Cracking as a Function of Justice in The Fifth Season

In N.K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season, the use of ‘cracks’ in the Earth’s surface or otherwise seem to directly relate to justice and power. This is seen in many instances throughout the novel. First, if we direct our attention to the USGS volcano glossary, to the entry for the word “fissure.” This defines a fissure as “a fracture or crack in rock along which there is a distinct separation.” As such, the phenomena of ‘cracks’ in this novel is going to include fissures or fractures. In the same glossary entry, there is a photo of a fissure in Kilauea, Hawai’i.

In the Verge article we read, focusing on the same eruption, there are many photos and videos from Twitter of fissures in the ground and in roads, showing the differences in magnitude that fissures can have, from fissure eruptions to what appear to be just cracks in the road.

In The Fifth Season, these cracks are used to show justice (which may not be easily identified as a good thing), but also as a visible example of the harm that unequal power dynamics can bring about.

In the prologue of The Fifth Season, we can see the concept of a crack being used to show justice being served. A man, a slave, who has been controlled and abused all his life and whose ancestors were controlled and abused for theirs, is breaking free of the bonds, physical and hypothetical, that kept him yoked. “The earth is with him. Then he breaks it…. Now there is a line, roughly east-west and too straight, almost neat in its manifest unnaturalness, spanning the girl of the land’s equator. The line’s origin point is the city of Yumenes. The line is deep and raw, cut to the quick of the planet.” This is an example of a man claiming justice for himself and his peers, and taking it into his own hands. However, this act of justice will take a huge number of lives as suggested later in the novel. Very few of these people will be innocent, many being complicit in the structural abuse of the group of people to which that man belongs, and many will have actively perpetrated that abuse. Despite that structural power that has kept the man and his peers from freeing themselves before, this man holds within him a power that very few others do, and which very few others could match. This situation holds within it two very different unequal power dynamics, each one which puts a different group or person in a higher position. This is power and justice at work.

The crack in the earth is also timed as such that it almost seems like retribution for Essun’s loss as well. After her discovery of her son’s body and when she is getting ready to leave, she stops in her doorway and she can “sess that there are no open earth vents nearby-which means this is coming from up north, where the wound is, that great suppurating rip from coast to coast that you know is there even though the travelers along the Imperial Road have only brought rumors of it so far.” It seems as if this is the same crack that is spoken of in the prologue. Knowing that Essun is also an orogene, the fissure across the continent is a response to the same injustice that has plagued her entire life. As Essun is attempting to leave her comm so that she can find Jija and her daughter, the people around her seem to realize what is happening and what she is. A man attempts to shoot her with a crossbow, even though the town’s leader is escorting her out, and the attempt at her life makes her very emotional and reactive. “The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you…. And then the valley floor splits open. The initial jolt of this is violent enough to knock everyone standing to the ground and sway every house in Tirimo.” This is retribution for her son, for the culture that made her son’s fate possible, and for all the related injustices up until Karra tried to kill her. Essun is able to create a rift in the earth and crack the town’s water supply in minutes, which would effectively mean the end of the town in the coming weeks. She obviously wields a great deal of power in being able to do this, but she is greatly outnumbered by hateful people who have a great deal of structural power. It is a very similar situation with similar power dynamics to the man in the prologue and the society which surrounds him. An important piece of the dynamic which we get in this situation and don’t in the one in the prologue is Rask. Rask shows Essun sympathy and gives her a chance to escape with her life, showing her kindness that it is clear that most in the community would not afford her. Yet, because he exists within this community and is within the proximity of those who very obviously wronged her, he is killed along with the rest of them. Rask gives this situation a bit more nuance, because he was obviously trying to do right by Essun and give her freedom and her life; he was working against what, societally, stills are supposed to be and do and how they are supposed to treat orogenes, he still get caught in Essun’s torus and is killed. This makes the idea of this justice a little more cloudy from a moral and ethical standpoint – it isn’t black and white.

In the context of geological cracks, the naming of a character who is with Damaya in school ‘Crack’ doesn’t seem to be a coincidence. This seems to be part of a series of events that liken the earth to an orogene in more than one way, throughout the novel. “Damaya wonders: Is Crack’s control really a problem? Or is it simply that her tormentors have done their best to make her crack?” The concept of tormentors causing cracks in one that is revisited in chapter 20, page 379. This is the story of Father Earth.

 “According to legend, Father Earth did not originally hate life. In fact, as the lorists tell it, once upon a time Earth did everything he could to facilitate the strange emergence of life on his surface…. Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth….it was the orogenes who did something the earth could not forgive: They destroyed his only child…. Whatever the words mean, the lorists and ‘mests agree on what happened after the orogenes commuted their great sin: Father Earth’s surface cracked like an eggshell.”

The violence of life on earth is what caused the earth’s crust to break and move so much. The very existence of the Seasons and the constant movement of the earth’s crust is, in a way, retribution for Earth’s “only child.” This also seemingly may have some consequence in what happens, constantly, to the children of the orogenes. They are taken, they are abused, they are killed. In a horrible way, the fate of the orogenes seems to be a kind of justice for Father Earth. The word ‘crack’ in relation to this also occurs when the Guardians find Alabaster and Syenite on Meov. “Everyone she loves is dead. Everyone except Coru. And if they take him- – Sometimes, even we…crack. Better than a child never lived at all than live as a slave. Better that he die.” In order to save her only child, Syenite must kill him. The use of the word ‘crack’ here seems very purposeful, in relating all of these emotional events to the story of Father Earth.

The use of ‘cracks,’ geological and otherwise in The Fifth Season is representative of justice and of power, in direct relation to the Earth and orogeny. 

The Fifth Season- Earthquakes and Node Stations

In N.K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, there are frequent mentions of shakes or earthquakes, and the orogenes being able to quell “shakes” instinctually even from birth. The novel’s main government city Yumenes houses the Fulcrum which is a government-run facility (much like boot camps in the military) that trains orogenes to use and control their powers in a useful way for the Fulcrum to exploit. We as readers follow Damaya through rigorous training to move up the metaphorical ladder and gain status through “rings”. We are immediately shown the hatred of orogenes or “roggas” by the non-orogenes or “stills”. The stills are taught to fear and hate the orogenes because they are powerful and without control, unpredictable. 

