Colson Whitehead, zombies, and afrofuturism

[By Howard Rambsy II]

Colson Whitehead’s previous novel The Intuitionist and John Henry Days lent themselves to afrofuturist examinations. In particular, the novels covered issues about the intersections between race and mechanical technologies.

Zone One corresponds to afrofuturism, but rather than mechanical technologies, Whitehead’s “zombie” novel might be categorized as speculative fiction. The book reveals Whitehead delving into a popular genre that has nonetheless been rarely explored by major black authors of “literary” or “serious” fiction.

Many reviewers have taken note of a major literary artist like Whitehead exploring the zombie genre. However, there has been less talk about what it means that a major African American literary artist is writing about zombies. So far, no reviewers have situated the work in the context of black literature.   

If more reviewers who’ve discussed Whitehead’s book were familiar with African American literary history, they may have mentioned that Zora Neale Hurston had written about zombies in her research on Haiti. Or, they may have situated Whitehead’s sci-fi writing within a larger context that includes Octvia Butler, Samuel Delaney, Tananarive Due, and Nalo Hopkinson, to name a few.

Time will tell how African American reviewers and commentators discuss Zone One and how such approaches will illuminate the racially-distinct features of the book or its publishing history. Perhaps the focus in afrofuturist discourse on speculative narratives composed by African Americans might eventually lead to discussions about where Zone One fits among a broad body of black literary and cultural works.

We might even be inclined to rethink some of the more popular works within the zombie genre. Interestingly, the original Night of the Living Dead, one of Whitehead’s influences, featured a black male protagonist. As Colson Whitehead observed in an interview with Harper’s, “Night of the Living Dead is the story of a black man on the run from the mob of white people who want to destroy him, literally devour him — in other words, it’s a crucial subplot of the America narrative.”