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Black History Month, day 3

I learn as much about history through fiction as through non-fiction–probably more. That’s not because it’s historical fiction (it seldom is) but because fiction is such a powerful way into other people’s minds and experiences. Several years ago I made a personal reading list to remedy the lack of African-American writers (and history) in both my formal and informal education, mostly fiction. If you’re like me and love sci-fi/fantasy, you won’t be surprised to learn that one of the books from this genre, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, had a particular impact on my understanding of history.

Whitehead is a kind of literary surrealist. He takes historical facts, like the Underground Railroad, and adds some dreamlike twist, like the actual subterranean rail line in The Underground Railroad. Or in John Henry Days, he draws a connection between the legendary John Henry and a modern-day self-imposed endurance contest, his character J. Sutter’s junket-a-thon: how many literary junkets can one freelance journalist string together? And Zone One is quite straightforwardly true to life if you accept that zombies are taking over New York City. Maybe most sci-fi is essentially surrealist, which explains one reason I like it (I’m a fan of surrealism in visual art as well).

The Intuitionist has a comically bizarre premise: that elevator inspectors are a powerful political and politicized force. Accept the premise, and the book becomes a heartbreakingly realistic (and sometimes hearteningly hopeful) portrait of African-Americans’ options for their own identity and dignity within a culture where whiteness is held to be superior. I knew as soon as I read it that I would want to pick it up again in a couple of years–that it would have changed me in the meantime and that I’d want to check in on those changes and learn something new from the second reading. It’s about time to do that.


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