Curiosity Essay

Curiosity Essay

“My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” Our course epigraph really brings out the theme of this course. When I read this quotation, it reminded me a lot of what our class time consists of. Even if we don’t realize it, we are all constantly noticing and observing different things whether that be in our readings, or class discussions. When we all come together to discuss anything we have observed, we are collectively understanding other pieces of information that someone else has noticed that perhaps you did not, and that exemplifies the “notice that you can notice” in our course epigraph. 

Based on what we have done so far in class, the course epigraph gets me thinking about just really understanding the perspectives of others. It is very important to understand different perspectives of your peers when it comes to this class because it can help you to understand something in a different fashion and can give you some new approaches to take when working with certain material. For example, I never really realized how racism and medicine would be able to tie into each other, but after reading some of Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington and having class discussions about the reading, it gave me more insight about how these two topics can relate to one another. One quote from the introduction of the book that stood out to me is “In fact, researchers who exploit African Americans were the norm for much of our nation’s history, when black patients were commonly regarded as fit subjects for nonconsensual, nontherapeutic research.” (Washington 13). This quote alone gives a perfect illustration of how medicine had certain impacts on racism which is something I had never realized or thought about beforehand. 

Another book we read together in class is Fortunes Bones by Marilyn Nelson. We would all collectively read the book in parts, and then all discuss our own perspectives about what we had just read which again directly relates to our course epigraph. “Fortune was born; he died.” (Nelson 13). Although this specific quote is extremely short, we were able to discuss our thoughts and what we thought the meaning behind it was. It does come off as a very direct quote, but you can get so much more out of it when really thinking about it and discussing it with your peers. We focused on the use of the semicolon and how it affected the sentence. The use of the semicolon was essentially a “summary” regarding Fortune’s life without the actual synopsis of his life events. I personally took it as almost a disregard for Fortune’s life as the only parts that were highlighted in this sentence was his birth and death. We all got the different ideas and views of one another, which is us “noticing that you can notice.” It really is fascinating to be able to take a sentence as short as that one, and be able to hear all different interpretations of why we think it was put that way. 

As we continue to read Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington, something I would like to continue to learn about and figure out via this course is really how these issues were “solved” over time. As far as racism goes, America is clearly not 100% out of racist habits and thoughts, but there has been a significant amount of progress made throughout time. I would like to learn more about how this progress is made. When were significant changes starting to be noticed? What individuals had large impacts on these changes? I would like to figure out when this turning point in history was, and how we got to the point we are at today. Reading about these atrocities that would occur has made me even more curious about how we have evolved, and that is something I would like to learn more about through this course.

This course has been truly fascinating so far. I really enjoy hearing the perspectives and views of others when working on the material as it opens up new viewpoints that can be beneficial to our work. Our course epigraph, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice” truly sets the tone of this course. It is all about discussing your own opinions while actively and respectfully listening to my peers’ opinions and perspectives. I am looking forward to continuing this course and learning more through readings, discussions, and writing. 

A class that is more than a grade

A class that is more than a grade. The perfect definition for this course. The course epigraph states from a conference Beth had attended, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice…”. From the beginning of the semester this got me thinking. Beth has stated in class discussions multiple times that “learning is NOT linear” Learning is more than a high grade or answering the questions correctly, it is the operation of growing. It is being able to apply new knowledge. It is not linear, there will be times you feel confused or absent from the work, or times when you want to run the class. It is not linear. It is more than sitting at a desk listening to a lecture. We as students run that class, with the aid of Beth. 

I was a late addition to the class, I walked in after the first day which always elevates the stress of a new environment. I quickly saw the class was very conversational and open ended which intimidated me. I am often more quiet, which I fear may come off as disengaged. I noticed that each new idea was listened to and reflected on. Every point made added a new discussion; that is how learning happens. I grew up in a small village in Buffalo, Hamburg. I describe it as straight out of Gilmore Girls (if you know, you know). The cute gazebo, the local restaurants and businesses, and one school district for the village and surrounding towns. It is picture perfect, but is it? Our Literature in medicine and racism is the first public class I have taken dealing so publically with racism. This was one of those topics I grew up and learned in school that you never discuss. “Do not discuss religion, racism, politics’ ‘ I can’t even tell you how many times I have heard that. This class is an adjustment for me. Learning it is ok to be ignorant to so much, but I am allowing myself to learn, to absorb all possible information. 

An aspect of this course that I like are the detailed notes Beth provides on Brightspace. I enjoy revisiting topics and what classmates may have said. Looking back to the notes from the first day of class (September 28th, 2023), I see the question that was provided; “Are the areas of “literature” and “medicine” related?”. As we are about 25% through this course I have a greater and updated answer to this question. The possible answers varied from different types of literature make ups, or body matter into wording. But now my answer would be shifted. It would be a quick “absolutely”. Through reading “Medical Apartheid” by Harriet A Washington and “Fortune’s Bones” by Marilyn Nelson, I have dissected stories that send chills down my spine. The “Medical Apartheid” shares stories of African Americans and how they were nothing more than flesh and bones to the doctors. The wrongful acts “have been hidden in plain sight” (Washington pg. 11). This course has created next level thinkING within me, we see connections between the books written by Washington and Nelson. Washington states “A secret is not something unrevealed, but told privately in whisper”, this gives a new definition of secret that somehow makes it seem better, when in reality it does not. The act of keeping people in the dark is still happening along with minimizing the brutality of the acts. This quote interacts with a quote from Nelson’s  “Fortune’s Bones”, “What happened to Fortune was terrible, but it was just an isolated incident.”. Nelson objectifies that because it was hidden it was not as terrible. Both of these quotes hide horrific acts. They glorify them, making them seem less brutal. 

In this class we venture into different topics. A class discussion I enjoyed was the importance of play. Class notes from September 22nd share a quote, “The both/ands of play, play-acting, and imagination. These are essential human practices for wellness.” We went around the room adding why play is so important. Whether it is an act of play, musically, emotionally, or spiritually. I added to the class discussion how vital play is in younger children. Young children have to shape their minds, shape their personalities; play allows them to do so. 

I am looking forward to the rest of this course and expanding my knowledge. I hope to gain a little more confidence in sharing my opinions in class more. This class has brought new meanings to medicine, racism, thinking, and that classes are more than grades. 

Curiosity of the Both/And

My biggest interest in this course so far is the idea of the both/and. I believe the healthiest and most thoughtful approach to any new subject is not to assume information, and starting with the capabilities of the both/and in this class has begun to shift my learning style to something more accepting than it was before, and I’ve begun to incorporate it into other classes as well. I think that the versatility of both/and thinking is the reason it can be so helpful. It expands the idea that most things in life are not straightforward, and don’t deserve straightforward thinking. The both/and is very beneficial in comprehending the topics we’ve talked about so far, and even just the aspect of medicine in the course name itself. I had an understanding of some of the dangers of certain ideologies in the medical field, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment that Harriet Washington touches on in the introduction of Medical Apartheid. I also knew that experiments like that manifested in modern-day Black Americans not trusting the American Healthcare system, and I had no reason to doubt that there were traces of racism in the practice, but I had known of no other examples. 

Reading Medical Apartheid was my first experience learning about Black people’s sacrifices in an educational setting, which I find to be surprising because my education was usually very liberal, and in later high school years, the history curriculum was detailed about some of the hidden history in America. Learning about Dr. James Marion Sims was the first time I was able to apply the both/and on my own. In the introduction of Medical Apartheid, Sims is called a “selfless benefactor of women” (Washington 1), and Washington explains how he was the president of the American Medical Association, and that he opened the first hospital for women in the U.S. Despite this, Sims performed his experimental surgeries on his Black female slaves. Before learning about the both/and, I would have likely denounced anything having to do with Marion Sims out of my morality and solidarity for the women who suffered for his benefit. I know now that I can acknowledge the good and bad of a situation or person, and I also understand this does not serve as an excuse for that person. J. Marion Sims is widely referred to as “the father of gynecology”, and while his time in the medical field progressed gynecology greatly, he shouldn’t be revered because of the nonconsensual torture he performed on his slaves. 

There are many other examples of both/and in the early chapters of Medical Apartheid. Medical professionals in the 1850s put Black bodies on display so they could identify the perceived similarities between Black people and animals, while abolitionists and Black researchers used those same bodies to demonstrate the parallels and humanity that Black and White people shared (Washington 79). The both/and of the display and studies of Black people is that they were being used for both attempting to separate and attempting to bring together different races. Another example is Dr. Benjamin Rush, who is considered to be the “father of American psychiatry” in the American medical field and was also a devoted abolitionist. However, he also “believed that black skin was the manifestation of a type of leprosy…believed that blacks were diseased but that they could be cured” (Washington 80). Rush, despite his educational background and contributions to medicine in the nation, was very ignorant in his views concerning Blackness. When I see examples of well-educated people perpetuating ignorance and racism in society, it makes me consider what biases they may hold, or what biases were present in their education that they were taught to be acceptable. 