Earthquakes in this world are constantly happening even if the stills cannot feel all of them. “Here us the Stillness, which is not still even on a good day.” (The Fifth Season, p. 7) The end of this world is also set off because a huge earthquake in the North triggers a Season, making it an incredibly important geological event, considering the entire story is about the end of the world for the last time. “So he reaches deep and takes hold of the humming tapping bustling reverberating rippling vastness of the city, and the quieter bedrock beneath it, and the roiling churn of heat and pressure beneath that. Then he reaches wide, taking hold of the great sliding-puzzle piece of earthshell on which the continent sits. Lastly, he reaches up. For power. He takes all that, the strata and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. He holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him. Then he breaks it.” (The Fifth Season, p. 7) It is incredibly interesting the way that Jemisin uses this non-linear timeline to build an unstable world of “The Stillness”, immediately throwing the reader into the tension between the orogenes and stills. We as readers immediately sympathize with our orogene characters; Essun, Syenite, and Damaya. Jemisin shows the horror of a world constantly afraid of the world ending and another Season beginning. In this world, “The Stillness” which is sarcastically named as such, is constantly moving. The plates are moving and causing shakes that threaten the livelihood of all the communities or comms of the stills or “normal” people during the Season.

To control this constant movement in “The Stillness” the Fulcrum trains these orogenes. However, chapter eight shows the reader a less polished version of the Fulcrum. In this chapter Syenite and Alabaster are traveling to Allia on a mission and Alabaster senses an issue with a nearby node station. The pair detour to the node station to check it out and Syenite, who has never seen a node station before, is faced with the horror of such a system implemented by the Fulcrum to exploit those orogenes that are unable to learn control. This revelation is not only the first example of the Fulcrum’s violence towards orogenes for Syenite but also for us as readers. “The chamber beyond is high and vaulted and dim, but empty-except at the room’s center, where there’s a big… thing. She would call it a chair, if it was made of anything but wires and straps. Not very comfortable- looking, except in that it seems to hold its occupant at an easy recline. The node maintainer is seated in it, anyway, so it must be-” (The Fifth Season, p. 139) This draws the reader in, wondering what a node maintainer looks like. Unluckily for both us as readers and Syenite, the grotesque imagery highlights the violence from the Fulcrum in this little body. Even Alabaster mentions to Syenite, “Even the least of us must serve the greater good,” (The Fifth Season, p. 139) “The body in the node maintainer’s chair is small, and naked. Thin, its limbs atrophied. Hairless. There are things- tubes and pipes and things, she has no words for them- going into the stick-arms, down the goggle-throat, across the narrow crotch. There’s a flexible bag on the corpse’s belly, attached to its belly somehow, and it’s full of- ugh,” (The Fifth Season, p. 139) This reveals to the reader the true horror that the Fulcrum is doing to these children. Stripping them of not only their choice and self-control but also not even giving them privacy with dressing them in clothing. 

These children are used and abused by the Fulcrum because they questioned the Fulcrum and were unable to achieve those set standards. Syenite analyzes the contraption at the node station to try and understand the reason that the Fulcrum would do something so wretched despite being shown only positive propaganda all her life. “THe wire framework is a particular bit of genius; there’s a crank and a handle nearby, so the whole apparatus can be flipped over to facilitate cleaning. The wire minimizes bedsores, maybe. There’s a stench of sickness in the air, but nearby is a whole shelf of bottled tinctures and pills; understandable, since it would take more than ordinary comm-made penicillin to do something like this. Perhaps one of the tube things is for putting that medicine into the node maintainer. And this one is for pushing in food, and that one is for taking away urine, or, and that cloth wrapping is for sopping up drool.” (The Fifth Season, p. 140) This produces an incredibly vivid picture of what the Fulcrum has done to this child, what we learn of later, is one of Alabaster’s children to make them “useful” rather than a waste of orogeny. 

Alabaster, who knew about node stations before this chapter, wraps up the situation of the node child quite succinctly with several lines of dialogue between pages 141 and 143. “ ‘It’s a simple matter to apply a lesion here and there that severs a rogga’s self-control completely, while still allowing its instinctive use. Assuming the rogga survives the operation.’ ” (The Fifth Season, p. 141) “ ‘ Drug away the infections and so forth, keep him alive enough to function, and you’ve got the one thing even the Fulcrum can’t provide: a reliable, harmless, completely beneficial source of orogeny.” (The Fifth Season, p. 142) “ ‘Problem is, the node maintainers feel terrible pain whenever they use orogeny. The lesion, see. Since they can’t stop themselves from reacting to every shake in the vicinity, even the microshakes, it’s considered humane to keep them completely sedated.’ ” (The Fifth Season, p. 142) “The ultimate proof of the world’s hatred dead and cold and stinking between them, she can’t even flinch this time. Because. If the Fulcrum can do this, or the Guardians or the Yumenescence Leadership or the geomests or whoever came up with this nightmare, then there’s no point in dressing up what people like Syenite and Alabaster really are.” (The Fifth Season, p. 143) The reality of this world is constantly moving, which means that the Fulcrum is creating these stations where children… children are constantly in pain controlling not only the larger shakes but also the microshakes and that there is nothing that they can do to make it stop. No wonder Alabaster has been quelling the shakes constantly throughout their journey to Allia.

As a reader, this revelation of the node maintainers and what the Fulcrum does to these innocent children hit me really hard. I had to set the book aside and have a good cry at the horror of this fictional reality. It was a necessary thing to add to show the reader the reasoning behind Syenite’s betrayal of the Fulcrum later on. But it was incredibly disheartening to have to believe that someone could do such a horrible thing to an innocent child.

Balance at the Heart of N.K. Jemisin’s “The Fifth Season”

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season contains many interesting interpretations of power and justice through the use of geological concepts. The Fifth Season engrosses readers by exploring the relationship between power, justice, and geological concepts. Jemisin’s “orogenes” have the power to control the inner workings of the Earth. They can calm earthquakes, or “shakes.” 

If you think about it, nature is all just one big balancing act. Tectonic plates, for example. Plates of rock sliding around one another, up and down, disrupting the ground we walk on. Nur and Burgess write, “They are intimately related to the surface topography and deep structure of the earth through a process called plate tectonics, and they cannot be understood in isolation.” When the scales are unbalanced, how is it exactly that we are to survive?

When plates shift, there is an imbalance of power. Nur and Burgess write, “In fact, the overwhelming majority of earthquakes, known as tectonic earthquakes, are caused by motion on faults.” The ground is caught off guard, chaos can ensue, there could simply be a rumble and nothing more. Yet anything that shifts under our feet has the power to throw us off balance. It’s the same with power and justice. When things shift, for better or for worse, a ripple effect is created that could slam some people while completely missing others altogether.

