Zombiism Through Poverty, Slavery and Disease

In an article published by “The Guardian,” https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/05/hookworm-lowndes-county-alabama-water-waste-treatment-poverty , Ed Pilkington reveals details about an epidemic that is ravaging the American south. The proliferation of hookworm is happening under the mainstream radar largely because the parasitic hookworm is only rampant in heavily impoverished areas. It is rampant specifically in areas where people are more likely to come into contact with raw sewage and human waste through drinking water or cracked pipes during heavy rains and because of otherwise shoddy infrastructure. The parasite travels through people’s skin, typically using the soles of barefeet as an entry point. From there, according the the article, it saps the life force from people as it sucks blood from the small intestine leading to cognitive problems, weight loss, anemia and other health problems (Pilkington, 2017). Hookworm prevalence over hundreds of years helped lead to the stigma and stereotype of “the lazy and lethargic southern redneck” (Pilkington, 2017). In a way, the symptoms of hookworm broadly fit the descriptions of a zombie. And, in Zone One, Colson Whitehead uses a virus to explain the means for which the corpses became reanimated.

Where Haitian voodoo traditions employ magic as the means of reanimating a corpse, Zone One uses a plague. Traditional Hatian zombiism involves supernatural magic and because slavery was such an egregious institution of unfathomable evil, it makes sense why supernatural forces relating to spiritualism could be the only source of reanimation in older works of zombie fiction. At the time, slaves could be considered zombies because they were stripped of all “life” as they lost all hope and motivation and were in most instances “dead on the inside” as they were treated grossly inhumanly and were often stripped of their loved ones. Slaves were also traditionally discouraged from learning and becoming literate, further leading to the absence of cognition that signifies a zombie. However, in Zone One, disease and sickness is used as a more literal metaphor to explain that poverty, specifically that faced by blacks in America (NYC ghettos) is a debilitating sickness that is inescapable if not contained. As is the process of dying and being reanimated cyclical, so too is the cycle of poverty. In relating to the hookworm article, Pilkington writes that “[the symptoms of hookworm are constantly] helping to trap [victims] into the poverty in which the disease flourishes.” (Pilkington, 2017)

Just as disease is more easily spread in impoverished areas, so to is zombiism in Zone One as it reads “The construction company had lost liquidity the year before and his parents complained about the eyesore as if under contractual obligation. The plastic sheets rippling where there should have been walls, the great mounds of orange dirt that seeped out in defeat after every rain. It was a breeding ground for mosquitoes, his parents fussed. They spread sickness.” (Whitehead, p. 23) In his article, Pilkington also describes an anecdotal scene of a child playing basketball in his driveway feet away from a puddle of sewage coming from a busted pipe on his lawn, where mosquitoes are described to be congregating (Pilkington, 2017). Just as slave children toiled barefoot in fields, devoid of educational opportunities and subject to disease and nutritional deficiency, so too are impoverished southern poor kids, of both African and European descent, subject to hookworm which stunts cognitive development and leads to malnutrition. So in a sense, for poor, black southern children, some of the perilous consequences felt during slavery are being reanimated and manifesting themselves today.

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