The American Phoenix

After the apocalypse in Zone One by Colson Whitehead, drastic changes have been made in the political structure of the United States. America is now referred to as the American Phoenix, and Buffalo, NY is now the capital city. For those of us native to western New York, this pulls our heartstrings a little bit. It’s endearing and somewhat comical. However, what comes as more of a strange shock is that the bird that once represented our country–the bald eagle–has been dethroned and replaced with a fiery mythological bird

According to Greek and Roman mythology, the phoenix typically lives for hundreds of years before bursting into flames, and is then reborn from the ashes, often more beautiful and vivacious than before. The phoenix is considered a symbol of renewal or rebirth, and in the context of Zone One, it seems to represent a sense of hope. In one of the civilian camps, Happy Acres, merchandise such as hoodies and sun visors depicting this bird are being sold. “The frigid hues and brittle lines of the logo conformed to a very popular design trend in the months preceding Last Night, and it was almost as if the culture was picking up where it left off” (99). This quote suggests that wearing this design gave civilians a sense of hope, a sense of normalcy. It allows them to once again relinquish their savings to marketing tactics that they once followed subconsciously (and maybe still do). It gives them a sense of nationalism that may be necessary in a post-apocalyptic world. It gives them optimism–hope that their ruined world will improve over time. Many civilians even refer to this bird as a “pheenie” (99), a rather friendly and familiar nickname for the creature. Clearly, the survivors are becoming used to the veneration of the phoenix.

The bald eagle, on the other hand seems to have differing reasons for being chosen as a representation of the United States, but some traits that stick out the most are the bird’s strength, majestic appearance, and long life. I believe in this novel, the bald eagle was replaced by the phoenix due to the last trait. Sure, eagles live long lives, but they don’t live several hundreds of years, die in a combustion, and are reborn from ash. Bald eagles are merely mortal, while phoenixes reincarnate themselves. While bald eagles were once a sufficient and even noble representation of the United States, the phoenix is now more fitting, as the characters in Zone One must rely on hope and their own resilience to survive in their grim environment.

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