Fortune’s Bones was another eye-opening read for me. I appreciated the change in pace of learning with it being poetry rather than a novel or book. I think the shorter reading gave me more room to absorb and interpret what Marilyn Nelson was trying to portray. The acknowledgment that Fortune and his family were enslaved in Connecticut was jarring and disappointing to read because it seemed that often when I learned about slavery in the United States, it seemed very distant from where I lived. There’s a both/and in the negative and positive sides of Fortune’s story, even if the positive side is also sad. Fortune’s bones being handed down generations in the Porter family (Nelson 20) was a terrible tale of a man being robbed of his identity for the benefit of those who used him in life as well. However, if Fortune’s body hadn’t been nonconsensually used and studied and eventually donated to science, his story may have never been told when people eventually realized that the use of his bones was wrong. The story of Fortune is one of a family being stripped of their humanity, while simultaneously declaring their place in history as their unfortunate story is told. 

Understanding and using the idea of the both/and has already been very powerful in this course and other aspects of my life. So far, it has given me deeper insight into the texts we’ve already discussed, and I anticipate that I will continue to use this tool throughout the class. It’s a very effective way to begin thinking about new or past information. The area of the both/and and its role in this course that piques my curiosity the most thus far is wondering if some cases call for a more elaborate interpretation of both/and thinking, especially as we get deeper into readings like Medical Apartheid, where the relationship of iatrophobia and Black culture will become more complicated as it becomes more modern. 

“Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself”: Applying Morrison’s Both/And to Collaboration

Toni Morrison is not interested in writing one-dimensional stories or one-dimensional characters. She said as much in a 1987 interview about her novel Beloved when she claimed that the novel was not about slavery; “Slavery is very predictable. There it is, and there’s some stuff about how it is, and then you get out of it, or you don’t. It [the novel] can’t be driven by slavery.” Instead, she focused on the deeply intimate lives of her characters, the lives of whom were all affected by slavery and racism, but also so much more. This reminder that peoples’ lives cannot and should not be reduced to one aspect is a useful reminder in many ways, not the least of which is how it reminds us that when we collaborate with each other, it is beneficial to remember that those who we collaborate with are whole people with much deeper lives than they often let on. Morrison consistently and expertly depicts this complexity in her characters; almost all of the characters in her novels exhibit some form of contradiction or multi-dimensionality that influences their actions and provides a lesson on how to meaningfully collaborate in a multitude of circumstances. Given that real people are at least as complicated as Morrison’s characters, an understanding of our own multi-dimensionality and that of others is a critical component of a successful and equitable collaboration.

            Jazz, the second installment in Morrison’s trilogy, follows the healing journey of Joe Trace as he reckons with the lasting negative impacts of a difficult childhood and a failing marriage. From the outset of the novel, it is obvious that Joe is in need of emotional release. He acknowledges that there are things in his life, notably his affair with Dorcas and the state of his marriage, that he feels he cannot talk to anyone about, even his closest friends; “It’s not a thing you tell except maybe to a tight friend… but even if I had the chance I don’t believe I could have told him [Victory] and if I couldn’t tell Victory it was because I couldn’t tell myself…” (121). This admission and his affair with Dorcas are what start Joe’s ascension into Paradise out of his healing stages in Purgatory, represented by the seven changes that Joe claims he has made throughout his life (123). This presents the reader with a striking contradiction; it is hard to deny Joe the right to emotional healing, but it is also impossible to ignore the damage and violence that his healing journey causes to the women in his life. Violet is trapped in a marriage with a man who treats her like “a piece of furniture you favor although it needed something every day to keep it steady and upright” (123), and Dorcas is murdered at the end of the novel because Joe cannot accept that she has moved on with another man closer to her age. This ultimately results in a kind of collaboration, one in which Violet and Dorcas each play their roles in Joe’s healing journey, that is successful but not equitable or beneficial for most of the group. This inequity arises because Joe does not know what to do with this contradiction that has been sitting with him for so long, and instead of deal with it in a healthy and fair manner he follows his baser instincts to benefit only himself. Had Joe been able to tell Violet how he felt about their marriage, it is possible that Violet and Joe could have had a much different and much healthier collaboration and settled their feelings in a more equitable way. This acceptance of our own contradictions and the understanding of how to deal with them in a healthy and equitable manner is a critical aspect of collaboration, and one that extends far beyond an academic collaboration where the stakes are much lower than those seen in the end of Jazz.

            Similar contradictions and their consequences arise in the other novels in Morrison’s trilogy. The Morgan twins in Paradise truly have the best interests of the town at heart, but they cannot reconcile their differences with the younger generation of Ruby residents or the women of the convent who they see as a corrupting force. What results from this contradiction is a violent, inequitable decision to kill five women who had committed no crime and who’s deaths will ultimately harm the town as a whole by removing a valuable source of support that several residents of the town had been utilizing. The actions of the Morgan twins can be viewed as a complete lack of collaboration, since they unilaterally decide that the women of the convent must die instead of working out a solution with them. Sethe’s actions in Beloved provide the most contradiction of any character in Morrison’s novels. The murder of her child, an action that was, according to Morrison, “absolutely the right thing to do… but she had no right to do it,” presents the reader with a contradiction that they and Sethe must endure without any real resolution. Later in the novel after the appearance of Beloved, Sethe’s inability to reconcile her actions and her emotions with her conscious leads her into an unequal and parasitic relationship with a girl whom she believes is her dead child reincarnated. These contradictions, in the same way as Joe’s contradictions in Jazz, all result in collaborations that are one-sided, inequitable, often violent, and which never benefit the participants as much as they could have.

            The result of all of the failed collaboration in Morrison’s novels is a teaching moment; readers that pay attention to where and how these collaborations go wrong can take away valuable lessons about how to reach meaningful results in any kind of collaborative situation. This semester, I have had the good fortune to be able to take part in the kind of successful collaboration constantly throughout this class, and these collaborations provide a foil for the events of Morrison’s novels. The group work that I have taken part in this semester has started from a place of good faith and a genuine aspiration to reach a conclusion that is best for everyone involved, not just one person. This good faith is what so many of Morrison’s characters are missing; the Morgan twins have no real care for the opinions of others, Beloved has no regard for the harm she causes to Sethe, and Joe experiences emotional healing at the direct cost of Dorcas’ life and Violet’s happiness. The result of this genuine care for others has been clear; time and time again I have found myself heaping praise on my classmates that I have worked with for creating something more beautiful than what we each could have accomplished individually. During one of our collaborative essays, one of my group mates remarked that she had never been in a class that laughed so often. I think about that a lot.

            The lessons I’ve taken away from this class and Morrison’s novels are valuable beyond essay writing and academia, and it is important that we as readers integrate these ideas into every aspect of our lives. Good faith and genuine care can create an excellent essay, but I think a much more valuable outcome is the affect that the same care can have on other’s lives. Morrison’s novels are collaborative in so many ways; they are conversations with Dante, they are congregations of years of history and Black experience, and they are roadmaps for how to treat other people. Approaching every situation, not just academic ones, with good intentions can avoid the kind of harmful and violent events that Morrison’s characters endure. This is often easier said than done; Morrison’s characters are so often affected by things outside of their control like slavery, poverty, and pervasive racism, and the pain caused by this strain on their lives creates tension and anger. There will always be events in our lives that cause negative emotions that lead to anger and lashing out at others. Part of Morrison’s incredible intricacy is how she writes characters that are painfully human. They have flaws, they sin, and they make mistakes. Choosing to extend grace and good faith does not erase those parts of us, but it can help us to forgive ourselves and others for the inevitable mistakes that everyone will make at some point in our lives. It is important to note that Morrison’s characters survive and endure the events and hardships of their novels. With grace, kindness, and the lessons we take from Morrison, we too can endure the events of our own novels.

In Utero

Upon reading the essay by Geneseo alumni Davina Ward who proposed that violence sometimes can be a form of care, one line especially kept circling back to me:

 The implications of what has been learned are far more important than what is learned by itself. There is always a moment of introspection when one learns something, a moment of questioning  “Well what do I do with this.” That is the most important part, knowledge affects our actions, and our actions have more consequences than just our thoughts. 

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement because it gets to the heart of why upper level critical thinking should exist (and why teachers teach!) This connection of knowledge to action, explains why humans do violence against humans. A person or people group acts upon a belief they think is true.

