Anthony Stewart Talks about Percival Everett and the Potential for Space between Categories

Approximate Gestures: Infinite Spaces in the Fiction of Percival Everett encourages readers and critics to think more deeply about how they position themselves in and engage with the world around them. As one of the first books of literary criticism devoted to Everett’s fiction, Stewart’s pathbreaking study models a method for reading the formidable body of work being produced by a major contemporary writer. Here, Stewart talks about what Everett does—and does not—address in his work.

Photo by Matthew Ansley

Sometimes, it’s what one isn’t doing that is most notable. For instance, Percival Everett doesn’t write about race. More accurately, he doesn’t write about race in the ways he is expected to write about race as a Black writer, or in the ways the national culture in which he developed his seemingly limitless skills has long dictated he is expected to write about race. His Black characters don’t represent Blackness or Black America, or even represent the experience of being Black in America, the ostensible “Black American experience,” as if anyone could. And yet they are no less Black for not being representative. And that’s the tricky part. In the fictional world that Everett creates, Black people are Black because of their variety, their inner turmoil, their eccentricity, precisely their nonrepresentativeness. In other words, they are Black in all of their humanity, for all that is good and bad about being human, and, for that matter, about being Black.

Black has long been one of the most controversial categories in American life. This is all the more the case in the current moment of so-called racial reckoning in the United States. But it’s worth considering that the notion of the category itself—not any specific category, but the notion of category—may be more of an impediment to the way Americans think about race (another vexed category) than maybe even Black has been. After all, categories draw our attention to themselves almost to the exclusion of everything around them. They are what we’ve been trained to look for and at. And it is what is around the category—actually what is between categories—that Everett draws our attention to through his fiction.

This changing of his reader’s focus gestures toward something very important in how we see the world. Each category is finite, after all, while the spaces in between them are infinite. Think of the paradoxical way that the mathematical concept of the asymptote defines a value that can be calculated but that can never be reached. The idea of infinity implies more than it states, and this is the tough but also the optimistic part, if we are willing to put in the work. If we look at the world in terms of the spaces in between categories, the world becomes larger, more complex, and more engaging. But this new world is also less predictable, less certain, and less vulnerable to the totalizing fictions some have created over time to resolve the world’s complexities and make it a less scary place. Some of those fictions are, among others, religion, politics, and, again, race. These fictions only masquerade as certainties, but they nevertheless help explain the temptation to settle for the categories, and maybe even turn some of them into fetishes. Black, for instance, has been fetishized in exactly that way through much of American history. The world is a scary place sometimes, and a clear categorical answer, no matter how tendentious, can be a comfort. This observation is at the heart of what I mean when I say that Everett doesn’t write about race the way we’ve come to expect writers to write about race. For Everett, race, as with just about everything else in his work, is dynamic, unresolved, confusing.

Moreover, categories actively negate our ability to see others in their complexities in the same ways that we like to see ourselves. This negation has long enabled much cruelty in the world, since it is so much easier to be cruel to someone whom you do not see as human in the same ways that you see yourself. Think about any genocide and what you will find is a dehumanizing name that the perpetrators trafficked in and circulated in order to justify their barbarities toward their victims. Most frustrating of all about how categories limit our perceptions of the world is that the ability to see others as limitless rather than limited is not beyond us, but tends paradoxically to manifest itself in short-lived and otherwise uncommon interludes, before we return to our more familiar habits of mind.

a subway train in motion
Photo by Jessy Hoffman

An example to consider is provided by Fruitvale Station, the 2013 movie starring Michael B. Jordan, that tells the story of Oscar Grant III, a twenty-two-year-old Black man who was killed by an officer of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police on December 31, 2008. In the sequence that punctuates the film, after the shooting, a guard crouches next to Grant, holding his hand, saying encouraging things to him, as Grant dies. The scene is especially moving in the stupidity and paradox it reveals. It is important to know that the guard who shoots Grant is not the one comforting him as he dies. The guard who shoots him is (to the extent that his crime makes this possible) relatively insignificant. It is the guard who comforts Grant who is instructive here. He is a large, imposing, intimidating character, whose aggressive and hostile attitude toward Grant and his friends escalates the tensions of the confrontation until the point the gun inevitably goes off. Before the shot is fired, the alpha guard sees Grant as Black, as a category, but not as human, in all that human means. As Grant lies on the ground dying, the alpha guard stays with him, comforting him, feeling guilty.

And so he should. Because the question has to be asked: how might this same scene have played out if the guards had seen Grant as human before one of them shot him, given that at least the alpha guard was able to see this humanity as the young man lay on the ground? In that moral, perceptual, imaginative universe, maybe Grant isn’t shot at all. If we think back to all of the narratives produced by police officers who have abused, shot, or killed Black victims only going back as far as Rodney King, we cannot help thinking about how many of these officers have characterized themselves as “fearing for their lives” in the face of unarmed Black people. In the expression “unarmed Black people,” it’s clear how much extra work the category Black is actually doing.

Vinson Cunningham, in a recent article in the New Yorker titled “The Argument of ‘Afropessimism,’” says this:

Every society has a murderous hierarchy: someone’s always knocking at the basement door, trying to get free. But life is prismatic—it’s possible to be Black and degraded in America while also profiting from wanton extraction of resources overseas, oppressing millions of non-Black others, and living on land stolen from indigenous people. We are always joined in our sufferings, often by somebody we can’t see through the darkness. We speak of solidarity precisely because the empathetic act of analogy is a way of acknowledging this complexity, and of training our ethical senses, again and again, to widen the circle of our concern.

This widening of the circle of our concern will be aided greatly by our ability to see others in the ways that we see ourselves. This prospect is more possible—not to say inevitable—if we focus our attention on the spaces between categories, rather than turning people into categories. While I won’t make the assertion that policing would be improved if more officers, as part of their training, were required to read Everett’s work, I will say that moments like the one in Fruitvale Station are essential to understanding the difference between seeing the category and looking at the spaces in between categories. It’s clear that this new habit, if adopted, has unrealized potential.

Anthony Stewart, the John P. Crozer Chair of English Literature at Bucknell University, is the author of George Orwell, Doubleness, and the Value of DecencyYou Must Be a Basketball Player: Rethinking Integration in the University; and Visitor: My Life in Canada.

Cover of Approximate Gestures

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In Approximate Gestures, Anthony Stewart argues that the writing of Percival Everett, the acclaimed author of Erasure and more than twenty other works of fiction, compels readers to retrain their thinking habits and to value uncertainty. Stewart maintains that Everett’s fiction challenges its interpreters to question their assumptions, consider the spaces in between categories, and embrace the potential of a larger, more uncertain world in an effort to confront bigotry and similarly limiting patterns of thought.

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