Identity and Racial Bias in Erasure
Percival Everett writes Erasure with an incredibly avant-garde structure for a fiction novel. The primary narrative is actually a frame story in which a plethora of writings stemming from a myriad of genres are skillfully embedded. The work features a brooding, African-American protagonist named Thelonius Ellison, nicknamed Monk, and serves as his adult diary or journal of sorts. The main entries advance a plot while also providing insight into how Monk came to be the man he is at present, but the journal is riddled with asides and short entries of creative writing ideas (presumably for use in later, yet unwritten stories or just for fun) and pithy observations. The journal suggests that Monk has confected an identity in life that is not affected by race, but the plot brings him to a common but rarely depicted conflict of Man vs. Race that forces him to wrestle with his authorial identity; this conflict evinces the powerful, social forces that White society inherently impose upon him and how those forces impinge upon the ability for Blacks to self-identify, magnifying the conflict through the lens of a profession.
Monk is a literary professor and linguist in an upper-class, Black family of doctors. His journal opens with a melancholy explanation of itself that terms it “unfortunate” that he lacks the will to commit suicide if even only so that he could ensure left behind no unfinished works for people to find and read after his death. Monk says early in the novel that “The hard, gritty truth of the matter is that I hardly ever think about race. Those times when I did think about it a lot I did so because of my guilt for not thinking about it” (Everett 2). He furthers the point to say that he does not even believe in race, and he expounds with the clarification that he believes there are those who would treat him unfairly because they believe in race; essentially, he alludes to the perspective that race is merely a social construct that does not necessarily have to be perceived but is and, therefore, causes people to perceive and treat each other a certain way.
Monk transitions to discussing his career as an author thus far, and his entries delineate events that exemplify for the reader how race is an insurmountable obstacle that refuses to let him ignore it both in his social and professional life. For example, he joined the then defunct Black Panther Party in college for no other reason than to attempt embracing his Blackness, presumably prior to his likely conscious decision to no longer acknowledge race. As an author, he publishes academic novels such as the reimaginings of Euripides’s plays or parodies of French, poststructuralist works. He excerpts a review of one such work in his journal to exemplify the kind of reception his works get, and in essence, it calls his work, characters, language, and subtle plot revision laudable, “but one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience.”
One of the elegant nuances of Everett’s writings is shown in how Monk’s journal entries convey only the shallowest and most ephemeral discontentment for how racial bias affects him while enough substance is still provided for the reader to glean a greater, underlying resentment that perhaps even Monk has yet to realize in himself during the early portions of the novel. His angst over such things seems buried only to come to a head as a result of events that occur in the middle chapters. A Black, female author named Juanita Mae Jenkins publishes a work called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, and the novel is praised by critics as an intensely realistic portrayal of the Black experience. Monk deplores the praise Jenkins’s novel receives, but even more so, he hates how his editor reacts, attempting to nudge him in the same direction to drive his sales. Of course, this is not the first time, but then, Marilyn, an author he somewhat respects as a writer and as a woman whom he knows he does not love, finally start to make love again after she breaks up with her boyfriend, and Monk stops when he sees Jenkins’ book on the nightstand.
Monk’s reaction to We’s Lives in Da Ghetto and, in particular, the positive reception it gets from White America, is such that he is forced to acknowledge race due to his anger at what it says about the real African-American experience. Irrefutably, he is a Black man, yet he is repeatedly denied the identity he has chosen for himself because White America does not accept his identity as authentic Blackness. It is salient to note that this so thoroughly angers him that it impedes his ability to perform sexually even after looking forward to sex with Marilyn. The psychological impact manifests psychosomatically with what could be argued to be erectile dysfunction to one extent or another all because the man he has chosen to be is one that society tells him is inapplicable. He deems Jenkins’s work to be one that merely exploits Blackness to produce a commodity for the market as opposed to legitimate art.
The more important facet of Monk’s reaction to Jenkins’s work comes from the next book Monk writes—a story within a story in that the entire work is written within Erasure. Monk pens a novel called, My Pafology, which he later renames even more rudimentarily, Fuck. The book amounts to little more than an oversimplification of Richard Wright’s Native Son. He publishes it under the pseudonym, Stagg R. Leigh, drawing on the name of the African-American folklore from the nineteenth century of a Black man named Stagger Lee who killed a White man on Christmas over a theft that he felt disrespected him as a man. Because Stagger Lee and Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son, are both depictions of Black men who hold shallow definitions of manhood and both murder White people, Monk uses them to create his own shallow, Black archetype.
Monk claims in his journal to not want success from this novel but, rather, proof that the world knows better—that White America is simply exploiting an image of Blackness that is not so. In his attempt to do so, he renders Wright’s work far less meaningful, stripping it of its nuances to satirize Whites’ fixation on false representations of Blackness. His agent, Yul, is more than reluctant to publish Fuck when Monk first discusses it with him because he feels that even the publishing houses that produce the works that have offended Monk will not publish Fuck because they are offended by what it says about Jenkins’s work and all the others.
Ultimately, the false image of Blackness is superimposed upon Monk’s identity by way of Stagg R. Leigh. Yul informs him that Random House has agreed to publish Fuck. This comes after Monk has, within the same chapter, railed against the idea of sending the book out with any qualifiers explaining that it is a parody because the greatest offense the industry could inflict upon him is not realizing this without such a qualifier. As they appear to not realize that it is, indeed, not to be taken seriously, Monk is incredibly upset; however, he is trapped between a rock and a hard place. His sister, who took care of his mother heretofore, is now dead and unable to do so; consequently, Monk has uprooted his life to take care of his mother, which has proven obscenely expensive and taxing. His older brother contributes nothing. In other words, circumstances force Monk to embrace the identity that he loathes.
Monk cannot live with the work he has created, or more to the point, he cannot live with as the person he has been forced to become. It is as though deterministic forces have driven Monk to this point of pointlessness even against his struggles in the opposite direction. “I had to defeat myself to save myself,” he writes in his journal in the only entry to explicitly address identity, “my own identity. I had to toss a spear through the mouth of my own creation, silence him forever” (Everett 259). The nuanced racism of postbellum America is often less understood than the more direct manifestations of antebellum America. Monk commits suicide because the need to self-identify is as critical to human survival as water, oxygen, and human interaction. All human interaction loses meaning when one does not feel it is the self interacting with the other, so the psychological ramifications of cultural colonization are vitally dire.