Sample Essay On Erasure
Introduction: How Racism constructs a stereotyped identity for African-American writers
An African-American writer, Percival Everett, authored the book Erasure. Erasure tells the story of an African-American writer known as Thelonius Ellison, who also goes by the nickname “Monk.” Ellison has not gained as much acclaim as his writing warrants. His work has been rejected supposedly because it does not conform to particular standards that are expected of African-American literature. His books deal with Greek myths instead of addressing the struggles of the ghetto as the stereotypes on African-American literature dictate (Everett 3). Ellison is bitter at this state of affairs, and he decides to lash out at those he feels are fanning this stereotype. This is done through Ellison adopting a pseudonym and penning a ghetto novella titled “My Pafology” and eventually retitled Fuck (Everett 70). This book is absolutely devoid of creativity, and the author intends it to be a parody. However, the book ends up becoming a hit, and this alter ego persona becomes famous, with the book gaining critical acclaim for it ‘realness.’ He even lands a deal to turn the book into a movie. This is in sharp contrast with the fortunes of Ellison, which are perennially on the wane, with problems ranging from his mother’s illness to the collapse of his brother’s marriage. Despite the success of the book, Monk is disappointed in it. He feels that he has become the sellout he always wanted to avoid becoming. Everett creates two main characters, Jenkins, the main character in Fuck, and Monk. These two characters while initially being opposites of each other end up becoming like each other, full of self-loathing and seemingly bent on self-destruction. The book uses a humorous style to address various complex issues; chief among them being racism and the associated clichés and the identity conflict. In many ways, the book is a self-autobiography since it is easy to draw parallels between the book’s characters, especially Monk, and Everett. Everett, through the book, tries to demonstrate how skin color causes people to pigeon hole people into certain predefined stereotypes that they have. These racial stereotypes create a perception about people that is based on falsehood. The media plays a major role in entrenching these stereotypes since they are popular. Hence, this paper looks at racism and identity as addressed in the novel, and how racism constructs a stereotyped identity for African-American writers.
In Everett’s book, the author, and chief protagonist, “Monk” Ellison, pens the book My Pafology that is later given the name Fuck when he is in a state of depression. This depression is occasioned by reading about the typical life in the ghetto, as authored by Juanita Mae Jenkings. Jenkings’ book talks about the ghetto life led by African-Americans, and it becomes a bestseller while also being turned into a $3 million movie. Monk is inspired to write a satirical piece, in which he aims to parody Jenkings as well as other authors who only write ghetto books (Everett 70).
Everett wants to show how race and racial prejudices play a part in dictating what African-American people can and cannot write about. Through writing his book, Everett complains about how African-American writers seem to be assigned a stereotypic role. That is, the only topic they can write about is the experience of African- Americans.
This is exemplified by the experiences of Monk. Monk despite having written several books in the past, based on Greek mythology, has not attained any fame. However, when he writes one book, under a pseudonym that talks about ghetto life the book becomes an instant bestseller.
Critics miss the point of the book completely and begin praising him. This brings out the struggles of the African-American writers. Since race has a certain description and there is a basic outline of how African-Americans should write, the writers find themselves forced to comply and constrict themselves to this one brand.
The press brings out the other aspect of race. In this case, the editors as well as the publishers represent them. This class of people forces African-Americans to write only the real life stories because they are in popular demand. This is something they accomplish by frustrating the authors’ efforts to publish any other genre.
In Erasure, Monk is a victim of this rejection from the editors. This is evident when the editors communicate to him through his agent, stating, “The market won’t support this kind of thing.”
The advice from his agent is no consolation at all since the agent tells him that a book like The Second Failure would sell more. This is an earlier book, which talks about a young black man who becomes a terrorist after his mother commits suicide due to ostracism from her black community because she looks white. This type of writing meets the black threshold and is thus acceptable to the editors.
