Submissions for the Critical Analysis category should critically evaluate or analyze a piece of literature, a theatrical performance, a work of visual art, a historical moment, a philosophical argument, a social movement, etc. Submissions should not exceed 20 pages. Jasmin Fryer wrote the 1st place submission in the Critical Analysis Category for the 2022 President’s Writing Awards.
Jasmin Fryer is currently getting her degree in Secondary Education with a focus on English as well as her Minor in Creative Writing. She loves all things reading and writing and can’t wait to start teaching the next generation about the subject she loves so much. Jasmin’s ultimate goal is to become a published author to share her voice and stories with all those around her. When she isn’t reading or writing, Jasmin can be found playing her guitar, drinking tea, or spending time with friends and family.
Winning Submission – Black Identity in American Culture
Erasure, by Percival Everett, tells the story of author Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison as he comes face to face with the troubling realities of African American literature and racial identity expectations when he writes an appalling book, first titled My Pafology, about the ‘truth’ of black living. Seeing the commercialization of one ghettoized form of black identity, Ellison is enraged at the assertions it has towards all members of his race so he decides to write his own book as an unrealistic satire to others in its genre under a pseudonym. However, when white publishers and readers start to label it as true art, Ellison shudders at the reactions to the book and him as this created black author in conjunction with the author he really is. Throughout the novel, Everett challenges this idea of a uniform black identity and the application of singular ‘blackness’ stereotypes in order to showcase the multiplicity of black identity and the corruption in media towards race in our world today. Everett does this by demonstrating the damages these issues can create on the perception and individuality of an African American and also through using three black identities represented in the book— Thelonious Ellison, Stagg R. Leigh, and Van Go Jenkins— who do not always meet the expectations of the ‘true’ black man.
One of the main damages that upholding these uniform black identities and stereotypes can have is something that is immediately addressed at the beginning of the novel. As Ellison tells the audience about himself, he discusses how throughout his life his ‘blackness’ has been challenged by both white and black people. He also describes how he’s been told that he could sell more books if he could “settle down to write about the true, gritty real stories of black life” despite the fact that he was “living a black life… and would be living one,” (Everett 2). These stereotypes of ‘blackness’ implemented into people’s minds deem Ellison as not black enough because he doesn’t talk a certain way, doesn’t have the street-toughened look, and isn’t thinking of or explaining the “true, gritty real stories” of the life people expect him to have lived. These ideas that people have of who Ellison should be, ultimately end up crushing the individuality of who he is as a person and forcing him to be recognized only by his race. Instead of supporting the fact that he is a successful academic, people end up degrading him for his choice of what he wants to do with his life because it isn’t “black enough.”
This mentality of not being ‘black enough’ tracks frequently throughout the rest of the book, falling even onto the shoulders of Ellison’s pseudonym, Stagg R. Leigh. During Ellison’s first performance as Stagg for Wiley Morgenstein, the reader receives a second person look into Stagg’s mind as he gets ready for the meeting and then has lunch with the movie producer allowing for Stagg to become his own character within the novel outside of Ellison’s own mind. As a result of coming into the real world, however, Stagg is immediately bombarded with the racial expectations of people and the media. With Morgenstein and his assistant, Stagg tries to meet their expectations by being late, threateningly quiet, and monosyllabic, but despite his best efforts to portray what he thinks a suave, real black man would act like, Stagg is still unable to meet these white people’s assumptions. Just a few minutes into their meeting, Morgenstein is already disappointed saying he’d thought Stagg would be “tougher or something… more street” (Everett 217). The only time Morgenstein starts to believe Stagg is the “real thing” is when Stagg claims that he went to prison for murdering someone (Everett 218). From the moment of Stagg’s physical conception into the real world, he ultimately fails to be black enough. Despite changing his look, imitating his own conception of a ‘real’ black life, and altering his normal behavior to meet the expectations of this white media producer, Stagg is unable to achieve this true black identity until all his life is reduced to the violence he once did. Stagg is created for the purpose of being more ‘black’ than Ellison ever could be, but until Stagg’s black identity molds into one of thuggish murder, he is deemed as underwhelming, a poor investment, and an invisible man that is unworthy of being called black just as Ellison would have been. Only violence and his more threatening talk allow Stagg to dip his foot into the ‘reality’ of black living.
