On Percival Everett

Percival-Everett-by-Virgil-Russell

Be on the lookout for “Percival Everett by Percival Everett,” my latest essay forthcoming in The New Inquiry.  

Reading through Conversations with Percival Everett in the process of writing that piece. I discovered this outstanding primary and secondary online bibliography on Percival Everett compiled by Joe Weixlmann and hosted by African-American Review, LINK. (And, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the secondary bibliography lists my dissertation chapter on Erasure.)

Below is an abstract for my upcoming talk at the NeMLA conference in Toronto on the panel “College in Crisis: Higher Education in Literature and Popular Culture.”  I’m particularly excited about this panel because it’s a rare opportunity for some face-to-face dialogue with other scholars of academic fiction.

“Academia and the Riddle of Race in Percival Everett’s Academic Fiction”

Though his work is often filed under the genre of “literary fiction” Percival Everett’s writing has bounded across an array of literary genres and themes. His first novel, Suder (1983) is the story of a black professional baseball player who is experiencing a batting slump and becomes obsessed with the music of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. Among his other novels are Frenzy (1997) a retelling of the Dionysus myth set in ancient Greece, and God’s Country (1994) an American Western set in the 1870s. In this presentation I will examine Percival Everett’s work in academic fiction, a genre defined by its fictional depictions of universities, students and professors. In his 2001 satirical novel Erasure Percival Everett examines the significance of racial authenticity in black literary and cultural production, and explores broader questions about authenticity, art and cultural politics, while delivering a scathing satire of literary academia’s pretentious excesses. Everett’s novel Glyph, published in 1999 (and recently reissued by Graywolf Press in 2014) features a silent, highly intelligent baby named Ralph who is conversant in literary theory and carries on an interior monologue of insults directed at his parents.  Everett’s 2009 novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier includes scenes set at the historically black Morehouse College, featuring a professor named “Percival Everett” who teaches a class on “Nonsense,” and is critical of the college’s respectability politics. In all of these novels Everett engages, undercuts, ridicules and critiques academic discourses and racial logics. This presentation is part of a book project on academic novels and the politics of the black intellectual, and in this paper I will examine the ways in which Everett’s academic fictions generate provocative conversations about the role of black intellectuals in higher education, and the vexing history of race in American culture and literature.

Reading DeLillo’s White Noise in the Summer of Ferguson

white-noise1
Reading DeLillo’s White Noise in the Summer of Ferguson

This summer I endeavored to knock a few books off the old “should-have-read-it-a-long-time-ago” list.  Don DeLillo’s White Noise is one of those academic novels that I’ve name-dropped plenty of times before, but still had not read.  So, in early August, comfortably ensconced in my new digs in Jersey, I sat down and dug into it.  A couple weeks later, just before the start of the semester, I found myself assigned to teach a course on Contemporary American Fiction. I quickly assembled a syllabus that included White Noise and leaned heavily toward academic novels, including The Human Stain, On Beauty, Erasure and Open City.  (OK, Open City may not be an academic novel exactly, but I’m hoping that reading it again will help me decide).

While reading White Noise, I was also keeping up with the escalating situation in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of Mike Brown on August 9.  Like so many other folks on Twitter I watched what started as a steady stream of tweets by people on the ground in St. Louis turn into a national and international story.

When I came to the end of Section II of White Noise the infamous “Airborne Toxic Event” chapter – I immediately noticed correlations to what I was watching unfold on social media.  The main character of White Noise is Jack Gladney, professor of “Hitler Studies” at the College-on-the-Hill. (Gladney can’t read or speak a lick of German, by the way). Jack, his fourth wife Babette, their three kids, along with their neighbors, have been evacuated from their suburban homes because of a train car spill that has left a mysterious toxic cloud hovering in the area.  Section II ends with the family in a building in nearby Iron City, housed with other evacuees. A man with a small, portable TV set walks around the building and goes on an epic tirade about the media and how it has neglected their plight:

Don’t they know it’s real?  Shouldn’t the streets be crawling with cameramen and soundmen and reports? Shouldn’t we be yelling out the window at them, ‘Leave us alone, we’ve been through enough, get out of here with your vile instruments of intrusion’…What exactly has to happen before they stick microphones in our faces and hound us to the doorsteps of our homes, camping out on our lawns, creating the usual media circus?  Haven’t we earned the right to despise their idiot questions? (162)

