Percival Everett's Erasure
Percival Everett’s novel, Erasure, was published in 2001, in a 21st century that is far removed—if only temporally—from the abolitionist movement, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow laws. The representations of African-Americans that were ubiquitous during those times, such as Sambos, Zip Coons, and Mammies, are now tangible only as collector’s antiques. While these specific representations of African-Americans may no longer be prevalent in American society, the form of racism that they embodied remains. Although the representations may have changed, American society’s insistence on maintaining such a narrow representation of black life has not. Everett has written Erasure to expose and combat this racism with his protagonist Thelonius “Monk” Ellison. Monk’s experiences and commentary expose how eager in our society is to reinforce a single representation of black life, yet Monk undermines this representation by being its antithesis, and by emphasizing his experiences that are not exceptional but universal and transcendent of race.
Monk begins to articulate exactly what this representation is from the first page of the novel. In the second entry of his journal, Monk provides a description of himself, and in doing so, he emphasizes all of the ways in which he does not fit with what may inevitably be the reader’s expectation once he reveals that he is black. “Though I am fairly athletic, I am no good at basketball… I graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, hating every minute of it. I am good at math. I cannot dance. I did not grow up in any inner city or the rural south” (Everett 1). The brief sentences add emphasis to the carefully selected and peculiar details such as that he is not good at basketball and that he cannot dance. By describing all of the ways he does not fit the conventional representation of a black man in the U.S, Monk simultaneously draws attention to this representation.
This representation is depicted more explicitly as it manifests itself in both Juanita Mae Jenkins’ We’s Lives in Da Ghetto and in Monk’s own novel, My Pafology. When Monk is flying to Washington D.C, he reads a review of the new “runaway bestseller,” We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. The novel is about Sharonda, who “is fifteen and pregnant with her third child, by a third father. She lives with her drug addict mother and her mentally deficient, basketball playing brother Juneboy” (39). While the novel’s premise is ridiculous, what is offensive is the way it is acclaimed and the claims that are made about it. The review heralds the novel as one that depicts “the experience which is and can only be Black America” and claims that Sharonda “lives the typical Black life,” before the conclusion of the novel when she has become “the epitome of the black matriarchal symbol of strength” (39-40).
The commentary on My Pafology is almost identical in its claim that the novel reflects the real African-American experience. Even the...