What is society? Merriam Webster defines society as “a community, nation or broad grouping of people having common traditions, institutions, and collective activities or interests.” In other words, society is made up of people and the culture that they establish. Culture is made up of everything that people create whether it is art, music, entertainment, fashion, and many more aspects that make up the daily lives of people. Society and culture are social constructs that are developed by people to enhance the everyday lives of people. These are things that seem important and concrete to members of society. Colson Whitehead, in Zone One, describes what happens when society falls apart.
The Last Night marks the end of the civilized non-zombie society when the plague is released and tears throughout the world. Whitehead constantly refers to the pre-zombie society with a sense of fragility. In retelling the memories of Mark Spitz on The Last Night, Whitehead describes Mark’s family home and behaviors of his parents as mundane and material. The parents were normally focused on “every room, every reconsidered and gussied square foot, was an encroachment into immortality’s lot line.” Like the rest of society, Mark Spitz and his parents were consumed by culture and felt safe and secure in the societal roles. They placed value on material things that society valued. However, the “twin leather recliners equipped with beverage holders”, carried no value after Mark Spitz walked in on his mother chewing on the intestines of his father. Society had fallen.
Throughout the entire story of Mark Spitz finding his way in this new world, Whitehead consistently reminds us of how the old society has died and a new society has taken its place. The American Phoenix is the name given to the post-infection society. The phoenix is used to symbolize the attempt to reboot society and restore it to its former glory. The government in Buffalo hopes for a return to the past and does not consider the changing circumstances of the world. Human nature is resistant to change as Whitehead explains that the “tendency of the human mind, in periods of duress, to seek refuge in more peaceful times, such as a childhood experience, as a barricade against horror.” People hold on to what they know, even when the entire world has changed around them. The people of Zone One try to find hope that eventually society will return to what it once as even though that is an impossibility. Society cannot return to what it once was it needs to change and adapt to current situations.
I could not help but connect the social constructs of society to the idea of race. Returning to Geraldine Heng’s definition of race in The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, “ that race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content.” Race, like society, is a social construct put in place by people of social influence. Racism is a purely social idea that is used as an attempt to explain obvious human differences and is not based on concrete evidence. The collapse of society in Zone One is analogous to the abolishment of slavery. Both are monumental changes in society, the plague in Zone One had a negative impact while the end of slavery had a positive impact. In both cases, due to the nature of human beings, there were people who held on to the old ideals of the outdated society. As Whitehead points out, if the change in society causes duress, humans return to ideals of past times. This may be a reason that racism remains present in our society today.
Persons of power during the time of slavery became accustomed to the organization of races. Even with changing circumstances in the world, there are people resistant to change, which makes racism difficult to truly eradicate. There were many people that belonged to a society that racial distinctions were an accepted part of society. Even after the major societal change many of these individuals held on to the previously accepted ideas. Unfortunately, the racist beliefs were passed down to children and to subsequent generations. The human nature to hold on to past beliefs after times of change is a major reason that I believe racism remains in existence today. Racism is an intangible idea that will remain in the world until individuals who perpetuate the ideas are able to recognize the fact that it is no longer a sanctioned aspect of society. I believe Whitehead is trying to convey the idea that people need to fight against societal ideals of the past, and that the world changes and we need to change with it.