Is this not exactly how things went down in Ferguson?  First there was an outcry that mainstream media was neglecting the story.  But once that mainstream media arrived, and acted like its obnoxious mainstream media self, then came the outcry for the reporters to leave.  The media spectacle produced one particularly indelible image of CNN’s resident black pathologist Don Lemon, surrounded by a group of St. Louis residents giving him mad side-eye.

donlemonferguson
In fact, the media mess got so bad that journalist Ryan Schuessler voluntarily left the scene, and poignantly explained his reasons for doing so, citing the arrogant selfishness of the talking head divas who parachuted in and immediately started throwing their weight around.

In my class I assigned part of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s The Anxiety of Obsolescence to read along with the novel.  Chapter 3 of the book, “Spectacle,” is specifically about DeLillo’s work, and Fitzpatrick uses some noteworthy media theorists (Postman, McLuhan, Baudrillard, among others) to pick apart the media critique in the novel (while also remaining suspicious of how discourses of obsolescence deployed by straight white male writers are too often imbued with specific racial and gender politics). One of the great things that White Noise does so well is to show the discomfiting ways televisionized populations have come to rely on mainstream media narratives to validate their suffering.  From the Airborne Toxic Event, to the people on a terribly turbulent plane ride that managed to make it to the ground unscathed, the novel shows characters repeatedly turning to television news to narrate and give meaning to their own traumatic experiences.

This is a particularly dangerous game for black folks when corporate media is as  hostile to black life as it is.  (Yes, even that so-called “liberal” media who covered the event deflected conversations away from the injustice of a police murder and toward tired, insulting debates about sagging pants and black parenting).  That media attention is a terribly recursive loop that is difficult, maybe even impossible, to escape.  Attracting national attention was absolutely essential to the growth of the Ferguson movement and has resulted in an international outcry against the Ferguson police and their malicious mishandling of both the shooting and the protests. (Their hostility and incompetence are not even up for discussion).  At the same time, Don Lemon and the rest came swooping onto the scene with their “idiot questions” about black behavior, because they know those hot-button topics will generate the predictable ratings numbers and page views that they need to satisfy their advertisers.

White Noise is also a novel that begs to be read through the critical lenses of race and class privilege.  In my own classroom it took a while for students to get around to it – I’m getting better at shutting up and letting them talk things through on their own – but eventually, they hit the key points about race and class that were staring us all in the face.  Clearly these characters are folks whose anxieties, fears and consumption habits are not universal, but are directly related to the level of comfort and privilege that they take for granted.  When the cloud first forms, and before they ever considered having to evacuate, Jack Gladney says:

These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas.  Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters.  People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornadoes.  I’m a college professor.  Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods?  We live in a neat and pleasant town near a college with a quaint name.  These things don’t happen in places like Blacksmith. (114)

That passage conjured images in my mind of the horrors of the 5th ward during Hurricane Katrina, and the projects in Red Hook and Coney Island during Hurricane Sandy (among many other unfortunate scenes).  I noticed some early reviewers of White Noise cited the Bhopal disaster in India, which happened in December 1984, just a few weeks before the novel hit bookstores in 1985.  Bhopal was a real live Airborne Toxic Event, except there were no fancy microbes to clean up the air, and people are still living with the after-effects of the company’s callous negligence some 29 years later.

But I now think about the story of David Hooks– a 59 year old white man in Georgia  – who on September 24 was killed by DEA agents who barged into his house with a no-knock warrant.  No drugs were found.

Surely such things only happen to people in the hood who voluntarily choose to live around drug dealers, right? Surely such things do not happen to polite law-abiding white citizens, do they?  As the Ferguson story grew, white nationalists found a cause celebré in Darren Wilson, raising over a half million dollars (to date) for his legal defense (and, apparently, for lap dances and beers, at his discretion).  But more level-headed white folks have (hopefully) looked at the body armor and tanks and tear gas on the streets of Ferguson and have realized that the urban militarism deployed against the protesters there won’t stay confined to the hood for long. Hopefully they realize now (if Occupy Wall Street didn’t show them before) that all those chickens that people have warned about – perpetual wars in other places leading to escalated militarism in police forces domestically – have indeed come home to roost.