In the end, the only form of black identity accepted as ‘black enough’ for people and media is found within the entirely fictionalized main character, Van Go Jenkins, of the book within the book, My Pafology. Created to be a violent, vulgar, disturbing, and disrespectful person— a dramatized, satirical, version of a black man— Van Go becomes the number one representative of the black identity. In his interview with Kenya Dunston, the host of Erasure’s parody on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Stagg makes his second appearance to talk about his new book. Over the course of the interview, however, it becomes clear once again that he does not meet the expectations of those around him. The host even goes so far as to call Stagg a “son of a bitch” when he doesn’t cooperate or give the answers she was expecting, when his black identity does not live up to her expectations (Everett 249). In contrast, his book, and in connection Van Go’s life, is called “brilliant,” “real,” and after reading an especially explicit excerpt from the book about Van Go raping a woman, Kenya says that she “just love[s] that” (Everett 251).
Putting these two characters side by side, it becomes astonishing to see how the talented, real- world author is criticized for his lifestyle and choices but the fictional, stereotypical, thuglike character is praised for his disturbing actions. Once again, the damages of this singular black mentality leave a mark on both Stagg and Ellison as they leave the interview abruptly and makes them feel “defeated and feeling as near suicide as [they] had ever felt” (Everett 253).
In his attempts to shame the masses for their singular understanding of an African American life, Ellison creates instead a book that becomes his undoing and everything he opposed. It becomes the commodification of the black life, a reinforcement of a singular blackness, an erasure of his own black life, and a prime example to white people that a ghettoized black life is the only one open for Black Americans. As unfortunate as this outcome is for Ellison, it is one that according to Brian Yost in his article “The Changing Same: The Evolution of Racial Self-Definition and Commercialization” was inevitable as he states that:
“Mainstream publishers, like those who reject Monk’s manuscripts, are unwilling to permit the risk of allowing African Americans to be, or even represent, who they are as individuals and what they aspire to become as a community. Thus, publishers systematically eradicate any minority expression capable of posing a coherent, intelligent challenge to a white, absolute authorial discretion over social identity.” (1328)
While this statement by Yost might be considered extreme by some, the main points of the argument ring true at least within the pages of Everett’s Erasure. For most of Ellison’s life, his books have frequently been lacking in publicity from the media as they represent Ellison’s success in a typically white-coded field and eradicate the notion of a singular black identity. But the instant he creates a novel supporting the image media has of the African American experience, media— encapsulated in reviewers, publishers, movie producers, and television interviewers— snatches up the story and lofts it onto a pedestal for all to see and applaud.
The problem of media reinforcing a singular black identity and blackness stereotypes like this is highlighted perfectly towards the end of the book when My Pagfology comes up as a nominee for the Book Award. While Ellison is fighting to remove My Pafology as the winner, one of Ellison’s fellow judges says that My Pafology helped him understand African Americans, whom he had little interaction with, and another states that he should be happy one of his “people” is being recognized by such an award. In response to these white judges’ claims, Ellison calls them “nuts” and speaks to the heart of the issue: that “people will read this shit and believe that there is truth to it,” (Everett 261). With such depictions of black people as violent, disturbed, and thug-like riddled in media, there leaves little room for depictions of them as the typical participants in humanity that they are, cultivating a generation who either thinks that this is the true black experience or feels guilty when their own black lives don’t live up to this true, gritty reality. Eventually, the stereotypes become so lodged in people’s minds that even when told of their misleading information by a member of the race, they end up disregarding it and holding on to their heads-buried-in-the-sand ‘knowledge’. People become incapable of perceiving a black lifestyle that has little to no connection to this sort of violence and ‘street’ life. In the end, the influence of media on black stereotypes and identity creates “a further and more insidious social constraint against African-Americans who wish to express complex non- traditional identities” (Yost 316). A constraint that the judges— intelligent, published authors all with high acclaims— prove as they decide to overrule the vote of the one African American in the room and proceed to make My Pafology the winner of the Book Award (Everett 261). They object to the idea that Ellison might be right, that this book might not represent the true life of an African American, and continue on believing that there is only one true black identity that is ‘black enough’.