In the literary work, Cities of the dead: Circum Atlantic Performance Joseph Roach wrote on how origins tend to dictate worth. The “Echo in the Bones” chapter closely exclaimed the Europeaon slave trade in the 18th-Century. The rational being that a person’s origins from the continent of Africa or Caribbean Islands made them expendable. Spike Lee’s documentary of ”When the Levees Broke” maneuvered away in  Act III from the devastation of a natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the lack of federal government response to an intentional look at a class of citizens whose zip code origins carried the label “lower ninth ward”.  The violence done in letting ruined homes, debris and even dead bodies go unattended, Lee suggests pretty strongly, is evidence of motive that the delay would discourage homeowners from returning to their origins, so wealthy business owners would be free to buy up the land for financial gain. This is violence done on the sly. Yet, some could make the case that the practices of capitalism increases wealth, and wealth increases opportunities, which in turn, improves personal lives, because increased wealth gives way to more freedom.  I recently watched Adam McCay’s satire ”Don’t Look Up”, a film released in 2021. In one pivotal scene the Midwest working class parent of the college student (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who discovered a comet hurtling toward our planet and will certainly destroy all life, not just human, meets her daughter at the their locked porch screen door and says, before she will let her daughter enter her home that, “We don’t want to discuss politics. We are for jobs that the comet will bring”. The backstory is this: The CEO of a massive  corporation has discovered that this comet, projected by scientists to destroy all life on the planet, has rich deposits of minerals that, if harvested successfully by his corporation, will make billions of dollars. So, the White House has decided to not attempt to strike out the threat that will destroy life on our planet, but capitalize on it first, then deal with the problem of the comet. Many are incredulous and outraged that life on our planet would not first be put into consideration; making money is the first choice..  The film does a great job of showing how the power of social media shapes how people think, drawing on their emotions, instead of “ moment of introspection when one learns something, a moment of question, a ‘well what do I do with this’ “ as stated by Divina Ward above.  The implications to Climate Change are obvious in “Don’t Look Up”. Viewers are left shaken by the foolish callousness towards life, which ended in violent death for all living things.  

Moving away from the racial violence done in the European slave trade, and the more subtle social-economic violence incurred on the citizens of New Orleans, and McCay’s satire film, the remainder of the essay will take a critical look at the laws involved in the legal practice of abortion in the United States. A practice legalized nation-wide in the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court case that was overturned in June of 2022 from the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health.  According to that has an editorial section explaining current and relevant court issues the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision leaned heavily on the 14th Amendment. In particular the fundamental, yet not directly stated rights, that so heavily peppers our U.S. Constitution, that grants “substantive due process”.  What that meant at the time of Roe v. Wade  is that “The majority in Roe held that any constitutional right to privacy ‘is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.’ ”.

What Justice Alito wrote in his ruling on the case Dobbs v. Jackson  Women’s Health is this:  “any such [substantive due process] right must be deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition . . . [t]he right to an abortion does not fall within this category.” He added that  “In interpreting what is meant by the 14th Amendment’s reference to liberty we must guard against the natural human tendency to confuse what that Amendment protects with our own ardent views about the liberty that Americans should enjoy.” It is his phraseology of:

“We must guard against the natural human tendency to confuse what that Amendment protects with our own ardent views about the liberty that Americans should enjoy.”

that catches my attention the same way Ms. Ward wrote, “There is always a moment of introspection when one learns something, a moment of questioning , ‘Well what do I do with this’ ”. The emotions that the issue of abortion elicit in people on both sides of the issue, my own included, are so strong, are so firmly trenched in preconceived notions of who is vilely wrong: They want to kill babies! v. They are pushing women backwards!  The real issue of the right to abort is what is life and what is its value? What is an unborn child? It is a question of origins. If a parent cannot legally terminate their two year old child, their two week old infant, despite the inconvenience, personal cost, and extreme inconvenience of having the care of said toddler,  infant, then where exactly is the line of demarcation of In Utero v. Born?  Personally I love the institution of law because of its symbol/ effigy: the blindfolded lady standing between the scales of justice. It harkens to the standard that preconceived notions and ideals are not permitted. A hard look at reality and precedents (which all law is based) is. 

 In the book Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas the co-authors Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker attempt to meticulously show the shape, history, and uniqueness of New Orleans.  Chapter Four opens with these sentences:

“Just as New Orleans is a place of unclear boundaries between land and water, so it is a place where the boundaries of life and death are thin, in the most spiritual and brutal ways. It is a place of visions, of devout faith, of mystics and spirits, of the remembrance of ancestors, of family visits to the graves of the gone-before on All Saints’ Day-as well as a place punctured over and over by murder”. 

An essay is contained within chapter four of this book written by Nathaniel Rich that opens with these two sentences: “In most parts of New Orleans, if you plunge your arm into the ground to the depths of your elbow, your fingertips will touch water. Your fingertips might also touch other fingertips”.  Because of the murky land/water which is New Orleans the dead do not stay politely buried and out of view. They resurrect because the ground is more water sac than hard earth.  Later he writes, “This soft, shifting landscape poses a specifically cartographic problem, because mapmakers ordinarily draw clear lines and delineate coherent bodies: this is land, this is water”.…”the lines blur and melt”.

 New Orleans is so unique in its semi-permanence.

Likewise, the real problem that exists with the abortion question in the United States is a critical look at viability. Viability is very close in meaning expendable.  Is it a life or not?( Is it land or water?)  The slave trade thrived in the United States despite our eloquent Bill of Rights saying all men are created equal because of its own clever clause in the Constitution;  Article one, section two of the Constitution of the United States declared ”that any person who was not free would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual”. In other words, the origin of Black African American descent was not quite human, and therefore not as viable as the rest of us, meaning of course, White Europeans.  In terms of abortion does this murky blur of in utero humans justify violence? For abortion is a violent medical procedure. It is absolute violence of a class of human that is expendable. As the poet Anne Sexton wrote in rhetorical form in her candid poem “The Abortion”, someone who should have been born is gone. Written sometime in the 1960s. Can violence be self-care? Anne Sexton suffered acutely from mental breakdowns after the birth of both of her children, because of severe postpartum depression. So, some would say “yes”.  Anne Sexton committed suicide in 1974, despite fame and literary success. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966.  Can violence that ends life, produce anything good, even when it seems that it  can lead to more health and freedom for some? Because the womb is murky, shrouded in the darkness of blood and water and unformed bodies, do those multiplying cells not matter?  Should a fetus in utero be likened to a toxic appendix that needs to go? Human biology says a fetus in utero is distinctively different from the mother’s internal organs. 

Lastly, keep in mind, some Planned Parenthood doctors, before the severed fetuses get crammed into garbage bags to be carted to the dump, harvest those cells and body parts to be sold, for medical purposes.  It is more profitable if this is performed outside the womb, thus making the fetus not in utero, but born, which is illegal. In this case it is not murky water, it is clearly a born child. The undercover journalism work of David Daleiden confirmed this on July 14, 2015 with his investigative piece titled “Human Capital Project”. The storm that followed, including a push for defunding Planned Parenthood of Title IX money, around 60 million dollars of taxpayer money, saw a surge of Planned Parenthood mission statements across the country: CARE NO MATTER WHAT. Its bold black font against a bright pink square sprouted like mushrooms on t-shirts, laptops, and hydro flasks, in a matter of days. It is their rallying cry. It seems good and reasonable. However, from the critical thinking asked of me in this class I am questioning the “no matter what” of their rallying cry. What is the what? The What is violence for money.  A lot of money. The Circum Atlantic Slave trade made a lot of money because humans of African/Caribbean origins were in the murky waters of not being as viable as European Whites. In the Untied States the new republic prospered, which helped other struggling financial families, because of the slave trade. History glances back and calls it what it was, anyway; violence that was wrong.  The families who lost their homes in the 9th ward of New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina were unjustly served because of their zip code origins, by letting their homes and in some cases actually dead bodies rot, in the open, in hopes that what belonged to them, their pride and identity, could eventually make a lot of money. I am sure it would create a lot of jobs too. “We are for the comet because of the jobs it will create”, said a mother to her child in Adam McCay’s satire ”Don’t Look Up”; and that decision led to the destruction of life on the whole planet.  The decision to not carry out a pregnancy, because children are expensive, carry a huge emotional toll, seems like life-affirming health care. I suffered from severe postpartum depression after my children were born, so I understand. I was very sick the entire nine months. My teeth started to rot because of the amount of acid that washed over them from all nine months of throwing up. We did not have much money either, sometimes we had to borrow money from family to pay our electric bill.  But those reasons gloss over the real issue: the violence done to a living human, primarily by an industry that makes an enormous amount of money off of it. History and our conscience implore us to think critically about the ethics of abortion.  “…knowledge affects our actions, and our actions have more consequences than just our thoughts”.  Violence in the form of ending a life for the sake of self care will never shift a culture for the common good. We are finally learning this lesson with the care of the planet, and I think it is reasonable to critically think about it in the care of in utero humans. 

