The Long Debate Over Black Artistry Behind ‘American Fiction’

In calling out white expectations about the performance of race, the Oscar-nominated movie taps into a literary and cultural history stretching back over a century

The Long Debate Over Black Artistry Behind ‘American Fiction’
Poster art for the movie “American Fiction” (MGM Studios), which is based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure.”

I was a graduate student earning a doctorate in African-American Literature when I read Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” in which a Black writer responds to pressures from publishers and readers to perform a particular Blackness by publishing an anonymous parody. When I recently saw the film adaptation, “American Fiction,” 23 years later, I felt both relieved and disheartened. Finally an adaptation of such an important American novel, still salient and boundary-pushing all these years later.

But seriously — all these years later?

“Erasure” and “American Fiction” — directed by Cord Jefferson and nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor in a leading role (Jeffrey Wright) and best adapted screenplay — center on Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a phenotypically Black novelist and scholar whose interests in woodworking and semiotics are deemed “too white” by his publisher for his prospective audience. Ellison is accused of performing, or imitating, whiteness. The way that he is Black threatens the culturally sanctioned ideal of a pure, distinct, differentiated and natural whiteness, in that his Blackness looks like whiteness. In response, white figures around and above Ellison lead him to perform a particular form of stereotyped Blackness — a ghettoized Blackness perpetuated by films and popular culture — which feels to Ellison like passing as Black.

Ellison responds by writing a parody of Blackness called “My Pafology,” an absurdist take on Richard Wright’s “Native Son” (1940), which is so “ghetto” and so “hardcore” that he eventually changes the book’s title to “Fuck.” Ellison writes this text under a pseudonym (Stagg R. Leigh) and watches the novel not only make it to publication but become an award-winning bestseller heralded for its honesty. Ellison plays the role of the imaginary novelist of “Fuck,” vacillating between passing as either the too-white Black writer or the ghetto-Black Black writer. His dual performance calls into question the nature of racial boundaries and characteristics.

Reading this book as a white student of African-American literature, I remember feeling called out in a crucial way. I saw how white readers expect certain things from Black books and I had to check myself. I had been drawn to African-American writing because I wanted to read books that tried to change the world. I found that in slave narratives and then in the Black Arts Movement, which grew following the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X and was connected with the writer Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts Theater in Harlem. I had devoted myself pretty fully to the idea that African-American writing mattered because it must.

So when I read, in “Erasure,” about this upper-middle-class Black writer of texts focused on classics and curious about quiet matters of intellect, I knew that I was a little like the publishers who sought a “Blacker” story. And I was confronted, as I had been and would be again, with questions about how a white person interacts with Black texts. It was not a new question when I asked it in 2008, and it would hardly feel like it had been answered in 2024. It was, in fact, one of the first questions of what would come to be called African-American literature.

In the antebellum period, slave narratives functioned as tools to evoke empathy from white readers — particularly white female readers. The stakes were high and the strategies were overt. Enslaved writers told their stories with a hefty dose of Christianity, a balance of good and bad (2:1) to make the text palatable for a white reader, and the presence of a “good white.” This formula evolved to affect white readers. The aim was emancipation, and the “angel in the house” of the Victorian era needed to care about these narrators enough to convince her husband to speak up about the evils of slavery. In this framework, women were understood to have an innate sensibility that they could use to guide their husbands in matters of morality.

One component of all antebellum narratives of enslavement is “authenticating documents” in which a white person vouches for the Black writer. The social reformer and journalist William Lloyd Garrison vouched for Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became an abolitionist orator and writer. The abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lydia Marie Child vouched for Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved woman whose autobiographical “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was first published under a pseudonym because she was in hiding. The first Black writing in America was for white audiences, and required approval by white authorities. The story of African-American writing being dictated and outlined by whites is as old as African-American writing itself.

After emancipation and beyond reconstruction, a debate over the definitions and expectations of Black writing emerged again. In his 1925 essay “The New Negro,” Alain Locke — often referred to as the dean of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s — celebrated the blossoming of Black art and culture, writing that, “The mind of the Negro seems suddenly to have slipped from under the tyranny of social intimidation and to be shaking off the psychology of imitation and implied inferiority.” According to Locke, these are not merely writers but are Black writers whose “race pride” is “a healthier, more positive achievement than a feeling based upon the realization of the shortcomings of others.”

In response, African-American journalist and critic George Samuel Schuyler challenged Locke’s perception of African Americans and their art in his essay “The Negro-Art Hokum,” published in June 1926. Schuyler argued that there was no artistic movement among African Americans and went so far as to say that there was no shared experience among African Americans and, in fact, that there was hardly such a thing as an African American. Granting that many of the great Black artists were trained in Europe or at America’s elite institutions, Schuyler argued that African Americans were as influenced by European standards as any other Americans, and that rather than the classification “Negro,” we should all be “just plain American.”

Percival Everett’s Monk might have agreed. To characterize Black art as a separate art coming from a particular race, Schuyler argued, is to devalue the art and to focus on the “peculiar[ity]” of both the art and the artist. Langston Hughes, the celebrated poet of the Harlem Renaissance, rebutted Schuyler’s denial of racialized art in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” also published in 1926. Hughes equated the desire to ignore race in the name of art with “the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.”

Looking back at the pressure on Black artists to write a particular type of African-American character, Hughes saw a new freedom for artists to express the diversity of Black life. Like Locke, Hughes saw the 1920s as a fruitful period of growth and possibility for African-American artists and urged each artist to “be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.”

Hughes imagined Black artists grounded in their “own racial world” that does not shy away from “the strange un-whiteness” of the Black subject. Hughes announced, “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.” Amid these debates loomed white patrons like Carl Van Vechten, who inserted themselves into the Black art scene to draw more attention to the artists and writers. White money and white connections are understood to have boosted the Harlem Renaissance — but at what cost?

This 1920s debate on the role of the Black artist illuminates the contentious topic that each subsequent generation has revised: To ask whether there is “Negro art” is also to ask what it means to be Black or African-American. A decade later, three literary giants — Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison — took up the debate. In “Blueprint for Negro Writing” (1937), Wright advocated for political writing. Ellison contested Wright’s emphasis on Black people and argued that, “The Negro American writer is also an heir of the human experience which is literature, and this might well be more important to him than his living folk tradition.”

James Baldwin joined the conversation in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” writing that “The ‘protest’ novel, so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene, ramifying that framework we believe to be so necessary.” He argued that the main character of Wright’s novel “Native Son,” Bigger, is descended from the heroic and self-sacrificing Uncle Tom character from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852). In Baldwin’s eyes, Stowe and Wright are “locked together in a deadly timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.” Baldwin points to the ways that Black writing is forced to swing back and forth from one extreme to the other, either emphasizing Blackness with a protest novel, or moving beyond race toward the “human experience.” Both are important; neither is sufficient.

The controversy over the focus and form of Black art persisted and reemerged with the Black Arts Movement (1965-1975), as writers such as Baraka and Larry Neal imagined a movement that was the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power Concept.” Addison Gayle Jr. wrote in “The Black Aesthetic” (1971):

[S]peaking honestly is a fundamental principle of today’s black artist [whose question is] not how beautiful is a melody, a play, a poem, or a novel, but how much more beautiful has the poem, melody, play, or novel made the life of a single black man? How far has the work gone in transforming an American Negro into an African-American or black man?

The literature of this movement was activist, vibrant, political and vehement. In his 1969 poem “Black Art,” Amiri Baraka wrote: “We want ‘poems that kill.’ / Assassin poems, Poems that shoot / guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys / and take their weapons leaving them dead / with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.”

By the late 1960s, at the close of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Arts Movement was pro-African, pro-Black and overtly political. In 1963, Ralph Ellison felt pressure as a Black writer to “not become too interested in the problems of the art of literature, even though it is through these that we seek our individual identities.” Pushing back against this idea even as he named it, Ellison lamented that “between writing well and being ideologically militant, we must choose militancy” — again, the expectation to perform Blackness and to write Blackness narrowly, angrily, politically.

When I first wrote about “Erasure,” I was grounded in the next iteration of this debate, which took a much more optimistic approach to the pressures on Black writers. In his 1989 essay “The New Black Aesthetic,” Trey Ellis, a writer born in 1962, wrote about “cultural mulattoes” who are phenotypically Black but are culturally white enough to “navigate easily in the white world.” Categorizing the burgeoning Black artists of the 1980s who defined themselves outside of traditional racial categories, Ellis dubbed his theory the “New Black Aesthetic,” alluding to both the conversations around the “New Negro” in the mid-1920s and the “Black Aesthetic” in the late-1960s, and positioning a new generation within a larger aesthetic and political dialogue. Ellis hoped that these New Black Aesthetic artists, diverging from the overtly political Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, would be free to create art without the pressure of politics or the boundaries of race. Ellis imagined a freedom for Black writers to write beyond race, to move past seeking approval from or reacting against white people.

When Percival Everett picked up this conversation, aware of the room he was entering, we might think that surely times had changed. It was 2001. Can’t Black writers write what they want to write in the 21st century? In the world of “Erasure,” the answer was no. And in 2023, with the novel’s adaptation into the movie “American Fiction,” the answer is still no.

Everett offers a less idealistic perspective on the “cultural mulatto” and recalls the difficulty for many such figures who came before. Everett produces work that reveals the inability to exist between races, while focusing on the self-consciousness necessary in any effective performance of identity or race. According to Everett, cultural mulattoes are not freed of the racial constraints of a binary system — you’re either Black or you’re white. Through “Erasure,” Everett presents cultural mulattoes who reveal the limitations of their liminal space as Black men who are more comfortable in and influenced by stereotypically white spaces than stereotypically Black spaces. Everett shows that cultural mulattoes cannot inhabit any transgressive or hybrid space and are instead performing mutually exclusive racial roles. The failed racial satire (failed because it is not seen as satire at all) suggests that Americans (especially white Americans) cling tenaciously to racial performances that maintain the cultural supremacy of whiteness. Rather than embodying a third race, or a position outside the existing racial schema, a cultural mulatto alternately passes as Black and as white.

The cultural mulattoism of “Erasure” suggests that dominant white society still polices race unidirectionally, allowing passage into Blackness but guarding entry into whiteness, maintaining its purity and power. Racial passing and the protection of whiteness thus complicate Trey Ellis’s ideal fluid cultural mulatto.

In “Erasure” and “American Fiction,” Monk, the protagonist, does not imagine himself to be passing as white, although as an individual and as a writer, some deem him “too white” because he is a woodworker whose novels are set in Greece and whose scholarship is grounded in European post-structuralist ideas. In the novel, he introduces himself to readers by saying, “I don’t believe in race.” In the film, Ellison tells this to his agent while he walks out to hail a cab. The cab he hails stops instead for a white passenger. The scene feels like a tip of the hat to a story involving the African-American literary scholars Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston Baker. As they were leaving a conference, they were debating whether race is a construct. Meanwhile cabs kept passing them, vividly demonstrating that whether race is a construct or not, it matters in lived experience. Gates recounts this anecdote in his book “Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars” (1993).

Ellison’s self-consciousness about his own race, what the African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois famously called “double consciousness,” makes him acutely aware that the society in which he lives sees him as Black and expects him to perform a particular Blackness because, as Ellison explains, he has “dark brown skin, curly hair, a broad nose” and because “some of [his] ancestors were slaves.” He always sees himself as others see him and is resentful of his self-awareness.

Thelonious “Monk” Ellison evokes Blackness in his very name, which references the jazz great and the novelist, both Black. Yet while his name evokes Blackness, he goes by “Monk,” the one part of his name which — thrown out of context by the erasure of “Thelonious” — evokes an image of whiteness and austerity. Describing himself to readers, Monk emphasizes his class and education as more important than his race. He explains that he “graduated summa cum laude from Harvard” and that his family of doctors “owned a bungalow near Annapolis.” White colleagues deem these aspects of his past white, and he is frequently accused of passing as white. He refuses to accept cultural readings of Black and white as grounds for his self-definition, however, and attempts subtly to embody the marginal space of a cultural mulatto. This attempt makes palpable the racial dichotomy in which Monk is an outsider and calls into question the very meaning of Black and white. Thus early in the novel, Everett seems aligned with Trey Ellis as he explores the potential for Monk’s racial transgression despite the pressure to conform to mutually exclusive racial categories. Monk is aware both of the expectations for him to enact Blackness — to perform a cultural identity that supposedly matches his phenotype — and of the resistance to the way he enacts a white cultural identity. At the start of the narrative, Monk is optimistic that he can exist beyond race.

The late critic Greg Tate once asked whether it is “possible to perform blackness and not be coonin’,” referencing the stereotypical “coon” figure who entertains whites. For Monk, who creates Van Go (the protagonist of “Fuck”) and Stagg R. Leigh (the pseudonym for the author of “Fuck”), the answer is no. To perform Blackness is to give in to a cultural (white) image of Blackness, which demeans and underestimates an entire race on the basis of a narrowly performed role. All elements of parody and subversion are lost on the white audiences who “consume the Black performance without realizing that it is, in fact, a performance. This audience remains in the dark, missing the “furious” signs coming from Monk — misidentifying themselves in the mirror of the satire.

In “Erasure,” the white establishment urges the cultural mulatto out of the “third race” into a performance of Blackness. White reviewers of “Fuck” awkwardly affect ghetto-Blackness by saying, “It’s a Black thang,” without seeing the problem in the very idea of “a Black thang” or questioning their own access to that racial performance. The Blackness that Stagg enacts makes whites far more comfortable than the supposed whiteness that Monk enacted. To be read as Black, these works show, is to be expected to perform for white audiences, to “shuck and jive.” Other roles — writer of experimental novels, appreciator of opera, woodworker, fisher or Harvard alumnus — make whites assume that the cultural mulatto acts out of imitation. The white audience fails to recognize the absence of an original.

I reached a disappointing conclusion in 2008 as I wrote about “Erasure.” It was depressingly familiar when I realized, in 2024, how little has changed. Had nothing really altered in those intervening years, when America finally looked more directly at anti-Black police brutality, when Black Lives Matter finally gained mainstream attention? How were things no better? Why did white people still have any say in Black texts?

In June of 2020, writers took to Twitter to share what they were paid for their books — specifically the advances that came with their contracts. The hashtag #publishingpaidme immediately revealed the discrepancy between white and Black authors. Jesmyn Ward, who is Black, was particularly vocal about her fight for a six-figure advance after winning two National Book Awards. Some workers in the publishing industry organized a day of action to call attention to this issue. Penguin Random House responded to the issue of racial disparity by promising to share more information on the demographics of its workforce and by mandating anti-racist training. Everyone on staff would be asked to read Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist,” published in 2019 by Random House.

“American Fiction” is fairly true to “Erasure.” I could almost quote the movie verbatim before I had seen it, familiar as I am with Everett’s novel. I was grateful that Everett had finally gained wider recognition. I was glad that the movie was made. But as I sat in a theater in Maine in a room of white viewers, I couldn’t quite figure out if we were in on the satire or if we were missing it. In one particularly biting scene, the committee for a book award is split on the winner. The committee consists of three white writers and two Black writers. The three white writers want to give the award to “Fuck.” The two Black writers strongly oppose this selection, but they are outvoted. One white member of the committee says that she feels so good about this because not only is “Fuck” a great book, but it is time to listen to Black voices. There was exactly the stilted laughter you would expect. It’s a funny line to follow the silencing of Black voices. And it isn’t funny at all.

I couldn’t help wondering about the next iteration of the debate around Black writing that is defined by the writer and not by the white public, 20 years down the road. I couldn’t help wondering how the discussion that has gone from white authentication of slave narratives to the “New Negro” to the protest novel to the Black Arts Movement to the New Black Aesthetic might develop next. Given what I have come to understand about cycles and production and the role of the consumer, and what I see around me in terms of reliance on type, I anticipate another manifesto or another satire. I predict that the story of Monk losing himself in various performances of race will still, sadly, ring true.

I walked out of the theater with my eighth-grade daughter. I resisted telling her that this is why I have a hard time with her listening to particular musicians — the replication of stereotypes and the glorification of a narrow way of being Black. I stopped myself from offering a lecture on cultural reproduction. I didn’t even give her the history of one of the final images of the film, in which Monk passes a framed photograph from the “Doll Test” designed by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, used as evidence in Brown v Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The experiment showed that even Black children were drawn to white dolls, demonstrating a deep-seated sense of inferiority. I held my teacherly tongue and swallowed down all of my thoughts for the moment.

“How’d you like it?” I asked.

“That just wasn’t my kind of movie,” she said. “I couldn’t even tell whether it ended.”

The lack of closure in “American Fiction” is no mistake, though. Punctuated not with a period or an exclamation point, Jefferson offers us an ellipsis. In the final scene of the adaptation, we shift from a critique of the publishing world to a critique of the movie industry. Ellison and his brother are in a Hollywood studio lot, where Ellison has just pitched several possible endings to the film version of “Fuck.” Ellison walks out of the soundstage, past a Black actor in the costume of a slave. The actor looks up from his cell phone to nod at Ellison as he gets into his convertible and drives away. The film closes with an aerial zoom out of Hollywood, leaving us to consider the cycle of the reproduction of stereotypes, leaving us to ask when this question of Black art and performance of race will emerge next.

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