A short take on a character that many readers view as one of the smartest characters in African American fiction.
Episode by Howard Rambsy II
Read by Kassandra Timm
You’re listening to Remarkable Receptions – a podcast about popular and critical responses to African American novels.
“[What] The three types of safety gears?”
“Instantaneous, Instantaneous with buffered effect, and Progressive. Instantaneous type exerts a rapidly increasing pressure on the guide rails during the stopping period. The stopping time and distance are short. These gears can be employed in cars rated for speeds not in excess of zero point seven six meters per second.
Instantaneous type with buffered effect incorporates an elastic system of either energy accumulation or energy dissipation. It generally consists of a system of oil buffers on the lower car frame and safety planks on the guard rails. Effective for rated speeds of up to two point five meters per second. Progressive type applies limited, increasing pressure on the guard rails and is primarily used in Europe on cars with rated speeds of one meter per second or less.”
That’s the answer protagonist Lila Mae Watson gave to an exam question. And with a response like that, it’s clear why so many readers view her as one of the smartest characters in African American fiction.
Lila Mae is the main character in Colson Whitehead’s 1999 novel The Intuitionist. Whitehead presented this smart, intuitive black woman character in the book who first looks to uncover a mystery about an elevator mishap but ends up solving other intriguing secrets.
In many African American novels, leading black women are instilled with folk wisdom. They have mother wit, and they are typically distant from so-called book learning. But Lila Mae is different. She is formally educated. She studies and understands complex reading materials.
Students in African American literature courses often respond with intrigue when they encounter this black woman character with such detailed knowledge ... about elevators. Her extensive knowledge is memorably demonstrated near the beginning of the novel when she is responding to questions during an exam.
“The standard accident curve possesses what shape?”
“The failure rate for elevators is expressed by RT equals one minus FT, where R is reliability, T is time and F is failure. The equation is characterized by a ‘bathtub’-shaped curve with three distinct phases. The initial or ‘early failure’ phase begins with a relatively high incident of accidents—mostly due to installation errors—and then drops off sharply. This is the first wall of the ‘bathtub.’ The next phase, called the ‘random failure’ phase, is a plateau and extends for the majority of the elevator’s service life. This flat plane is the bottom of the ‘bathtub.’ The accidents in this phase are unpredictable and generally result from passenger misuse or poor maintenance. It is also in this phase that the rare ‘catastrophic accident’ occurs. The curve ascends quickly again in the final, or ‘wear-out’ phase, when the elevator is past its period of prime use. The opposite wall of the bathtub. Most of these accidents can be prevented, again, by diligent inspection and careful maintenance during this crucial time.”
This episode was written by Howard Rambsy. The episode was edited by Elizabeth Cali.
This podcast, Remarkable Receptions, is part of the Black Literature Network, a joint project from African American literary studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas. The project was made possible by the generous support of the Mellon Foundation. For more information, visit blacklitnetwork.org.