Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495
In his 2001 novel Erasure, Percival Everett weighs in on the idea of identity through the struggles of protagonist Thelonious "Monk" Ellison.
Ellison immediately self-identifies as a writer, something he admits he dislikes in others' writing:
My name is Thelonious Ellison. And I am a writer of fiction. This admission pains me only at the thought of my story being found and read, as I have always been severely put off by any story which had as its main character a writer.
That Ellison identifies first and foremost as a writer may seem strange to those in society who would immediately categorize him by his race instead. However, Ellison says,
I don't 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. But that's just the way it is.
His identification as black initially comes from others and is not always how he views himself:
I have dark brown skin, curly hair, a broad nose, some of my ancestors were slaves and I have been detained by pasty white policemen in New Hampshire, Arizona and Georgia and so the society in which I live tells me I am black; that is my race.
Though Ellison professes not to believe in race, he still struggles with the idea of his own "blackness":
While in college I was a member of the Black Panther Party, defunct as it was, mainly because I felt I had to prove I was black enough. 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.
Being black, he faces as much prejudice and racism as any black man, but is still challenged in his authenticity.
He goes further in the novel to establish the idea that all race is a societal construct. Ellison feels this challenge to his race most strongly in his writing:
. . . a tall, thin, rather ugly book agent told me that I could sell many books if I'd forget about writing retellings of Euripides and parodies of French poststructuralists and settle down to write the true, gritty real stories of black life. I told him that I was living a black life, far blacker than he could ever know, that I had lived one, that I would be living one.
Ellison knows that, though he first identifies as a writer, society will always see him as a black writer. Society will never separate the two and let him be just a writer.
Through Ellison, Percival Everett challenges the notion of what it means to be black or white. He forces the reader to acknowledge that, no matter how an individual may self-identify, society will always treat them as if they are what society says they are.