The novel, Erasure, by Percival Everette, is an interesting and thought-provoking narrative about African American identity and literature. It explores the main character, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison and his literary work, which serves to erase the negative stereotypes of the black experience. Thus, he attempts to discover his own racial identity as he has been detached from the lifestyle of many African Americans due to his high level education and economic background. Examining four central characters, the novel depicts the identity crisis that Thelonious’s brother, Bill faces due to his sexual orientation. Essentially, both characters seek to navigate life free from societal expectations, but in search for self-discovery, they still feel defined and confined by societal standards and acceptance.
Everette explores underlying themes of racial identity and societal stereotypes throughout the novel. Thelonious grew up in a middle-class family with successful working parents. As an African American, he always felt a detachment from other blacks due to his family’s social and economic status. Thus, this made him feel misplaced from his racial identity and as if he did not belong. Although his physical features, broad nose and tightly curled hair, exemplified common features of most African Americans, he was still viewed by many members of the black community as “white-washed.” “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” (Everette 2). Thus, Thelonious’ middle-class background and high education differed greatly from many black people who grew up in impoverished, single-parent households. It also led him to have challenges among many white people because he did fit into their stereotypical perspectives of African Americans.
Through his literary work, Thelonious fervently sought to erase the stereotypical imagery of black people. His book challenged the conventional notions of African American literature that oftentimes focuses on stereotypical portrayals of black people and the black experience. Although many novels during the time depicted the upsetting struggles and poverty-stricken lives of black people, Thelonious sought to move away from these depictions by portraying intellectual middle-class man in his novel. “I do not believe in race. I believe there are people who will shoot me or hang me or cheat me and try to stop me because they do believe in race, because of my brown skin, curly hair, wide nose and slave ancestors” (Everette 2). Ultimately, his mission to eliminate racist ideologies in his work only led to negative feedback from many people because they were not used to seeing African American characters portrayed in that light, and many people felt more comfortable with the typical treatment of African Americans in literature.
The novel also explores Thelonious’ brother’s identity issues. Bill struggles to confront the harsh realities of being a homosexual. He is dealt a double-edged sword being black and gay in America. Due to the taboo nature of being a gay black man, for several years, he sought to conform to the identity that was acceptable by society. He constantly fought against his own desires and sexual identity in order to prevent from being ostracized and humiliated by other people. This led him to depression and conflicts within his family. As a married man with children, this only cause even more grief and pain for him, especially after he confessed his true sexuality to his wife. “I’ve confused my children and it will take a while for them to be able to understand what’s happen. If they ever will. I deserve what I got. Which is, basically nothing” (Everett 215). Ultimately, he hid his identity in order to conform to societal expectations, which led him to feel depressed and outcast from the rest of society, especially other black men in his community. Masculinity is usually attached to black men, and thus being homosexual, Bill felt as if he could not live up to the masculine ideals of black men.
Thus, Thelonious and Bill were similar in the fact that they each struggled against society. Each man wanted to negate the stereotypical images of the contemporary black man by being true to their own identities. One being highly educated and the other being homosexual, these two characteristics were deemed as taboo in the African American community. Thus, each man felt as if they did not belong to their culture due to the stereotypical stigma that black men are uneducated, impoverished and overtly masculine. Each man wanted to escape or erase the negative image of that was placed on them by society. Their attempts to divert from negative stereotypes left them depressed and alienated from their people, which led them to question their own cultural and social identities.
Although both Thelonious and Bill both struggled, their struggles differed. Thelonious dealt with a racial identity crisis while Bill struggled with a sexual identity issue. Thelonious struggled with being an educated black man of middle-class, which was viewed as prestigious among any black people. His detachment from the impoverished lifestyles of many black Americans led him to live a separate life and lose touch with his cultural identity. Also, through his literature, and his quest to redefine the stereotypical and oftentimes negative images of blacks, he was further isolated from his culture and begin to question his racial identity.
Bill on the other hand was dealt a different struggle being a homosexual black male in America. His attempt to erase the pain and stigma of his identity was through hiding his sexual identity for years. He tried to live up to societal standards by assimilating to conventional perceptions of men in America. Thus, he struggled with revealing his sexual identity due to the hatred and animosity towards homosexual men. Essentially, both men faced many societal challenges, which alienated them from African American culture, and also led them to be viewed as outcasts to whites who also refused to accept what they considered abnormal or different image of black men in America.