While geological concepts are an obvious example of how critical balance is, power and justice should not be ignored either. The balance of power is so often and easily disrupted in both nature and politics. Ultimately, this is because balance is difficult to obtain. It requires strength. There is a reason young children are encouraged to shuffle precariously across the dreaded balance beam, it builds their core strength, but achieving balance and strength is easier said than done. It is easy to be swayed. One way or another.

I can’t help but believe that the underlying message of The Fifth Season is one of balancing the unbalanced. Pulling shelves of rock back into place. Ensuring that lives aren’t lost simply because people fear the unknown too much to trust it, or them, in the case of Jemisin’s “orogenes.”

To answer the questions: Why should I care about science when I care about power and justice? Or, why should I care about power and justice when I am focused on science? The answer is simple. Why should you really care about anything? People say that they don’t care anymore, I’ve heard it often. In fact, I’ve said it often. That I just don’t care about anything anymore. Everytime I say those words, I know they aren’t true. The fact of the matter is that we’re human. We are preprogrammed to care. Maybe you do care more about power and justice than science, that’s okay. What’s not okay is putting all of your eggs in one basket, which brings us back to balance. 

Perhaps science is not your passion, but that doesn’t mean that you can simply ignore it. Ignoring something does not make it go away. And that is why we need balance. We need to find the space between nothing and everything and settle there for a bit. Really thinks things through thoroughly. Find solutions, innovate. Do not simply look for scapegoats, as Essun, one of Jemisin’s narrators points out. This is Jemisin’s point. Do not treat orogenes like the scum of the Earth but expect them to save everyone when disaster strikes. Another one of Jemisin’s narrator’s, Syenite, has a moment in which she realizes, “We are the gods in chains.” The people preserving life are the ones treated the most terribly. 

Do not give one group all the power. Find a balance, create a balance, much like Ykka did. She found a place to be safe, for the time being, and created a community. The orogenes on Alabaster and Syenite’s island also created their own way of living. They were getting along fine (for the most part) until they were disrupted by the Fulcrum and its Guardians, who could not handle the disruption of their rigid, set-in-stone system. Jemisin writes, “The earth does not like to be restrained.” If I had to guess, I would say the earth would prefer balance over restraint anyday. 

Jemisin writes, in terms of Syenite pondering Alabaster, “Maybe it gives him comfort to think their kind has some purpose, however terrible.” Purpose is as good a driving force as any. Living a life with a purpose, a path, a focus– it must make it easier, right? Or maybe it makes things even harder. Because now there is expectation. And with expectation there comes the possibility of disappointment.

“Even the least of us must serve the greater good,” Jemisin writes. The greater good. That’s always what it comes down to. No matter how many people are hurt or used, those in power only care about their systems, their rules, and inducing fear. Nur and Burgess write, “An earthquake begins at a single point within the earth, where the two sides of a fault start to slip past each other, a location called the earthquake’s focus.” Conflict concerning power can begin with a single person, a single cause. People split. They choose sides. They “slip past each other.” Every disagreement has a focus as well.

I believe that we are a planet of progression. We are placed here, flawed people raised in flawed systems, to learn a lesson. To make choices. To grow. To find balance. Jemisin writes, “‘We pass down the stonelore,’ Alabaster says, sitting up, ‘but we never try to remember anything about what’s already been tried, what else might have worked.’” A classic case of history repeating because people don’t change, they read and repeat. History, or “stonelore,” tells a story. Every story has morals, conflict and resolution, and usually an ending. But stories also teach. History teaches. It is up to the pupil to listen and learn. Nur and Burgess write, “Though earthquakes are unpredictable, they are not strictly random; they shape and are shaped by the structure of the earth as a whole.” Very few events are 100% random. Something usually sets off a chain reaction. Something throws off the balance. 

The way in which Jemisin carved a story with a heart of issues concerning justice and the imbalance of power, but also created an entire world centered around geological concepts, is an impressive feat. Her characters and their flaws beautifully portray the effects of discrimination, strength, courage and perseverance. We all need our rock. Our home. Our core. Sometimes it just needs to be slightly shifted. 

Geographically Induced Injustice in “The Fifth Season”: Let’s get to thinkING

N.K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season presents a complex and engaging narrative that seriously  addresses issues of injustice and inequity through her studious worldbuilding. This was evident  from the first moment I picked up the book. I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the  injustice experienced by the Orogens (enslaved people who can manipulate kinetic energy to  control seismic movement) and the experiences of marginalized and oppressed groups from  throughout the world, particularly the U.S. The Novel incited me to begin to examine the relationship between  justice and geography in an interdisciplinary understanding, which for me led to some  surprising realizations supported by Jemisin’s writing and related research. To put it plainly, it seems to me that Jemisin suggests that injustice and inequity can be exacerbated  and even created by impartial geographical circumstances. 

Before tackling the issues I believe Jemisin is proposing through her writing I will  provide brief context for the novel as a whole. The story itself is set in a region of the world  called “The Stillness” where the earth experiences destructive “seasons” that threaten to destroy  communities and extinct humanity. In order to combat this unforgiving planet, the communities  of the Stillness harness the power of Orogenes, who, as previously mentioned, are enslaved by  the Fulcrum to use their powers to control the earth’s restlessness so it is less volatile.  Communities construct “Nodes”, facilities where Node Maintainers (also orogenes) quell shakes  for communities throughout the Stillness, ensuring no loss of life or destruction of communities.  “In the Equatorials, the nodes’ zones of protection overlap, so there’s nary a twitch; this, and the  Fulcrum’s presence at its core, is why Yumenes can build as it does” (119). Jemisin establishes  that this is an unforgiving environment and the communities in this environment are only held  together by the effort of the Node Maintainers and other orogenes. Every second of existence is a  feat when one considers the how volatile the planet is. The power of the orogenes is all that  keeps the balance. By establishing this fact, Jemisin also introduces the idea of geographically  induced injustice.  

When two orogenes named Syenite and Alabaster investigate one of the nodes in a place  called Mehi, they find the corpse of the node maintainer. Much to Syenite’s shock and horror,  the maintainer is a child. “The body in the node maintainer’s chair is small, and naked. Thin, its  limbs atrophied. Hairless. There are things—tubes and pipes and things, she has no words for  them—going into the stick-arms, down the goggle-throat, across the narrow crotch” (139). Not  only is the maintainer– the person enlisted to control seismic activity in that region– a child,  they are malnourished and abused. In the Stillness, orogenic children can and will be abused,  tortured, and enslaved to ensure the safety of the greater society. The node maintainers stop any  earthquakes that could result in massive destruction. Through this horrifying example of  worldbuilding Jemisin seems to be establishing the case that injustice can often be caused or exacerbated by the demands of geography.  

