For Whom Do We Create?

The conundrum facing so many American artists today

Jeffrey Wright in <em>American Fiction,</em> 2023 (MGM/Everett Collection)
Jeffrey Wright in American Fiction, 2023 (MGM/Everett Collection)

American Fiction is the film I’ve been waiting for since I majored in film studies at Columbia University more than two decades ago. Only 27 minutes into it, I was compelled to stop, not only so that I could contemplate the beauty and complexity of this quintessential American story, but also because I couldn’t help seeing my own life reflected in its story lines.

The film’s protagonist, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (played by Jeffrey Wright), is a writer of literary fiction. But because his work isn’t deemed “Black” enough, it is of little interest to the publishing industry. What’s missing from his writing, as Monk himself acknowledges, are certain kinds of characters: “Black people in poverty, Black people rapping, Black people as slaves, Black people murdered by the police, old soaring narratives about Black folks in dire circumstances. … I mean, I’m not saying these things aren’t real, but we’re also more than this.”

Monk becomes incredulous when he discovers the kind of book that publishers—and the reading public—seem to want from a Black author: We’s Lives in da Ghetto, a best-selling, Ebonics-styled rendition of urban life by a young woman named Sintara Golden (played by Issa Rae). As a joke, Monk decides to write a similar novel under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, playing off the name of the notorious Black outlaw immortalized by Mississippi John Hurt and others. He fills his satirical work with all kinds of stereotypes and calls it My Pafology, though he later retitles it Fuck in an act of defiance. To his astonishment, the book becomes a massive hit.

Adapted from Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, Cord Jefferson’s satirical directorial debut delivers a poignant narrative about family, about aging, about coming to terms with one’s identity. These issues are universal, of course, not at all limited to Black American life, and a significant part of American Fiction is, in fact, not about race. But the intertwining of the characters’ struggles with an exploration of race and artistic integrity is masterly. American Fiction conveys the experience of “an artist who happens to be Black,” rather than simply “a Black artist.” The difference between these terms may seem subtle, but it is important. I think of myself, for example, as a writer who happens to be Black, not primarily as a Black writer. I don’t always define myself by my Blackness, which becomes prominent only in my interactions with white Americans. (When I am in Europe, by contrast, I’m identified as an American first, not a Black American.) In American Fiction, race may drive the narrative, but it doesn’t overtake the story. And that is one of the things that makes the film so compelling.

American Fiction resonated with me in another significant way. Monk’s complex relationship with the world of publishing reminded me of my own experience when my debut novel, The Blue Is Where God Lives, was recently published.

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Sharon Sochil Washington has a PhD in cultural anthropology and is the author of The Educational Contract as well as the novel The Blue Is Where God Lives.

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