Literary Mixtape: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

Here we feature an imagined music playlist inspired by a character from a work of fiction. Each month, a different work will be chosen based on topicality, commemorative celebration or whim, and will serve as the inspiration for our sonic excursion.

This month, I’ve decided to feature Lila Mae Watson, the heroine of Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. I’m a fan of Whitehead in all of his iterations, from semi-memoirist (Sag Harbor) to genre novelist (Zone One), and his debut serves as a fine showcase for his myriad gifts. This beautifully styled and elegantly plotted allegory on race finds Lila Mae, the first black woman to serve in the recently desegregated Department of Elevator Inspectors, embroiled in a political scandal that threatens to undermine her career and forces her to question the very foundation of her sense of identity.

The intuitionistThe action takes place in New York City during the mid-twentieth century. Lila Mae has left her Southern upbringing behind in order to pursue her passion in the quickly evolving field of elevator technology. She is ambitious, driven and fiercely intelligent. Because of her unique position, Lila Mae is forced to deal not only with bias from her white co-workers and superiors, but also with resentment from her black colleagues. Lila Mae is guarded when it comes to affairs of the heart, and on the occasions when she does let herself go she often finds her attempts at romance thwarted.

Listen to the songs on this playlist.

Strange Fruit by Nina Simone (1954) Originally recorded by Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” addresses the pervasive practice of the lynching of Southern blacks through visceral, vividly poetic lyrics. In the face of such savagery, Miss Simone imbues her vocals with a defiant, magisterial dignity. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”

Original Faubis Fables by Charles Mingus (1960) Released a year earlier as an instrumental track as a result of Columbia Records’ protestations regarding the lyrical content, this satirical call-and-response was aimed squarely at Arkansas Governor Orval Faubis, who employed the National Guard to attempt to prevent integration at Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Stubborn Kind Of Fellow by Marvin Gaye (1962) The first single to chart for Marvin Gaye, Stubborn Kind Of Fellow marked the singer’s transition from jazz and doo-wop into R&B and soul, genres that Gaye would help popularize for a mainstream audience. The song follows the narrator’s resolution to quit his tomcatting ways and become a one-woman man.

Green Onions by Booker T. and the M.G.’s (1962) A remarkably funky instrumental track that married blues guitar and Hammond organ to a swinging bass line, it became a wildly popular and enduring rock and soul crossover hit.

You Don’t Know Me by Ray Charles (1962) Featured on the landmark album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which blended soul with country to break down racial barriers in popular music. Originally recorded by Eddy Arnold, this spare, yearning string and vocal combination explores a love that is doomed to remain unrequited. Quietly devastating.

Honey Child by Bobby Bland (1964) A chugging bass line and sultry horn arrangement showcase this stirring, passionate vocal. “You got a brand of lovin’ that sets my soul on fire/ You got a brand of kissin’ that makes me feel all right”

A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke (1964) A frustrated yet hopeful rally cry to Black America, this song became a Civil Rights anthem. The narrator rails against the sense of fear and frustration inherent in daily life while turning an optimistic eye toward the future. “It’s been a long, a long time comin’/ But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will”

* Gotta Find A Way by Theresa Lindsey (1964) On this rollicking, uptempo dance cut, the narrator lays out a plan to snag the object of her affections. “He never even noticed me, not once did he stop to look/ I’ll get his attention yet, I’m gonna try every trick in the book”

One Step Ahead by Aretha Franklin (1965) Released as a single by the inimitable Queen of Soul, “One Step Ahead” finds the narrator stuck in limbo with a love she can’t let go of. “It’s too soon to forget you/ It’s too late to be free, can’t you see?”

Blowin’ In The Wind by Stevie Wonder (1966) Stevie’s soulful cover of the Bob Dylan classic, which was itself an inspiration for Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, this version became a top-ten hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. “How many times can a man turn his head/ And pretend that he just doesn’t see?” 

*Not available on Spotify.

Greg is a fiction writer and screenwriter based in New York City. He is currently at work on a short story collection, as well as a feature film script.