Colson Whitehead planned Harlem Shuffle as a comic relief project after the trauma of writing The Underground Railroad (2016), his novel of captivity and escape set in the 19th-century American South. Following Trump’s election, however, he felt unable to detach himself from the reality of institutional racism in the US. The Nickel Boys (2019), the book he began instead, was inspired by the grim discovery of mass grave sites at Dozier School for Boys: it tells the story of Elwood Curtis, a talented 16-year-old acolyte of Martin Luther King Jr, who has hope and promise snatched away by the torturous racial violence to which he’s subjected at a reform school in Florida in the early 1960s.
Assured of another bestseller, Whitehead turned back to Harlem Shuffle. Unlike Elwood Curtis, who writes campaigning pieces for the Chicago Defender, the new novel’s protagonist is less interested in social justice than in his own expedience. Ray Carney owns a furniture store on 125th Street in Harlem, has a college degree and, at the age of 29, aspires more than anything to move his family to a better neighbourhood. It’s a slippery climb up into the higher echelons of Harlem’s business elite, not made any easier when he accidentally gets involved in a jewellery heist with his cousin Freddie. What Whitehead has called his ‘real estate’ novel is a study of Black copycat capitalism in New York between 1959 and 1964.
This was the period in which Black culture entered the mainstream of American life. In 1962, Jackie Robinson, the first Black player to have been signed by a Major League team, was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Motown, the record label founded by Berry Gordy in Detroit in 1959, quickly became synonymous with joyful pop songs influenced in equal measure by rock ’n’ roll and gospel, showing that Black youth culture wasn’t confined to race-related activism. Black-owned enterprises were thriving. But these were also the dying days of Jim Crow, and times of tumult for the civil rights movement: 1963 was the year of King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, but also the year the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. While Harlem Shuffle is less devastating than Whitehead’s previous two novels – both won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – the Black struggle for civil and economic equality is no less present here.
Carney lives in a neighbourhood where the population is 97 per cent Black, where public infrastructure is close to collapse, where the murder rate is six times the New York average. By day, children play around burst fire hydrants in the wilting heat. At night, Harlem is thrilling but dangerous. Carney avoids places with frequent reports of muggings (‘an old lady carrying groceries hit on the head’) and keeps instead to the well-lit Riverside Drive, one of Harlem’s few affluent residential streets. He has an almost naive faith in the American Dream: ‘You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.’ Even in high school Carney was ‘spackling himself into something presentable. No one else was moved to help, so he had to do it himself.’ In his store, he deals not just in furniture but also in ‘gently used’ electricals, and later in jewellery, trying to scrape a living while new technologies hasten the obsolescence of the TVs and radios that fall into his possession. It’s an honest job, and Carney is his own boss, but he is forced to contend with the usual struggles of keeping a business afloat and, more significantly, with a society rigged against his progression. He has to take into account a ‘Harlem tax’ when procuring goods from a white store: ‘overcharging was not limited to south of the Mason-Dixon.’
This is a novel about inheritance, and disinheritance. Try as he might, Carney can’t escape his past. His father, Mike, was shot by the police after breaking into a pharmacy ‘to steal a box of cough syrup, the strong stuff druggies were into’, and his notorious surname associates him with criminality in the neighbourhood. ‘When he was little, Carney and his father played a game where he had to guess whether or not Mike was wearing his revolver under his pants leg. For a long time, he thought it was his father’s attempt to get close to him, bleak as it was. Now he was sure Mike was merely testing his tailor’s competency.’ As much as he tries to go straight, Ray finds that he always needs to hustle a little to get by. He longs to distance himself from Mike’s dodgy dealings, but he can’t erase the fact that he set up his furniture business with $30,000 he found stashed in his dead father’s truck. Still, his intentions are good: he is, in the novel’s most quotable line, ‘only slightly bent when it came to being crooked’.
Mike Carney is mentioned often in the novel – innocuous Harlem moments remind Ray of his father – but we learn less about his mother, who died of pneumonia when he was nine. He lived for a time with his aunt Millie and her son, Freddie, who since childhood has had an inordinate influence over him. Carney, ‘scrawny and shy’, had a tough time back then. He was fodder for bullies, boys younger than him, who ‘made fun of the spots on his clothes, which didn’t fit properly … they said he smelled like a garbage truck.’
