A Threat or a Call to Action?

Throughout our class time we have discussed recursion in the grander sense: in major events such as life and death, seasons and the spin of fortune’s wheel. On the other hand, in the midst of these dense topics, I wonder where recursion occurs in the day to day. I wonder how the patterns that people fall into on a daily basis can be informed by a grander scale, and what the effects of that collision are like.

The readings from thinkers such as James Snead, Bernice Johnson Reagon and John Locke give me a lot of information from the big picture. However, Victor LaValle’s Big Machine illustrates the theme of recursion on a smaller scale, through the eyes of a former bus station custodian and former drug addict named Ricky Rice. His encounter with a disruptive homeless man on the bus is framed by Rice’s observations about typical encounters, along with the public reaction: “First you appeal to authority, but the driver had refused us. So next you try and ignore…It was our best defense…The last stage, in such situations, is when folks just lose their patience.” (LaValle 12) This observation, based on previous encounters, helps inform Rice’s and his fellow passenger’s behavior. The passengers expect to continue on a smooth, linear journey to their destination, but the homeless man’s irrational behavior represents a detour that is unwelcome to everyone else. Rice continues as before until this comment from the homeless man rattles him: ” ‘Human beings are no damn good…We like monsters.’ ” (LaValle 13) The tension between the observer and the participant is palpable here, and the declaration from the homeless man is a cut that alters the environment of the bus.

Compare this to Dionne Brand’s statement: “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.” This course epigraph struck me as recursive, due to the repetitive idea of noticing, and also struck me as a cut. The cut here is involving the reader, through the second person, as opposing to simply describing her observations from her literary, political, and personal position. The first part of her statement concurs with Rice’s observations; and Rice’s observations come from a place of self-preservation, a “best defense” (LaValle 12). However, the second part of her statement agrees primarily with the stance of the homeless man, who fights against closed ears and eyes: “Y’all think you can ignore me, but you’re proving my point!…How do you know whose side you are on if your eyes is shut?” (LaValle 12).

I think my goal for this semester is to not be a passive bystander in the unpacking of African-American texts, and texts of other historically oppressed authors.  In many ways, Rice’s observations eerily reminded me of my hour-long subway commute throughout middle school and high school, and how my self-preservation and fear of the other went against my sense of human decency. It was easier to dismiss the homeless person or the disruptive person as a detour from an otherwise peaceful commute. It was harder to acknowledge the systems and decisions that put them in their position and me in my position, and to acknowledge their need to be treated with human decency instead of ignorance. This seed shape recurs throughout cultural institutions, and even in a novel as compelling as Big Machine. 

The concrete steps I will take in being an active participant are reflecting on my life and learning how to pivot, considering the repetition throughout our various texts, and actively listening to the voices such as the homeless man’s, who advocate for recognition despite the world telling them that they are a disruption and a threat to the “natural” linear progression.

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