Constructed identity: How Colson Whitehead avoids cliché and traditional motif in Sag Harbor, his autobiographical fourth novel, which is definitely not a coming-of-age tale.
In 1999 the literary world collectively sat up and paid attention to The Intuitionist, the stylish debut from the young American author, Colson Whitehead. Shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award, The Intuitionist was followed by John Henry Days and Apex Hides the Hurt, garnering glowing critique and further awards such as the MacArthur Fellowship, Whiting Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Ten years on, with new novel, Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead’s glittering star remains in firm ascent.
The real-life Sag Harbor can be found in Long Island. Often referred to as the Black Hamptons, Sag Harbor is a holiday resort originally founded by African American professionals – teachers, doctors, lawyers and civil servants – in the time of racial segregation. Upon examining a map of the Hamptons, the book’s protagonist discloses, “we knew where our neighbourhood began because that’s where the map ended. The black part of town was off in the margins.” With every day working lives still impinged by white power structures, purposefully removing themselves to these margins to start an alternative community presented comfort and pride for this fledgling society. Moved by the beauty of the town’s sunset, the narrator of the story further contemplates the founders’ idiom, “the first generation asked, can we make it work? Will they allow us to have this? It doesn’t matter what the world says, they answered each other. This place is ours.” Claiming, colonising and naming Sag Harbor in this way imbued the town with characteristic significance indivisible from the personal identity of every inhabitant – present, past and future. The power and draw of Sag Harbor remains as potent today as any previous time, with Whitehead returning to the same beach with his daughter – a fourth generation Sag Harbor Baby.
Much of Sag Harbor’s affecting triumph can be laid squarely at the charming feet of the young protagonist Benji Cooper. Recalling the summer of 1985, Sag Harbor is narrated from the perspective of a grown man remembering himself as a 15-year-old boy. Benji’s appeal lies in the excruciatingly honest analysis of his teenage sensations, the minutiae of which is often hilarious in the trifling yet omnipotent way of most teenage concerns. Although Whitehead terms Sag Harbor his “autobiographical fourth novel”, lead character Benji Cooper is not Colson Whitehead. On the subject of differences between himself and his creation, Whitehead defers superiority to Benji: “Even though he is a bit helpless, he’s much funnier and smarter and has a much better sense of his order in the world.”
With the central role occupied by an adolescent male on the cusp of adulthood – with obligatory first loves and self discovery – it would be easy to label the book a coming-of-age tale in the tradition of American writers, like Mark Twain and JD Salinger. Yet Whitehead is keen for the novel to avoid this pigeonhole: “It doesn’t have to be a certain category. I wanted to avoid all the traditional coming-of-age melodramatic incidents; they find a dead body, they’re chased by cops, a big car crash.” The novel’s dramatic tension is not found in traditional conflict and resolution, the understated beauty of the writing and the engaging hero subtly propel the story. Keen observations and commentary on small episodes become imbued with the dramatic weight of more obvious, overt action. Attempting to describe the plot of Sag Harbor is problematic, as in truth, not a lot happens. But scratch the surface of the classic long hot summer cliché – and we see how seemingly insignificant incidents fit together to mould Benji into the man he will grow to be.
Although society has progressed since the 1950s and 1960s, Benji’s teenage peripheral is still darkened by the half-recognised and semi-understood shadow of less overt racism. The son of a lawyer and a doctor, Benji is one of the only black kids attending his exclusive Manhattan private school. Consequentially, fitting in and finding a social group to accept him is a struggle. On being the anomaly at a classmate’s Bah Mitzvah, Benji comments on the stir his presence seems to invite, “I was used to being the only black kid in the room; a useful skill in later life when sorting out bona-fide persecution from perceived persecution.” Walking the city streets in his school uniform of preppy blazer and tie, Benji and younger brother Reggie are stopped by an old white man and asked whether they are sons of diplomats, or perhaps African princes – “because why else would black people dress like that?” Confronted with such assumptions forces Benji to self-critique, “what did we look like? I don’t know, but his question wasn’t something we’d ever be asked in Sag Harbor. We fit in there.”
Conversely, leaving the city does not signify a simplistic end to Benji’s social displacement. Needing a crash course in contemporary black culture, to hang out with his Sag Harbor friends was “to start catching up on nine months of black slang and other sundry soulful artefacts I’d missed out on in my ‘predominantly white’ private school.” Failing miserably to master the ever-evolving handshake greeting, even in Sag Harbor, Benji is consumed with the desperate pre-occupation of every teenager under the sun, the need to ‘fit in’. A mastery of pop culture was the way to achieve this. A rich stream of reference running throughout the novel, a faultless portrait of 1980s popular culture contextualises Sag Harbor; “it stuck to our shoes and we tracked it through our lives.” As tangible as any physical character in the story, the hierarchy of ‘cool’ pop culture sets the agenda for Benji and his peers. Whitehead explains: “As someone who loves music, MTV and movies, and has been shaped by them, I wanted to salute that. These kids’ lives are ruled by their pop culture, in certain ways, so using 1980s pop culture is a way to be accurate and also a way to explore larger cultural concerns.”
Wryly describing his household as “a Cosby family – good on paper”, through Benji, Whitehead subtly explores wider ideology as promulgated by the media. “When I was growing up, we had all these sitcoms about the ‘noble struggle in the ghetto’ – that wasn’t necessarily how we were living, but that was pop culture’s official history of how black people were living in this country,” says Whitehead. Expanding on the layered meanings of the term ‘Cosby family’, he continues “when The Cosby Show came along and showed an upper middle class family thriving, surviving and loving each other, it was a revelation for us, that we could have our experience represented in a more direct sense, and also a revelation for larger mainstream white America, ‘these people have this? What?’” However, Whitehead is quick to point out the imperfect nature of such representation “just because you do have these financial advantages doesn’t mean you’re free from dysfunction and history, and the tyranny of personality flaws. In the end, every family has flaws and strengths that are separate from any superficial image.”
Burdened with a heavier weight of collective history, Benji’s father is mainly an oppressive presence in the novel prone to violent outbursts and with the suggestion of a drink problem. The family’s journey to Sag Harbor is framed with a famous quote from civil-rights activist, William Edward Burghardt DuBois: “Driving with my father, it was potholes of double consciousness the whole way. There were only two things he would listen to on the radio: Easy Listening and Afrocentric Talk Radio.” A fight for supremacy between mainstream white music such as Karen Carpenter, and black rhetoric made for an uncomfortable car journey for Benji, “is it any wonder my dreams were troubled?” In uneasy coalition, both cultural factions inhabit the same space; on the radio, inside the car and in Benji’s struggle to define his own identity as something distinct from his family, history and the media.
Interpreting the open use of Pan-Africanist DuBois, Whitehead elucidates: “The double-consciousness is about being a human, being an individual in society and trying to make your way in a world where you are completely separate but wholly a part of it. It applies to every ethnic group, religious group, and on a more personal level, how an individual deals with the problem of being in society.” How Benji eventually decides to connect or reject with the identity that society and his family have ordained for him is left open. He leaves Sag Harbor hopeful he has successfully re-defined himself and that the coming school year will be different, but the reader is left worrying that the status quo is not so easily overturned. Although perhaps this worry is unfounded, as, acknowledging the fickleness of pop culture and teenage whim, Whitehead jokes, “new sneakers can solve any problem.”
Published by Harville Secker, Sag Harbor is available in all good bookshops. For more information on Colson Whitehead visit: