bait. Freedom is a myth, both for the runaway slaves and Nickel Boys and many young black boys after them.
Elwood, like Cora, is resolute to escape the hellhole through proper channels. He decides to earn this freedom from Nickel Academy by fulfilling the official pre-requisites for a ‘graduation.’ His commitment to the system of rewards within the facility is thwarted, time and again, by a parallel justice system controlled mainly by those in charge, both inside and outside Nickel Academy.
Whitehead’s people don’t belong in a plantation or a prison but they aren’t welcome outside either. They’re African slaves who don’t have a home in Africa anymore. Their existence is limited to the segregated French quarters of Jim Crow Era, steering clear of the normalcy of white America. They are wronged, and like the gospels of Martin Luther King Jr, they want to undo the wrong done to them with kindness. His protagonists are the breathing reminder of Dr King’s message: “…we will still love you…be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom.” Cora and Elwood also personify Malcolm X’s frustration with an unjust society and James Baldwin’s burning questions.
Whitehead is not unique. What he does is what Morrison does in Jazz; what Geraldine Brooks does in March; and what Alice Walker does in The Color Purple. In the voluminous achievements of African-American literature, he will stand out as an honest black voice in post-Trump America. His themes are not exceptional, it is his honesty in presenting excessive brutality and maddening pain. His books are not full of evil white men. But he’s not a crowd-pleaser either. It is the delusion of freedom that the black man keeps hanging on to. The white man, for his part, keeps throwing him the bait. Freedom is a myth, both for the runaway slaves and Nickel Boys and many young black boys after them.
The tragic scenes of George Floyd’s death, that rolled on out on our phone and TV screens make Whitehead more relevant than ever. Not to say racism was ever irrelevant, the energy and attention that recent protests have brought on the streets, is a reminder that the cancer is thriving in the society. The young Coras and Eldwoods in America demand answers from a society that tells them they’re equals but acts otherwise. Whitehead’s work is not merely about racial attitudes. It also prompts the glaring stats that show inequality in healthcare, the criminal justice system, educational institutes and professional opportunity. Whether this year’s Pulitzer putting him next to Toni Morrison and Alice Walker was a political statement or not, Colson Whitehead’s work is every bit worthy of the attention it receives.
The author is a freelance writer based in the US. She can be reached at [email protected]