Facets of Love in Toni Morrison’s Trilogy

Toni Morrison’s trilogy—Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1997)—comprises decades’ worth of collaboration between Morrison’s own interests and influences, as well as with Dante’s The Divine Comedy, from which Morrison extracted linguistic and thematic inspiration. Simultaneously scrupulous and emotionally-driven as a writer, Morrison crafted the characters of her “trilogy” as reflections of realistic and intricate human reactions, but also to act as representations of the ways in which emotional collaboration can both help and hinder interpersonal relationships. Morrison possesses an unparalleled ability to capture the unspoken ugliness within all people—their tendency to sin through violence, betrayal, ignorance and beyond—alongside the uniquely human capacity for all-encompassing emotional connection; the trilogy posits that the latter phenomenon most often causes the former—love producing hate. Reading Morrison’s novels has, therefore, made me think more deeply about the limits of emotional communication, but also about writing as a necessity. While I often opt for a text-driven approach to literary analysis, Morrison’s novels live and breathe as a result of her dedication to collaboration between both herself and the authors that inspire her. Drawing from her works themselves, those which they reference, and Morrison’s forewords and interviews which illuminate her exploratory writing process, I’ve gained insight into how fiction often makes for the most profound impression of reality.

In a New York Times interview conducted after the publication of Beloved, Morrison remarked of the writing process: “Almost everything that makes you want to write, or feel like writing, is not useful in the act of writing. So it’s the mediation between those two states, the compulsion and all those feelings, that make you compelled.” Ironically, in order to craft profound observations about the most intense emotions—lust, rage, grief, anguish, and joy alike—Morrison had to prevent her own emotions from mingling with those of her characters. True, too, is that effectively communicating often involves temporarily displacing your own emotions in order to understand those of someone else. But this phenomenon is not foolproof, and thwarting one’s own emotional experiences in favor of others’ can occur to a fault; Beloved’s central character, Sethe, focuses so much on the emotions of her loved ones that she fails to address her own hurt until the novel’s close, after already enduring a lifetime of violence and loss. Reflecting on her “rebellious brain”—her tendency to fall into emotional disarray, only to prematurely rip herself from it—Sethe thinks: “Why was there nothing it refused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept” (Morrison 83)? She becomes swarmed in painful memories, only to force herself from these feelings to attend to more practical matters: “I don’t want to know or have to remember that. I have other things to do: worry, for example, about tomorrow, about Denver, about Beloved, about age and sickness not to speak of love” (Morrison 83). Ironically, Sethe does not recognize that the driving force for her distractions is actually an overgrowth of love.

Inversely, Joe Trace, one of the central characters of Jazz, allows his misguided love and lust to absorb him beyond preoccupation. Like Sethe, he commits an atrocity against a child out of excessive love. But Joe, unlike Sethe, did not do the “right” thing; in Morrison’s words: “‘It was absolutely the right thing to do, but [Sethe] had no right to do it.’” Joe murders Dorcas, his young lover whom he expresses an exorbitant amount of love for, but engages with her and ultimately kills her as a result of his inability to effectively communicate his emotional distress with his wife Violet, whom he once loved just as intensely. Joe’s perceived love for Dorcas is all-consuming, obsessive, and aggressive: “Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it… And I made up my mind to follow you too. That’s something I know how to do from way back. Maybe I didn’t tell you that part about me. My gift in the woods that even he looked up to and he was the best that ever was” (Morrison 135).

When Dante first enters his journey down, down, up, and around through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, he finds himself deep within the woods: “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost” (Inferno I: 1-3). Although Dante is in his own “midlife,” both as the character of Dante the Pilgrim and at the time of writing The Divine Comedy, he indicates that his journey takes place within “our” life; the divergence from a path of righteousness as a result of intense emotion—a dark wood—is not only typical, but perhaps even necessary to a human life. Like Morrison, Dante understands the universality of sin, evidenced by the subtle empathy in this precise language of the epic poem’s very first lines. Dante is particularly sympathetic to love-driven sin. He declares lust as the least heinous sin, and the residents of this first circle only find themselves here because of the wrongdoings they commit as an extension of their lust, not because of the lust itself. To love to the extent of feeling intense lust is not sinful; to commit violent acts on account of lust and refuse to repent for them is. Morrison seems to be in agreement with this sentiment, although her characters’ paths to repentance are often less straightforward, driven by outward societal forces that demand characters such as Sethe or Paul D to prioritize their survival over their active repentance. Having faced years of loss—grieving her children, Beloved, Baby Suggs, and her own personhood after being unwittingly born into a system of violence, Sethe is tired: “She is thinking: No. This little place by a window is what I want. And rest. There’s nothing to rub now and no reason to. Nothing left to bathe, assuming he even knows how” (Morrison 321). Sethe’s inability to repent is not out of carelessness or even selfishness, but out of unwitting exhaustion.

Similarly, Joe Trace shovels his enormous grief upon Violet who, unbeknownst to him, suffers from quiet griefs of her own. Joe’s messy, lustful love for Dorcas emerges as a result of his expectations of what his wife should be, as all wives were expected to be at the turn of the century—obedient, ever-loving, and dependent. When Violet becomes silent, Joe loses his unending well of womanly love: “Long before Joe stood in the drugstore watching a girl buy candy, Violet had stumbled into a crack or two… [she] is still as well as silent. Over time her silences annoy her husband, then puzzle him and finally depress him. He is married to a woman who speaks mainly to her birds. One of whom answers back: ‘I love you’” (Morrison 23-24). Joe’s extended reaction to his wife’s plight—his infidelity, murder, anger, and disillusion—amounts to a series of deplorable actions. He is not, however, a wholly deplorable person, nor is anyone. Indeed, Joe is the glaring image of forced repentance: “In the spring of 1926, on a rainy afternoon, anybody passing through the alley next to a certain apartment house on Lenox might have looked up and seen, not a child but a grown man’s face crying along with the glass pane” (Morrison 118). This performance is not yet sufficient to earn him a spot in “purgatory,” but it does demonstrate his open vulnerability as a consequence of his own sinful actions. And those actions, while extreme, are not entirely unreasonable; when Joe pursues and eventually betrays Dorcas, he does so out of loneliness: pitiful, unwavering, undoubtedly human loneliness. To cite Beloved: “[There] is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place” (Morrison 323). Just as love can breed hateful behaviors, so too can a lack of it.

Like Joe, the Convent women (Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, Pallas, and Connie) of Paradise are lonely. And like Sethe, they are lonely because the outside world damned them as such. Simultaneously excluded from the town of Ruby and persecuted by its men, the women’s “Paradise” is a forced one: “[Mavis] had been aware for months of the sourness between the Convent and the town and she might have anticipated the truckload of men prowling the mist. But she was thinking of other things: tattooed sailors and children bathing in emerald water” (Morrison 49). Paradise, similar to Paradiso, is the culmination of love-driven action; whereas the other two novels hinge largely upon the isolated actions of a few individuals (even if they act within a larger system), Paradise is a pelago of action and reaction. Each woman arrives and eventually remains at the Convent after fleeing from a troubled situation, and these situations are never black-and-white or right-and-wrong. Mavis, for example, leaves her children in a hot car, dazed after years of enduring an abusive relationship and the lofty expectations of wife and motherhood: “She searched the darkness for a sign, trying to feel, smell his mood in advance. But he was a blank, just the way he had been at supper the evening of the newspaper interview. The perfect meat loaf (not too loose, not too tight–two eggs made the difference) must have pleased him […] When he pulled her nightgown up, he threw it over her face, and she let that mercy be. She had misjudged. Again. He was going to do this first and then the rest” (Morrison 25-26).

Like Mavis, the actions of the other Convent women are often catalyzed by the lust, or the perceived “love,” of trusted men around them—Mavis later calls these sexual rituals “required torture” (Morrison 171). Connie’s decision-making, for example, is tethered to her desire to be desired: “She climbed in, and for some reason—a feminine desire to scold or annihilation twenty-four hours of desperation; to pretend, at least, that the suffering he had caused required an apology, an explanation to win her forgiveness—some instinct like that preserved her and she did not let her hand slip into his crotch as it wanted to” (Morrison 235). Ultimately, despite the ceaseless pain and isolation, the Convent women reach Paradise not by avoiding their own capacity to sin and be sinned against, but by accepting such grievances as a part of the human experience—one that begins with a painful thicket, and drifts into a pelago: “When the ocean heaves sending rhythms of water ashore, Piedade looks to see what has come… Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in Paradise” (Morrison 318). This language mirrors Dante’s: “And even as he, who, with distressful breath, / Forth issued from the sea upon the shore, / Turns to the water perilous and gazes; // So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward, / Turn itself back to re-behold the pass / Which never yet a living person left” (Inferno I: 22-27). Cliché as it may seem, Morrison’s work (including her allusions to Dante), suggest a dynamism (a “both/and,” if you will) to all of human life. In her vision, no person is solely evil, but they are never solely good, either. And, even upon crossing the threshold into forgiveness and thus freedom, one must always turn back to the water perilous and gaze.