Luckily, there are other examples of this idea of geographically induced injustice in the  novel to consider that are far less graphic than the abuse of a child. Later in the story Alabaster  and Syenite are taken to safety on a relatively unknown island called Meov after having been attacked by a Guardian (a sort of soldier created to neutralize any rogue or dangerous orogenes).  Syenite describes the island. “The island is nothing but rolling hills and grass and solid rock—no  trees, no topsoil. An utterly useless place to live” (282). Agriculture is impossible on the rocky  island, and keeping cattle is just as unlikely due to the size of the island and its lack of fertile  soil. The topography and geography of this region makes it almost unlivable. So, how do the  citizens of Meov get by? Well, due to the desperation of the topography, the islanders must use their seafaring ways and a little crime survive. “So Meov raids. They attack vessels along the  main trading routes, or extort comms for protection from attacks—yes their attacks” (294). Here  again I found that the geography of the regions in the Stillness create and exacerbate injustice, in this case injustice to the communities of the Stillness. What is interesting  about Jemisin’s depiction of the issue of geographical injustice in this case is that both “sides” of  the story engage in it. In the case of the communities of the Stillness their geographical survival  is ensured by the enslavement and abuse of powerful children. In the case of the community of  Meov, they ensure their geographical survival by killing Merchants, raiding communities, and  taking what is not theirs. Meov must act unjustly to keep their people alive. Now, my interest is not to compare the degrees in which these actions  are unjust or immoral, my only interest is to point out what I noticed, that Jemisin is clearly tying geography to injustice, and after looking at some relevant research presented in class, it is understandable why. 

It turns out Jemisin seems so keen on pointing out the connection between geography and  injustice because it is extremely relevant in the discussion of justice and equity as well as discussions in science. In an article published by the Columbia Climate School titled “Earthquakes May Endanger New York More Than Thought, Says Study”, authors Leonardo Seeber and John Armbruster discuss the risk that seismic activity has on New York City and other places located on minor fault lines, as opposed to major faults like near California and Japan. Their research found that New York City, although not a frequent hotspot for large earthquakes, could be susceptible to high amounts of damage due to the confluence of multiple smaller tremors. Seeber notes that the effects of these tremors would affect some communities in New York City more than others. “Earthquake-resistant building codes were not introduced to New York City until 1995, and are not in effect at all in many other communities. Sinuous skyscrapers and bridges might get by with minimal damage, said Sykes, but many older, unreinforced three- to six-story brick buildings could crumble”. Here, represented in data and research we have an example of real world geographically exacerbated and induced inequity. People from low income neighborhoods which often do not have the money to remodel buildings so they are earthquake resistant, will be disproportionately affected if a natural disaster like a strong earthquake should happen. The marginalized, minority communities which have been oppressed through systematic structural racism in housing communities will feel the ramifications of a natural disaster far more than a wealthier  person in a newer, more expensive building. When geographical disasters take place the oppression minority communities face is only exacerbated. As I am limited in space, I won’t delve into the ways that geography was used to oppress communities in the U.S through redlining, gerrymandering, and other strategies, just note that they are there, waiting for discussion. What is evident is that due to structural inequality, when disaster comes, it is the oppressed communities that unduly feel the ramifications. 

The final example of Geographically induced/exacerbated inequality and or injustice I would like to briefly discuss is a thought I derived while reading the “Guidelines on Preparedness Before, During and After an Ashfall” prepared by International Volcanic Health Hazard Network (IVHHN), Cities and Volcanoes Commission, GNS Science and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). While reading the preparedness guidelines, I noticed a recurring theme amongst the rules: a need for abundance. This can be seen looking at the first page of guidelines. “Enough drinking water for at least 72 hours – one gallon (3-4 litres) per person per day. Enough non-perishable food for at least 72 hours for family and pets…If cold, extra blankets and warm clothing. Extra stocks of medication for both family and pets…A small amount of money” (3). The guidelines state that in order to make it through an ashfall you should have extra clothes, food, medication, water, and even money. Can you think of how inequity might be exacerbated by an ashfall? Start by asking the question: how are people who are poor or oppressed expected to get this abundance of material? If one is to survive an ashfall one must have an abundance of these materials and the ability to stock resources, and until relatively recently the ability to stockpile resources has been a luxury, one not allowed to minority communities.

 I am uncertain where the rest of Jemisin’s Broken Earth series will take me, or how my understanding of her commentary on geography and justice will change, but as it stands right now Jemisin has gotten me thinkING about how injustice is created and perpetuated by things as simple and as impartial as geography. This leads me to believe that an interdisciplinary approach to solving issues of inequality and injustice is essential in getting lasting, meaningful change. Jemisin is toying with the ideas that justice is a relative luxury, and that the need to live can override ideas of justice and equity. She makes this idea clear in her worldbuilding, survival outweighs the luxury found in the concept of justice. I am uncertain if Jemisin is simply challenging the reader to sympathize with unjust people (like the pirates who help our progatogists), or simply stating that the need to live comes before the need to live justly. It is not clear to me what the answers to these questions are, but I look forward to continuing thinkING about these concepts as I read further.

Icing as Metaphor in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin presents a land called the Stillness, ironically named as it is anything but still. Populated by inhabitants who are always waiting for the next natural disaster, Jemisin follows a second-world apocalypse through the eyes of an oppressed middle-aged woman called Essun as she searches for her daughter. Essun is oppressed for her gift of orogeny, meaning she can manipulate kinetic energy to cause—or disrupt—seismic events. But these gifts come at a cost: in order to draw energy, she creates a controlled field of “ice” that condemns everything it touches to a frozen death. This direct power exchange raises interesting questions about the way power and fear work in tandem, and often without the governing hand of justice or righteousness. I am interested in investigating how fear coerces people into wielding their power without justice or discrimination through the metaphor of “icing.” 

