Colson Whitehead and his archaeology of memory

Two novels and the same History, illuminated

Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead
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Luis A Gómez

Opening one of his books, a reader might feel like a child squatting on the banks of a rivulet. Everything there flows slowly, not like in rivers or beaches. The water, transparent and calm, lets you look at what it carries away (life). Every now and then a little wonder passes before your eyes. That would be all about the casual elegance Colson Whitehead uses to tell horrors and torments from the past, a style probing not the passions but the suffering inflicted to his people over the last centuries. Two books, one History and the chains restraining the African American people, who never asked to be taken to the New World to be enslaved.

Whitehead has been writing more or less for two decades. The last two novels he has published are an apparent change on the matters and themes. Or an evolution, perhaps. In both, the author addresses what the French thinker Michel Foucault called an archive: the set of everything we can call traditions, ideas, art, the culture of a people that nourishes every single individual at the same time. He deals with this archive not just articulating the past, its narrative, of bondage and pain. He applies to it his most magnificent tool: imagination, not only to recreate what his ancestors felt or thought, or said, but to let a light shine from the past.

‘We have survived’, would be the sentence at the end of the road, in the last page of The Underground Railroad or that in The Nickel Boys. Printed on a sign (on every sign of that reading road) from which a reader can understand it means ‘Persistence’, and sadly little more. This survival, though, is cherished by Colson Whitehead more than the obstacles the African American endured for generations (they still do). So if a reader wants to feel the power of his people, and share the endurances and the death they bring within, well, these books are the right place.

Some say both novels are related like sequels are. That might be true. Another way to see them is that both are dots on a map, linked by a road. Whitehead is bearing a torch to help us look at them. Two images of the past, as Walter Benjamin said, that flit by and need to be captured not just as knowledge but as memories flashing up ‘in a moment of danger’.

A train is coming

I guess in India, one could have to ask Adivasi people of the tea gardens about slavery to get a glimpse of the constant hell lived by Africans taken to America. As Latin American indigenous peoples did in the sixties and seventies, Dalits can also feel that empathy that tells the story once and again of how people are dehumanized, robbed of their best by plantation owners, politicians, men of money. The violence of being uprooted starting a sequence of blood spillages that never really stopped. In The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead digs this not to find the facts but the feelings.

That’s how we find Cora, the novel’s protagonist. An untamed girl, pretty and fierce, out of place (can anybody be in place while enslaved?) but not considering escape as an option because ‘to escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible’. Until a turn of events makes of her a swollen body, the receiving end of hate.

Then, after the regular horrific escapade running away from their masters, Cora and her companion find themselves transported by the underground train that carries fugitives, a network of rails in tunnels taking them to free lands. Before her first trip a man tells her that if she looks outside the car moving down there she will ‘find the true face of America’. She did. ‘There was only darkness, mile after mile’. A time travel to the present wouldn’t get much different results.

This wonder built by black hands to help their brethren escape will become a constant for Cora, forced to run away a few times more. Each new place bringing new experiences to lament or to be treasured. So The Underground Railroad becomes a tour into the many layers Whitehead’s people were subjected to. From slavery to submission to exploitation in the ‘free’ capitalist way. But here the sphere of intimate life will mark the difference with a History book. The narrative will embody Cora’s feelings and sensations (and others too), making the reader a witness of her labours.

Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way the forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had (p. 125).

Whitehead loves descriptions. Not with exuberant language but in a more clinical, moderated style. He crafted the novel this way, one can suspect, in the path of open and honest historical novels; not to produce simple empathy but to set the record straight. That’s why this borderline narrative where fiction and history kiss is not just a novel. It’s an Archaeology (in the Foucault way again) in which Colson Whitehead, through the eyes of a woman, reflects on freedom and how to achieve it. He digs in the past of his people (a time shared with the white slavers, of course):

White man ain’t going to do it. We have to do it ourselves (p.132).

Sometimes dealing with it is like poor people dealing with needs, the author deals with the time his ancestors escaped from slavery, even if for a few hours. A moment in our collective history when something broke beyond repair. Whitehead seems to need it because he is discussing a single thing in this book: who is human and who’s not? Maybe because in no other way, but remembering and imagining, he can shape the future he imagines free from the shackles of the past.

