Colson Whitehead may be African American, but his last name says otherwise. Perhaps this is why, in his novel, Apex Hides the Hurt, he explores names and the major role they play in our lives today. It is in the 21st century that names have mattered more than in any other time whilst humans have existed. I have just finished Whitehead’s novel and intend to use this short response to Apex Hides the Hurt as a means of exploring the theme/value of names. With the use of the novel, we will delve into the question: Why is it an essential part of being human to put names to the things surrounding us?
A few weeks back, some friends and I had traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe is a beautiful place and its name is too. While we were there, we had gone to a concert – playing was a band known by the name of Starfucker. While at the concert, my friend met a girl of whom he danced with the entire show. As we were leaving, he accidentally hit her in the nose, causing it to bleed. Somehow, they managed to start dating and are still doing so presently. Since the trip to Santa Fe, she has come to visit him twice and due to the fact that we don’t really know her, we refer to her as “the nose-bleed girl.” On one of the afternoons while she was visiting, we happened to let the nickname slip out. Let’s just say she was not too thrilled. The nicknames we often give people are either based on experiences or appearances. In Whitehead’s novel, the narrator refers to the bartender as “Muttonchops” because, not only does the bartender’s name remain unknown to the narrator, but the bartender also has “some old-school muttonchops” (21). This label, unlike “the nose-bleed girl,” expresses a more positive and definite identity for the individual.
It is because names hold on to the meaning we give them, that they can either be positive or negative. Hitler, for example, is not a name you would want to give to your child. The name Jesus on the other hand, is still a very popular name. That’s because the name holds a very positive role for many people in our culture. In the novel, the town’s current name is Winthrop, which is the last name of a successful white man who caused the town to prosper by mass-producing barbed wire. Barbed wire is used for keeping things in or keeping things out. The name the town had before it was renamed to Winthrop was Freedom – for the many slaves who relocated there after the Revolutionary War. As you can see, Winthrop, being a name that represents control, is the opposite of Freedom. One plays a negative role while the other plays a positive.
Humans have an obsession with naming places. Basically every location on the planet has been given a title and I personally find this very interesting. New York for instance, is one of the most popular and modern cities in the world. The fact that the first half of its name has “new” in it is very attention-grabbing. The place is “NEW!” Everything in it is new and all the new stuff that humans make hits New York first. Then again, New Mexico also has “new” in its title and the two are in no way similar. Many people in our country don’t even know that New Mexico is a state. But New Mexico’s next door neighbor, Colorado, everyone has heard of. ColoRADo is actually one of the few states, like New York, that marketizes/brands its name.
A name we have been seeing everywhere for the last few years is Donald Trump’s - now Mr. President, once Mr. Presidential Candidate. During his candidacy, Trump, who is all about marketing, loved to market his own name. All we saw on the news at the time was Trump-this and Trump-that. He wanted everybody to hear his name and even Donald, himself, loved to hear it, commonly referring to himself in the third person… I think people were a fan of the name – I never was... But then again, I’m not too big a fan of my own name.
Sometimes I think it sounds weird – three first names: Samuel David Travis. And I definitely don’t think it’s a name that could one day flourish (doesn’t sound too good in the books). Names like Shakespeare, Armstrong, Kennedy and Monroe have a certain sound to them. Some people recognized this and went ahead and changed their name before they took hold of their fame. Marilyn Monroe’s name was previously Norma Jean Mortensen. She changed her name to something more seductive and memorable so it could be marketed better. It’s the same with the famous author Mark Twain whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens (funky). Perhaps Colson Whitehead chooses to leave our narrator nameless because he understands just like Twain and Monroe and many others, that some names can just succeed and that others simply cannot. It’s like our narrator says, “Some names are keys and open doors” (69).
Names are an important part of the human culture. Whether it’s a state or a country; a pet or a person; a film or a novel, we, as humans, must name everything. And just imagine if Colson Whitehead, instead of Apex Hides the Hurt, had decided to title his book, “Band-Aid Covers Cut.” That’s not a very appealing name. With a name like that, I doubt the book would have gone anywhere. Names are used to give meaning and purpose. We use them for guidance, acceptance and reputation. Without the name, the identity ceases to exist. Without our names, we would cease to exist.
(As always, these posts are just a rambling-nonsense – a method I use to throw my thoughts around and to see what I really think [that is, if my thinking is thinking at all])
Whitehead, Colson. Apex Hides the Hurt: a Novel. 1969. New York: Anchor, 2007. Print.