In the summer of 1959, Freddie tries to bring Ray in on a robbery. Ray says he wants no part of it – but his cousin, in over his head, tells his associates that Ray is up for fencing the stolen goods. For Carney, ‘this wasn’t stealing candy, and it wasn’t like when they were kids, standing on a cliff a hundred feet over the Hudson River, tip of the island, Freddie daring him to jump into the black water. Did Carney leap? He leaped, hollering all the way down. Now Freddie wanted him to jump into a bunch of concrete.’
The robbery brings the characters on the darker side of Carney’s life together. (We don’t get an account of the robbery itself until Chapter 4, where Whitehead’s sharp sentences, never more than three lines long, and even more ruthlessly clipped than in his previous novels, set us up for thrills.) But Harlem Shuffle is not really a heist novel, or the heir to earlier Harlem capers by Chester Himes and Claude McKay. It’s a subtle examination of what it is to disturb structures that have existed for generations, to shake oneself free from expectations based on race, gender and class, and slowly and deliberately to acquire the art of taking control. This, perhaps, is the challenge to which Toni Morrison referred when she wrote: ‘The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.’ Throughout the book, Whitehead emphasises the barriers Black people come up against when trying to make their way. The face of the implacable bank manager crops up on every corner.
Since banks are racist, figures from right across Harlem’s elite keep their jewellery, money and other valuables in safe deposit boxes at the Hotel Theresa. It’s ‘the Waldorf of Harlem’, ‘the headquarters of the Negro world’, home to Dinah Washington and Billy Eckstine, the place to which Cab Calloway returns from a tour to cause commotion on the street outside. This makes it the ideal target for the heist. Freddie is the wheelman, Arthur ‘the Jackie Robinson of safe-cracking’. Miami Joe, an angry Southerner with an inferiority complex, is the purple-suited mastermind whose motive is ‘monetary gain, and to bring Black Harlem down a notch’. Pepper turns up last in a Wes Anderson-esque bellhop uniform and with ‘gravel eyes that made you stare at your feet’. (The hotel elevator becomes a character in its own right, recalling Whitehead’s 1999 novel The Intuitionist, in which the first Black woman to be accepted into the exclusive Guild of Elevator Inspectors allows a crash to happen on her watch.) On the night of the robbery, the Hotel Theresa’s switchboard operator is having fun with her visiting girlfriend until they are interrupted from their pea soup supper by Miami Joe, who accosts a clerk with his .38 revolver and demands the index cards that detail the contents of the safe deposit boxes. The gang fill two valises with jewellery and other valuables before making their getaway. ‘Robbing the Hotel Theresa,’ Whitehead writes, ‘was like taking a piss on the Statue of Liberty. It was like slipping Jackie Robinson a Mickey the night before the World Series.’
The heist takes place on Juneteenth – the anniversary of the day the last slaves in Texas discovered they were free. It’s the perfect cover: the crime looks just like a white supremacist poke in a Black wound (think Trump’s Tulsa rally in June 2020, on the site of the 1921 Black Wall Street massacre). In fact, Miami Joe chose the date by accident but soon realises the timing works to his advantage: surely no Black crew would rob the Theresa on Juneteenth. Carney has to ask an earnest young Southerner about the significance of the date, despite his college education. In a sense, Ray is culturally disinherited: his parents, whose own parents left the South during the Great Migration, failed to pass down to him a sense of collective history.
Harlem Shuffle is divided into three parts: ‘The Truck, 1959’, ‘Dorvay, 1961’ and ‘Cool it Baby, 1964’. After the heist-driven first section, the novel switches down a gear and concentrates on Carney’s struggle to join the elite of Harlem society – the world of his in-laws. Elizabeth, Carney’s wife, was raised on Striver’s Row with notches on the doorframes marking her growth; now she lives in a ‘dark apartment with a back window that peered out onto an air shaft and a front window kitty-corner to the elevated 1 train’. Alma, Elizabeth’s mother, resents the fact that her daughter ‘settled’ – she uses this word ‘the way the less genteel used motherfucker, as a chisel to pry open a particular feeling’ – for less than they brought her up to expect. She and her husband, Leland, an accountant known for ‘grifting the city out of taxes’, dismiss Carney as a mere ‘rug peddler’ and poke fun at his father’s petty criminality.