Power exists in many forms. Soft power and hard power are both rampant throughout The Fifth Season, carefully relegated between social classes and human species. Of these, hard power is often showier, something Jemisin plays with through her cinematic writing, such as in the opening chapters of the text. Essun’s narration begins with grief. She is reeling from the death of her son at the hands of his father for his crime of being an orogene and so, buried under a twisted sense of justice and necessity—her daughter is missing—she tries to escape her town. In doing so, she is attacked and retaliates, causing a localized earthquake and icing anyone in her vicinity. This reaction is her own haphazard version of justice, ministered through her power. Her reaction is depicted as a dawning realization as Jemisin writes, “but the attempt on your life has triggered something raw and furious and cold …[T]he kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you.” Through her orogeny, Essun exacts justice by forcing the earth to punish the town around it, collapsing buildings and icing much of the town’s leadership. Essun uses her hard power of orogeny, specifically focusing on icing, in order to react to a wrong. Notably, this only occurs after Essun has been attacked by the people of her village, making her fear for her life. Her original goal of slinking out of the village without disturbing anything vanishes because of fear. 

In Essun’s case, fear caused her to use her power violently, even if she believed it just. The metaphor of icing helps illustrate that while power can exact justice, fear-driven decisions removes nuance from justice. As she ices her town, she does not differentiate between the people who attacked her and the people who helped her get as far as she has. Pulled from the same scene as earlier, Jemisin writes, “You aren’t just inflicting death on your fellow villagers, of course. A bird perched on a nearby fence falls over frozen, too. The grass crisps, the ground grows hard, and the air hisses and howls as moisture and density is snatched from its substance.” There is no selection, no thought process. Birds die in the same breath as would-be murderers and friends. Jemisin’s metaphor of icing demonstrates in a horrifying sequence that when fear, justice, and power intersect, it often creates a corrupt blend of wide-reaching, nondiscriminating, unilateral consequences. 

While Essun’s descent into violent justice is a demonstration of hard power instigated by fear, soft power instigated by fear can be just as damning. The Fulcrum, and to a larger extent, the Stillness, establish that in chilling order. The Fulcrum is the organization that trains people gifted in orogeny, such as Essun in her childhood up through early adulthood. Using a mix of dehumanizing and demoralizing techniques, the Fulcrum raises orogenes to consider themselves second-class citizens and uses its influence—its soft power—to ensure that orogenes remain persecuted and targeted throughout the Stillness. Unsurprisingly, but chillingly, The Fulcrum has done this because it is fearful of these powerful humans who can cause earthquakes and sink cities. It does not want their power threatened, in a way that is familiar to anyone who exists in any reality. The powerful do not want to become the weak. An example that might hit closer to home of soft power being used in fear to protect one’s status and wealth can be found in this United States Geological Survey article. Covering how overlooked downstate New York State’s earthquake risk is, the article spoke about the controversial Indian Point nuclear power plant. Like how the Fulcrum twists information and perception in order to continue to oppress and abuse orogenes to maintain power, the Indian Point nuclear power plant is alleged to have ignored new information about earthquake risk, instead choosing to focus on studies written before the 1980s. Understanding that the Fulcrum uses soft power as ubiquitously as Essun used icing is important for understanding how fear-driven decisions hurt more people, more widely. To that end, even the Fulcrum’s teaching on icing demonstrates how fearful and terrifying it considers that power. Back in Essun’s days at the Fulcrum, this is made clear. From that time, Jemisin writes, “Instructor Marcasite praised her for only icing a two-foot torus around herself while simultaneously stretching her zone of control.” The Fulcrum is obviously frightened of the orogeny side-effect of “icing” and does everything within their power to train its unwieldy, deadly reach out of orogenes. This training would only be possible through the oppression and control they have already exacted over the orogene population through their soft power. 

Between both Essun’s reaction to fear and the reaction of privileged oppressors of the Stillness’s society and the Fulcrum, a common denominator is made clear. When fear is a driving factor, power is used in such a way that true justice is an impossibility. To understand that, one needs to look no further than the concept of icing. In order to access power and commit huge, godlike acts of seismic activity, you must take from the life around you. When that power is driven by fear, the taking becomes an unruly, wild thing that grows in anger, even if, like Essun, that anger and fear is justified. It might be justified, but acting out of fear takes away that critical thinking and leaves only rash, violent decision making. Examining the intersection of fear, justice, and power through the lens of icing in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season leaves me with only one conclusion: fear-driven so-called “justice” doled out by power, be it hard or soft, only begets more fear. That is the consequence of uncontrolled icing and of the Stillness’s continued persecution of the orogenes.

Ordinary Folk Aesthetic vs. High Culture Aesthetic

When I think of the Call and Response anthology’s governing aesthetic or the underlying principles that secure the presentation of the “African American tradition”, I immediately think of the folk traditions and privileges that are rooted in African American culture and beliefs. The anthology does this through literature that is derived from and focused on the influential and prominent individuals within African American history. The anthology features works such as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Frederick Douglass’s speech titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth Of July?”, and Alice Walker’s short story titled “Everyday Use”. These works keep the anthology grounded in a way that appreciates and recognizes the history and monumental work of African American writers, abolitionists, and idolized figures while also appreciating the traditions and customs of ordinary, everyday African American individuals.

Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, details his upbringing as someone who was enslaved at a very young age. Douglass tells the reader that he does not know his age, which is common for those who were enslaved. Douglass explains how white children knew their ages but he has never met a slave who could tell of his birthday. “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it” … “I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday” … “The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege” (Douglass 276). Douglass then details specific horrors that he witnessed while enslaved. On page 277, Douglass accounts the whipping of his own Aunt by their master, Anthony. “I have oft been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose” (Douglass 277). The hardships described by Douglass in the narrative are especially meaningful and impactful because of what happens later on in Douglass’s life. 

In chapter eleven of Douglass’s narrative, the reader learns of his escape from enslavement to New York. “On the third day of September, 1838, I left my chains, and succeeded in reaching New York without the slightest interruption of any kind. I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State, I have never been able to answer the question with any satisfaction to myself. It was a moment of the highest excitement I have ever experienced” (Douglass 315-316). This triumph narrative of Douglass is included in this anthology because it details an important feat achieved by a prominent figure in African American tradition and history, thus securing the aesthetic of the “African American tradition”.

Also in this anthology is Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is The Fourth of July?”, a speech given by Douglass on July 5th, 1852. This speech first praises the founding fathers of America for their bravery and courage that was displayed when America gained its independence from Britain. “Your fathers felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born!” (Douglass 322). The speech transitions to Douglass calling out Americans for their lack of bravery when it comes to abolishing slavery. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn” … “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery?” (Douglass 326-327). This speech by Douglass calls out the wrongdoings of white Americans by engaging in slavery and holding the African American race to an inferior position in society. This call to attention of racism and slavery is the aesthetic that the anthology practices throughout the selection of literature. The anthology uses famous pieces of literature, written by prominent African American historical figures, to bring attention to the folk traditions and privileges that are rooted in African American culture and beliefs.