Such an ability to portray the coinciding violence and emotional intensity present within all people surely did not come easily. In the foreword to Paradise, Morrison acknowledges the hurdles of not only her own writing process, but of accruing the multitude of skills required to first read, then to write, and then, with luck, to becoming a “good” writer. Speaking of her grandfather with the same keen empathy she offers to each and every one of her characters, she reflects: “Nevertheless, my grandfather’s sister was successful because against all odds, he did become literate. The next question was how would he use that skill? What was there for him to read? […] Reading and script writing were prized in my family not only for information and pleasure but also as a defiant political act since historically so much effort had been used to keep us from learning” (Morrison xii). Through this story, Morrison acknowledges the layers upon layers of skill involved in producing a successful sentence, let alone a successful book, and in being an occasional reader, let alone an active one. Like human relations, reading and writing are inherently political. Book bans still control what young people are allowed to read, based not on their personal interests or character, but on the places they happen to live in; the Writers’ Guild of America is currently on strike for receiving inhumane wages, despite having contributed to the country’s popular culture cornerstones and thus its very identity; according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, children who do not learn to read by the fourth grade are much more likely to end up in situations of incarceration or poverty. Given the seemingly doom-ridden state of all forms of literature and literacy, simply to read is to be defiant; to have empathy for others—both those on the page and those in our own lives—is to be defiant. I am admittedly uncertain of which shore I’d like to arrive on when I graduate in just over a year. But as someone who is no stranger to upsetting emotions and unfortunate circumstances, Morrison’s novels encourage acceptance, and encourage me to continue doing what I feel matters most. I cannot change what others have done to me; I cannot change what I have done to others. I can feel hurt, disappointed, frustrated, and everything in between, but I cannot change the past. What I do know is that I love to read and to write, in whatever capacity that may be. I know that if I continue to read empathetic works from writers both new and old, I will continue to change; if I continue to write about what matters to me and use my words with precision and care, I will make at least one other human being feel something, and I will become more equipped to understand other people’s complex feelings. In my view, love (cruel and messy as it may be) and the stories it inspires are beyond necessary, especially in the face of life’s unabating and unfair precarity. In the words of Dante, “I saw all things bound in a single book by love / of which creation is the scattered leaves: // how substance, accident, and their relation / were fused in such a way that what I now / describe is but a glimmer of that Light” (Paradise XXXIII: 86-90).

Morrison’s Hell House: Poetic Space in Beloved and Inferno

So far this semester, I’m thinkING about Hell as the physical manifestation of an emotional space. If Hell—both in the theological and personal sense—were real, what would it look like? What would it smell, feel, and taste like? Would it comprise specific rooms, or occupy a more nebulous, liminal space? Where Dante’s Inferno imbues stunning clarity to Hell itself, Morrison’s interpretation of the hellish experiences African-American slaves endured manifests in various places, namely 124 Bluestone Road. Morrison’s writing nearly 700 years after Dante’s Divine Comedy reached publication enabled her to make careful use of the famous poems, picking and choosing which aspects to bring into her own rendition of Hell, and which to leave behind.

To speak first of why 124 Bluestone Road holds distinct importance from the novel’s settings, most of these latter places exist only in Sethe, Denver, and Paul D’s memories; while Sweet Home, for example, does exist (as does its “shameless beauty,” that makes Sethe “wonder if hell was a pretty place too” (Morrison 7)), the novel’s current narration renders Sweet Home—its “lacy groves” and “‘headless brides’”—distant memories, painful as they may be. Sweet Home and the natural settings Sethe travels to before the novel’s current events are the equivalent of Dante’s Florence, harboring painful memories that precede the journey through Hell. By contrast, Morrison’s characters operate in orbit around 124 (until, in some cases, they don’t). The events that take place within its walls are not sweetened by the distance of memory, and it is, in my understanding, Morrison’s most clear version of Hell. Its confines are inherently tied to the characters’ ongoing grief regarding the circumstances of their lives and the morally dubious actions they have taken.
In The Poetics of Space, philosopher Gaston Bachelard designated the house as a source of complex intimacy, whose typical rooms (bedroom, kitchen, attic, basement, etc.) all harbor their own emotional breadth and function both singularly and in unity: “the house,” he writes, “is a privileged entity for a phenomenological study of the intimate values of inside space, provided, of course, that we take it in both its unity and its complexity, and […] integrate all the special values in one fundamental value” (Bachelard 3). I first encountered this analysis in a different class on poetry, and its contents seemed so attuned to Beloved that I felt I needed to do some more research to find if any scholars have already used this philosophical viewpoint to illuminate the novel’s integral setting. Sure enough, I found a few papers uniting Bachelard’s analysis with Morrison’s story, and drew my exploration most thoroughly from Andrew Hock Soon Ng’s “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Space, Architecture, Trauma,” wherein Ng asserts that “it is important to consider 124 Bluestone not merely as a metaphor of a stubborn, destructive past, but as a literal place whose haunting has to do with how its inhabitants negotiate with lived space” (Ng 232). Ng’s analysis delves further into spatial theory, citing both philosophers on the topic as well as Morrison’s literary strategies for making 124 feel so alive and “spiteful” (Morrison 1). Morrison herself notes the ways in which emotions become tangled up in a place of dwelling, and that haunted houses are just houses with more acute “personality” traits: “Yet a house has, literally, a personality—which we call ‘haunted’ when that personality is blatant” (Morrison XVIII). Houses are more than just places in which we live—they are direct reflections of our emotions. As for my analysis—or rather, what I’m thinkING about—I’d like to dissect the ways in which Morrison divides 124 into her own spaces of Hell, akin to Dante’s nine circles populated with their own pockets of sin. I’ll also note some important thematic differences between Morrison’s subject matter of slavery as a living social, political, and emotional phenomenon; while Beloved and Inferno both rely on death as a driving force, I think it is pivotal to note the difference between Dante’s fictionalized Hell and Morrison’s, which, while rooted in elements of horror and speculative fiction, draw mostly from very real terrors.

Morrison’s Hell inhabits various living people, but it is also alive in and of itself. Employing careful personification and anthropomorphism, Morrison defies what a house should be—that is, a source of comfort and safety: “Together [Sethe and Denver] waged a perfunctory battle against the outrageous behavior of that place; against turned over slop jars, smacks on the behind, and gusts of sour air. For they understood the source of the outrage as well as they knew the source of light” (Morrison 4). 124, living and breathing out its “sour air,” operates under a similar code to Dante’s Hell; its residents are trapped within its confines for one sin or another, forced to reckon with their painful pasts as their habitation spits back at them. Like Inferno, 124 presents its horrors in ways that enable reflection. When Paul D first steps through its threshold, he is bathed in red light, which immediately disrupts the comfortable feeling of entering a home after years of travel: “Now the iron was back but the face, softened by hair, made him trust her enough to step inside her door smack into a pool of pulsing red light” (Morrison 11). These few steps are a journey of their own (“It seemed a long way to the normal light surrounding the table”), and the emotional toll of that red light does not wane, even when Paul D successfully crosses the vestibule: “The red was gone but a kind of weeping clung to the air where it had been.” While this red light is not a “room” in Bachelard’s sense, it does signify that 124 is not any old house—it is haunted, hellish. Furthermore, light has the notable ability to pervade, unrestricted by any one confine, sticking to Paul D, Sethe, and Denver like a vicious sunburn.

Of 124’s many landmarks, the staircase, kitchen, bedroom, and Denver’s hideout operate under their own distinct rules. Like Dante’s travel through Hell, a tour of 124—with Dante’s singular perspective swapped for Sethe, Denver, Paul D and, later, Beloved—offers space to sin. The kitchen operates as a dwelling for lust, but also for vulnerability. It is the place where Sethe cries in front of Paul D, remembering feelings of betrayal and humiliation after her breast milk was stolen from her. This is a rare moment of comfort for Sethe, though her thoughts remained tinged with worry and regret:

“Would there be a little space, she wondered, a little time, some way to hold off
eventfulness, to push busyness into the corners of the room and just stand there for a
minute or two, naked from shoulder blade to waist, relieved of the weight of her breasts,
smelling the stolen milk again and the pleasure of baking bread” (Morrison 21)?

