As I’m reflecting on Zone One, I find myself returning back to one of the earlier descriptions of the Omega unit’s duties. I found it very interesting that, after Gary kills the skels, Kaitlyn asks Gary to search for the skels’ IDs. After discussing the information the Lieutenant had previously told him, Mark Spitz narrates: “[Buffalo (the new government capital)] were keen for the sweepers to record demographic data” (Whitehead 37). The book then details specifically what Buffalo means by “demographic data”: “the ages of the targets, the density at the specific location, structure type, number of floors” (Whitehead 37). I was surprised by this because I was confused as to why names were not included in the type of data the government wanted to collect.
This is addressed this a little bit later in the book. The readers are told that Gary rummages through the bags of the skels and reads out just the ages on their IDs. Mark Spitz then states: “[Gary] didn’t bother with the names. No one cared about the names, not them, not the higher-ups. Since they hadn’t maintained records of the dead starting Last Night, there was no point: easier to keep records of the living” (Whitehead 67). Mark specifies here that, to both the government and the sweeper units, the names of the dead hold little value. I found this troubling because it reminded me of what we (the class) read in Nelson’s Fortune’s Bones at the beginning of the semester. Fortune, a person who was enslaved and had his bones displayed (without consent) in a museum, was, for a long time, called “Larry” by others. In the poem titled “Kyrie of the Bones,” a speaker narrates: “I called him Larry. It was easier / to face him with an imaginary name. For Fortune was an image of myself: / my fortune known, my face bare bone” (Nelson 21). The speaker indicates here that it was easier to call Fortune by an “imaginary name,” to ignore Fortune’s real name, because it prevents the speaker from remembering that Fortune is an “image of [the speaker]” (Nelson 21). The speaker avoids calling Fortune by his real name, avoids humanizing Fortune, because it reminds the speaker that the speaker, too, will one day be like Fortune: a skeleton with a “face bare bone” (Nelson 21). Calling Fortune by an “imaginary name” is similar to the Omega unit’s (and Buffalo’s) rejection of names for the dead because both actions dehumanize the dead. By forgetting and not recording names, we forget individuals and their stories; we forget that the skels were once human. It’s thus perhaps noteworthy that Mark specifies that keeping “records of the living” (keeping records of the names of the living) is more important than keeping records of dead individuals and individuals who were turned into skels, suggesting that the dead and skels (despite being formerly human) are unworthy of having their names and identity remembered.
We see a similar instance of the taking away of names in Washington’s Medical Apartheid. Washington writes of a woman named Saartjie Baarman who was forced to undergo multiple invasive procedures and had her name “stripped from her and replaced with the sardonic sobriquet ‘Hottentot Venus’” (Washington 84). In replacing her name, the researchers disregarded Baarman’s human identity and further treated Baarman as an experimental subject rather than as another human being. This reduction into data is also shown in Zone One. Remember that, before Mark Spitz comments on how names are considered unnecessary information, he points out that Gary only reads off the ages of the office skels. By taking away the names of the dead and using just numbers or data as an identification process, they in a way take away an individual’s human identity and reduce individuals to statistics. Perhaps by having this complexity in Zone One, Whitehead makes a reference to the importance of maintaining humanity to all individuals, even those that might no longer be human.