Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett's novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

Still from American Fiction Orion / MGM © 2023.

Early in Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction, the protagonist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a professor and writer whose erudite novels are regularly rejected by publishers for not being “black enough,” begins working on his next book. He sits at a large desk in a warmly lit room, framed by a stately three-panel bay window. It is dark outside. As Monk, played by Jeffrey Wright, sips on whisky, a scene plays out before him. 

Police sirens whine softly in the background as Van Go, the protagonist of Monk’s novel, appears, wearing a durag and a bizarre eyepatch. He looks pained and on edge. Sensing another presence, he spins around and thrusts his gun towards a drunk man wearing gold chains and rings. The man informs Van Go that he is his father: “Look at my black eyes. Now look at your own. … Look at my big black lips. Now look at your own.” This revelation sends Van Go into tears, from which he quickly recovers to ask Monk, “What do I say now?” Monk leans into his leather chair to think, orchestrating this nightmare narrative from which he is separated. 

This is one of a handful of scenes in American Fiction that reflect the dissonance between Monk and his fictional characters, raising questions about Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives. Jefferson’s film, which was adapted from Percival Everett’s brutal and witty 2001 novel Erasure, doesn’t leave much room to explore these tensions. In Monk’s blaxploitation satire entitled My Pafology—the plot of which American Fiction omits—Van Go later rapes a woman, is humiliated by one of his ‘baby girls’ on live TV, shoots and kills a man, goes on the run, and is captured by the police after a dramatic chase. Reimagined for a broader audience, American Fiction defangs the most savage critiques in Erasure and simplifies Everett’s novel into a basic conflict between “authenticity” and “stereotype.” 

In American Fiction, as in Erasure, Monk writes My Pafology out of spite for the publishing industry’s insatiable appetite for Black narratives dealing with poverty, crime, gun violence, teenage mothers, absent fathers, and police brutality—what we call “trauma porn” today. His last book received tepid responses from critics, with one reviewer writing: “One is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience.” After editors reject his latest manuscript, Monk pens a shockingly racist, melodramatic blaxploitation novella parodying Sapphire’s Push (1996). 

To Monk’s horror, white publishers treat My Pafology as a sincere effort and they love it. He changes the title to Fuck in hopes that they will drop the novel. Instead, Fuck picks up a lucrative film deal and is nominated for a prestigious national book prize. A review gushes, “often one forgets that Fuck is a novel. It is more like the evening news. The ghetto comes to life in these pages… the dialogue [is] as true as dialogue gets and it is simply honest.” 

American Fiction follows the meteoric success of Fuck as one of its two plot strands. Its parallel story concerns Monk’s personal relationships: his sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) suddenly dies, leaving Monk financially responsible for their aging mother’s full-time care; the wife of Monk’s brother (Sterling K. Brown) divorces him after discovering he is gay; and, to Monk’s dismay, his new lover (Erika Alexander) enjoyed reading Fuck. As he rakes in far more cash than he likely needs to support his mother, Monk is irate with the industry and tormented by his own complicity. The film shows Monk trying and failing to reveal a tragedy of racial capitalism—that depictions of black suffering are wildly profitable. 

Jefferson’s film has been a runaway success (it recently won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay), which is an uneasy position because the film plays up Monk’s racial conundrum while shedding the elements of Erasure that give us a rich portrait of Monk’s uncanny mind, his quiet pleasures and his life beyond a struggle against racism. 

Erasure is an epistolary novel with an experimental core. Everett plays with style and genre by interrupting the narrative with Monk’s musings on woodworking, fishing, philosophy, language; blues lyrics; absurd dialogues between a slew of artists and thinkers (including Rothko, Pollock, Richard Wright, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and more); and, perhaps my favorite segment, a straight-faced satirical paper on the French structuralist Roland Barthes’ S/Z which Monk gives at a conference organized by the journal Nouveau Roman (academic dad jokes abound). None of this depth and variety is represented in American Fiction

The reader hip to American literature will likely recognize that Erasure’s Fuck closely follows the plot of Richard Wright’s provocative 1940 novel, Native Son, which shocked Black audiences for depicting its Black protagonist as a bundle of negative stereotypes but was acclaimed by white audiences for unveiling ‘gritty truths’ of Black life. Wright’s novel attempted to reveal how structural racism infiltrates the Black psyche, causing incredible suffering that can lead to desperate and vengeful violence. While Fuck intended to reveal anti-Black racism in the publishing industry, the reception of both Fuck (imagined) and Native Son (real) shows that when readers don’t get it, these complex works elicit sick thrills from the spectacle of black humiliation and suffering. It is too simplistic to say that American Fiction completely participates in this dynamic, but by reducing Monk’s character to ‘smart writer with career frustrated by racism,’ the film sacrifices Monk’s inner universe (the beating heart of the novel) for the drama of his suffering. 