For the most part our conversations about White Noise in class didn’t get this politically topical.  Again, I tried to stay out of the way and let them think their own way through it.  We did talk about race, religion, class and gender.  But they also spoke quite eloquently about the age of television and how televisual media has come to dominate our self-perception. They talked about fear of death in the novel (one of its biggest topics given the whole storyline with the experimental drug Dylar that Babette is taking to quell her death fears), and I was proud to hear them deal with a such a heavy and discomfiting topic with maturity, intelligence and humor.

Consumerism was another one of the big themes we lingered on.  There’s a lot of shopping in the book. DeLillo eschews the pastoral in favor of the bright, sterile artificiality of shopping malls and supermarkets.  In one rapturously written scene set in a massive shopping mall DeLillo writes:

We moved from store to store, rejecting not only items in certain departments, not only entire departments, but whole stores, mammoth corporations that did not strike our fancy for one reason or another.  There was always another store, three floors, eight floors, basement full of cheese graters and paring knives.  I shopped with reckless abandon.  I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies.  I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it.  I sent clerks into their fabric books and pattern books to search for elusive designs.  I began to grow in value and self-regard.  I filled myself out, formed new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed.  Brightness settled around me. (83-84)

Here then, is the 21st century.  Maybe it has always been this way.  On one side of town an unarmed black teenager takes six bullets to the body and the head from the gun of a policeman, his lifeless corpse left to rot in the street for hours afterward, the officer who shot him filing no report, and charged with nothing.  Meanwhile, on the other side of town people go from store to gleaming store, shopping for cheese graters and paring knives, feeling good about themselves and their comfortable lives.  The dread of White Noise, the dread that the shoppers try to placate with their shopping, is that maybe the boundary between these two sides of town is far more permeable than they want to admit, or imagine.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen.  The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television.  Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006.

Done!

Well, I figured it was about time I announced this on my blog (though now that I’ve added the Twitter widget to this site anyone could also have seen it there).  On Friday, April 4, 2014, I successfully defended the dissertation. Finally.  By Wednesday it will be deposited and I will officially have the rank of Ph.D.

I thought about doing some grandiose write-up about my experiences in this Ph.D. program, and the reasons why I did it, and the reasons why it turned out the way it did.  But then I remembered that I tend to avoid the graduate school advice conversations because I admit my reasons were not altogether financially and professionally sound or responsible.  And probably that’s because I don’t think that everything we do in life must be subjected to a cynical cost-benefit analysis.  And then I end up sounding like some kind of naive idealist, and who the hell needs those in today’s corporate education system?

So suffice to say, it is done, and I’m glad it is done.  For now my plans are to continue working on my topic and adding more content to this blog.  I am also working towards building a book on this subject, and I know that’s going to take a lot of time and effort over the next few months.

In the meantime, here’s the abstract:

—-

The Over-Education of the Negro: Academic Novels, Higher Education and the Black Intellectual

by

A. Lavelle Porter

Advisor: Robert Reid-Pharr

This dissertation focuses on the academic novel – a literary genre which fictionalizes the lives of students and professors in institutions of higher education. In particular this project focuses on academic novels written by black writers and which address issues in black higher education. This dissertation has two concurrent objectives: 1) to examine the academic novel as a particular genre of literature, and to highlight some specific novels on black American identity within this genre, and 2) to illustrate the pedagogical value of academic fiction. Through the ancient practice of storytelling, academic novels link the travails of the individual student or professor to a bigger story about the history and origin and purpose of colleges and universities. The “Introduction” provides a basic overview of the academic novel, the black academic novel, and an analysis of the history of black higher education through discourses of over-education. Chapter One, “Toward a Theory of the Black Academic Novel,” provides a literature review of criticism on academic fiction and makes connections with black literary criticism in order to create a framework for reading black academic novels. This chapter also includes a historical survey of black academic fiction leading up to the three novels in the following chapters, which were written after the 1980s, and which are framed by discussions of culture wars and capitalism. Chapter Two, “Culture Warriors,” is an examination of Ishmael Reed’s Japanese by Spring (1993) in the context of the “culture wars” and the development of multiculturalism in higher education. Chapter Three, “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong,” examines Percival Everett’s Erasure (2001) and the politics of authenticity in black literary and cultural production. Chapter Four, “Homo Academicus,” is an interpretation of Samuel R. Delany’s The Mad Man (1994:2002) as an academic novel, showing how the novel articulates a queer black intellectual practice as a challenge to discourses of respectability, particularly during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The “Conclusion” speculates on the future, and possible obsolescence, of the novel (including the black academic novel) as a literary form, and the role of black intellectuals in the digital humanities.