With this being said, I also believe that this anthology uses the folk aesthetic that focuses not on high or prestigious African American culture, but the ideals and culture of ordinary, everyday African American people. This is seen in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” where we as an audience can see the lifestyle of a mother and daughter, Maggie, who have deep and meaningful roots in African American culture and tradition.​​ This is contrasted by the mother’s second daughter, Dee, who went off to college and came back with a vastly different personality and beliefs. Dee has a new name in Wangero and she is accompanied by her boyfriend named Asalamalakim. This of course surprises the mother and Maggie who both live their lives very traditionally and seem hesitant to welcome change.

The anthology portrays the folk aesthetic of ordinary, everyday people when Wangero asks her mother if she can have a set of quilts that were made by her grandmother. “Mama, can I have these old quilts?” (Walker 1724). Her mother hesitantly responds by saying, “The truth is, I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries John Thomas” (Walker 1724). Wangero is shocked by this, she doesn’t think Maggie can ever appreciate the quilts because of her outlook on life, “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts! She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use” (Walker 1724). If Maggie were to own the quilts, she would use them for what they’re truly made for. While Wangero wants to own the quilts to hang them and show them off because she considers them priceless. The story ends with Wangero storming out of the house to her car, she says to her mother and Maggie, “You just don’t understand” … “Your heritage, You ought to try to make something out of yourself too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it” (Walker 1725). This story depicts the struggles that ordinary, everyday African American individuals face when attempting to straddle their traditional, rooted customary ways of life and the advancing, expanding appreciation of their culture.

While concluding this essay, I find myself noticing a new structure that this anthology seems to be following. It is a guiding principle that blends multiple aesthetics of African American culture and tradition. The first aesthetic focuses on the famous works of prominent African American authors such as Frederick Douglass, who paved the way for the future of African Americans by detailing his experiences from being enslaved and treated unequally in America even as a freeman. The second aesthetic portrays the traditions and customs of ordinary African American people who find themselves dealing with the advancing production of their cultural ideas. These aesthetics may be seen as contradictory in which they are unable to be blended, but upon further look, these aesthetics are harmonious in the way they work with one another. 

Blending of Music and Literature in Call and Response

Throughout my brief first exploration of the Call and Response anthology, what struck me was the musical element. Music plays an important role in any culture, however, during our class discussions and study Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, it appeared to play a much more prevalent role in my understanding of the book. The entire structure was rooted in a musical compositional technique, thus highlighting the significance of music in African American culture. Since this is a literature course, I want to emphasize the idea that music is a type of literature.  

The close relation between music and literature can be best explored, in my opinion, through poetry. Given that the oral tradition of poetry is strongly exemplified in hymns and chants, having such pieces distributed amongst the different Response sections is powerful. The fact that poems were often sung in history also brings my mind back to Bill Moyers’ interview of Bernice Johnson Reagon, and her idea that “When we sing, we announce our existence.” The use of voice, of song, of poetry, of literature, to demand to be heard is a practice that may be neglected by current generations yet is all the more powerful when used. 

The structure of this anthology, put together by Patricia Liggins Hall and a team of editors, was in no way an accident. According to, the call-and-response technique in music originated in Sub-Saharan Africa and was subsequently brought to the states with the slave trade. Every section of this anthology, or the Call, is led with lyrics of well-known hymns and several bars from sheet music. The poetic inclusions throughout give an overwhelming sense of emotion in an already melancholy and spiritualistic expression. The presence of the spiritualism and the Church in the States gave way to countless pieces about the mercy of God, the greatness of redemption, and the idea of a Promised Land. In the section of the anthology, “Voices of Slave Poets,” (69-105) under the Response: Black Literary Declarations of Independence, the celebration of Christ and His grace served as a strong will, a calling to higher power that one day might be reached. In several of these poems, many devices are used that are still common today, no doubt passed on through the generations. The use of repetition and rhyme in these pieces creates a rhythm, one that makes the telling of stories and morals easier to remember and forcing a heavier impact on the readers, who pass on the oral tradition.  

The musical element continues through the book, notably on page 214, featuring more bars of sheet music. More importantly, I believe, on the following page, there is a spiritual. Spirituals “contained hidden meanings, with the slaves’ longing for freedom couched in biblical symbols” (215). The example shown is that of a song that represented the coming of their “black Moses,” the historic and courageous Harriet Tubman: 

Dark and thorny is de pathway 

Where de pilgrim makes his ways; 

But beyond dis vale of sorrow 

Lie de fields of endless days. 

This song (or piece of poetry, depending on mode of delivery) contains a certain cadence along with its rhyme. The apparent notoriety of the piece no doubt has multiple reasons, though I think it suffices to say that the formatting of said poetry plays a major role in that fact. The symbolism of this spiritual has long outlived its need to be used yet serves as a strong reminder of the past and why its presence is reserved in history.  

The use of song continued to serve its purpose throughout the Civil War, as shown throughout the calls-and-responses put together by Patricia Liggins Hill. At this point, it appears as though generations had long picked up the traditions of those before them and begun to use them in their own way. “Go Down Moses,” a popular spiritual at the time, had been rehashed to reflect a new issue going on at that present. The new refrain sang as: 

Go Down, Abraham, 

Way down in Dixie’s land; 

Tell Jeff Davis, 

To let my people go. 

The idea of rehashing well known songs to fit a particular goal or statement is a standard practice among modern protests all over the world but seen often today in the United States of America, thus proving the pasts movements relevant and substantial. Following this period, with the Emancipation of the enslaved people of the South, even more spirituals made their way through the communities; notably, Wade in nuh Watuh Children, Steal Away, and You Got a Right. Recognizable today, I couldn’t help but to once again think back to Dr. Reagon, who had mentioned these in her interview with Bill Moyers.  

The Call named “Cross Road Blues,” brings us to more modern times, in which African American music and literature has found a new movement to embrace. The Black Arts Movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s brought a host of new voices and new forms of literature to the expanding community. With new year’s bringing new struggles on African American people, a boom in a new form of poetry took place. One that did not conform to traditional principles as they had in the past, but a style that still empowered the black voice and their heartbreak and sorrow, or their triumph and celebration. That trend continues even now, with contemporary artists putting out new works on their experiences as a black person in America.  

As I was constructing this paper, I came across the interview of Monique “Big Mo” Matthews on rhythm and poetry on pages 1876-1878. The last several lines are what struck me most about literature and music coinciding. In her words, 

“You have to have something that flows. 

