Reading The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

By Howard Rambsy II

Reading Colson Whitehead’s debut novel, The Intuitionist (1999) in 2000 was a rewarding intellectual activity for me and, in retrospect, proved foundational for my later experiences as a professor and scholar of black literature. I was then in my second year of graduate school at Pennsylvania State University.  

A friend recommended the book. “It’s about elevators,” I was told. Obviously, I was intrigued. Who was this black writer – blending aspects of detective fiction, science fiction, narratives of passing, and African American history? 

Most of my graduate school courses focused on historical and canonical literature, so reading a contemporary novelist felt like something of an escape, an extracurricular endeavor. I was drawn to the philosophical musings in the novel and the playful combination of language associated with elevators and racial uplift exemplified in Whitehead’s line: “horizontal thinking in a vertical world is the race’s curse.”

My introduction to Whitehead’s writing coincided with my early encounters with Afrofuturism through my participation on the AF listserv created by Alondra Nelson. So I was reading The Intuitionist through the lens of this exciting critical approach that focused on examining the intersections between black culture, technology, and speculative narratives.

When I began my career as a college professor, I often assigned The Intuitionist or other works by Whitehead. Returning to this fascinating novel about elevators seemed to always lead me in one direction: up.