Thus, the point that Monk was attempting to bring out is that the publishers and editors are promoting the existence of these racial biases by forcing them to follow a certain template in their writing. Hence, for commercial viability, an author must write in this way.
If an African-American writer dares to venture away from this traditional realm and write anything unrelated to blackness, the media, and the press would reject the work (Everett 69). Monk is confronted with the bitter truth that the market does not really care about quality. Instead, all it is concerned with is that he writes a story that falls within the rigidly defined culture. Thus, once this realization hits home, Monk develops a new racial identity to fit himself within the definition stated. He is forced to conform because the clichés related to race are the only acceptable method of writing for an African-American writer.
In terms of identity, Erasure comes across as being an autobiography of sorts about Everett. Monk and Everett lead almost similar lives, with Monk’s resume even almost an exact copy of Everett’s. Just like Monk, Everett happens to be a professor in the field of literary theory. The two characters share hobbies, including fishing and an appreciation for art (Everett 64-66). Monk is regarded as an experimental novelist due to the type of books he writes. This, however, is a tag he hates, which mirrors Everett.
Both Monk and Everett have no desire to be described as experimental authors, or even to be labeled black writers. Monk and Everett are also non-believers in race, and they do not take kindly to any efforts to see them as spokespersons for African-American writing. Monk is explicit in stating that he rarely ever thinks about his race. He is critical of how others see him since he sees this as a mere fabrication of the society.
Both Everett and Monk attempt to debunk these stereotypes, with Monk detailing why he cannot fit into this socially constructed picture of African-Americans since he is the complete opposite of the athletic, hip-hop loving urbanite that African-Americans are supposed to be (Everett 3). This part is an attempt to bring out the identity conflicts that result from stereotyping. Monk is a very different person from that whom society expects him to be.
As a criticism of stereotypical texts written by various authors, such as Jenkings, Monk writes the book Fuck. He decides to put it under a surname since he can never author such a book (Everett 70).
Monk wants to parody the supposed African- American experiences but this is not successful since the media are not able to see the deeper meaning. The media takes the meaning of the book at face value, and thus it ends up achieving the wrong objective since it glorifies and champions the very things that Monk stands against. While he means the book to be a satirical take on the stereotype of there being an African-American literature genre, the book instead ends up becoming just like the books it means to criticize. The same words used to praise the book are used for the other novels. Whereas the erasure readers can see the irony, the others cannot. Thus, Everett here uses the two characters and their relative differences to bring out the difference in identity, and the effects of this difference.
The character of Monk is what African-Americans are really like, but that of Jenkings is what society adjudges them to be. Hence, Monk is forced to adopt a different persona in order to merge the stories of the two characters. These two stories appear to have an almost incompatible feel to them but through adopting the character of one at one time and adopting that of the other one at a different time, Monk managed to use the two together. However, in the end it is almost as if by leaving the character of Monk and becoming Stagg, the author of Fuck, he establishes the superiority of Fuck.
This is also supported by the fact that Monk and Jenkings end up having similar tendencies in the end. They both come across as sad and disillusioned and are on a path that leads to self-destruction (Everett 265).
Hence, the book Erasure is a literary masterpiece in which Everett manages to tell the story of his life through fictional characters’ eyes. Erasure is a humorous and heavily satirical text, which does not hold back in its criticism of something that is perceived to be wrong. Everett manages to bring out the fact that the book is indeed some reflection of him. Using the character Monk, Everett mirrors himself and the intimate nature of the book is further highlighted by the reference to the book as a “private journal.” (Everett 3) The other major character in the book, Jenkings, serves to highlight the effect of social construction on an appearance. Everett juxtaposes the two characters to bring out the irony of the societal expectations and generalizations. Whereas society expects African-Americans to be a certain type of people, Monk proves that this does not have to be the case at all. Hence, the generalization is unfair, and causes even those who were different to finally become crushed by the weight of trying to prove they are not like that until they finally end up just like the character they were opposed to (Everett 265).
Everett, Percival L. Erasure: A Novel. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2001.
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