Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Verticality and its adoration are at the center of the urban society in which the novel takes place, and elevators are both an instance and a symbol of that verticality. Everyone in this fictional society keeps up to date on elevators by reading Lift, the weekly magazine devoted to the elevator industry. The Department of Elevator Inspectors is one of the most important and powerful departments in the city. Progress, modernization, and improvement all depend upon advances in verticality, in being upwardly mobile. Thus, the novel, under the veil of allegory, addresses the issues of prejudice and equality: It portrays African Americans who are refused the right to move upward in terms of financial, educational, professional, and societal achievement.

Colson Whitehead strengthens the impact of his allegory of discrimination and racial problems by setting it within a society that is technologically advanced to the point of futurism. This technologically enlightened society is in all other aspects decidedly unenlightened. Its citizens are mired in familiar problems such as political corruption, racial prejudice, and exploitive morality. Elements drawn from the detective novel—including mysterious meetings, mobsters, deserted warehouses, illegal entries, nocturnal investigations, and spying—all work to make Whitehead’s anachronistic society believable. The detective-novel ambiance also enables Whitehead to mislead both Lila Mae and his readers by offering them false clues. This technique serves to stress the difficulties of achieving upward mobility and acceptance in a racially prejudiced society.