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Who disturbs the sacred cycle




Colson Whitehead’s “Harlem Shuffle” is a crook novel – and yet it goes far beyond that.

From Franziska MeisterMail to the author


The New York borough of Harlem is the actual protagonist of Colson Whitehead’s new novel: Protest rally in front of the Hotel Theresa in 1963. Photo: Gamma, Getty

“When it came to crooked things, Carney was a little light …” Right at the beginning of his new novel “Harlem Shuffle”, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead strikes a new note, linguistically and thematically. Violent repression and abuse in the system of slavery (“Underground Railroad”, 2016) and in an educational institution for young people (“Nickel Boys”, 2019) is now followed by a kind of blaxploitation avant la lettre: everyone in this male ghetto world is somehow a hustler with a cool attitude, from small crooks to black bankers to white policemen. And right in the middle of it all: Ray Carney, furniture dealer and family man on the one hand, “broker” for hot goods on the other, aspiring in all matters.

If only his cousin wouldn’t ride him into the shit again and again: “Freddie’s common sense slipped very easily through a hole in his pants.” Carney, on the other hand, sees through the laws of the highly volatile black ghetto community and makes use of them, albeit reluctantly at first: “If you believed in the sacred cycle of envelopes, then everything that happened resulted from someone accepting an envelope and didn’t do his job. ” This drives the plot forward, which is a lot more winding than Harlem’s chessboard-like streets and develops over three parts that take place between 1959 and 1964.

Ethnographic look

Colson Whitehead draws his figures with laconic, precise brushstrokes. There is Pepper, who has long since left the southern states, but is still walking around in dungarees. Or Miami Joe, “the Canadian Club drank and twisted the rings on his little fingers while digging through the dark rocks of his mind.” The view with which Whitehead captures street scenes is also ethnographic: children running through the jets of water from hydrants, men in undershirts drinking beer and chatting on the steps of the house entrances. “Anything to delay the return to the broiling hot room, to the broken sinks and sticky flycatchers, all that stuff that reminded you where you belong.”




Racism is always a subliminal issue. Just like the class question. For example, when Carney spoons porridge for his daughter and ponders whether his mother-in-law, who comes from Harlem’s fair-skinned upper class and would have wished for a better match for her daughter than “the carpet dealer”, still flinches when she sees her granddaughter’s dark skin . Racism finally came to the surface with the ghetto riots in the summer of 1964 – the first in a series of urban black uprisings that would haunt every major city in the United States by the end of the decade, always triggered by police violence. In the Harlem case, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed fifteen year old.

Carney stays in his shop for four nights with a baseball bat. “You can’t carry a sofa on your back, but you can throw a bottle filled with gasoline through a shop window.” At some point a young woman slipped him the instructions on a leaflet.

Wonder underground

At this point in the novel at the latest, it becomes clear how enthusiastically Colson Whitehead researched in order to nonchalantly incorporate even such small historical discoveries into his narrative. Inconspicuously, the New York district of Harlem is becoming the real protagonist of the novel. It is not just the streets and city blocks or places famous far beyond Harlem such as the Hotel Theresa that Whitehead brings to life historically by filling them with his fictional characters and actions. As in “Underground Railroad”, he again succeeds in bringing to life what is only recorded in people’s minds on immaterial maps.

Hairdressers, restaurants and laundromats suddenly become the gateway to the “underground” via a back door, where envelopes and information are exchanged. “Places that Carney had never seen before suddenly become visible, like caves that are exposed at low tide and branch out into the unfathomable… Their doors were entrances to other cities – no, different entrances to a single, huge, secret city. Always close, bordering on everything you knew, just below the surface. When you knew where to look. “

Sometimes these places are also in the enemy territory of the powerful, Downtown Manhattan, where a little later the “Radio Row” district, into which Carney carried his stolen goods, is razed to the ground. What occurs to him in the face of this “wound par excellence” shudders to this day: “If you put the anger, hope and anger of all the people of Harlem in a bottle and make a bomb out of it, the result would look something like this.” It is the place where the future World Trade Center will be built.


Arjun Sethi
Passionate guitarist, gamer and writer. Lives for the perfect review, and scrapes texts until they are razor-sharp.
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