African-American literature is marginal in two ways. First, it’s a genre outside what is considered the mainstream of literature. It’s shelved separately, and has that qualifier, “African-American”, just to let you know it’s a subset of just plain literature. Second, African-American literature is about individuals who are marginalized; it’s the writing of people who are discriminated against, and the subject matter is often focused directly on their experiences with prejudice and violence. And these two are intertwined; in that the marginalization of the genre is itself one form of the discrimination it talks about.
Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure is aware of all of these marginal connotations of African-American literature — and turns them all into gleeful, bitter farce. The book is about an academic African-American writer, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, whose sales suffer badly because he doesn’t write African-American literature. “One is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience,” one reviewer muses in befuddlement. An agent tells him to stop with the “retellings of Euripides and parodies of French poststructuralists and settle down to write the true, gritty real stories of black life.”
Monk quite reasonably points out that, since he’s black, his books are in fact about black life, up to and including the French poststructuralism. But those books don’t sell.
So, finally, in a fit of rage and perversity, Monk sits down and writes a really, black book, that white people can get behind — an over-the-top parody of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Sapphire’s Push. He initially calls it My Pafology and then changes the title to Fuck. Representative dialogue includes:
“Watch where you steppin, funky ass muthafucka,” I say, and give him a hard look.
“Fuck you,” he say.
“Fuck you,” I say.
“Fuck you,” he say.
“Fuck you,” I say.
“Fuck you,” he say.
“Fuck you,” I say.
“Fuck you,” he say.
Monk means the book as a rebuke to the racist preconceptions about African-American literature. The book, though, is not taken as a parody, but as a hard-hitting chronicle of black life; “a gutsy piece of work” as one reader puts it. Fuck is a popular and critical sensation. Monk has checked the genre boxes for African-American literature; he has placed himself in the correct marginal category, and so he is, to his horror, rewarded.
Gita Jackson wrote in Polygon, black people are “all the spokespeople for Black Culture in a way that robs us of the ability to have a unique point of view, a kind of praise that renders us inhuman.” Similarly, Monk has been turned into the voice of Blackness—and as a result his individual self disappears in a welter of remorseless accolades.
The (intentional) irony of Erasure, though, is that, even as it mocks the tropes of African-American literature, it gets its power precisely from the fact that it is, and intends to be, African-American literature. The book is about what it means to be black, marginalized, and stereotyped — and how one can be stereotyped precisely through being defined by one’s marginalization and trauma. “But there is also an American Negro tradition which…abhors as obscene any trading on one’s own anguish for gain or sympathy,” Ralph Ellison writes in “The World and the Jug.” Everett, in Erasure, follows in Ellison’s footsteps; he is part of a black tradition which objects to constructing blackness in terms of marginality and trauma.
While Erasure questions, mocks, and celebrates African-American literature. Everett’s recently published short story collection, Half an Inch of Water, expresses his ambivalence in a more restrained matter — by largely ignoring African-American literature, as a category and a blueprint. Half an Inch of Water presents itself as, and occupies the tradition of, literary fiction, sans qualification or marginal markers. To the extent that the collection is affiliated with a genre, it’s not African-American, but the Western.
Yet Everett doesn’t really explore the tropes of the Western beyond the fact that the stories are set in the West, and many of them involve horses and/or Native Americans. Instead, Half an Inch of Water is straightforward, bog standard, literal-minded, tedious literary program fiction. The stories drip dully with quiet grief, quiet emotional distance, tasteful epiphanies, tasteful symbols, and tasteful ironies.
A story from the collection, “Stonefly” is a representative low point. A boy’s sister drowns; his family despairs; he comforts himself by fishing for an enormous and perhaps fanciful trout in the pond where she died. It’s like some hideously soporific mixture of Raymond Carver and Hemingway. “Daniel would not smile for six years. And when he finally did, no one knew why. It was likely he didn’t either.” Short, firm, noncommittal sentences about the ambiguity of emotion pile up and go nowhere. Everett avoids all genre clichés of melodrama by embracing the lit fic genre clichés of torpor and shilly-shallying. Even the shaggy-dog ghost story, “Liquid Glass,” doesn’t so much startle as shrug, assiduously avoiding gore for the comforting familiarity of emotional numbness.