For both Morrison and Dante, nakedness is vulnerability. Unbeknownst to Sethe, these early moments in her renewed relationship with Paul D, wherein she longs for a space dedicated to comfort, are actually her first steps into the punishing journey through Hell. For Dante, these punishments amount to a slew of incomprehensible horrors, from maggots to boiling blood:
“These wretches, who had never truly lived, / went naked, and were stung and stung
again / by the hornets and the wasps that circled them // and made their faces run with
blood in streaks; / their blood, mixed with their tears, dripped to / and disgusting maggots
collected in the pus” (Inferno III: 62-67)

Morrison’s hellish landscape involves moments of distinct, rather than ongoing violence, and their effects are far-reaching. Unlike Dante’s inhabitants, the characters of Beloved commit atrocious acts (namely Sethe’s act of infanticide) on account of their being a part of a system of violence and exploitation which drives them to make rash decisions. Slavery operates in Beloved as a sort of Hell within Hell; as mentioned, it exists for Sethe and Paul D largely within memory, but their painful experiences and the atrocities they committed still must be repented for, even if they were not always directly at fault for them: in Bachelard’s words, “[a]n entire past comes to dwell in a new house” (Bachelard 4). For Sethe, this journey starts with the kitchen, but extends further into the house’s hellish confines.
Preoccupied with the enormous emotions the kitchen presents, Sethe does not always take notice of the other significant spaces within the home that are suggestive of repentance and renewal. The staircase, for example, stands in sharp contrast to the house’s pervasive redness. Shortly after Paul D is smothered in pulsing red light, he notices the luminous stairs: “Out of the dimness of the room in which they sat, a white staircase climbed toward the blue-and-white wallpaper of the second floor […] The luminous white of the railing and steps kept him glancing toward it. Every sense he had told him the air above the stairwell was charmed and very thin” (Morrison 13). Denver implicitly recognizes the staircase’s capacity for contemplative renewal when she sits on the steps to eavesdrop on her mother and Paul D: “Denver sat down on the bottom step. There was nowhere else gracefully to go” (Morrison 15). This moment also foreshadows Denver’s role as the only primary character within the narrative to recognize that she must escape 124—thus, escape from Hell—in order to repent. Simultaneously, a last-resort and a source of hope, the staircase is a threshold in Morrison’s Hell.

When he enters Hell through a “dark wood,” Dante is simply a visitor. The inhabitants of 124 Bluestone Road are not mere visitors: Hell is their home. Where houses should be places of comfort and safety, 124 is, well, “spiteful.” It actively harms those who live within it, forcing them to move away as a means of reaching salvation, as with Denver and Sethe’s other children, or to stay put and accept its forceful journey. When Paul D, initially an outsider to 124, attempts to make it a home for himself after staying for dinner—moments after comforting Sethe in front of the stove—the house revolts: “It took him a while to realize that his legs were not shaking because of worry, but because the floorboards were and the grinding, shoving floor was only part of it. The house itself was pitching” (Morrison 21). Hell does not benefit from its inhabitants attempting salvation. Those who suffer within Dante’s Hell do not believe that they have done wrong, and they do not take any steps to amend their mistakes. What would happen if they fought Hell itself, the way Paul D did? Perhaps it would look something like the violent revulsion demonstrated by 124. Nonetheless, Sethe recognizes the peculiar situation of Hell being her home, compared to Dante’s inhabitants, who merely reside within it alongside strangers and significant participants of their sin, rather than a family: “This house he told her to leave as if a house was a little thing—a shirtwaist or a sewing basket you could walk off from or give away any old time” (Morrison 26-27). In Sethe’s view, leaving 124 would mean leaving behind the life she built for herself as a reaction to her enslavement and her subsequent sin. Ultimately, she must recognize its true role as a vehicle for punishment in order to achieve any degree of salvation.

124 Bluestone Road’s venom comes as a direct result of human atrocity. Its confines and the various spaces within them represent a cycle of violence, one that exists far beyond Sethe’s primary sin. Like those who are punished for hypocrisy, 124’s inhabitants are doomed to an eternity of cyclical violence lest they recognize their capacity for sin, tragic as this realization may be: “Below that point we found a painted people, / who moved about with lagging steps, in circles, / weeping, with features tired and defeated” (Inferno XXIII: 58-60). When Paul D enters 124, its weeping clings to him. Perhaps the most divine punishment of all comes from realizing that Hell is your very home.

The Risks and Rewards of Collaboration

I am peace, / and war has come because of me. – “The Thunder, Perfect Mind,” The Nag Hammadi Library 

Collaboration. It is a process apparent in schools, family relationships, the workforce, and more. NACE even includes “Teamwork” as one of their core career readiness competencies that they believe all graduating college students should possess before entering the into ther workforce. As a special education major, I am accustomed to being asked to collaborate in group projects and being told of the importance of collaboration. Yet, when I first learned that three of the essays we would write in English 431: Toni Morrison’s Trilogy would be collaborative, I was simultaneously panicked and skeptical. I remember thinking: What is the point of writing an essay collaboratively? How will so many different people’s opinions and ideas be cohesive? I already had a negative outlook on group work coming into English 431, which explains my initial reaction. This view partially stemmed from past projects I had participated in where group members contributed in unequal amounts or did not communicate well with each other. A major reason reason why I was apprehensive about writing essays collaboratively is because it meant that I would need to relinquish full control over the assignment. While I would not characterize myself as an overly controlling person in most aspects of my life, I tend to want to have complete authority over my school work, arising from my at-times perfectionist attitude. I struggled to see the real benefits of collaboration coming into English 431. Why write an essay with other people when I can produce the same product by myself without the hassle?

As the semester progressed, I furthered my understanding about the process of collaboration by reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise and working with my group on our collaborative essays. Morrison’s work and as well as our own has shown me that collaboration allows people to achieve something that the individuals could not attain on their own. In order for this to happen, however, the individuals involved must surrender some control, placing trust in those they are collaborating with.

Paul D’s escape from prison in Beloved, the first novel in Morrison’s trilogy that grapples with the aftermath of infanticide and enslavement, exhibits how, through working together and yielding control to each other and Hi Man, the prisoners are able to achieve what no one person in their situation could achieve on their own: freedom. After being left to die chained together in underground boxes during mudslide, the prisoners, following each other, pull each other’s chains to escape through the bars holding them. The prisoners collaborate, helping anyone who is going the wrong way, “for one lost, all lost.” They follow each other out, trusting that Hi Man, the leader who signals when to start working each day, will lead them out to freedom safely. If one person did not trust the others or follow Hi Man, no one would have made it out. In a similar example, Dante the Pilgrim must concede control to his guide, Virgil, in order for them both to leave Hell in Canto 34 of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, which Morrison’s Beloved may be read as being in conversation with. Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil climb downwards by clinging to the hair on Satan’s body, when suddenly, to Dante the Pilgrim’s confusion, Virgil begins to climb upwards again, appearing to be heading back towards Hell. Despite his hesitation, Dante follows Virgil, trusting that he will lead them out. Dante the Pilgrim is able to escape from Hell, something he would likely not be able to do on his own, but only by surrendering to Virgil’s guidance. Jazz, Morrison’s second book in the trilogy, also presents an instance where, through speaking and working together, the characters are able to achieve something they would otherwise not be able to individually. Jazz tells the story of Joe, who murders Dorcas, the young girl that he is having an affair with, and the subsequent consequences his actions. Joe and his wife, Violet, continue to share an apartment after the incident, despite their marriage being deeply damaged. When Felice, Dorcas’s friend, visits the couple to get the ring Dorcas was wearing when she died back, she ends up telling the couple that Dorcas let herself die, which begins a process of healing between Joe and Violet and a sort of friendship between Felice and the couple. As the three spend more time together, Joe and Violet begin to reconcile their relationship, with Joe telling Felice that their reconciliation is happening faster after she spoke with them. Joe and Violet are able heal, something they likely would not have been able to do without speaking with Felice. The characters must trust one another – Joe and Violet trusting that what Felice says is true and then beginning to trust each other – in order for this to happen.

Like the collaborations in Beloved and Jazz, I too learned to relinquish control and trust my group members in order to create something that I could never create on my own with our collaborative essays. At first, it was difficult for me to go along with the writing process that my group followed. My writing process before participating in the collaborative essays was very rigid and involved a lot of planning and outlining before I even began writing. My process entailed starting with a thesis, and then, almost formulaically, I would write each paragraph to support that specific thesis. With my group, we started by writing a bunch of ideas down, not worrying about having our argument figured out at the start. While at first this stressed me out (again, I worried about how cohesive our essay would be with all of our different ideas), I began to enjoy the process once I realized that we were coming up with ideas together that I could have never produced on my own. Especially with writing as detailed as Morrison’s, there were many times that a group member would mention something that they noticed that I had never thought of before. I discussed this with a group member during our most recent collaboration, noting that I was so glad I got to experience Morrison’s writing for the first time with other people, or else I would have missed out on the various ways that her novels can be interpreted. Since participating in the collaborative essay writing exercises, I have begun to implement practices from the writing process my group used in my individual writing process. Now, before creating a thesis, I take the time to freely bullet any idea that pops into my head relating to the prompt. This helps me generate more innovative and insightful ideas. Additionally, I recognize now that an essay can have multiple, interconnected throughlines, so I don’t have to feel confined to only writing paragraphs that perfectly align with my original thesis. Through collaborating with my peers, I was able to learn something new and realize ideas I could not have come up with on my own. But only because I relinquished some control over the assignment and trusted my group members’ writing process.