The manacles of segregation

A new novel shows up, The Nickel Boys. And Colson Whitehead brings in the time Martin Luther King Jr. was on earth delivering a promise through his voice. Malcolm X did kind of the same thing. Half of the last century was gone and they started a new wave of struggle. The dig this time is much closer to us, and the new novel is a lighter animal in which the writer gets intimate again, maybe more than before.

Elwood Curtis, smart boy, is just one of the thousands of African American young guys trying to prove in the sixties a truth learned while listening to an album with King’s speeches: he is as good as anyone else. Though he is, ‘fate’ (if such thing exists for the oppressed) has something else to say about it. His life—set in somehow peaceful Tallahassee, Florida—is what we follow, framed by the sad discovery of human remains in a Reformatory’s burial ground: most of them black, most of them bearing the traces of a violent death.

That means something bad is going to be told, again, in that casual style that is Whitehead’s mark of the house. Because geekish Elwood came to be conscious when his people were fighting the end of segregation, and he read a lot, he excelled at school, and he protested too. Moving into college, he gets a ride to the university the first morning of class. A black elegant fellow shows up in a nice new car ... a stolen car. So this boy, adored by his over protective grandma ends up in jail. Easy as that for an African American youth (at all times) burning in front your eyes.

Inside a juvenile prison (a school, they’ve call it as a euphemism) Colson Whitehead will show you how for his people jail is slavery by other means. At some point the author plays a peculiar contrast between King’s grandiose (yet truthful) words and the insignificant life of a young black kid in the sixties, chosen randomly (or so it seems), who read, protested and dreamt ... and he paid the price for doing these.

Moving clearly away from the moral novels from other times (Victor Hugo comes to mind) The Nickel Boys reorganizes hell (and pain) for Whitehead’s people. Looked at from the perspective of Elwood, that means being beaten and used as ‘free’ labourers for the white people in the nearby town. No reformation, just violence (even rape) ... everything under the careful watch of Maynard Spencer, a white superintendent at what is called the Nickel Academy.

But the way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color. It was Spencer. It was Spencer and it was Griff and it was all the parents who let their children wind up here. It was people (p. 103).

Plenty of stories to be told about that southern way of juvenile prison (yes, segregated for whites and blacks). In the middle of the novel, for example, comes the bully of the African American section of the ‘school’, Griff, who happens to be the boxing champion there. He gets ready to fight the champion of the whites. And the cruel man instructs him to go down in the third round. He doesn’t. So Griff is taken away “and he never returned”.

When the state of Florida dug him up, fifty years later, the forensic examiner noted the fractures in the wrists and speculated that he’d been restrained before he died (p. 112).

The darkness is presented to the reader as cool as that. Based on a true story (as so many crime films are) and masked with some irony. Turns of events, a mechanism Colson Whitehead manages so well, will be like sudden rays of light, illuminating the dehumanizing process.

Even when some of the boys in this novel manage to go out, free, their experience at the Nickel Academy will stay forever in their guts. Whitehead’s characters know it. The little inferno of their youth will burn forever in their bones. These boys ‘had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal’ (p. 164). And no one cared. There were hundreds of places like this reformatory in the USA, used to subjugate and humiliate black people. No denunciation could put an end to these ‘pain factories’ and no one did.

That’s the archaeology. That’s the dig. Even if it’s just to show how young people can be killed by the same white beasts all over time. They can’t learn.

So this books could be named Frederick Douglass or Rosa Parks, Stokely Carmichael, Maya Angelou, Curtis Mayfield, Tupac Shakur, James Baldwin and many more. But to add more shame, any of the tomes can as well be called Oscar Grant, Atatiana Jefferson... or I can’t breathe.

We could call out to the author in a more familiar way after reading both novels:

Yo, Colson, Miss Toni Morrison is dead. Your turn now, no sweat. Do your thing for the rest of us like she used to do ... Dig, man, keep digging, please.

He in turn would write again taking from the archive he inherited from his ancestors, on behalf of the many still sweating pages and scrolling screens with greasy eyes. Because many bad things are still the same for African American people, they didn’t change much over a century and more. Memory still lives at night and hides at the tips of the fingers of the children of slaves. Those dead unnoticed and unnamed are the angels of what’s lost, singing in the dark the songs Colson Whitehead captures for us all.

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