If a reader was unclear of whether this novel had a racial theme, they would no longer question it after reading Up: Part 1 of The Intuitionist. At the 15th Annual Funicular Follies, Lila Mae is assumed to be a part of the kitchen staff as soon as she enters simply because she is a colored woman. She takes advantage of this opportunity to observe the night’s events, and she sees two of the elevator inspectors put on black face and get up on stage and make fun of African Americans and the way they speak and look, all while using the n word. Seemingly all of the guests are crying with laughter. Even Pompey, the only other black elevator inspector, is laughing. Lila Mae is offended by the racist performance at the Funicular Follies, but she never speaks out loud about it and neither do any of the other black kitchen staff members. The narrator also notes how none of the guests acknowledge the black staff or pay attention to them. They are invisible. The author also includes a story about Lila Mae’s father working as an elevator operator and how the white passengers would never look him in the eye. These are examples of how Whitehead’s novel can be compared to Ellison’s The Invisible Man, as we discussed in class. The lack of acknowledgement of African Americans as human beings is a key part of Whitehead’s commentary on institutionalized racism.
Later on in part 3, Lila Mae learns that Pompey is only subservient to his white coworkers so that he can continue working in the Department and earn enough money to provide for his family and move them to a safer neighborhood. Pompey sacrifices his pride and dignity for his family, and tries to make up for this by telling himself he has paved the way for the future black elevator inspectors. Lila Mae, on the other hand, prefers to fade into the background and hide when she is faced with a racial conflict, becoming invisible. Lila Mae has always taken advantage of being able to quietly pass through life invisible, which is attributed to her shy personality and the fact that she is a black woman in a society that is so used to disregarding people who are not white. Perhaps the reason Lila Mae is so drawn to Intuitionism is that it teaches one to look beyond the visible components of the elevator (race) and look at the elevator as a deep, complex creature (as an individual human being with infinite defining characteristics other than race).
The glass ceiling is a sociological term for when women and other minorities can only rise so high in position in white male dominated fields. White men are said to experience the glass escalator, since they easily move up in their fields. Since Lila Mae is breaking the glass ceiling by being the first black woman to become an elevator inspector, it would be fitting for the blueprints for the blackbox to be for a flying glass elevator, similar to the one in Dahl’s Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.
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