Africans are familiar with such flattening narrative patterns. In a recent review of the docuseries Savior Complex, Katherine Mathers and Sean Jacobs ask, “Why are stories about African suffering so persistent?” Just as the publishing industry lapped up Monk’s satirical novel by treating Black pain as entertainment for white consumption (and then congratulating themselves for promoting ‘authentic Black voices’), Mathers and Jacobs point out that even angry narratives critiquing the “white savior complex” often rely on the “harmful narrative that Africa is helpless and relevant only as a site for a Westerner’s self-discovery.” In both cases, Black suffering is dealt with as a repository to mine in service of white interests—in the case of Fuck, as commodity, and in white-centered narratives of Africa, as a laboratory for Westerners to cultivate their own humanity. 

A strength of American Fiction is how it exposes a pernicious social dynamic: when narratives of Black pain become desirable commodities, society tries all the more to fix Black people into the economically subjugated conditions which are a root cause of that pain. In that way, the exploitative commodification of Black suffering is directly and ingeniously connected to racial capitalism. But there’s another layer, couched within the rhetoric of liberalism. The instrumentalization of (Black) African suffering, which Mathers and Jacobs critique, is more indirectly connected to systemic oppression, but it’s still insidious. Narratives of white people encountering Black suffering—and emerging all the better from this encounter—tend to be highly individualistic, bypassing analysis of historical and contemporary global factors that create and maintain suffering and tacitly disavowing complicity. Both representations of Black suffering perpetuate the myth that suffering is a natural aspect of Black existence instead of contingent upon deep historical commodification and use of Black people by capitalist powers.

Erasure subverts and interrogates both forms of representations with a gleeful and mischievous romp within the canon of African American literature and music. It ricochets between many aspects of Black American life, which American Fiction barely does, and improvises with the deep heritage of Black cultural production. In Monk’s name alone we meet two elite greats—jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and author Ralph Ellison, both undisputable masters of their craft and worthy parallels for a lofty-thinking literature professor. The namesake of Monk’s pen name, however, is the ‘street’ folk hero Stagger Lee/Staggolee/Stack-o-Lee, a black gangster pimp infamous for murdering a man over a hat. By juxtaposing these figures from different echelons of Black American culture, Everett participates in and imaginatively reorganizes cultural history to explain and reinterpret the current moment.

Erasure also remixes, revives, and reworks a huge swath of non-Black western artistic, literary, and intellectual traditions. All these post-structural citational delights are part of the novel’s magic as well as its fundamental matter: Monk’s expansive, protean character. In addition to being a combative philosopher, Monk is a contemplative trout fisher and woodworker, and a nerdy comic who invents conversations between Wittgenstein and Derrida, for example. 

Such witty (and admittedly obscure) references show Monk not only as creative, funny, and smart, but also aware of the dual nature of academic theory—of its ridiculous superfluity as well as its profound utility for understanding the ambiguity and absurdism that shape our reality. Everett’s post-structuralist maneuvers (the novel’s generic multiplicity, its metafictionality and its conscious contemplation of language) demonstrate the inherent unreliability of words and narratives from which all human meaning is created. By discarding these aspects and trapping Monk into a much narrower set of questions about race and identity, American Fiction, like Western narratives about Africa, sacrifices insight into the broad spectrum of Black people’s own knowledge, awareness, and perspectives, ultimately flattening the infinite ways in which Black people create meaning about the world.

About the Author

Londiwe Gamedze writes about African and Black American literature and political history. She is a PhD candidate in English at UC Berkeley and writing her dissertation on political attitudes in the novels of Miriam Tlali, Bessie Head, and Nadine Gordimer.

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