Lumpen ‘Em All Together:

African American Marxist Approaches to Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days


  • Tarrell Campbell


In Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, the psychological wounds of the novel’s protagonist––J. Sutter––foreshadow the physical wounds that he will experience, ultimately resulting in his death. I examine Sutter’s abhorrence of the American South and locate such psychic scarring in the history of Black bodies in America. As a result of the hoped-for racial progress ushered in by the Brown decision, Sutter is represented as an exemplary member of the List. The List functions as a metaphor for the colorblind society suggested by Brown. In furthering the desires of those who control the List, Sutter must confront his fears associated with traveling from the North to the South. Geographical location signifies a sense of woundedness and a sense of loss in some African American Marxist literary traditions centered on generative uses of the lumpenproletariat and transience. I examine the costs of such migratory movement within and without the South in John Henry Days. For Sutter, the movement South from the North leads to death. I juxtapose Sutter’s transience and death with the lumpen literary schema espoused by Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and Ralph Ellison. I argue that the the destruction of J. Sutter’s body signifies that the Dream––the myth––of African American full enfranchisement and integration into the fabric of American society remains deferred in many respects. Such an understanding may be instructive in these more recent times when the destruction of Black bodies is routinely disseminated on visual platforms to whet voyeuristic appetites of an American populace whose hunger is seemingly never satisfied. I expand on African American literary traditions as regards generative approaches to and uses of the wounded Black male body highlighting the role of a body under destruction. This article is excerpted from the forthcoming work, Wounded Brown Masculinities.