|Cover for Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead|
After checking it out, I have that feeling that I'm sure most bibliophiles get when you find a writer whose work you enjoy. You start to wonder why the Universe hadn't brought it to your attention before. In fact, the feeling is very similar to meeting someone with whom you hit it off immediately and have mutual friends. You think, "Where were you when I was bored with all of these douche bags? Why did no one say to me,'You know who you'd love?'"
I made a friend and met him in the author's fourth novel, Sag Harbor. Despite what The New York Times books reviewers may tell you, Sag Harbor is not post-racial. In fact, there are Black people in it and some White folk too! Then again, maybe I just don't know what it means to be post-racial and don't recognize it when it's in front of me but I assume that the term is a neat way of describing something that doesn't evoke White guilt. It's how we label things that have come about after Barack Obama's rise to prominence. In other words, it's not the scary kind of Black that some hoped we'd cured with the election of our 44th president. The funny thing, which I expect Whitehead knows and hoped to convey in the novel, is that kind of Black has always existed just out of reach of the evening news. For the novel's protagonist Benji, it's especially evident in his summers in Sag Harbor, New Jersey where a middle class Black kid can be just as awkward and angst-filled as anyone else.
|Author Colson Whitehead|
The story's protagonist, Benji is a thinly veiled version of the writer and a character so well executed that you don't mind the bit of self-indulgence. At times, the author hits such poignant points of truth that the character's unenviable teenage condition connects to your own. Benji wants to remake himself during the summer, preferably into someone that's touched a woman's breast. He waxes poetic about the sensuous pleasures of frozen dinners and the intricacy of linguistics found in phrases like, "Chaka from Land of the Lost lookin' nigga." He's a teenager, shallow and deep all the same time.
Early in the novel, Whitehead introduces the concept of WEB Dubois' double consciousness into the mix by way of a reference to the enshrinement of "Iconic Figures of Black Nationalism." As Benji, he writes,
From there, Benji's double consciousness unfolds in various aspects of his young identity. He's upwardly mobile and Black. He's a kid soon to be a man. He's a Dungeons & Dragons nerd pretending to be cool, New Wave and Hip Hop. The writer allows the complexity of this character to develop with a respect for adolescence that you rarely see in coming-of-age stories. His life isn't shifted with a first kiss and he doesn't use his parent-less weekdays to throw a raging kegger in the family summer home. He and his brother just funk up the place and argue over who won't do the dishes like well-raised boy are supposed to."What I did know about Dubois was that he fell into the category of Famous Black People - there was a way people said certain names that they had an emanation or halo. The respectful way my mother pronounced 'Dubois' told me that the man had uplifted the race."
Sag Harbor isn't post-racial. It might be described as meta-racial because, while race does have it's place in the novel (is there a way to describe life as a Black American and it not,) it doesn't give race prominence over the everyday suckiness of being a teenager. It doesn't cheapen the experience growing up by trying to turn Benji into Bigger Thomas. The pleasure of reading a book like Sag Harbor for a Black man of similar circumstance is in its treatment of the young Black, male condition as human above anything else and the subsequent,organic social commentary that sprouts up around that precious offering.