B-Sides: Colson Whitehead’s “Apex Hides the Hurt”

“Whitehead’s satire takes aim … at a capitalist system that senses the profits to be made from proclaiming that systemic racism is a thing of the past.”

The word renaming in 2023 likely brings to mind what happened to many buildings, monuments, and institutions in the wake of Black Lives Matter. That makes this a perfect time to revisit Colson Whitehead’s 2006 Apex Hides the Hurt, in which the Black protagonist is tasked with renaming a town with a complicated and contested history. But Whitehead’s is no sober allegory of American racial politics. Instead, it is a symbolic send-up, a long-form pun.

Apex does not look much like Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, The Nickel Boys (2019) and The Underground Railroad (2016). Both are closer to his debut The Intuitionist (1999), which literalizes W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea of “racial uplift” in the character of a Black elevator inspector. In a style we might call allegorical realism, Railroad links stages of American history (slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow) via a subterranean steam engine.

Apex has allegorical elements, but it is also a satire. It is the closest Whitehead comes to channeling Ishmael Reed, whose Flight to Canada is an irreverent rewrite of the antebellum slave narrative.

The novel’s nameless protagonist is a nomenclature consultant. His claim to fame is having come up with “Apex,” the name of a Band-Aid competitor that comes in more than one flesh color. Unsurprisingly, sticking a bandage on the “hurt” of racist history precipitates a new crisis.

Like invisibility in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the “multicultural bandage” in Apex captures the range of historical, social, and psychological race effects experienced by the protagonist. Building toward an Ellison-like complexity, Apex intertwines two narratives, the town plot and the toe plot.

In the town plot, the protagonist is hired to rename the seemingly innocuous locale of Winthrop. The three council members who lobby him on arrival represent various subsections of the town’s population. Lucky Aberdeen, a tech entrepreneur, wants “New Prospera” (“A glamorous Old World cape draped over the bony shoulders of prosaic prosperity”). Albie Winthrop, washed-up great-grandson of the town’s namesake, supports the status quo. Regina Goode, descendant of free Black settlers, lobbies to restore the town’s first name, “Freedom.” In choosing a name, the consultant mediates among future, present, and past.

The toe plot looks backward, placing the protagonist’s individual experience within a national history of which Winthrop is representative. Because he has “a facility for choosing the right name, the just name, for healing the disquiet of anonymity through the application of a balming name,” he rises through the ranks of his Identity Firm. About the naming of Apex, the protagonist recalls:

They devised thirty hues originally, later knocked them down to twenty after research determined a zone of comfort. It didn’t have to be perfect, just not too insulting. What they wanted was not perfect camouflage but something that would not add insult to injury. … The deep psychic wounds of history and the more recent gashes ripped by the present, all of these could be covered by this wonderful, unnamed multicultural adhesive bandage. It erased. Huzzah.

A great irony of Apex (among many) is that his own linguistic creation comes back to haunt him. One day, he stubs his toe and puts an Apex on it. (“The box was his color; they had seen him in the office and knew his kind of brown.”) The toe becomes infected when he steps in manure at a company retreat. He develops a limp. After experiencing a psychic break at the annual Identity Awards, he flees, collapses in Times Square, and loses the toe shortly thereafter. In short, he comes to town bearing a self-inflicted “obscure hurt” that resonates oddly with Winthrop’s own long-festering malaise.

Renaming comes to strike him as a useless enterprise. Apparent progress—in diverse bandages or in the dream of New Prospera—is belied by decay. The amputating doctor who diagnoses his toe’s “Advanced State of Necrosis” might say the same of Winthrop’s main street, full of shuttered storefronts. Even its library has been gutted to make way for a fast-fashion chain called Outfit Outlet.

The protagonist can’t remember what “tripped him up,” but he is certain that Apex “so efficiently permits the illusion of a time before the fall.” This pun encapsulates the novel, articulating a critique of figurative Band-Aids, cosmetic revisions that permit deep-seated inequality and suffering to continue apace. Branding may disguise the nation’s original sins, but it can’t atone for them.

Colson articulates a critique of figurative Band-Aids, cosmetic revisions that permit deep-seated inequality and suffering to continue apace. Branding may disguise the nation’s original sins, but it can’t atone for them.

Equal parts mock-heroic and absurd, the toe injury awakens Apex’s protagonist to the fact that he “deals in lies and promises, distills them into syllables.” In his toeless enlightenment, he reviles Winthrop’s white-picket-fence suburbia and Lucky’s corporate vision as much as his own prestigious education and corner office with a view. Being down a digit lends him a critical distance.

However, towns and bandages are not the only things getting new names. This is where Apex surprises, perhaps more so in 2023 than in 2006. Via renaming, Whitehead’s satire takes aim more generally at a capitalist system that senses the profits to be made from proclaiming that systemic racism is a thing of the past.

The protagonist’s neurosis only intensifies when a white colleague tells him, “Wise up: you are the product.” It is not just that his Blackness is selling clients a self-congratulatory notion of their own progressive politics. Worse, he has been buying into it himself, taking his success as evidence of a postracial world.

Having made his career at Identity Firm, he becomes disillusioned with the terms that attempt to define identity itself. While he is reading the local librarian’s history of Winthrop, town and toe coalesce in his mind:

The sliver of himself still in tune with marketing shivered every time Gertrude used the word colored. He kept stubbing his toe on it. As it were. Colored, Negro, Afro-American, African American. She was a few iterations behind the times. Not that you could keep up, anyway. Every couple of years someone came up with something that got us an inch closer to the truth. Bit by bit we crept along. As if that thing we believed to be approaching actually existed.

He can no longer imagine language as an asymptotic curve ever so slowly approaching perfect representation. History and its effects in the present are deeply felt, and some words do cause pain. But new words, new names (he comes to believe) only hide the hurt. They do not heal it.

Neither Winthrop nor the nomenclature consultant gets a happy ending. Weighing the council members’ options, he rejects them all. He names the town “Struggle,” returning home only to realize that “actually, his foot hurt more than ever.”

Ending on a note of cynical irresolution, Apex suggests that the best name is probably not the “balming” one. Yet it also suggests that names are beside the point. True change will take longer than a rebrand. icon

This article was commissioned by John Plotz. Featured-image photograph by Brian Patrick Tagalog / Unsplash (CC0 1.0)