Ralph Ellison talked about the formerly enslaved looking for freedom in the West of the old Indian Territory after the collapse of Reconstruction in the early 1880s. Oklahoma, where Ellison was born in 1913, had been a sanctuary for runaway slaves and it continued to attract the descendants of freed slaves
who considered it a territory of hope and a place where they could create their own opportunities. It was a magnet for many individuals who had found disappointment in the older area of the country, white as well as black, but for Negroes it had a traditional association with freedom which had entered their folklore.1
Going to the territory—that was what Jim and Huck aimed to do; it was something Bessie Smith sang about.
The discovery of oil in Oklahoma at the beginning of the twentieth century made it a boom territory, and a wildcat atmosphere surrounded some of the lynchings that took place there during that time. In 1911, four years after Oklahoma was admitted to the Union, a black woman accused of killing a white sheriff was taken from her cell in Okemah, Oklahoma, by a mob, raped, and then hanged along with her teenage son.2 Blacks had settled before whites on the Cherokee- and Creek-inhabited land that became Tulsa, and the prosperity of some of the city’s blacks seems to have been among the provocations for the race riot of 1921. A white mob burned down the black business district.3 Nevertheless, Ellison was eloquent about the Oklahoma City of his youth as free, uncharted territory sheltering people of different races and backgrounds who exchanged ideas in defiance of barriers against their communication.
Oklahoma still has all-black towns, most founded in the late nineteenth century as places where black people could have authority over their lives. The small town in American literature was for a long time the microcosm, symbolic of the whole country. The all-black town is generally a small town, but in black literature it represents an exceptional social situation, not the usual. Toni Morrison’s Paradise is set in one such Oklahoma community at the close of the Vietnam War. Her all-black town is an isolated patch of murderous patriarchal repression, a utopian project that has been betrayed. But Morrison’s tale of violence toward outsiders ends in possible rebirth, a second chance, for this particular black town. The descendants of the town’s founders can reclaim the psychic freedom of the open territory.4 Black people share in the history and mystique of the American West, though the chance for them to homestead in Oklahoma in the late nineteenth century came about because the federal government considerably reduced the reservations set aside for the Five Indian Nations.5 After the stories of the eastern seaboard and the West Coast, the tales of midwestern upbringings and memories of the Deep South, the West as a subject or setting for black writers still has the freshness of a history different from the rest of the country. No slave states, no Civil War, and people other than black and white; an open, new place. In its landscape, black writers have already stepped outside what we think of as the familiar or the expected in African-American literature. “The great Theater of Oklahoma calls you!”
Colson Whitehead strikes out for the Oklahoma territory in Apex Hides the Hurt, a brilliant, witty, and subtle novel, written in a most engaging style, with tremendous aptness of language and command of plot. In each of his allegorical novels so far Whitehead gives to the main character a weird job that of course stands for more. These jobs recall the eeriness and futility of some of the assignments that fall to Ellison’s hero in Invisible Man. In Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist—a remarkable work, its mood reminiscent of the scene in which the Invisible Man is given employment in the Liberty Paints plant—the first black woman elevator inspector in an unnamed metropolis that has the bleakness of the Northeast finds herself drawn into dangerous intrigue. In John Henry Days, a hack journalist is better described as a “junketeer,” an “open bar opportunist” who lives on a circuit of trashy publicity events, and winds up in the South at a festival celebrating the legend of the steel driver who dies “with a hammer in his hand.”
In Apex Hides the Hurt, the unnamed narrator relates his career crisis as a “nomenclature consultant,” someone who thinks up names for products. He is more than an advertising executive, or Whitehead’s gift for allegory convinces us that he is. The nomenclature consultant also renames things, and when an Oklahoma town looks to relaunch itself and its most powerful businessman wants to give the town a new name, Whitehead’s narrator uncovers the town’s forgotten black past and finds rebirth of a kind in the territory, reinvention of the self being what the open spaces of the West have meant, traditionally, for most Americans.
Nomenclature consultant is a job the narrator remembers stumbling into. “He was a Quincy man”—Whitehead went to Harvard—“and it turned out the firm had been founded by Quincy men. The name meant something. He fit right in.” He at first saw it as an interim gig, not believing himself cut out for corporate life with “jocky white guys” in their suspenders and signature colognes. However, he excelled at work. “He had a territory within himself and he would bring back specimens to the old world. These most excellent dispatches. His names.” He could come up with a selling, reassuring name for just about anything. “He dealt in lies and promises, distilled them into syllables.” Whitehead has him revel in the world of everyday things. Even Nature is a strong brand name; he thinks of nature as swaying him with its sales pitch.