You have to be def. 


I guess I have to think of something for you that ain’t slang. 

Def is dope, def is live 

when you say somethin’s dope 

it means it is the epitome of the experience 

and you have to be def by your very presence 

because you have to make people happy. 

And we are living in a society where people are not happy with their everyday lives.” 

  Her requirement of excellence in craft is what I would like to leave on for this paper. To celebrate happier times through music and poetry is essential, as she so correctly points out- people rarely appear to be happy in their daily lives. The oral tradition should not be lost to new generations, as the messages of the past and messages for the future ought to survive on. This anthology, which encapsulates so many incredible voices, is teeming with musical structure, and I believe that through that musical structure, more will be able to encompass the truth of African American literature and to celebrate it. 

Folk Art = Folk Aesthetic?

When I sought up the definition of folk aesthetic, I landed across the term “folk art”. There was not a specific definition for folk aesthetic but for folk art it stated “FOLK ART is an expression of the world’s traditional cultures. FOLK ART is rooted in traditions that come from community and culture – expressing cultural identity by conveying shared community values and aesthetics. FOLK ART encompasses a range of utilitarian and decorative media, including cloth, wood, paper, clay, metal and more” (International Folk Art Market). You may have noticed that folk art is written in full capital letters, indicating a wish for those words to be seen rather than disregarded. Call & Response within their inclusion of so many different works creates its own definition of folk aesthetic and in turn is its own version of FOLK ART. One that incorporates originality, compassion, and information. 

Folk aesthetics represents people, culture, and art. Within the text Call & Response the folk people are people of color and the aesthetics shown are seen through their songs, stories, and the people. Call & Response uses the voices and pieces of Black people to illustrate their lives as everyday people. On the back of the cover page it has a illustration of the Tribes of the West African Coast in the era of the slave trade. What this does for the reader is that it sets the tone of the piece. Call & Response is an overall masterpiece of the pieces that Black individuals have contributed to society. This illustration of the West African Coast in the era of the slave trade highlights the various cultures that make up the continent of Africa. For instance, it highlights Ibo, Fons, Fulani, and Susu cultures. As a reader this left an imprint on how I view this text, before it was a textbook that I had to purchase for class but now it is a piece that represents the people that I call my ancestors. 

Within the use of songs readers are met with lyrics that represent the internal struggle that people of color were subject to. In the song We Raise de Wheat it states, “ Wee raise de wheat, dey gib us de corn; we bake de bread, dey gib us de cruss; we sif de meal, dey gib us de huss; we peal de meat, dey gib us de skin and dat’s de way dey takes us in” (241). This song illustrates the day to day life of many enslaved individuals, “we baker de bread, dey gib us dee cruss” in other words represents the labor aspect of these people. Many enslaved individuals cooked the meals their enslavers ate but as a return they were left with scraps. However, one other thing Call & Response does that highlights aesthetically is keeping the songs original, they use the words “dey” and “dee” that represents uniqueness in the way many people communicated.

The song used above is different from Gospel songs that are sung with guitar and piano. Call & Response acknowledges their dependence upon bodily rhythmic movement in illustrating Black worship, love, struggle, and faith. Take My Hand, Precious Lord by Thomas A. Dorsey embodies compassion. He sings “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night. Lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.” (804). Dorsey’s gospel song in many ways can be viewed as a story. He tells a story about being tired and weak but within the same lines talked about wanting to be led to the light and wanting to stand. This relates back to the song We Raise de Wheat where there is a feeling of weariness but also of possibilities. 

The use of short stories in this piece of art allows for folk aesthetics to highlight the realities of individuals that can be seen today. When reading Call & Response we can get sucked into the world of the past, we read about people, songs that are not recent, etc. But these short stories are key in understanding the lasting effects of culture. In the story Everyday Use by Alice Walker we are met with a family that showcases many forms of identity and art. One of the main characters Dee has reached a point in her life where she wants to claim her new identity, not the one that was given to her by her ancestors “enslavers”. However, it is the inclusion of the quilts that is connecting. The quilts to this family of three consist of connections to the past that showcase the progression of the future. Using Alice Walker’s work, Call & Response has demonstrated the concept of identity seen through quilts. These quilts are FOLK ART, they are rooted in tradition and culture while encompassing a combination of patterns and cloths. 

Call & Response can be looked at as a quilt. It has many layers of information, patterns that are seen through songs, short stories, rap lyrics, etc. And it embodies the concept of time, 20 years from now another college student might purchase this book and leave with their own interpretation that adds on to the significance of this quilt (Call & Response). 

The Use Of A Knife

Everyone has their personal purpose for the use of a tool; a hunter would use a knife to kill prey, a butcher would use the knife to filet the hunter’s catch, a cook would use the knife to prepare the butcher’s meat, a mother would use the knife to slice pieces of the cooks dish. The knife was necessary from the moment the prey was caught to the final bite off of the mothers plate, but intended use was not consistent. The mother wouldn’t see the knife as the weapon used to slain the prey’s life, nor would the hunter attack its prey with the knife used to dine.

The ambiguity of Call & Response governing aesthetic serves to represent its universality, similar to the butchers, hunters, cooks, and mothers knife. It serves as a cultural bible used to be liberally interpreted by whoever flips through the pages. To some it may be a dictionary to be referenced by some of the great works of the African American story, or the manifesto to a stronger revolution than the ones displayed among the excerpts. 

Within the preface we read how the content of the anthology responds to important socio-political issues, phrasing its ability to reach generations prior to the works provided and beyond. Personally, the preface explains clearly that the anthology serves as something greater than a reference to great African American work. It is evident that the content is used to stir the cultural flame that exists within the pain, hurt, and pride among the Spirituals and Folk cry. 

It is a weapon waiting for its proper wielder.

The anthology’s greatest purpose is used to enlighten the reader of their incredible purpose- to act on the themes expressed through the excerpts. It represents a much more prominent cultural nationalist aesthetic than what it may be given credit for. To say that the excerpts are primarily used to reference the soul and heart of ancestral resilience is an extreme disservice to its true potential. While still understanding that the knife is utilized differently by the operator, I have internalized that everyone’s purpose with knowledge is different. Nonetheless, you do not need a curriculum to understand how you affect math; the dates in which the anthology was formatted displays a fountain of information for the youth to understand the relationship between the culture and its relationship it has with embracing black liberation and progression. 

