Percival Everett’s novel, Erasure, was published in 2001, in a 21st century that is far removed—if only temporally—from the abolitionist movement, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow laws. The representations of African-Americans that were ubiquitous during those times, such as Sambos, Zip Coons, and Mammies, are now tangible only as collector’s antiques. While these specific representations of African-Americans may no longer be prevalent in American society, the form of racism that they embodied remains. Although the representations may have changed, American society’s insistence on maintaining such a narrow representation of black life has not. Everett has written Erasure to expose and combat this racism with his protagonist Thelonius “Monk” Ellison. Monk’s experiences and commentary expose how eager in our society is to reinforce a single representation of black life, yet Monk undermines this representation by being its antithesis, and by emphasizing his experiences that are not exceptional but universal and transcendent of race.
Monk begins to articulate exactly what this representation is from the first page of the novel. In the second entry of his journal, Monk provides a description of himself, and in doing so, he emphasizes all of the ways in which he does not fit with what may inevitably be the reader’s expectation once he reveals that he is black. “Though I am fairly athletic, I am no good at basketball… I graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, hating every minute of it. I am good at math. I cannot dance. I did not grow up in any inner city or the rural south” (Everett 1). The brief sentences add emphasis to the carefully selected and peculiar details such as that he is not good at bas...
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...’s portrayal can serve only to break down the stereotype that exists in the reader’s mind. By including this portion of the novel, Everett has answered Hurston’s call and discreetly undermined the racial stereotype that is such a prevalent form of racism in American society.
American society has made large strides since the days of slavery and Jim Crow laws, and yet, as Erasure reminds us, it still has a long way to go. Van Go Jenkins dolls may not be found in any American households and Sharonda may not be the new face of maple syrup, yet these characters’ parallels with the Sambos and Mammies of America’s past are strikingly clear. Percival Everett has crafted his novel not only to expose these 21st century representations of African-American life, but to undermine them and demonstrate that they are just as fictional and repulsive as the Sambos of old.
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