“He landed Apex because he was at the top of his game. The bosses would call him into their office to chat.” A second-rate adhesive bandage company wanted to recreate itself. “They came to him and he saved them.” Whitehead’s narrator is caustic and cynical, but proud of his handling of the problem, how he came up with the idea of multicultural flesh-colored band-aids to which he attached the slogan “Apex hides the hurt.” He’s amusing, too, about the gratifying city life that comes with success. “He expected some sort of comeuppance for his efficiency. None came. In fact he was bonused repeatedly.” But Whitehead’s narrator has a flaw; his Achilles heel is his toe:
The toe. The toe had been stubbed, and stubbed well. In the days following his accident he learned an astounding fact. Apparently the toe had been strangely magnetized by injury so that whenever there was something in the vicinity with stubbing polarity, his toe was immediately drawn to it. His toe found stub in all the wrong places, tables and chairs of course, but also against curbs, stools, against imperfections in the sidewalk that made him trip but left no visual evidence when he looked back, as passersby chortled. Even through the thickest shoes, excruciating vibrations harassed the sad little digit. He began to loathe low perpendiculars. When he stubbed his toe while stepping into the shower, a thin ribbon of blood snaked from beneath the Apex bandage for a few seconds and then disappeared into the drain. It was blood from an invisible wound. He decided his toe had developed an abuse pathology, and kept returning to the hurt as if one day it would place the pain in context, explain it. Give it a name.
His life unraveled as his toe festered. He picked up a loathsome infection hiking through a pig farm during a corporate retreat weekend. By the time he was to receive the top award for his Apex campaign, he had to flee both the awards dinner and his hot date. All along, the Apex bandage had been disguising how far gone his toe was. After it was amputated, he didn’t go back to work, but his firm helped him to get the nomenclature consultant’s job in Oklahoma, hoping he’d rejoin them eventually.
Parallelism is one of many things that Whitehead does well, and the buildup to the narrator’s exit from the nomenclature firm, the story of how he lost his toe, is told in flashbacks that alternate with the ongoing action of his work in the originally black town of Winthrop, Oklahoma. He walks with a limp, though doctors have told him there is no reason for it. He misses the corporate brand of companionship, the team, and that warm happy feeling of condescension that he used to get when “his Great Unwashed, the clueless saps,” came to him for new names and fresh connotations. After he gets hammered on Winthrop cocktails in the bar of the Hotel Winthrop, there is little for him to do other than retreat to his room, where, preferring chaos, he refuses to let the maid in to clean, and broods on his recent past as well as the mysteries that Winthrop holds. His dorm at Quincy stood next to the Winthrop Library. Winthrop, like Quincy, has strong brand recognition, but for those who want to change the town’s name to New Prospera, Winthrop sounds stuck in the days of three-martini lunches and cholesterol, whereas “Prospera left no fingerprints in its gleaming surface,” it was “a glamorous Old World cape draped over the bony shoulders of prosaic prosperity.” While he reviews his past and tries to project a future for himself, he gets caught up in the power plays in the town.
A manuscript in the town’s library, “A History of the Town of Winthrop,” commissioned years ago by the Winthrop Foundation, informs him that the local branch of the Winthrop family made its fortune in the nineteenth century from barbed wire. “Land grants, land grabs, you needed something cheap to keep everything in, and keep everything out.” But the old money has gone, and so, too, its influence, as new money muscles in. Whitehead doesn’t much describe Winthrop, other than to note that the town has the new computer chain, the sneaker chain, the convenience-store chain, and the coffee chain with its name stenciled in the window, “Admiral Java.” The brand names effectively tell us what the place is like and capture the sense of the corporate infiltration of everywhere, the sameness of gentrified main streets in the US today, from Laguna to Bar Harbor. Whitehead’s small town once again represents the whole, with the kind of homey flower shop, pricey home-furnishing store, or restaurant that “dressed itself in rustic sincerity but adhered to the rapacious philosophy of the multinational.” Apex Hides the Hurt is full of meditations on consumer society and the self as product, but Whitehead manages never to be predictable in the thinking and language he gives his main character.
Albie Winthrop is the relic of old money, surviving on what the hotel, his last asset, brings in, and living alone in Grey Gardens–like squalor in the family mansion emptied out by his ex-wife. Because he is also a Quincy man, he hopes for the narrator’s sympathy and loyalty. New money’s embodiment is Lucky Aberdeen—“with names there is no coincidence. Only design, design above all.” That Winthrop is not a ghost town but a vibrant little commercial hub and conference center is due largely to Aberdeen’s entrepreneurship, which is a lot like bullying.
“That doesn’t mean I’m all up in his Kool-Aid,” a hip, young, flirtatious white librarian tells the narrator. Because Aberdeen has been a client of the narrator’s nomenclature consulting firm, he expects the narrator to be on his side, loyal to his go-getting values. In wanting to change the town’s name to New Prospera, he is claiming the place, rebranding it, doing to Winthrop what Winthrop’s grandfather had done to the black town he came to: taking it over, for business reasons. Winthrop wanted to build a landing dock in the town for easier shipment of his barbed wire, and he pretty much bought out the two black founders of Freedom, as they called their town.