Though in many of the collaborations represented in Morrison’s writing the characters achieve something positive that they would not have attained on their own, her writing also presents the potential damage that collaboration can do, when one surrenders too much to those around them without question. An example of this is in the third novel of Morrison’s trilogy, Paradise, which chronicles the decline of Ruby, an all-Black town, and the stories of the women residing at the nearby Convent. When issues increase in the town of Ruby, especially the dissonance between the more modern views of the younger generation and the traditional values of the older generation, rumors spread that the town’s problems are being caused by the women living in the Convent. After “more than a year” of these whispers, representatives from every church in town collaborate at the Oven, the town’s meeting place, deciding that nine men will go to the Convent and shoot the women, who, though eccentric, were once regarded as helpful or at least harmless among community members of Ruby. This situation demonstrates how sometimes in collaborating, people conform to other people’s opinions without question, which can result in harm. Perhaps if one of the nine men were to question the validity of the rumor that the Convent women were at fault, it would prevent or at least maybe delay the murders from occurring. In addition, like how collaboration allows people to reach positive results that they could not achieve on their own, it can also facilitate destruction. For instance, it is unlikely that any one person would decide and successfully carry out shooting the Convent women alone. But bolstered by a group, it is much easier for the men to commit these murders.

As evident by Paradise, when people yield to common ideas without question, there is a potential for destruction during collaboration. In my own collaborative writing experience this semester, I learned how to question the ideas of my group mates by using conversational moves to open up discussion rather than incorrectly (and rudely) assert that someone’s ideas are “wrong.” In one instance, I was confused by something that my group member had written. In an effort to not surrender complete control over the project but also to retain trust in my groupmate’s ideas, I framed my concern in the form of a question asking what the author meant by the statement. I found this method to be very beneficial since I was able to receive clarification and voice my thoughts without offending my groupmate or being too controlling over the essay.

Morrison’s depiction of the complexity of collaboration, showing that it can both empower individuals to attain something beneficial that they would likely not be able to achieve on their own and also empower individuals to commit immense acts of harm that they would like not be able to realize on their own, reminds me of the both/and nature of “The Thunder, Perfect Mind,” The Thunder, Perfect Mind” is a poem from the Nag Hammadi Library, an ancient collection of texts discovered in 1940, as Dr. McCoy states in her  class notes from February 24th. The language in “The Thunder, Perfect Mind” tells the reader that more than one thing can be true at once. Many sentences involve the narrator proclaiming to be two things that are antitheses of each other: “I am strength and I am fear / I am war and peace /. . . I am compassionate and I am cruel.” To me, these lines represent the duality of collaboration. Through collaborating, one can find strength and healing, but one can also generate fear and cruelty. Peace and reconciliation can be achieved, but war and violence can also arise.

As I graduate college in less than two weeks, I will take with me what I learned from English 431 about collaboration into my future classroom and other aspects of my life. I can confidently say that my attitude towards collaborative work has improved after witnessing how people’s different perspectives generate unique and insightful ideas that I wouldn’t be able to come up with myself. I feel less of a need to try to control every aspect of a project, knowing that only by surrendering some control and trusting my group members is what will enable the collaborative process to create that new idea that no one person could create themselves. I will, however, be sure to respectfully question my group member’s ideas to avoid producing damage through collaboration. It will be important to collaborate with parents and other school professionals in order to come up with the best possible solutions for issues and ideas for teaching. Maybe one day in my future classroom, I will have a student who does not know their letter sounds. It would be much more beneficial for me to reach out to others who are experts in certain aspects of the problem in order to generate the optimal solution for that child. For example, meeting with a speech pathologist, a therapist, and a special education teacher would offer me more information than trying to come up with the solution all by myself. Using the collaboration skills I developed and refined in English 431, I can ensure that when I collaborate with school professionals, I am not overly controlling in the collaboration process nor am I just going along with what everyone else says without adding my own thinking. Perhaps there is inherent risk in collaboration that cannot be avoided, but there are plentiful rewards that arise from working collaboratively as well. I choose to take the risk of collaboration, in the hopes that it will better both myself and those around me.

The Trouble with Dichotomies: Both Individualism and Collaboration

By Isabelle Covert

Morrison’s depictions of the struggle within individuality and solving problems in a collaborative, community-based manner shows us, as readers and as people, the importance of individualism, community, and collaboration in all that we do. Over-individuality and individualism, as it’s used here, is the belief that what one can do with others, one can do better themselves. In this, individuality can mean the presence of a strong self that can exist without others, but that can also be called simply a strong sense of self. The self is an important part of any person and it is just as damaging to attach one’s selfhood to others as it is to believe that selfhood means not relying on anyone else. Therefore, positive collaboration and community is one where each person still has a stand-alone self, with personal beliefs, ideas, and opinions, but that they understand that most often a collaborative community can be better for everyone involved than over-individuality.  It is dangerous to go too deep into collaboration – and lose yourself – but it’s also dangerous to not submit to collaboration at all – and lose your community. Throughout her Beloved trilogy, Morrison’s characters give a realistic depiction of what it’s like to go through trauma, grow, and heal from an excess and/or lack of community and individuality. Morrison’s focus on love, in this context, is very interesting in that she tends to focus on the effects of an excess of love of various types, which can often lead to excess or lack of collaboration or individuality.

In Beloved, we see Sethe lose her community after news gets out of what she did and tried to do to her children. This leads to a tough, bitter existence for Sethe and Denver, especially after Baby Suggs dies and Howard and Bugler leave. When Paul D shows up and they go to the carnival, there seems to be hope that maybe they can gain their community back while still being individuals, but then Beloved shows up. Beloved’s very existence seemed to be an extension of Sethe’s (or vice versa) and allowed no self at all in the house, an example of collaboration to the extreme – dissolution of the self and reliance on others for any semblance of that. This leads to the ruin of Paul D and Sethe’s relationship and almost killing Sethe in the process. This is an example of when collaboration goes too far – so far as it could be called the dissolution of the self in both Sethe and Beloved. This situation continues getting worse until Denver decided to get her selfhood back from Beloved and go searching in the community for a job, food, and help. The scene where Beloved disappears is most important in that it brings the community together for a common cause: to help out one of their own. “Sethe is running away from her, running, and she feels the emptiness in the hand Sethe had been holding. Now she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind…. Then Denver, running too. Away from her to the pile of people out there.” Beloved represents collaboration to the most extreme, to the loss of self and the becoming of something else entirely, Denver represents community and collaboration within that, in the perfect amount to be able to strengthen and protect one another, and Sethe herself represents individuality maybe not to the extreme, but in such a way that she thought she couldn’t or maybe just wouldn’t reach out for help when she needed it.

In Jazz, we see the same spectrum of individuality to collaboration, but in a much different way. Violet lost herself in Joe, and Joe shut himself in until he met Dorcas. At the other end of the spectrum, Joe hides within himself and refuses to get attached or identified with another person. Violet seems to be unable to be an individual for most of the book – she defines herself by her husband, her parrot, and longs to be able to be defined by a child, going so far as to almost steal a baby. She trained her parrot to tell her he loved her, because she thought she wouldn’t be able to go on in a world where she wasn’t loved. Consistently until after Dorcas’s death, she refuses to be an individual and instead longs to be part of someone else. Violet reaching out to Alice after she tried to mutilate the face of Dorcas’s corpse at her funeral, without the intention of apologizing, was Violet’s first attempt at community at a nearly-healthy level that we see in Jazz. Joe, on the other hand, longs to be free, like the woman he thinks his mother is. Growing up and not knowing his mother and hearing rumors that he was born from the woman people called ‘Wild’ because of where and how she lived, he learned that he couldn’t get used to be identified by anyone else, and was so insistent upon this that he basically closed himself off to connection until he met Dorcas, to whom he (almost immediately) became overly attached. Dorcas was open to collaboration and knew herself individually as well – she was able to navigate this spectrum well, and because she collaborated so closely with those who weren’t able to maintain their individuality versus collaboration, she was punished for it. Therefore, it’s not just the level of collaboration that matters, but who you collaborate with.

In Paradise, we see a community held together by history and just for the sake of having a community. However, this community is lacking in collaboration and individuality. People identify themselves by their families, their ancestors, and their age more than by their actual opinions, ideas, or beliefs. There are the 8-rock families, and those who have been discarded for marrying undesirables. There are the men, and the women. They identify very strongly with these groups, but not for any real reason other than that’s the way it’s always been done. The community of Ruby is leaning heavily toward unhealthy levels of collaboration, but they are also so proud of their arbitrary identities that they think they’re the best and can receive no criticism, so they are also unhealthily individual. The women of the convent, on the other hand, initially lean so far into individuality that it’s hard to think they are even a community. Each of the women, taking her own hard path, end up at the Convent and resist the influence of the others, of the town, and of the rest of the world. However, as we can see as we get closer to the end of the story of the Convent, the women collaborate on their individuality and make an unhealthily attached community of over-individualistic people. This can be seen in K.D. Morgan, who has an affair with Gigi, one of the girls from the convent, despite the community’s expectations, but then still goes with the other Ruby men to attack and kill the convent women. The rituals or ceremonies the women participated in celebrated their over-individuality, but also dissolved them into a single consciousness. Thus, one person can be both overly individualistic and overly attached so much that your selfhood dissolves.