Black Academic Fiction: A Working Bibliography

Cherise Boothe, seated, and LisaGay Hamilton in Adrienne Kennedy's

Cherise Boothe, seated, and LisaGay Hamilton in Adrienne Kennedy’s “The Ohio State Murders” staged by the Theater for a New Audience at the Duke on 42nd Street, in November 2007.

Below is a bibliography of black academic fiction works that I have been able to identify so far.  Once again,  the annotated bibliographies The American College Novel (2004) and Academe in Mystery and Detective Fiction (2000) were rather helpful in locating several of the novels that I list here.

This bibliography is organized under the broad rubric of “academic fiction” to include different creative forms. I think this list shows the impressive range and diversity of academic fiction produced by black artists exploring many different aspects of higher education. However, once I got into the research process I decided that focusing on the genre of the novel gave me better critical possibilities.  (More about that later)

Essentially, I am focusing on works that have some significant content about  higher education or intellectualism as a major part of the plot.  I have excluded those works which might have an academic character or two but which don’t really deal with academic/intellectual life.  When I began this project, I intended to focus on black writers who have written academic fiction, and mostly that focus remains the same.  However, I do include some non-black authors whose books explore black higher education  (Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is one of the most prominent examples).  Though I have done my fair share of reading, I will admit I haven’t vetted every single book on the list yet, so some cuts and additions are likely to happen.  The list is an ongoing project and suggestions are welcome.

BLACK ACADEMIC FICTION: A WORKING BIBLIOGRAPHY

NOVELS

Anderson, Walter. Pledge Brothers. Arlington: Milk and Honey, 2001.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Avenging Angel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. New York: Picador, 1996.

Bradley, David. The Chaneysville Incident. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Briscoe, Connie.  Big Girls Don’t Cry.  New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Butler, Tajuana. Sorority Sisters. New York: Villard, 2001.

Carter, Stephen.  The Emperor of Ocean Park. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.
—-. New England White: A Novel. New York: Vintage, 2007.

Colter, Cyrus.  A Chocolate Soldier. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1988.

Delany, Samuel R. The Mad Man. Rutherford: Voyant Publishing, 2002.
—-. Dark Reflections.  New York: Carroll & Graff, 2007.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Quest of the Silver Fleece: A Novel. 1911. New York: Random House, 2004.
—-. The Ordeal of Mansart, Vol. 1 of The Black Flame Trilogy. 1957. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
—-. Mansart Builds a School, Vol .2 of The Black Flame Trilogy. 1959. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
—-. Worlds of Color, Vol 3. of The Black Flame Trilogy. 1961. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Ellison, Ralph.  Invisible Man.  New York: Random House, 1952.

Everett, Percival.  American Desert. London: Faber and Faber, 2004.
—-. Erasure.  New York: Hyperion, 2001.
—-. Glyph. Graywolf Press, 1999.
—-. I Am Not Sidney Poitier. St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 2009.

Gay, Phillip. Academic Affairs.  1st Books, 2003.

Grant, Tracy. Hellified.  New York: Visao, 1993.

Griggs, Sutton. Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem.1899. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

Heron, Gil-Scott.  The Nigger Factory. 1972.  Edinburgh: Cannongate Press, 2001.

Himes, Chester.  The Third Generation. 1954. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989.

Hughes, Althea. Walking the Line. Arlington: E.R.L., 2000.

Jackson, C. R. Mistrustful. College Park: Media Management International, 2000.

Johnson, Mat.  Pym: A Novel.  New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2011.

Johnson, T. Geronimo. Welcome to Braggsville. New York: HarperCollins, 2016.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. 1928. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Marshall, Paule.  The Chosen Place, The Timeless People.  New York: Random House, 1969.