Critic Carl Freedman sardonically noted that “A couple of generations ago, many white critics imagined that they were being commendably broad-minded by allowing that African-American literature had finally joined the ‘mainstream’ — as though Baldwin and Ellison should have been flattered by being permitted into the company of William Golding and Saul Bellow.” As Freedman says, the truth is that the mainstream is often tedious and mediocre — forever hobbled by its own desperate efforts to remain in the critically acclaimed serious mainstream, and not to accidentally mark itself as different, marginal, or strange. The pretense of normality and universality can be even more limiting than marginalization — at least in aesthetic terms.
The pretense of normality and universality is also built, of course, on defining someone else as marginal. The protagonists in Half an Inch of Water are mostly, quietly, black, but that blackness is not marked or commented on. Black, in this world, is normal. And it’s normal in large part because the Western setting allows Everett to use Native Americans as the Other against which normality is measured.
This dynamic is crystalized in “Little Faith,” the first story in the collection. The protagonist is Sam, a black veterinarian, who notes that his blackness has marked him in his mostly white community: “I’ve never fit in. I probably will never fit in. I accept that.” This is the most explicit discussion of race in the book.
The main plot of the story, however, isn’t about Sam failing to fit in. It’s about Penny, a deaf Indian girl lost in the desert. Sam joins the search for her, and eventually finds her surrounded by rattle-snakes; he is bitten twice. He becomes ill, and sees a vision of an Indian man, Dave Wednesday, who recently died. “…here you are hallucinating stereotypes,” the spirit vision stereotype tells him sardonically. Then the deaf Native girl mystically heals the snakebites.
The pair are discovered and rescued, and a doctor checks Sam. “Sam knew he looked confused, out of it, but that was only strangely because he felt perfectly fine. I think I’m okay, he said.” Sam’s illness, his strangeness, vanishes. He is healed by Native Americans, who are marked as different — dead, deaf—and explicitly framed as “stereotypes.” The mystical Native Americans return Sam to normality, both in the sense that he’s cured, and in the sense that his blackness is emphatically displaced as a topic by this other, more exotic, difference.
A similar dynamic is at work in “Finding Billy White-Feather.” The narrator, Oliver Campbell, discovers a note tacked to his back door from “Billy White Feather”. He has never heard of Billy White Feather, and as he investigates, he realizes that no one else seems to have either. White people describe Billy as an Indian; Native people say he is white. He’s said variously to be tall, short, skinny, fat, black-haired, and blonde. The one thing everyone agrees on is that he’s an “asshole”. He’s an amorphous, stigmatized question mark, who falls outside the racial categories of Native and white. Oliver jokingly decides that Billy White Feather “was actually a middle-aged, wheelchair bound Filipina. Or a tall black man with a disfiguring scar down the center of his face.”
This very vocal confusion about Billy White Feather’s race drowns out, or erases, the quieter uncertatinty about Oliver’s. He’s clearly not Native, but is he white? Non-Native black? The reader doesn’t know for sure, and doesn’t have to know. In the story’s economy, white vs. Indian matters, but white vs. black not so much.
To create mainstream literature, then, Everett has to appropriate the white mainstream’s techniques of marginalization. Everett himself has written about this, in his wonderful 2004 story, “The Appropriation of Cultures” (now online). The plot involves Daniel Barkley, a black man in South Carolina who begins to deliberately claim Confederate symbols; he plays an unironic jazz version of “Dixie” at a club; he buys a pick-up truck with a Confederate flag in the back window — and starts to refer to it as a “black-power flag.”
“Soon, there were several, then many cars and trucks in Columbia, South Carolina, sporting Confederate flags and being driven by black people. Black businessmen and ministers wore rebel-flag buttons on their lapels and clips on their ties. The marching band of South Carolina State College, a predominantly black land-grant institution in Orangeburg, paraded with the flag during homecoming. Black people all over the state flew the Confederate flag. The symbol began to disappear from the fronts of big rigs and the back windows of jacked-up four-wheelers. And after the emblem was used to dress the yards and mark picnic sites of black family reunions the following Fourth of July, the piece of cloth was quietly dismissed from its station with the U.S. and State flags atop the State Capitol. There was no ceremony, no notice. One day, it was not there.”
The story ends positively, as the flag becomes so associated with blackness that white supremacists can no longer use it: However, Half an Inch of Water points to a bleaker possibility. Black people picking up the symbols of whiteness, whether Confederate flag or mainstream fiction, could perhaps rob those symbols of power. But appropriation could also validate them. Does integrating into the mainstream change the mainstream, or does it simply mean capitulating to it, in all its tedium and prejudice? Billy White Feather is unconstrained by racial preconceptions, and that frees him in some sense; he is never caught. But he is also, disturbingly, in his indeterminate blandness, never there.