Racial Prejudices and Empathetic Readership

The epigraph for this course is a quote that was spoken by Dionne Brand: “my job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice”. The act of noticing is important in one’s education as it is in becoming knowledgeable about racism, yet to notice can also be burdensome. The burden of noticing may come from feelings of powerlessness over the inability to change a situation as one envisions. Coping with feelings of hopelessness could prove to be challenging, especially if other mental health difficulties are present within the individual.  In Colson Whitehead’s novel, Zone One the African American protagonist Mark Spitz has PASD while also trying to make sense and cope with living in a zombie apocalypse. The literary devices the author uses to symbolize the experience of PASD are used to make the readers undermine his behavior and thinking in relation to his conception of his racial identity, as proved by the shocking ending, and to foster readership empathy.

When someone in a book is secretive to other characters and to the reader, one cannot help themselves but to try and solve the source of the secrecy. In Zone One, Mark’s character is written in such a way as to keep the interiority of his mind from readers. Mark is the main character of the story, yet, for myself, I felt like my understanding of him was not drastically any better than the other characters. In one of the class group discussion, I even asked if he could be considered an unreliable narrator. The unreliability of his character on his part, would be accounted for by his mental health struggles with PASD, which stands for Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. Mark’s inability to notice the onset of worsening symptoms of PASD for others may hint at his inability to understand his own. For instance, Mark’s encounter with a comm operator and a young soldier shows that he does not know how to identify someone experiencing trouble with their PASD (Whitehead 68). The comm operator has to inform him of the boy’s behavior and then he proceeded to ask for help in calming the boy. The scene ends without readers knowing how he responded to this boy’s troubles or knowing what was going through his own mind.  PASD can compromise one’s ability to think coherently with the stress that is leveled upon them. The danger of not being fully aware, or unresponsive, in an environment posing threats of zombies is dangerous.

Mark’s struggle with PASD is comprehended and sympathized with if one observes the structuring of the novel to be symbolic of his experience of living with PASD. The structuring of the book mimics the struggles of those who have flashbacks with their PASD because scenes jump from the past to the present without warning, only white space signals an ensuing change. Additionally, the novel achieves this symbolism through the use of diction that is peculiarly challenging. A reader would have to have a supreme stash of vocabulary words to be able to understand all that goes on within the story without the need for a dictionary. Words encountered in the text are not known by most lay readers like defenestration, bivouac, abeyance, or stymied. The diction was a distinctive feature of the book, and, at first without understanding its purpose, I thought that the diction was a poor choice on the author’s part. However, connecting the diction to living with PASD correlates some of the symptom’s characteristic of the disorder: “slowed thinking,” “distractedness,” and “decreased concentration” (Whitehead 68). All of these may manifest in readers as a result of the complex language used in the novel. 

As mentioned earlier, the ability to notice is potentially compromised as a result of the characters PASD, or at least that is what readers may conclude. This is deceptive though because Mark is aware of the life or death circumstances he is stuck in and trying to navigate as effectively as possible. Mark experiences intense nightmares that prevent him from getting sleep, and although there are supplements, he could take to help him sleep he refuses them because “he didn’t want to be dulled” (Whitehead 105). Mark’s awareness of his symptoms is keen, yet he knows that to try and resolve them through ineffective means given their environment could jeopardize his life. 

PASD is intended to have readers undermine his capacity to comprehend his surroundings and the logistics of his situation, like he may very well be struggling with, thus making readers empathetic to his situation. The PASD is an effective mechanism to do such, and it is meant to act as a lens to view him and his situation as foreign. Subsequently, we may question his actions and behavior. In the past, African Americans have been treated as though they are incapable of being autonomous over their bodies from the medical experimentations conducted on their non-consenting bodies to the institution of slavery. The distrust of African Americans to be able to make decisions for themselves is rooted in the racist belief that they were intellectually inferior to the white race. In Harriett A. Washington’s book, Medical Apartheid she confirms that scientists had attempted to declare the African American race as inferior through IQ tests (Washington 18). The narrative structuring of the story can make readers unable to recall the sequence of the telling of the story, thus making readers look unintelligent and unreliable readers. Therefore, readers can feel sympathy for Mark’s confrontation with racism, because readers experience a dilemma that mirrors his through the reading of the novel.

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