The things each book in the trilogy can teach us about collaboration and individualism are very important to keep in mind as we move forward in our lives, deciding who we’re going to be and how we’re going to live. Beloved teaches us that too much of a good thing is most definitely a bad thing – where both basic collaboration and community and a strong sense of self are good things, but in excess can be so damaging. Jazz shows us that the people we collaborate with or choose to be individual around can be just as important as making that decision as to the amount of individualism or collaboration to bring into our lives, because the effect that other people and their lives can have on ours is huge and sometimes pretty hard to spot until it’s too late, like poor Dorcas learned. Paradise shows us that not only can you be in excess of one or the other, individualism or collaboration, but you can have an excess of both at any point in time. This trilogy teaches about the dangers of love, but also the necessity of it, which is the same as how it is for both collaboration and individualism.

As we move on toward the end of college, we have to make decisions about what kind of life we want to live and how we’re going to achieve the life we want. I am the type of person that tends to value community and friendship and love over individualism and alone time and caring for myself. This has been cultivated by growing up in a large family, as the oldest sibling, I rarely got any time to myself but I learned to cherish it, and then I came to college where, between roommates, housemates, and classmates, it’s very easy to not have to be alone in spirit or physically. However, as I move into my senior year and have to begin to think about what happens after, I find myself terrified of not having this community that I’ve grown to love. Now at this point, I usually find myself trying to find solutions to that, ways that I can avoid being alone, but sometimes (I’ll admit, not very often) I find myself thinking about how I can grow as a person and learn to be okay by myself. I know it feels like an uphill battle right now, but I know that it’s so important for my own growth and healing to leave my comfort zone and do something different. And the way that Morrison’s characters have to go through the same kind of discomfort, and then they make it through at the conclusion of the novel – not to perfection, but to a place of solid growth and continued healing – it gives me hope and confidence that I can do the same. I want my life to be one where I have a community, but I don’t rely on them to the point where if I’m without it, I am stuck. As my friends look at graduate schools all over the country, and I look at possible jobs and master’s programs online so I can go back home, it’s easy to feel discouraged and premeditate that loneliness that I expect. However, with just a bit of positivity and effort, I am able to feel comforted in that I love what I’m going to be doing, I’ll be close to family, and I can finish figuring out the life I want to live. I will be able to find that balance between individualism and collaboration.

Collaboration in Review: Utilizing Trusted Communities for Growth

As a freshman economics major entering my spring semester, my collaboration experience was extremely limited because a majority of my classes, like most freshmen, took place in a lecture hall. In true lecture hall fashion, the endless, immovable rows didn’t particularly open themselves up for easy collaboration, and as such, most of my work was independent. However, after I set foot in Beth McCoy’s Risk and Rewards class, my idea of collaboration was changed and has continued to evolve — my most recent shift being credited to the texts from Toni Morrison. As the characters featured in Morrison’s Beloved and Jazz constantly moved from experiencing pain to healing, I have developed a nuanced perspective on collaboration, recognizing that healing and personal growth cannot be accomplished on my own, and as such requires collaboration, and trusted communities.  

In identifying my now nuanced perspective on collaboration, I wanted to explore where I began — as an eighteen-year-old freshman who published my final essay on May 14th, 2020. In my essay “The Pygmalion Effect,” I explored the importance of sharing diverse experiences, and discussed how my growth mindset had evolved over the course of the semester. I wrote, “No one else in this world has your experience. This is a powerful tool because when you use a creative space such as your writing to talk about your experience, you can be shaping someone else’s perspective on the world” At the time, my interpretation of collaboration was broader, I understood that we required multiple perspectives in order to find the best solutions. By my conclusion, I began to question how I might continue my personal growth without my peers: “But now, as my freshman year comes to a close, who is going to help me grow, who is going to challenge my perspective every Monday and Friday… As time goes on, I think that we should demand greatness from ourselves.” While I still agree that we should set growth goals for ourselves, through Morrison’s work, I now see that I also require trusted communities to aid in growth because they can challenge our status quo. 

One character we saw challenged throughout Morrison’s work was Violet from Jazz. Following her husband’s affair with Dorcas, and her subsequent murder, we saw Violet’s outward dislike towards Dorcas. She openly discussed her dislike for the deceased girl to clients and presented signs of unresolved anger towards her: “She’s my enemy. Then, when I didn’t know it, and now too.” (Morrison 85). Violet also spared no expense of attacking her looks such as her unclipped ends, and calling her ugly, “I thought she was going to be pretty… she wasn’t” (Morrison 109). Her unresolved anger towards Dorcas reached a peak when she tried to attack Dorcas’s face with a knife at her funeral: “Violet went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face…” (Morrison 1). Violet was angry at the infidelity, but as her husband Joe grieved the loss, she turned her anger towards someone who couldn’t defend themselves. However, as Violet became acquainted with Dorcas’ aunt, Alice, they began to develop a trusting, yet reluctant relationship. 

Once the pair started to trust each other, their healing began. During one of their visits, and after Alice burned some clothes while ironing it said, “Violet was the first to smile. Then Alice. In no time laughter was rocking them both… Violet learned then what she had forgotten until this moment: that laughter is serious…Violet thought about how she must have looked at the funeral, at what her mission was. The sight of herself trying to do something bluesy…fumbling the knife” (Morrison 113-114). For the first time, the audience was able to see Violet’s reflection of her previous missteps, and even appears to poke fun at herself for how dramatic she was being. What I find the most interesting here is the realization that Morrison makes for Violet on page 114, “She noticed, at the same moment as that Violet did, that it was spring. In the City.” The funeral attack took place in the winter, but Violet doesn’t even begin to question her choice until months later. This caused me to seek the catalyst for Violet’s growth, and that would be her friendship with Alice. Their trusting relationship sparked her growth as she worked towards lessening her resentment towards growth, reminding me of the vitality of trusted communities. 

After reading Jazz, I was able to connect the idea of trusted communities to my collaborations that took place outside the classroom. For the past four years, I have competed on Geneseo’s Mock Trial Team which heavily centers around collaboration. Our team works together from try-outs in September all the way through the end of each academic year. With try-outs held every year, we always have an influx of new people join, and like Alice and Violet, the first few weeks typically involve some hesitancy around each other. However, after multiple practices a week, and by our first competition in October, we felt incredibly comfortable with each other. The trust that our team had developed made it easy for me and Captain and as their President to offer feedback and to encourage their growth in the activity, such as giving notes after each round. As the team grew closer, I saw rapid improvement among the newcomers because they were able to trust our corrections. At the same time, it is harder for teams to blindly follow the advice of the random judges who score us for a particular round. The lawyers, and law students in the room don’t know us, there was no previously established trust. Therefore, any advice given was usually taken with a grain of salt. Similar to Violet, establishing trusted communities in the past year has been the catalyst for a multitude of growth for me. 

In addition to establishing rusted communities, Morrison reminds her readers through the characters in Beloved that sometimes we must endure pain as a means to move towards healing.  In both instances, they had to collaborate with other characters to move towards healing. Prior to the ghost of Beloved haunting House 124, Stamp Paid endured pain and collaborated with Grandma Suggs for the betterment of their community: “It was Stamp Paid who started it… He walked six miles to the riverbank; did a slide-run-slide down into a ravine made almost inaccessible by brush. He reached through brambles lined with blooddrawing thorns thick as knives that cut through his shirt sleeves and trousers.” (Morrison 160). Here the audience sees Stamp Paid going through consistent extremes in order to obtain the blueberries. Once he returned, Baby Suggs was immediately able to recognize his sacrifice: “She had decided to do something with the fruit worthy of the man’s labor and his love. That’s how it began.” (Morrison 160). She knew that his pain could not go in vain and should be used to better the community around them, and that’s exactly what she did. On page 161 it said, “From Denver’s two thrilled eyes it grew to a feast for ninety people. 124 shook with their voices far into the night.” Stamp Paid’s pain was transformed into an opportunity of joy and mass healing. I think we can all think of examples of people who have made sacrifices for our betterment, but for me specifically, my grandmother made a lot of sacrifices in order for my mom to pursue an education. As a result of her sacrifices, my mom became a first-generation college graduate, and alongside my dad is now able to provide my family with more opportunities than she had. Through Morrison’s work, I have recognized that people usually only make those sacrifices for those within their trusted communities. This further demonstrated that sacrifices within trusted communities are responsible for more than individual growth but can be attributed to the betterment of the entire group. 

Looking forward to life after college, as I begin to pursue a professional career, and eventually law school, I will forever keep in mind my nuanced perspective on collaboration. As a freshman, I thought I was solely responsible for my growth, but now I recognize that when you have established trust among a trusted community, they can propel your growth. The trusted communities that I have established here at Geneseo have been invaluable and there is no other place I would have rather created Holy Gossip ™ with.