Monday, April 16, 2007


AS their first major event, Penn State's CENTER FOR AMERICAN LITERARY STUDIES
sponsored a community reading of Colson Whitehea's first novel, THE INTUITIONIST, with a series of campus discussions of the book culminating in a final discussion with Whitehead himself.

The discussions were organized by the Center's director, Professor Robin Schulze, who also arranged to have copies of the novel (in hardback!) made available free in advance of the visit.

The plan for the evening was that Michael Bérubé would get things started by presenting an essay he had written about the book. This was followed by responses from Charles Harris, of Illinois State University, Louise Bernard, of Georgetown, and me. Then, following an introduction by Bernard Bell, Colson WHitehead would respond to all of us and to questions from the audience.

Robin Schulze
Charles Harris and Michael Bérubé

Louise Bernard

I was honored to be asked to participate in this event, and was especially pleased to see Professor Bernard again, who I had first met at the BLACK ARCHIPELAGOS conference organized by poet Mark McMorris at Georgetown.

There was a full house for the evening and Whitehead generously spent a good deal of time signing books and visiting with us in the lobby afterwards.

Here is a portion of my own remarks. (and don't worry, there are more photos.)

"Now that I have linked my fortunes to the race I intend to do all I can for its elevation." – Frances E. W. Harper, Iola Leroy (393)

In looking to one important black American writer of the early twentieth century, I find this vital statistic proffered as evidence of the progress and modernity of African Americans: "From one [Negro] elevator operator in 1910, the number jumped to 3,073 in 1920." The author who advanced this statistic as proof of the advancing status of African Americans was Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and who should be in better position to appreciate both the triumphs and the ironies implicit in this figure than the former wife of Paul Laurence Dunbar. The first of the handouts I have provided this evening shows a street in Dayton, Ohio, dominated by the Callahan Building, the work site of perhaps America’s most famous elevator operator. Paul Laurence Dunbar, though he had aspired to a position in journalism upon graduation from Dayton’s Central high School, had to content himself with the position that the racism prevalent in Ohio in the last decade of the nineteenth century afforded him, work as an elevator operator at the rate of four dollars per week. Dunbar soon became notorious for his work habits. Much as the United States Post Office in Richard Wright’s day came to be known for the numbers of highly educated blacks in its employ, so much so that later writers such as Michael Harper speak of working the Post Office night shift among these learned older men as a form of graduate school supplement to his college training, the elevator in Dunbar’s day was a place of literacy and transmission. Dunbar studied and wrote in the cab to which he had been assigned. When he was twnety years old, a former teacher invited Dunbar to address the conference of the Western Association of Writers. He made such an impression on that occasion that several leading members of the Association sought him out at the Callahan Building the following day. They found him, as his biographer reports, "at his post of duty, and by his side in the elevator were a late copy of the Century Magazine, a lexicon, a scratch tablet, and a pencil." Dunbar himself referred to his early works as his "elevator poems," and his school friend, Orville Wirght, published those first works at the print shop he owned with his brother, Wilbur.

This intriguing intersection of industry and arts in Dayton prefigures something that animates The Intuitionist. We can easily enough see that Dunbar is the very type of Lila Mae Watson’s father: a man with higher aspirations, a man fluent with the intricacies of the most modern machinery, a man larger than the cage of his conveyance. The names that keep cropping up in Whitehead’s novel are equally suggestive. "Watson," recalls, to any lover of mysteries, the companionate narrator of Sherlock Holmes’s peregrinations, but "Watson" is also the name of one of the most important British computer scientists, and "Watson" is the first name ever spoken into a telephone, the name Alexander Graham Bell called when first he found he could call anyone. The name of Fulton has an equally glorious place in the histories of technology. The Pennsylvania-born Robert Fulton was, as we all learned in our school books, an inventor of the steam ship, and I imagine that Colson Whitehead must pass the street bearing Fulton’s name in New York with some frequency.

But it is what we call the machine itself that is most crucial here. The second handout I have given you is a detail from a large mural by Hale Woodruff titled "Settlement and Development," part of a larger project undertaken in 1949 with Charles Alston on The Negro in California History and commissioned by the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Woodruff’s mural is a historic montage reaching from 1856 to 1949, depicting a black prospector who has purchased his freedom by dint of his indepedent labors, black cavalrymen protecting Chinese railroad workers, the 1956 Convention of Colored Citizens of California (a group that supplied rifles to John Brown in advance of the raid on Harper’s Ferry), and, prominently placed, a depiction of The Elevator. The Elevator, first published in 1865 by Philip Bell, was among the earliest of California’s African American newspapers, an independent voice for a community that saw itself on the rise. When, in The Colossus of New York Whitehead writes "out of the tunnel and suddenly elevated," he is not simply alluding, intentionally or otherwise, to his own first novel. He is invoking a long-standing discourse of progress. Most reviewers of The Intuitionist have placed it against the backdrop of "uplift discourse," but I think it important to savor its direct participation in the specific discourse of elevation. The publisher and the readers of The Elevator were possessed of the same spirit that Frances E. W. Harper depicted in her character Iola Leroy, a dedication to elevation. In Woodruff’s stunning mural, we see The Elevator’s slogan: "A Weekly Journal of Progress." Progress was its product, and it was measurable. Woodruff shows us the printer hard at work, and he shows us a black woman so eager for the news of this progress and elevation that she is reading the paper as quickly as it comes off the press. This was the spirit of the first elevation, and it was delivered by means of sophisticated technology.

Frances Harper, Philip Bell, Hale Woodruff would all have recognized Lila Mae Watson immediately. We are told over and over again that Lila Mae did not know yet, but we know she is an intuitionist. That intuition is rooted in her father’s experiences. "Who’s ‘we’?" she asks when reading Fulton’s notebooks and published works. American Modernism attempted to conceal its own reliance on Africa and Africans. Black people were consistently assigned the role of atavists. Modernism, it was widely held, was a white thing. You couldn’t tell that to Philip Bell or to the elder Mr. Watson. They knew what Lila Mae was to learn, that if you looked deeply enough into the origins of your technology, you were likely to find black people already there. This has become a commonplace in elementary education in the years since Lila Mae went to school, whatever years those may have been. Many of us came of age hearing school children shouting back a chorus to Stevie Wonder as he chanted a litany of black invention as a part of his Songs in the Key of Life. I do not have time on this evening’s program to unpack this history, but it has been a mainstay of the black intellectual tradition.

Comedian Chris Rock, when he hosted an HBO series, had a routine in which he charted the progress of the race as they struggled to reach the ineffable "There." It was the same "there" that Martin Luther King, a life-long proponent of elevation, had held out as a promise to a nation. It is the "there" promised by Fulton’s black box and intuited by Lila Mae Watson. "It will come," she intuits, and she is never wrong. Our present day seems always teetering on the brink of losing that which the readers of The Elevator were so sure was to come, but Lila Mae is in good company. Her close cousin Sun Ra used to assure us at the close of every concert, "next stop, Jupiter."

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