Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt follows an unnamed “nomenclature consultant” (someone who specialises in naming new products) who’s hired by the council of a small American town called Winthrop which is considering changing its name. It’s a proposition that’s bringing up some painful history: Winthrop was originally founded by escaped slaves, who called it Freedom, and the town’s mayor is advocating a reversion to that name; it was then named Winthrop after a wealthy white family who set up a barbed wire manufacturing business in the area, profiting off the labour of the Black population but also, crucially, helping to legitimise them; and now, finally, the tech magnate who’s recently moved his business to the town wants to christen it New Prospera.
It’s a short novel that covers a lot of ground, considering how names define us and how corporations use that in their own interest. The novel’s title is a slogan written by Our Hero for a pharmaceutical company called Apex whose brainwave was to make plasters in a huge variety of skin shades – so as to “hide the hurt” better for more people. Which looks like a positive social justice move, but is also a way for corporations to profit from disadvantaged minorities. And “hiding the hurt”, of course, is a way of papering over the cracks, putting things out of sight that are uncomfortable to see – as is happening with the renaming of Winthrop.
There’s a lot to unpack here which I haven’t really had the time to think about. It’s been a long week! But I liked it, I liked its play with a range of concepts – racism, naming, corporate culture – and probably I’d like to read it again.