McKnight, Reginald. He Sleeps: A Novel.  New York: Macmillan, 2002.

Moon, Bucklin. Without Magnolias. New York: Doubleday, 1949.

Morse, L.C. Sundial. 1986. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2010.

Murray, Albert. The Spyglass Tree.  New York: Pantheon, 1991.

Peterson, Brian. Move Over, Girl. New York: Villard, 1998.

Raboteau, Emily.  The Professor’s Daughter. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2005.

Redding, J. Saunders.  Stranger and Alone. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950.

Reed, Ishmael. Japanese by Spring.  New York: Atheneum, 1993.

Robinson, C. Kelly. Between Brothers.  New York: Villard, 1999.

Rosenman, John B. The Best Laugh Last. New Paltz: Treacle, 1981.

Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. New York: Vintage, 2000.

Smith, Zadie. On Beauty: A Novel.  New York:  Penguin, 2005.

Stribling, T. S. Birthright. 1922. Delmar, N.Y. : Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1987.

Thomas-Graham, Pamela. A Darker Shade of Crimson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
—- . Blue Blood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
—-. Orange Crushed. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Tyree, Omar.  Colored, on White Campus: The Education of a Racial World. Washington, D.C.: Mars Productions, 1992.  Re-issued and re-titled as Battlezone.  Wilmington: Mars Productions, 1994.

Walker, Alice. Meridian. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.

Whitehead, Colson. The Intuitionist. New York: Random House, 1999.

Williams, Dennis A. Crossover. New York: Summit Books, 1992.

Williams, Robyn. Preconceived Notions.  Chicago: Lushena Books, 1991.

Woodson, Jon. Endowed, a Comic Novel.  CreateSpace, 2012.

PLAYS

Jones, Leroi (Amiri Baraka).  The Slave (1964).  In Dutchman and The Slave: Two Plays. New York: Morrow, 1967.

Kennedy, Adrienne. The Ohio State Murders.  New York: Samuel French, 2009.

Rux, Carl Hancock. Talk. New York: Theater Communications Group, 2004.

FILMS

Birthright. Dir. Oscar Micheaux. 1939. Kino Lorber, 2016.

Brother to Brother. Dir. Rodney Evans. DVD. Wolfe Releasing, 2004.

Drumline
. Dir. Charles Stone, III. 2002.  DVD. 20th  Century Fox, 2003.

The Great Debaters. Dir. Dentzel Washington. 2007. DVD. Harpo Films, 2008.

Higher Learning
. Dir. John Singleton. 1995. DVD. Sony Pictures, 2001.

Mooz-lum.  Dir. Qasim Basir.  2010. DVD. Rising Pictures, 2011.

The Nutty Professor.  Dir. Tom Shadyac. 1996. DVD. Universal Studies, 2007.

School Daze. Dir. Spike Lee. 1988. DVD.  Sony Pictures, 2001.

Train Ride. Dir. Rel Dowdell. Ruff Nation Films. 2000. DVD.

Something the Lord Made. Dir. Joseph Sargent. 2004. DVD. HBO Films, 2004.

TELEVISON

A Different World. (1987-1993). Executive Producer, Bill Cosby.  Carsey-Werner Productions. DVD. 2005.

The Quad. Black Entertainment Television (BET). 2016.

STORIES

Du Bois, W. E. B. “Of the Coming of John.”  The Souls of Black Folk.  (1903). Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004.

—-. “Tom Brown at Fisk in Three Chapters.” 1888.  Creative Writings by W. E. B. Du Bois: A Pageant, Poems, Short Stories, and Playlets. Ed. Herbert Aptheker. New York: Kraus-Thomson Organization, 1985.

Dumas, Henry. “The University of Man.” Echo Tree:  The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2003. 176-188.

Hughes, Langston. “Professor.” 1935. Short Stories: Langston Hughes. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.

Marshall, Paule.  “Brooklyn.” Soul Clap Hands and Sing. 1961. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1988.

McPherson, James. Hue and Cry. New York: Little Brown & Co., 1968.

OTHER

Bell, Derrick.  Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.  New York: Basic Books, 1992.

—- And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice. New York: Basic Books, 1987.



UPDATED: 14 March 2017