After grappling with Colson Whitehead’s Zone One in its entirety, I found that the racial element of the story is not as prominent and obvious as I had anticipated it would be. For one, we do not learn of Mark Spitz’s race until far into the narrative. However, this is really the only distinguishing characteristic of Mark Spitz, other than that he is male and described as “average,” which may be a comment on race itself. Mark Spitz’s race and mediocrity are his only distinguishing traits, and it is precisely his mediocrity that allowed him to survive the infestation for as long as he did. He is described as being “neither the captain…nor the last one picked.” In the context of the zombie infestation, the last one picked would surely fail, but so to would the captain because he/she would be responsible for other people.
Being that Mark Spitz is presumably a minority and Colson Whitehead is as well, Whitehead is possibly trying to convey that a young person of color could easily see being average as the best route in traversing through society. As it is the least notorious, because people tend to ignore the average person as they prioritize helping the below average person as well as praising the above average person instead. The character’s name “Mark Spitz” is itself a racial slur derived from a moment where instead of jumping off a bridge into water to flee from a swarm of “dead,” Mark Spitz shoots his way out of it screaming that he cannot die. There is a similarly climatic scene on the final page where after the final barricade is breached by the dead, Colson writes “Fuck it, he thought. You have to learn how to swim sometime. He opened the door and walked into the seas of the dead.” Perhaps this is him embracing who he is as he self-actualizes and “swims,” conquering his fear of “water.”
Mark Spitz’s fear of water is the stereotype that creates his name and enables him to share that story with Gary as he passes, which must have been especially emotional given that he and Gary were brothers in battle against the infestation. They were the only family they had left, as Mark Spitz lost Uncle Lloyd and the vast majority of the population died. In this context, it was actual great to be the minority. His fear of water is symbolic of his fear of death. Mark Spitz was not one to delude himself with hopes of the “after,” and when the barricade broke and he walked into the seas of the dead, Mark Spitz was able to feel closure. Additionally, Whitehead may have been using zombies to symbolize micro aggressions perpetrated by white people, and the barricade breaking is symbolic of the micro aggressions adding up and having a cumulative effect. At one point in the novel, Mark Spitz makes a reference to there finally being no “amateur fascist up the street machinated to steal the next cab.” The plague itself could be symbolic of retribution for the atrocities of slavery as well as the sum of centuries of micro aggressions, bigotry, racism and acts of racism.