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Colson Whitehead & the Upper Floors

[By Howard Rambsy II]

“Literary reputations may not always rise and fall as predictably as elevators,” noted Gary Krist toward the end of a February 7, 1999 review of The Intuitionist. “But if there’s any justice in the world of fiction, Colson Whitehead’s should be heading toward the upper floors.”

Perhaps there’s some justice, because Whitehead has risen to those upper floors. It’s necessary of course to qualify with “some” justice, because for every novelist that has ascended those upper floors, many stayed put on the ground levels or mid-levels despite their talents. A large number of novelists—African American and otherwise—could attest to how unjust the world of fiction can be.

There’s some comfort, though, associated with the rise of Colson Whitehead. He’s a talented literary artist whose works are stimulating, inventive, humorous, and stylistically noteworthy. Indeed, reviewers almost always comment on how Whitehead’s novels are written, not simply the plot. That Whitehead has been rewarded with literary awards and prestige, substantial support from his publisher Doubleday, and largely positive reviews is good for him on a personal level I imagine. But, it’s also good in that it gives aspiring novelists something to shoot for, and it signals to them that it’s possible to receive recognition for producing thoughtful, high-quality work.

There’s likely some discomfort among those who feel that the world of fiction recognizes only one black writer at a time, while neglecting to offer sufficient attention to many other talented writers out there producing good works. There are still others who worry that as a leading African American novelist Whitehead does not deal with race matters as directly and seriously as figures such as Toni Morrison and Richard Wright did. That Whitehead has now produced a novel about zombies will possibly further frustrate some of those observers.

Winning fans on the one hand while causing frustration among some on the other hand in regards to issues related to race is a longstanding feature of what it means to be black and successful in this country. Randall Kennedy, author of The Persistence of the Color Line, recently noted that “there exists in black America a special anxiety about the loyalties of high achievers, especially when their success is largely dependent on whites and others who are not black. Every prominent black in a predominantly white setting faces, at one time or another, claims from fellow blacks that he or she is ‘selling out.’”

The multiple implications associated with Whitehead’s rise to the upper floors in the worlds of fiction and of African Americans is fascinating and suggests that we have something to gain by considering more perspectives related to a black writer’s ascent.