Thomas Chatterton Williams in the LRB.
Before the publication of The Underground Railroad, his sixth novel – a mostly straightforward and historically realistic tale of a slave’s escape from southern bondage into tenuous northern freedom – it would have been difficult to imagine a less obvious candidate for the title of Woke Black Artist of the Year than the 47-year-old Colson Whitehead. He distinguished himself in his late twenties with his first novel, The Intuitionist (1999), an explosively original story set in a fantastical world of elevator inspectors, and quickly won critical acclaim on the strength of a rollicking, hyper-idiosyncratic body of work that refused to adhere to the mandates of identity politics or the constrictions of literary genre. Writing with David Foster Wallace-level verbal firepower, he was prepared to subvert the simplistic clichés attached to blackness – and the impulse towards sentimentality that goes along with them. At the height of black rapture over Obama’s election, Whitehead published an irreverent, almost flippant op-ed in the New York Times entitled ‘Finally, a Thin President’, which made a mockery of the notion that an earth-shattering symbolic power was attached to the historic achievement. The next year, he published another satirical op-ed in the New York Times, this one a guide for blocked novelists in search of fresh material. One of his more eyebrow-raising suggestions was what he called the Southern Novel of Black Misery. ‘Africans in America,’ he wrote,
cut your teeth on this literary staple. Slip on your sepia-tinted goggles and investigate the legacy of slavery that still reverberates to this day, the legacy of Reconstruction that still reverberates to this day, and crackers. Invent nutty transliterations of what you think slaves talked like. But hurry up – the hounds are a-gittin’ closer! Sample titles: ‘I’ll Love You Till the Gravy Runs Out and Then I’m Gonna Lick Out the Skillet’; ‘Sore Bunions on a Dusty Road’.
This op-ed appeared on the heels of his 2009 novel, Sag Harbor, a thoroughly uneventful but frequently brilliant autobiographical account of an upper-middle-class black holiday enclave in the Hamptons. That book, set in the summer of 1985, accomplished what very few people attempt to do with the contemporary black American experience: remove it entirely from the realm of extremes. Sag Harbor isn’t a lament about nightmarish, historically predetermined agony or a celebration of fairytale-worthy, impossible to replicate individual talent and success. It doesn’t deny the persistence of racism or fetishise it: anti-blackness, in Sag Harbor as in real life, is just one facet of black experience, no longer the entirety or perhaps even the majority of it – if it ever was. Told from the perspective of a 15-year-old Whitehead stand-in called Benji, Sag Harbor provides many clues about the author’s own Manhattan-bred, Harvard-educated relationship to the inheritance of racial trauma.