Colson Whitehead

Sag Harbor

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Sag Harbor Summary

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Colson Whitehead’s novel, Sag Harbor, is a coming-of-age story about a young black teen set in 1985. Published in 2009, the novel explores themes of race, class, and culture as the protagonist navigates a summer spent among wealthy mostly-white vacationers on Long Island. Whitehead is a writer whose essays have appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s and the New Yorker, and author of award-winning books such as The Intuitionist and The Underground Railroad.

The novel opens as protagonist Benji Cooper and his brother Reggie leave their mostly-white Manhattan prep school for the family beach house at Sag Harbor on Long Island. Benji is happy to leave school behind: there, he is an outcast, mocked for his interest in horror movies and Dungeons & Dragons. The boys routinely spend summers at Sag Harbor, and are looking forward to seeing friends who also have summer houses in the area. The brothers’ parents commute back and forth to the city for work, leaving the boys largely unsupervised on weekdays.

Instead, the boys have the run of the place. They hang out with an old friend, NP, and discover that a boy on the outer circle of their social group, Randy, has his own car. Auto ownership propels Randy to the center of the group. Now he is able to shuttle his friends to places they couldn’t easily get to by foot or on a bike. They travel to a distant beach on rumors that somewhere on Long Island is a place where the girls sunbathe topless. They don’t find the rumored beach.

Benji finds a job at the ice cream parlor to finance his meals and summer adventures while his parents are away. Reggie also finds a job working at Burger King. They have another impetus to keep themselves busy: their father is an alcoholic, subject to ugly scenes of drunkenness and rage. Reggie is a frequent target.

The owner of the ice cream shop is Dominican, and the boys argue over his racial identity, noting that he tends to favor hiring black workers but also treats them patronizingly. Benji has been learning about the works of W.E.B. DuBois at school and is discovering racial consciousness. Attendance at a mostly-white prep school means Benji and his brother are largely ignorant of black culture, and Benji feels isolated, not really belonging to one group or the other. The ice cream shop owner gives Benji a pat on the head that Benji finds demeaning; he gets revenge by deliberately leaving the freezer open during a power outage. He later learns that the owner is actually black, and his actions are not motivated by latent racism.

Benji’s friends start playing with BB guns, setting up targets to shoot at in their backyards. One afternoon, they decide to host a BB gun war. The boys set out rules to abide by before the BB shootout, including that they are not to aim for the face, and Randy’s gun should not be pumped more than twice. In the heat of the “battle,” however, Randy does not abide by the rules and shoots Benji in the face, near his eye. He is mostly unharmed, but the BB pellet is lodged beneath his skin for the rest of his life.

Later in the summer, the boys hear about a concert about to be held at the local nightclub. They are all too young to go, but they each hatch schemes to sneak in anyway. Benji buys a ticket and plans to dress the way his white, preppy schoolmates back in Manhattan do, hoping that this will make him look old enough to be admitted inside. His other friends coax older cousins into pretending to be their dates, hoping that their own ages will not be questioned, but their plan fails, and they are kicked out at the entrance. Benji pulls off his own scheme and gets inside with his friend NP.

A girl Benji remembers from previous summers, Melanie, comes back to Sag Harbor. She hasn’t shown up in years because her parents divorced and were forced to sell the house as they divided their finances. Now, Melanie’s mother has rented a house for the rest of the summer. Melanie is dating Benji’s friend Nick but seeks out Benji often, reminding him of shared memories from years spent together on the beach, and seems very fond of him.

Later, Benji takes her to the family’s old beach house, which once belonged to his grandparents. Years before, this house was where Benji and his family stayed during the summer, but when his grandparents died, the house went to his aunt. The house Benji’s family summers in now is a different property his grandparents once owned.

Benji remembers the happy summers he once spent at the old summer house, and reveals his reason for bringing Melanie there: it’s the perfect place to create a new summer memory, the memory of his first kiss.

Summer ends with a community Labor Day party. Benji attends and observes the people around him. He reflects on the generations of vacationers that came before him, and the ones ahead of him. He imagines the person he will become someday, and feels assured that Sag Harbor summers will always be a part of his life.

A New York Times review noted that the book speaks to a rising generation of affluent young black people: while black families with beach houses was exceedingly rare in 1985, the year the book is set, it is increasingly common today. The book is a fictionalized version of Whitehead’s own relatively privileged youth; he attended a prep school in Manhattan, vacationed at Sag Harbor every summer, and went on to college at Harvard. Sag Harbor was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award.