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Max Friedman 5/13/2016 African American Lit – Prof. Wilks

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Lifting the Curtain: Blackness as Performance in Percival Everett’s Erasure The human brain likes to categorize information. It’s easier to understand the world and its many inhabitants by dividing them into groups based on race, gender, and ethnicity. Though humans often make mental subcategories within those divisions, analytical minds tend to get lazy – they form broad, general ideas in order to process information as efficiently as possible. This space is the vague limbo in which stereotypes develop, posing a problem for fiction writers, and those tasked with crafting accurate portrayals of life in general. Percival Everett, a prolific writer most popular in avant-garde circles, crafts narratives that attempt to disrupt these harmful generalizations. Specifically, in his novel Erasure, the protagonist called Monk Ellison is an author who proceeds to write a typical “African-American novel” as a parody, and is consequently lauded for his brutally authentic portrayal of the African-American experience. The blackness that Ellison puts on in writing Fuck, which appears inside the novel in full about halfway through Erasure, and was written under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, is a kind of theatrical performance. He portrays the expected societal values associated with blackness in order to resonate with a wider audience, whether intentionally or not. In performing his blackness, Monk shows the dangerous trap into which African American authors can fall when attempting to write about their experiences in the contemporary fictional landscape. Everett compounds his critique by framing Fuck within the larger text of Erasure. In an effort to broaden the view of what the “African American novel” is and can be, he avoids settling into the easy mode of performing the stereotype. By illuminating Everett’s formal critique of disingenuous black performance and highlighting his use of meta-fiction, I will present Erasure as an ultimately progressive and expansive installment in the African-American genre.


Max Friedman 5/13/2016 African American Lit – Prof. Wilks

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To first understand Stagg R. Leigh and his novel as a type of performance, this development should be placed in context with the theoretical framework of sociologist Erving Goffman. In Goffman’s “On Face Work” he theorizes that each person navigates face-to-face interaction by acting out a shared understanding called a line, or “a pattern of verbal and nonverbal acts by which he expresses his view of the situation and through this his evaluation of the participants, including himself,” (Goffman, 169). Once a person’s line has been established, others in the situation act accordingly, depending on the nature of the aforementioned line. From the beginning, it’s established that Monk does not feel that he can accurately act out the expected line of the black man. He notes that “Some people in the society in which I live, described as being black, tell me I am not black enough. Some people whom the society calls white tell me the same thing,” (Everett, 2). Ellison thus feels alienated from both sides, unable to align himself with any particular racial identity. Since the satire isn’t abundantly obvious in the public release of Stagg R. Leigh’s novel, the line which is established is that of the stereotypical AfricanAmerican writer; Monk must react by portraying the accepted societal image of a black man struggling to get by in the ghetto. Van Go, the novel’s protagonist, is a jobless father of several children by different mothers, and exudes a charisma filtered through his delinquent behavior. Society expects him to fail, and he can’t help but embrace the self-fulfilling prophecy. After the establishment of a line as such, one’s ability to react to different situations in the socially accepted way is referred to as “maintaining face,” or the expression of appropriate social values in a given social situation (Goffman, 3). Since Stagg R. Leigh is solely a nom de plume, Ellison himself must maintain face according to the line which Leigh has lain down for him. He must embody the idea of “blackness” that the general public has come to expect, as failure to do so would result in a disruption of social norms. Before he has to make his first substantial public


Max Friedman 5/13/2016 African American Lit – Prof. Wilks

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appearance to accept the National Book Award in the final pages of the novel, Ellison dresses himself in black shoes, black trousers, black turtleneck sweater, black blazer, black beard, and black fedora. His Stagg R. Leigh creation is “black from toe to top of head, from shoulder to shoulder, from now until both ends of time,” (Everett, 235). The Stagg R. Leigh persona is expected to be “authentically black,” but the character is too much of an illegitimate persona for Monk to actually embody. The costume that he uses is not as much an attempt to make himself “blacker,” however, as it is an attempt to dissolve his identity altogether. Since the “authentically black” identity he has inadvertently created for himself is not an accurate representation of his true character, he would rather exist as a blank slate – an identity-less entity. This erasure of identity is a deliberate allusion to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as the novel directly quotes it in the final scene, wherein Monk’s character effectively becomes erased via the public reveal of Stagg R. Leigh’s non-existence. He quotes “Now you’re free of illusion…How does it feel to be free of illusion?” (Everett, 264). The allusion to Ellison’s source text evokes an identical pathos; there is no room for illusion, and individual identity must be demonstrated in spite of its vast complexities. Layering characters in this fashion – Everett on top of Monk on top of Leigh – hints to the metafictional mode, which provides an analytical lens through which the implications of blackness as performance can be analyzed. Being able to see racial performance happen on the page gives the reader a peek behind  the metaphorical curtain, venturing into the realm of metafiction. By writing about the process of writing, Everett is able to let the reader directly into his thought process, simultaneously  affording himself the ability to comment on his own text. The real world audience is able to  understand Fuck as parody, while the fictional audience is not granted the same clarifying  knowledge. According to Rüdiger Imhof’s book Contemporary Metafiction, the conventional 


