What is the true importance of a name? Does the ambiance of a name define who we are or where we originated? In novels such as “Zone One”, by Colson Whitehead, we see the clear loss of humanity and origin through the personification of the “Skels”, better known as the infected-undead. In a post-apocalyptic, zombie-ridden world, Whitehead explores the depth of names and their importance for an individual’s essence, thus exploiting a highly tangible and consistent nefarious pattern in our own society. Those who are viewed as different, or less than human because of these differences, are often disregarded and forgotten in both life and death; robbed of their basic human rights, based solely on another’s perception of who they are.
Whitehead’s main character, ironically re-named “Mark Spitz” after the Olympic swimmer, is able to personify the dead, perceiving them as people rather than “things”. Unlike the disconnected demeanor of most survivors towards the Skels, Mark Spitz continuously tries to lasso the Skels back to their pre-apocalyptic lives. Focusing on observations such as hairstyles, clothing, and place of work, Spitz is able to piece together a narrative of his own making for the Skel’s last experience alive and who they might have been. Through this action, Spitz shows genuine human sympathy and connection to the Skels, honoring them in his own way. In our first interaction with the Skels in the novel, we see Spitz’s constant attempt to link the dead back to the humanity they left behind:
“The youngest one wore its hair in a style popularized by a sitcom…The bushy eyebrows, the whisper of a mustache — it was hard to avoid recognizing in this one his sixth-grade English teacher, Miss Alcott…He’d always had a soft spot got Miss Alcott…This one was probably the first infected…Just another day at the office when she gets bit by some New York whacko while loading up on spring mix at the corner deli’s Salad Lounge. Full of plague but unaware…She returns to her cubicle the next day because she hadn’t taken a sick day in years. Then the transformation…It happened every so often that he recognized something in these monsters, they looked like someone he had known or loved” (Whitehead 17-19).
It is impossible that Spitz could have ever possibly known this much detail just by observing the Skels, yet it brings him comfort to give each of them a narrative before he puts them to rest. Holding on to their given fiction stories, Spitz is able to keep the Skel’s alive in sentiment, not forgetting who they could have been. In stark comparison, Spitz’s friend Gary, is able to disregard the past lives and experiences of the Skels, viewing them merely as walking objects, dead of all memory, emotion, and thus humanity:
“Gary didn’t have much sympathy for the dead, a.k.a. the “squares,” the “suckers,” and the “saps” … Gary made no such distinction…they were equally detestable…Gary was unmoved (referring to the narratives Spitz often tried to give the Skels)”. (Whitehead 30-31).
The names and stories of the dead are innumerable, yet they have no connections left to their past-selves other than the very flesh left on their undead bones. All wealth, social class, and human connections of the past world are left null and void after the sweep of death that ran across the world. As we travel through this chaotic novel it is impossible not to ponder what Whitehead is trying to express to his audience and what he had in mind when creating characters such as Mark Spitz and Gary, and their predicaments.
Delving into the given setting of lower Manhattan, we can look closely at the real-life African Burial Grounds found on Broadway and what their significance might have been to Whitehead when writing his novel. Underneath the streets of lower Manhattan there is an enormous grave of unnamed African Americans, who were buried after living a life in enslavement. The bodies uncovered had no names or grave markers, given zero recognition of the lives they lived, forgotten by a world that refused to view them as equals due to perceived differences. Their bodies were carelessly thrown into the ground, without the decent sense of celebrating their human lives. This evident lack of empathy can be compared to how some of Whitehead’s characters, such as Gary, viewed the Skel’s. It can be inferred that Whitehead is making a statement about this dark part of our human history through his horrific depiction of the Skel’s and how they are portrayed and treated. Just as the undead are innumerable and nameless, so where the slaves of our past society. Whether given numbers, or false names, these individuals and the Skel’s were not given the human commonality of names, as they were viewed as unworthy of a name’s stature and connection to social status. The injustice done to these individuals in both life and death is astonishing, and Whitehead is making us acknowledge the truth and existence of this injustice through his narrative. Whitehead’s character Mark Spitz is depicted constantly attempting to piece together the narratives of the dead, showing respect for the lives that they might have lived. In NYC, we have tried this same idea by building a polished memorial to those buried beneath the city, their lives not to be forgotten in death. The memorial is marked with a map of the world, and symbols of all different religions and spiritualities. Through these visuals, the architects were able to express unity of people of all cultures in life and death. As part of the memorial there stands a teepee like structure, carved out of polished stone. Standing within this structure, a passenger is able to reflect and look onto the memorial. Just as the architects intended, the memorial invokes recognition and reflection of the dead. Whitehead shared similar goals to these architects when writing his novel “Zone One”, making us question how we perceive differences in individuals, and how we weigh an individual’s humanity and character.
Another tangible example of this continued human pattern of dehumanization can be depicted by the mass of unmarked graves of asylum patients found under the Mississippi Health Center. Similar to both the slaves of the African Burial Ground and the Skel’s of Whitehead’s novel, those who were perceived as “mentally insane” were often cast aside and robbed of their basic human rights; excluded from the world and forced to be forgotten. Mental illness was seen as a disdainful and taboo affliction in the past, and often individuals were dropped off at these hellish institutions to never be contacted or spoken of again. Despite the false social perceptions, these individuals were still people with emotions, memories and so on. Yet, we still failed to recognize the humanity in these people, because society told us they were unworthy. Whitehead’s character Mark Spitz breaks through the surface of this pattern and is able to dive deep into the lives of those forgotten, not forgetting their humanity. As Spitz treads through the waters of the zombie apocalypse, he succeeds in holding on to the human decency of recognizing the dead.
By creating the graphic imagery of the “Skel’s” Whitehead begs this question in a very direct matter, making us question our own perceptions of our world and the people in it. In conclusion, we are all worthy of a name and origin story, and this pattern of disregarding human-lives needs to come to an end.