Black History Month: “The Intuitionist”

intuitionist.jpgThis 1999 novel by Colson Whitehead imagines a world in which a new style of elevator inspectors — those who inspect via intuition — are disrupting the mainstream inspectors — the empiricists — who work by checking everything out. And in this original, fully imagined world, which has in addition to its speculative fiction — or even sci-fi aspect to it — a 1940s or 1950s feel, the issues of race and gender still dominate.

With this first novel, Whitehead established himself as a fresh, vibrant voice in contemporary fiction.

Here’s an excerpt for a great interview he gave with Laura Miller at

Another unusual thing about your book is that often, when black writers are writing about race, they feel it needs to be very realistic. Do you feel you have more freedom than previous generations?

Yeah. Definitely, decades ago, there was the protest novel, and then there was “tell the untold story, find our unerased history.” Then there’s the militant novel of insurrection from the ’60s. There were two rigid camps in the ’60s: the Black Arts movement, denouncing James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison for being too white, and Ralph Ellison calling the Black Arts writers too militant and narrow, not universal enough. Now I think there are a lot more of us writing and a lot more different areas we’re exploring. It’s not as polemicized. I’m dealing with serious race issues, but I’m not handling them in a way that people expect.

You’re using elements of a style that people associate with white men — the Thomas Pynchons and Don DeLillos of this world. People who don’t like that kind of book tend to dismiss them for being white men. By writing these big novels that make big statements about society they’re supposedly showing a bogus sense of entitlement.

I love all those guys. And I certainly don’t feel that way. I think they’re great writers and I think they’re attacking, grappling with, the culture in a way that interests me. I think if it’s a good book, it’s a good book.

You are in this literary territory that isn’t usually associated with black writers, though.

I think Ishmael Reed has done it — “Mumbo Jumbo” and “Flight to Canada” are in the same sort of vein, I think he’s overlooked as a groundbreaking voice in black fiction. And Jean Toomer’s “Cane,” a ’20s novel. He’s a Harlem Renaissance guy. I think it’s always been there, it’s just that mainstream critics, maybe even readers, don’t see the linkages.

They don’t see that there’s a tradition of the black intellectual novel?

Yeah. This guy Charles Wright, not the poet, had some very crazy books that came out in the ’60s, and Clarence Majors, his book “All Night Visitors,” which came out in the early ’70s. You could say it’s been ghettoized. No one’s really picking up on experiments that were going on in the late ’60s.

The complete interview is here.

Listen to the author read an excerpt here.

The previous authors and writings featured on this blog:
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”
Gwendolyn Brooks
August Wilson
“Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson
“Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Langston Hughes
“Cane” by Jean Toomer
“The Great Negro Plot” by Mat Johnson
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
“I Have a Dream” speech”
“Sula” by Toni Morrison
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker


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