Body Unknown: Racial Identity in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One

An important element in one’s social identity is how others view oneself, and this is for the most part within an individual’s control, or is it? In Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One, the protagonist struggles with their racial identity. The use of a zombie apocalypse provides symbolism that highlights the internal conflict the protagonist is dealing with, along with the nickname the protagonist acquires. Additionally, Coloson Whitehead’s use of the nickname for this individual and his characterization of the protagonist is conspicuously about the United States history of exploiting African Americans. 

Names in literature and in reality can have an important social significance. Hereditary rights through last names,or names meaning and origin can tell others about the said persons status and ranking. Not everyone is referred to by their given name at birth, some people may be known by their nickname by close friends or colleagues. Nicknames are assigned to people by others to the nicknamed by observations they have made of an individual. However, the assigned nickname may not reflect how the person truly feels about their self, and this happens to be the case for Mark. Mark continually describes himself in self-defeating terms of mediocrity. Mark Spitz is the name of a popular Olympic gold medalist swimmer, and, provided that we are only ever given his nickname and not his birth name, this is how readers must identify him. 

The skin color of the individuals in this book is not explicitly given except surrounding a derogatory stereotype of African Americans. However, it must be noted that race is central to this novel because, historically, zombie literature portrayed zombies along the likeness racialized bodies of Haitian and Caribbean persons. The timing of this mention or race is quite strategic, for it is in the telling of how the protagonist got his nickname that the mention of race arises. He was telling Gary that instead of jumping off a bridge into a river, he decided to fight the skels surrounding him, unlike his other comrades. Later, when Mark reunited with his comrades they nicknamed him Mark Spitz as a joke because he claimed he couldn’t swim. Although it is unclear why he lied, the nature of the lie is clarified by the third person omniscient narrator who confirms “he knew a few [swim] strokes,” enough to have chosen to jump into the water (Whitehead 182). Letting his comrades believe in this lie not only shows the distance between himself and his colleagues, but it also shows that they believed in the stereotype that African Americans can not swim. Mark has to make it clear to Gary, because he is as ignorant as the comrades of his earlier unit, by affirming, “I can. A lot of us can. Could. It’s a stereotype” (Whitehead 287). The author keeps this tidbit of information to be revealed only nearing the end of the novel to leave readers to reflect on how his racial identity factors into the characterization of him earlier on in the novel. 

Mark claims that his mediocrity makes him a good survivalist and apocalyptic navigator. The omniscient narrator describes him as having “led a mediocre life,” which with the zombie apocalypse “the world was [now] mediocre, rendering him perfect” (Whitehead 183). The mediocre person does what is expected by following the social cues and the social norms expected by someone like themselves in the society, and “Mark Spitz kept his eyes open and watched his environment for cues, a survivalist at a tender age” (Whitehead 11). What this is truly saying, is that as a black man he understood that people may judge and pay attention to his behavior more so than others because of others prejudice. Living as a black man, is not the same as living as a white man, and this means trying to do and be better than others because one mistake could change one’s life. Naturally then, the omniscient narrator describes the protagonist as never having “had trouble with the American checklist” of advancing one’s career from school age to acquire a respectable job (Whitehead 10). Mediocracy comes down to being a metaphor for a black man trying to live his life in caution of white prejudice even if this means feeling detached from one’s racial identity. 

The irony of mediocracy being of value in this life or death environment is quite peculiar and odd. Mediocracy as defined on Lexico.com means “a dominant class consisting of mediocre people, or a system in which mediocracy is rewarded”.  In the context of this novel, the United States of America would be responsible for establishing standards of mediocracy that are, in the view of the main character, stemming from the materialist culture of a capitalist society. Materialism is scrutinized overwhelmingly by the main character who appears to be obsessed over this pathetic and pitiful way of living. It is more painstaking to him when he sees the hold it had on stragglers like the straggler “window-shopper bewitched before a boarded-up department-store window, taking in a long-removed display” (Whitehead 97). The racialized nickname he received may lend light into this obsession of pity, an obsession that might reveal his own fear and sympathy. Gold medalist like Mark Spitz or Micheal Phelps are an advertisers biggest dream to have sponsoring their product, yet do these olympians lose their humanity by others profiting from their image and fame? The fragility of preserving one’s humanity in scenarios of advertising may not seem to be an issue, but for African Americans their bodies have been historically viewed as a commodity. The insitution of slavery rejected African Americans their freedom, subsequently disregaring their humanity. Additionally, the historical medical experimentation conducted on African Americans is another instance that exploited the black body for gains to be reaped by the white majority. The body and identity is central to the protagonist’s arc in this novel, and this could not be made more obvious by a reference to literary theory of the body (Whitehead 213). In the textbook An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, authors Andrew Bennett and Nichoals Royle have one of their main bullet points on the body being that “bodies are intrinsically and inescapably political,” and this could not be more true to this novel. 

In Zone One, the black body as a commodity for medical experimentation is aligned with the zombies representing the whites racialization of black bodies. Zombies in the novel pose a threat to the healthy, uninfected humans, so “experiments, to search for a cure, cook up a vaccine, or simply investigate ‘in the name of science’ ” were conducted by government appointed scientist (Whitehead 77). In Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid, she presents information on medical experiments that were conducted in the past on African Americans to perfect procedures for the white population. Doctor James Marion Sims perfected the vesicovaginal fistula operation on his entirely black subjects, but did this expediently by rejecting forms of consent and by ignoring the pain tolerance and welfare of his patients (Washington 66). These vulnerable black women went to a doctor to find a cure, instead they got a doctor who would use their bodies for his own career goals of becoming the doctor to perfect the procedure. Experimentation could also be considered for non-medical related bodily changes. For example, deceptive radioactive procedures were developed and advertised as being able to change black skin to white. Doctor Thomas E. Elridge claimed the successes of these detrimental harmful procedures (Washington 226). The innocent individuals who underwent these procedures experienced detrimental side effects like having their skin turn “gray and in others the gray is darkening into black” (Washington 227).  Typical zombies are portrayed with ashy grey skin, and the zombies in Zone One could resemble those who underwent this harmful procedure. At the end of the novel, the protagonist commits a sort of suicide by letting himself be attacked by the zombies. Before he commits this act, the protagonist expresses, “Fuck it, he thought. You have to learn to swim sometime” (Whitehead 322). This emphatic expression shows that the character no longer cares about keeping up his mediocre persona. The act of swimming is a metaphor for navigating life as a black man knowing that, no matter what he does, he will still inevitably face prejudice and discrimination.

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