Leland is a prominent member of the Dumas Club, a network of talented-tenth Harlemites, and you might expect him to put in a good word for his striving son-in-law. Carney knows that if he wants to go completely straight, if his business is to prosper, he will have to call on the services of various members of the club – bankers, lawyers, accountants – so it’s imperative that he join. But the rules state that new members should not be darker in shade than a brown paper bag – a criterion Carney doesn’t meet. The club’s de facto leader, a dictatorial financier called Wilfred Duke, explains that the club was named for the author of The Count of Monte Cristo, ‘a man who got things done’. (Dumas was not, as Duke insists, the son of a French general and a Haitian slave, but their grandson, making his heritage only quarter-African.) Duke suggests to Carney that if he wants to gain entry it would be prudent to offer a sweetener: $500 should do it. But when Ray puts down the money the club rejects him anyway. Duke denies him a refund.
‘Dorvay’, Whitehead’s intentional misspelling of the French word dorveille – a portmanteau derived from dormir (to sleep) and veiller (to be alert) – denotes a state of semi-consciousness, or a period of wakefulness between shifts of sleep. We learn that ‘Carney first heard the word in his financial accounting class,’ from an Eastern European tutor who – perhaps mindful of the future needs of his poor, Black students – ‘recommended that they pick one time every day for bookkeeping and stick to it’. ‘We’ve forgotten now, but until the advent of the lightbulb, it was common to sleep in two shifts,’ the tutor had said. ‘The first started soon after dusk, when the day’s labour was done – if there were no lights to see, what was the point of staying up? Then we woke around midnight for a few hours before the second phase of sleep, which lasted through the morning.’ Wise use of dorvay helped Carney get straight As as a student, and it becomes the ideal time to plot his slow-burning revenge on Duke. ‘Carney knew crime’s hours when he saw them – dorvay was crooked heaven, when the straight world slept and the bent world got to work.’
Carney is not a natural gangster: most of what he knows is learned through accidental associations with hard-worn crooks – ‘out hustling, same clothes for days’, in the words of Jay-Z – like Pepper, a ruthless but sensitive friend of his father. But he comes to realise that crookedness is his inheritance. ‘Carney had a bent to his personality, how could he not, growing up with a father like that. You had to know your limits as a man and master them.’ He starts walking the streets, liaising with hookers in grim all-night cafés, learning from Jewish connoisseurs how to sort true gems from paste, following the Duke’s movements before assembling a team fit to burn down the double-crosser’s house.
The final section – set in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act into law, abolishing racial segregation – has New York’s heroin addiction crisis as its backdrop, along with the real-life Harlem riots sparked when an off-duty policeman killed James Powell, a 15-year-old Black boy. Even as grand gestures from on high promise to change the world, life for many stays the same. Carney, long frustrated that banks won’t lend to Black people, giving them little choice other than to set up crooked businesses, finds himself conflicted about disenfranchised Harlemites’ right to loot:
He was glad the riots were done for the sake of his fellow merchants. The obvious targets were raided, decimated: supermarkets, liquor stores, clothing stores, electronics shops. They stole everything and then grabbed a broom to steal the dust, too. Carney knew first-hand how hard it was for a negro shopkeeper to persuade an insurance company to write a policy. The vandalism and looting had wiped out a lot of people. Whole livelihoods gone, like that.
Harlem Shuffle lacks the forcefulness of Whitehead’s two previous novels: there is nothing here to shock the way Fiona does in The Underground Railroad when she exposes her employers – who have been nothing but kind to her – as abolitionists hoarding the escaped slave Cora. Perhaps too much is made of the heist, which comes to seem beside the point. And Whitehead’s freedom with pop culture references often comes back to bite him. Duke’s secretary has a ‘bouffant hairdo like a fourth Supreme’. In fact, the so-called ‘no-hit Supremes’ were unknown in 1961, though their debut single, ‘I Want a Guy’, an aficionado’s favourite, was released that year when they were a four-piece.
Still, there is a lot to be said for Whitehead’s depiction of Carney’s struggle. He is not a pioneer for social justice, or a poster child for the civil rights movement: he’s an ordinary and imperfect man constantly looking for a safer place to live, somewhere for his children to escape the fate of James Powell, or George Floyd, or Sandra Bland, or Trayvon Martin, or Breonna Taylor. But because in 1960s Harlem the odds were stacked so heavily against Black people, even if you weren’t a criminal yourself you risked being found guilty by association, or dragged down by those around you. These are working-class people, and the great-great grandchildren of the enslaved. Whitehead, as ever, is attentive to the subtle intersections Black men and women have to negotiate in their everyday working lives.