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  • Instruments More Perfect than Bodies: Romancing Uplift in Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist
  • Linda Selzer (bio)

In the intriguing conclusion to Colson Whitehead's increasingly celebrated novel The Intuitionist (1999), the narrative's intelligent and gutsy protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, bides her time in seclusion, waiting for the right moment to release the secret to one of the novel's central mysteries: how to build the perfect elevator. Like prior innovations in elevator technology that revolutionized urban life by enabling the rise of skyscrapers to heights previously only imaginable, the perfect elevator is expected to enable the "second elevation" of the city and thereby once again revolutionize city life (61). In this case, however, the novel's elaborate figurative association of elevators with racial uplift suggests that the second elevation promises not only to transform the city physically, but also to transfigure race relations. Having overcome the machinations of petty politicians, shady underworld figures, and competing international corporations by the end of the novel, Lila Mae has successfully leveraged her earlier position as an inspired but often poorly informed elevator inspector to become the woman in possession of the world's most powerful secret. Lila Mae's personal history of racial and gender uplift, captured by her early success as the first black woman elevator inspector and by her later emergence as the technological expert deemed to hold the keys to the new kingdom, would seem to stand as a strong endorsement of the uplift ideology with which the central trope of elevation is associated in the novel. 1

But Whitehead's sophisticated narrative in fact develops a deeply ambivalent stance toward uplift, one that complicates Lila Mae's position at the end of the text and raises pointed questions about the reader's own participation in what has increasingly come to be recognized as a problematic social philosophy. The contradictions that lie at the heart of uplift ideology have recently received intense critical scrutiny, notably by Kevin Gaines's Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (1996) and Michele Mitchell's Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction (2004). As these studies suggest, black people's continuing struggles against racist practices and representation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led them to develop an ideology of uplift that unfortunately itself replicated some aspects of majority practice and discourse even as it struggled to subvert them. For example, the emphasis on self-help in uplift ideology, though admirable, also worked to shift responsibility for black people's condition away from corrupt social structures and toward supposed personal traits. Similarly, the purity campaigns encouraged by many uplift supporters redirected some attempts at social remediation away from the correction of racist practices and toward the policing of black bodies. In addition, the ascent of black bourgeois elites that is closely associated with uplift ideology sometimes served to increase class divisions within the black community and could strengthen identification with patriarchal forms of domestic and social authority. In other words, the efforts of black people to oppose, revise, and rewrite racist practices did not take place in an idealized space purified of the effects of those practices, but from within a contested social space that those practices helped to define. Not surprisingly, therefore, while working to subvert racist signifiers, uplift ideology sometimes ironically embraced them. [End Page 681]

In this regard, the complex narratology of The Intuitionist works against any straightforward endorsement of uplift ideology by addressing both the aspirations to which it gives voice and its problematic participation in suspect national narratives of self-reliance, national progress, and technological supremacy. On the one hand, uplift, elevators, and other tropes of transcendence in The Intuitionist reflect powerful human yearnings for a form of life that is free of the debilitating effects of racism (and sexism). Such inspiring aspirations are captured by Lila Mae's interpretation of the passage she finds in the writings of James Fulton, the elevator innovator whom she calls "the father of her faith" (84). Lila Mae interprets the phrase—"There is another world beyond this one" (134)—to imply that a world free of racial discrimination is...


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