Hanover. It’s a classic starting point – and you immediately suspect that this dubious offer will cause a lot of trouble for Ray Carney. “His cousin Freddie got him on board one hot evening at the beginning of June for the robbery”: This is how “Harlem Shuffle”, the new novel by US author Colson Whitehead, begins. That Freddie is a lovable loudmouth, one who always gets involved with the wrong people and always gets into trouble. He used to often involve his cousin Ray in his crooked business. Carney is now the owner of an up-and-coming furniture store in the New York borough of Harlem – a great success for the young man who completed a business degree and worked his way up. He has recently been married and has a young daughter. He doesn’t really want anything more to do with Freddie’s business, but then lets himself be persuaded. And that has consequences.
The story begins in the summer of 1959, ends five years later and takes place almost exclusively in Harlem, the black district of the metropolis. The robbery is said to take place one night at the Hotel Theresa, which actually existed and where African-American music and sports legends like Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and Sugar Ray Robinson stayed – because they were not allowed to stay in hotels in segregated America whites also descended.
From the first moment on, the reader follows, follows the reader with excitement, whether and how Freddie and Ray get by, whether they stumble over the many pitfalls that different adversaries lay down. As captivating as “Harlem Shuffle” is, one is a bit surprised that Whitehead wrote a straightforwardly constructed crime thriller. After all, the 51-year-old is a multi-award-winning author and has received the most important US literary awards. For the novel “Underground Railroad” published in 2016, he received the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; In 2020 he received the Pulitzer Prize again, this time for the novel “The Nickel Boys”. “It is hardly an exaggeration to call Colson Whitehead one of the most important contemporary American writers,” says the English scholar Marlon Lieber. The research assistant at the Christian Albrechts University in Kiel did his doctorate on the writer.
Both award-winning books tell, in very different ways, of Afro-American history: “Underground Railroad” is – with numerous fantastic elements – about the way on which slaves from the southern states of the USA fled to the north. Oscar winner Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) recently filmed the book as a miniseries for Amazon Prime. “The Nickel Boys” is – based on a true story – about two young people who experienced violence and arbitrariness in a so-called reformatory for colored people in the 1960s.
Compared to that, Whitehead’s current book seems almost harmless at first glance. You can read it as an exciting and not exactly squeamish story about more or less cunning crooks, corrupt police officers and two cousins who each strive for success in their own way. But like any good crime thriller, “Harlem Shuffle” is a social novel. Mainly from Carney’s perspective, one learns of the conditions in Harlem, of ubiquitous racism, of the rise of the civil rights movement and the Harlem Riots of the summer of 1964. The riots began after a 15-year-old was shot by a white policeman.
One thinks of the murder of George Floyd
Shortly after the riot, Carney was sitting in a bar. The novel says, “’People didn’t go crazy about nothing. You had a good reason, ‘said Carney. ‘Since when do whites care about a good reason? Are you going to put that cop in the burrow? ‘ The bartender looked up from his racing paper. ‘A white cop goes to the burrow for killing a black boy? You probably believe in the fucking tooth fairy too. ‘”
Numerous passages in the novel bring to mind various events of the past few years, most notably the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. The 46-year-old died after a white policeman kneeled on his neck for minutes. The case sparked protests around the world and attracted a great deal of attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. Books by US authors such as Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (“Friday Black”) and scholars such as Ibram X. Kendi (“How to be an Antiracist”), which deal with everyday racism, were also successful in Germany.
In an interview with the British “Guardian” last year, Whitehead said that he too had experienced everyday racism by white police officers, as had his parents and grandparents. However, it is not worth talking about. Such experiences strike African Americans of all walks of life. The author grew up in middle class Manhattan and graduated from Harvard University. He comes from the “black bourgeoisie”, says Anglicist Marlon Lieber. “What I personally find interesting is that Whitehead never assumes that there is ‘a’ black community that shares relatively homogeneous experiences, but rather has a very keen eye for differences – especially class differences – within the black population.”
This can also be seen in “Harlem Shuffle”. And it also becomes clear in the novel how differently people speak in these layers. Hanser-Verlag precedes the book with an explanation: “Language and the use of language change over time. What seems appropriate in one epoch may be inappropriate in the next. According to the author’s wishes, the language of America was reproduced historically in the fifties and sixties. ”That means: The N-word appears in the book; many of Freddie’s and Carney’s buddies refer to themselves as “niggers” – with a certain amount of self-confidence. This is known similarly from the well-known Harlem cycle by crime writer Chester Himes (1909–1984).
Whitehead picks up on his debut
In a way, Whitehead’s current book builds on his debut: “The Elevator Inspector”, published in 1998, is about a mysterious criminal case in New York that a woman tries to solve alone. In 2004 his second novel “John Henry Days” was published in Germany. Back then, he spoke eloquently and cleverly in a Hamburg café about his second book and the literary tradition in which he sees himself. It’s not always easy when you think of successful authors like Toni Morrison or Alice Walker, he said. “Every big book is difficult for the successor, but these authors were also door openers for our generation.”
He himself has long since become such a door opener for younger authors.
Colson Whitehead: “Harlem Shuffle”. German by Nikolaus Stingl. Hanser publishing house. 384 pages, 25 euros. The book will be released on August 23rd.