Max Friedman 5/13/2016 African American Lit – Prof. Wilks

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novel is in balance with two equal­value forces fields: reality and the reader. Whereas in the  metafictional novel “the main difference lies in the suspension of one of the force­fields. The  effects of the reality on the work as well as the readers have, as it were, been cut off,” (17) In that sense, there is no longer a balance; reality no longer directly informs the narrative. The reality in  which the novel exists is no longer a direct reflection of the reader’s reality, and a kind of  dramatic irony is created between the two audiences. The real world audience, however, is clued  into the struggle of the African­American author as experienced by Percival Everett. In a 2003  interview with The Guardian, Everett expressed his concerns over the fact that Erasure was  ironically beginning to appear on the “African­American Lit” shelves of book stores, in spite of  the same type of literary marginalization happening to Ellison in the novel itself. Everett notes  that when he sees “[his] books in the Black Fiction or Black Studies section, [he] feels baffled.  [he] really [doesn't] know what those terms mean. Especially, when [he looks] around the store  and there is no corresponding White Fiction section,” (O’Hagan). Being made aware of this  racial struggle in the text itself broadens the pre­conceived notions that readers may have about  the attitude of the African­American author. The reader is now able to understand that African­ American authors are limited by a fundamentally stereotyped societal framework not only in  day­to­day interaction, but in their various attempts at creative expression as well. Even when  they try to subvert the genre via parody, the system finds a way to marginalize their work,  trapping it in a labeled bubble that seems impenetrable.  This labeling is not precisely marginalization, however, as contributing to the “African­ American lit” genre in this fashion can be seen as beneficial. Even though Erasure’s impact on  literature as a whole is stifled by labeling it as “African­American literature,” the complicated 


Max Friedman 5/13/2016 African American Lit – Prof. Wilks

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nature of the novel adds to the overall diversity of the genre. Including a self­aware parody of  African­American literature within a genre that contains non­ironic narratives of the same ilk   broadens the notion of what this particular type of novel can be. In Margaret Russett’s article  “Race Under ‘Erasure’ for Percival Everett ‘A Piece of Fiction,’” Russett defends Erasure as an  African American novel: “Simply put, an African-American novel is one that ‘signifies on’ earlier African-American novels. By this measure, Erasure is indisputably an African-American novel, with and without irony,” (365). Since the novel draws extensively on famous novels of the genre, most notably Richard Wright’s Native Son, of which Fuck is a direct parody, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, of which Erasure’s final chapter cites heavily, Erasure must still be included in the genre. But the novel’s dissimilarity with other novels of the genre can be understood as a positive de-unification, in the sense that it appropriately creates a divergence from the harmful stereotypes it was designed to combat. Though the effect is not as broad of a sweep as it was perhaps intended to be, It’s undeniably a move forward. Portraying an identityconflicted, self-aware African-American protagonist in the tradition of Ralph Ellison thus establishes the notion that there are several different types of African-American experiences to be represented in the genre. Not only does Erasure create this distinction; it implies an inherent superiority. In positioning “Van Go and his author, Stagg, as iterations of a pernicious stereotype, Everett seems to contend for the ethico-aesthetic superiority of the Ellisonian tradition over Wright's gritty realist legacy,” (365). The somewhat outdated and stereotypical portrayal perpetuated by Richard Wright proves to be the lesser of the two, thus establishing the validity and relevance of Everett’s perspective.


Max Friedman 5/13/2016 African American Lit – Prof. Wilks

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The danger of a unified genre can be the tendency to accept a singular representation of a  population, which in turn perpetuates harmful biases and stereotypes. In the case of Percival  Everett’s Erasure, this danger is illustrated in the presentation of an example of what can happen when a broad genre definition is falsely applied to a work of art. As a result of his novel being  misunderstood, Monk decides he would rather lose his identity altogether than become  something that he’s not. His performance of being void of identity in turn illuminates that racial  identity as a whole has been commoditized as performance, especially for those like Monk, who  are trapped in the liminal spaces of multi­racial existence. People like Monk struggle to  completely place themselves into a specific socially­defined box, and find themselves acting out  different racial expectations in an attempt to fit in. This notion of racial performance is furthered  by the metafictional nature of the text, in the sense that Everett is able to acknowledge the  motivation for said performance, and demonstrate the implications of executing the different  available identities. Ultimately, Everett succeeds in portraying the self­aware, stereotype­ resistant protagonist as an increasingly valid perspective. Though he often bemoans the  continued placement of his novels within the “African­American” genre despite his best efforts,  this categorization can be seen as a beneficial and progressive development. The genre, so full of gritty depictions of “authentic” African­American life, is begging for the inclusion of diverse  perspectives. That of the intelligent, mixed­race man who struggles to effectively express his  inner turmoil is most certainly worthy of inclusion, if only to combat an antiquated notion of  literary racism. 


Max Friedman 5/13/2016 African American Lit – Prof. Wilks

Works Cited:

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Imhof, Rüdinger. Contemporary Metafiction. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitatsverlag. 1986.

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Everett, Percival. Erasure. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 2001.

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Russett, Margaret. “Race Under "erasure" for Percival Everett, "A Piece of Fiction"”.Callaloo 28.2 (2005): 358–368.

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O'Hagan, Sean. "Colour Blind." The Guardian. 15 Mar. 2003. Web. 11 May 2016.

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<http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/mar/16/fiction.features>. Goffman, Erving. “On Face Work.” Readings for Sociology.

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Max Friedman 5/13/2016 African American Lit â&#x20AC;&#x201C; Prof. Wilks

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Lifting the Curtain: Blackness as Performance in Percival Everett's "Erasure"  
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