Status as an outsider can tax the soul. While many Americans live their lives with little thought of the connotations their skin tones carry with respect to the outside world’s perception, for other Americans that identity proves a perpetual lifelong question. Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor details the story of Benji Cooper, as he comes of age as a young, affluent African-American among a mix of WASP’s, Jews and other categorically white schoolmates and neighbors. The novel courageously attempts an honest reflection on the every day ins-and-outs of growing up black in a white environment. The protagonist, Benji Cooper, explains those complexities as they relate to his own social upbringing. Benji’s experience in school, with his family and at Sag Harbor resonate as uniquely African-American, but also as universally American themes in relation to childhood.
Benji attends a prestigious Manhattan prep school, where encounters vary from the patronizing to ugly unspoken inference. Upon discussing the Million Man March on Washington, classmate Liza Finkelstein erupts, “My parents were there!” (Whitehead 11). Cooper snidely remarks that Finkelstein’s parents seemed to worship every oppressed culture but their own. This pattern appears to cohere with the Cooper’s affluent, liberally-enculturated classmates who have been programmed with this sufficiently politically correct worldview apparently from birth.
A more complex interaction occurs when a French student named Tony Reece awkwardly references Benji’s skin tone in an attempt at humor. When classmates compare their fading tans in a rather pretentious conversation discussing Spring break tanning strategies, Reece remarked that Benji’s tan “didn’t come off,” (Whitehead 163). Perhaps Reece intended to twist the knife in the wound of Benji’s racial burden, but maybe he simply failed to register the cultural nuance that a member of a majority race discussing the skin of a minority registered about as far off-limits as...
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