While media control over black identity representation holds numerous damages on the identity of non-compliant people to this singular blackness, Everett continues to show how it also does damage to the perceptions of black people. In addition to creating a world in which it becomes impossible to perceive a Black man not being a part of the gang life, media influence also makes it impossible for people to separate an African American author from African American literature. In the case of Ellison, he is seen multiple times during the novel to be cast as an African American Studies author. In one scene, Ellison is reasonably irked to find that his novels on parodies of Greek tragedies and other topics where “the only thing ostensibly African American was [his] jacket photograph,” were placed into this section of the bookstore rather than a section that more pertained to the novels’ subjects (Everett 28). Prior to this scene, Ellison also gives examples of how critical literature reviewers have become confused by his novels as they could not see what they had “to do with the African American experience” (Everett 2). As if, simply because he was black, Ellison was required to write about the plight of his race.
These perceptions of others on who Ellison should be and what he should write melt eerily into reality with critical commentary on Percival Everett himself. While Everett’s novels do at times prescribe to be about race, there is still a temptation to fall into the same trap these reviewers in the novel do. According to Anthony Stewart, a professor of English at Dalhousie University, “when Everett’s work comes to critical attention, critics succumb… to the temptation to make some … compromise… either seeing Everett’s work as interesting for being the literary theoretical tour de force it often is” or more likely discussing how “it does or… does not satisfy some pre-existing expectation” of African American literature (218). The connection between both Everett and Ellison’s plight here, only seems to increase as the novel continues and even Ellison’s book, now more connected to race than any of his priors, is completely misinterpreted and taken instead to reaffirm the “pre-existing expectations” rather than question them. By the end of Erasure, there is almost a prophetical image of what will happen if the media keeps damaging people’s perception of what an African American can and can’t be when My Pafology is announced as the winner of the Book Award. Ultimately, Ellison’s identity as a theoretical, satirical writer, as a successful academic with his own human problems, gets completely overrun by the power of the media’s interpretation of his novel. Ellison gets forced out of his own black identity into that of Stagg R. Leigh’s— an identity that is closer to the hardened, street- toughened blackness that the media wants portrayed— where he can then accept this accolade in front of the TV cameras and media outlets. While the book ends with “hypotheses non fingo,” I frame no hypothesis— a phrase used by Isaac Newton to proclaim that he couldn’t determine the result of a theory— the image still remains of the more complex, non-traditional African American life becoming invisible and the closest substitute to real blackness available to the media receiving the award (Everett 265).
While the image painted at the end seems bleak, Everett has concocted a web of stories and characters to warn us off the path leading to it. Despite the book inside of it not doing so, Erasure serves to show the true black lifestyle. Not necessarily in the detailed sense, but in the way that it demonstrates how unique and different each individual experience of black identity can be. Between just three characters— Ellison, Stagg R. Leigh, and Van Go Jenkins— we see a whole spectrum of different lives one can have. Ellison has his academic, family-founded, successful life falling on the more white-coded side of it all. Stagg falls near the middle with an academic way of speaking and success in publishing, but still acts relatively street-toughened and has a rap for being uncooperative and possibly violent. Then finally, Van Go stands in at the end representing the media’s view of the true blackness in his violence and uneducated disposition. But, despite how hard the media might fight for Van Go to be the true reality, Everett challenges this mindset by making him into the only one of these three characters who has no real-world physical presence and is instead only a matter of fiction, a figment of the imagination. A singular form of black identity thus is proven impossible in this book, especially when cast into the world outside the book by the close relation of its truths to Everett’s own. With the media’s version of reality slandered by Everett’s depiction of it, Erasure stands as a novel broadcasting to its reader the damaging, and repressive nature of stereotypes on blackness and the crushing power they can have on one’s individuality. It speaks as a compass to the questions one needs to be asking, and the truth that blackness is dependent upon the person living out a black life and shouldn’t be restricted by the stereotypes and expectations that other people hold.
- Everett, Percival. Erasure. Minneapolis, Graywolf Press, 2001.
- Stewart, Anthony. “Setting One’s House in Order: Theoretical Blackness in Percival Everett’s Fiction.” Canadian Review of American Studies, Vol. 43, No. 2, 2013, 217-224.
- Yost, Brian. “The Changing Same: The Evolution of Racial Self-Definition and Commercialization.” Callaloo, Vol. 31, No. 4, 2008, 1314-1334.