Winthrop’s mayor is a black woman, Regina Goode, a granddaughter of one of the founders. She, Aberdeen, and Winthrop constitute the town council. Her vote to change the town’s name back to Freedom resulted in a deadlock. She hopes that the narrator will side with her, with black history. But it is not a foregone conclusion that he is in sympathy with this history. Regina’s forebears were “the laziest namers he’d ever come across.” He regards the name Freedom as so unimaginative that it indicates moral weakness. “It made his brain hurt. Must have been a bitch to travel all that way only to realize that they forgot to pack the subtlety.” He tells himself that if he’d ever offered Freedom up as a name at a meeting at work he would have been run out of town. “It was like something from the B-GON days, an artifact of the most pained and witless nomenclature. Roach B-GON, Rat B-GON. Hope B-GON.” He will change his mind when he finds an unedited version of the town’s history, which gives something of the story of the fourteen black families that lit out for the territories in 1867—something that the dusty, now irrelevant, official version doesn’t.
He doesn’t identify much with black history, it seems. “What?” he asks an interviewer who asks, “Are you keeping it real?” There is a wonderful scene in which a hip-hop song comes on at a corporate party of New Prospera supporters and everyone gets into the groove; it doesn’t matter if the soundtrack to success is black, though some choice slang words were going to be killed off because of the overexposure. However, the sliver of himself still in touch with the world of marketing shivers whenever he comes across the word “colored” in the unedited history. “He kept stubbing his toe on it. As it were.” The unedited history of the town leads him to wonder about the concerns of the settlers, including “one particular issue of singular vexation that was timeless, whether it was the 1860s or the 1960s: how to keep white folks from killing you.” “There was always that kindling problem of being black in America—namely, how to avoid becoming it.”
He thinks about the settlers starting their new black town, with their new rules, putting their own name to things. “Before colored, slave. Before slave, free. And always somewhere, nigger.” In the history of being called colored, Negro, Afro-American, and African-American, the narrator realizes that a name fixes a thing in place, allowing you to take aim and shoot. However, the name that you give to yourself is the key that unlocks the world. “To give yourself a name is power.”
Now he was in the Crossroads of the World, as this place had come to be called. The names here were magnificent, gigantic, powered by a million volts and blinking in malevolent dynamism. Off the chart. The most powerful names of all lived here and it was all he could do to stare. He had entered the Apex.
One day he would be gone and only his name would remain. “He liked his epiphanies American: brief and illusory.” He not only shares in the zeitgeist, he helps to create it.
Whitehead’s unnamed narrator is on a line somewhere between Trey Ellis’s black preppies and the black family men and black academics of Percival Everett’s satires. These are the New Black Guys, comfortably, coolly middle class, even upper middle class, and as such they have more in common with Bret Easton Ellis’s plugged-in, bored white dudes than Invisible Man ever could have had with the hustling Augie March. But Trey Ellis’s guys are mostly concerned with getting the white girl and not getting hassled by anybody for it, and Everett’s unflustered guys are concerned with winning, with turning the tables on the whole society, very much in the spirit of, say, William Melvin Kelly, a writer of the Black Arts Movement whose comic novel from the late 1960s, dem, depicts black men outsmarting a white man. Whitehead’s narrator in Apex Hide the Hurt has something darker about him and a more troublesome relationship to “the world he moved in, a place of compacts and understandings.”
The black settlers had given way to pale generations of Winthrops and “Aberdeen was merely the latest alien organism to latch on with tiny teeth and grit down hard.” Aberdeen and his “mouse jockeys” were the new parasites burrowing under the skin of the land and transforming it. The old must give way to the new; nothing remains still. He could end his exile from corporate safety, but he takes a different direction instead. The narrator has stipulated in his contract that his clients must keep the name he gives them for at least one year. Freedom had two founders: one black man understood human nature and the need for optimism, but the other, the one of whom there is the least trace in the records, showed his understanding of the human condition when he proposed “Struggle” as the name of the new black town. “Struggle” is the name Whitehead’s nomenclature consultant leaves with the citizens of Winthrop, Oklahoma, as he gives the black bartender in the Hotel Winthrop the finger and limps to a new life, his foot hurting more than ever. He has a soft spot for Amerigo Vespucci, who “hit nomenclature’s Big Kahuna” while looking for the Indies. America was one of those balloon names he couldn’t argue with. “It kept stretching as it filled up, getting bigger and bigger and thinner and thinner.”
November 2, 2006
Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory (Random House, 1986), p. 132. ↩
See Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (Knopf, 1998). ↩
See Scott Ellsworth, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921(Louisiana State University Press, 1982). ↩
See Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990 (Norton, 1990). ↩