The table of contents represents more than a traditional sequential order of events, it stylistically creates a foundation of revolution amidst great struggle and its reflections in today’s time. From the Slave Works songs dated between 1619 to 1808, to the lyrics of Gil Scott Heron or the terrors seen in the Bronx from the rhymes by Grand Master Flash. But Rakim is not just another individual in the greater war for liberation, he gets is musical hymns from lives before his, so it isn’t him that’s lyrical- that rhythmic regiment that white America has profitalized, navigates from the soul and a touch grace reigns out everytime we hear a verse. This book serves to academically, spiritually, and emotionally activate a revolution within ourselves.

In the same manner where Sweet Honey In The Rock can emotionally move someone by detailing the words of their song “No More Auction Block”, or Dr. C.J Johsnson signing of the “One Morning Soon”, or thousands of AME churches all over America, that chant these rhythms in their unique variations, telling the story of betterment within struggle. Call & Response is a compilation of art that is used to promote a grander revolution by igniting subconscious flames among generations of thinkers, scholars, and anyone with the will to strive for justice.

We see commonalities within the subheadings of the table on contents when attempting to understand their specific significance. When reading the categories for each time period, we can see the story among them. The format subjectively reads: poetic context to the development of political action. From Southern Folk Call for Resistance (235) and Northern Literary Response… Rights For Women (245) to the entire subheading under “Win the War Blues” to “Cross Road Blues”. The format provided by the editors is a map; a journey already started by our ancestors, and it is up to our ferocious interpretation of this art to truly utilize our blessed tools. 

I understand that purpose, I understand the map being drawn up within the compilation of our great works. The knife can be used to shape more than just a piece of venison, this particular knife can carve a nation for generations to come. Its content can fuel the fire for a march stronger than the untold freedom marches of New York City in the 60s, more than the 5 percent nations everlasting brotherhood that I have been taught to love in my city, more than the heaven sent instrumentals that have been echoed to the ears of the blind for centuries. Call & Response represents an empowering road map in this everlasting arc of justice; a guide in which my brothers and sisters can utilize to celebrate the voices prior to our interpretation of such wisdom and power.

The editors may have meticulously used Call & Responses ambiguity for the very purpose I have detailed, or the compilation has served greater meaning than its intended erection. Nonetheless, its aesthetic is beyond cultural nationalism, it is the almanac that WILL be used for tomorrow’s glorious revolution!

Whitewashed: The Fourth Step of Development

In W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, a chapter is dedicated to what DuBois refers to as “Sorrow Songs,” or what other Black scholars and figures have referred to as “spirituals” or “freedom songs.” Du Bois claims that there are four steps of development of slave songs: the first being “African music, the second Afro-American, while the third is a blending of Negro music with the music heard in the foster land.” DuBois hints towards a fourth step developing, in which white music has been “distinctively influenced by the slave songs or have incorporated whole phrases of Negro melody” (Hill, 751).

This excerpt from DuBois is featured in Call & Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, edited primarily by Patricia Liggins Hill, amongst an immense compilation of other African American works throughout history. Of all the recorded works collected in Call & Response, there seems to be a central focus on the ever evolving yet culturally rooted music of Black folk. Amidst the various literary works, Black music in the form of spirituals, slave songs, ballads, jazz compositions, and much more seem to dominate the governing aesthetic of what has shaped the African American experience.

The governing aesthetic of African American music is not limited to the songs provided in the anthology; it can even be found in other included African American literary works. For example, Frances Watkin Harper’s poem “Songs for the People” is included, in which she advocates for strength and importance of African American music in inspiring its people (Hill, 352-353). Countee Cullen’s “Colored Blues Singer” poetically expresses in his appreciation for Blues singers being able to turn sorrow into beautiful music (Hill, 914). Also included is a series of Michael S. Harpers’ poems, three of which directly address three highly influential Black musicians: John Coltrane, James Brown, and Bessie Smith (Hill, 1648-1652). Black music is everywhere throughout this anthology; it serves to credit Black populations and creators as well as protect against the increasing problem of DuBois’ fourth step of development in which white music has been not only influenced by Black music but has even attempted to take it over in some respects. DuBois merely hinted at this phenomenon in his time, but this influence on white music has increased to the point that Black musical creations have become whitewashed, sometimes to the point of being unrecognizable as Black creations. Thus, Call & Response’s governing aesthetic serves to protect and preserve against this.

 As a white young adult who considers himself well-versed in the music and musical trends of the past century (granted, mostly music created by white English-speakers, but most of which has been influenced by African American music), I immediately recognized that many of the songs featured in Call & Response were songs that I knew to be songs of African Americans. Songs featured in the anthology such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Wade in nuh Watuh Childun,” “Follow the Drinking Gou’d” were typical textbook-tunes that were taught to me and my peers as “spirituals” that I would always be able to immediately identify as African American slave songs. Other featured songs like “Respect” by Otis Redding (as interpreted by Aretha Franklin), “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown, and “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye were songs I’d known as unmistakable products of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. That being said, these inclusions should not reduce the anthology down to a basic collection of well-known works.

Even amongst songs that are generally recognized as Black literary works, the anthology’s collection serves to help listeners/readers make connections between works from different eras. Thus, certain artistic decisions from African American literary work can be traced back by exploring the anthology’s music. From personal experience, I had been long familiar with Richie Haven’s “Freedom” without knowing that the “Motherless Child” verses were based upon lyrical poetry spirituals from enslaved Africans until upon scanning the anthology (Hill, 51). As a fan of the song “The Weight” by The Band, I have appreciated Aretha Franklin’s cover for some time now; however, I had previously wondered why she changed the original lyrics “go down, Miss Moses,” to simply, “go down Moses.” This was clarified for me upon finding “Go Down, Moses” in the anthology, an old slave spiritual (Hill, 42). Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” along with an immense number of other African American songs reference the Jordan river. Upon review of the lyrics to “Hail Mary” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Deep River,” all 19th century African American spirituals, the artistic decision to use the Jordan river as a symbol in African American music is clear: it is a reference to birth, salvation, and rebirth amongst African Americans which served as a glimpse of hope (Hill, 237, 560). Lastly, I always understand the closing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as an empowering statement he developed himself: “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I am free at last.” I credited the audience’s reaction to this statement as an in-the-moment agreement with his assertion. Until I reviewed Call and Response, I had no ideathat both the audience’s reaction and MLK Jr.’s choice of words were due to a referential understanding of the post-emancipation spiritual “Free at Las’” (Hill, 558). Call & Response helps solidify connections between past and recent Black literary traditions, which in itself emulates the call and response technique typical of Black music from which the title gets its name.

While the anthology does a great job of cataloging and crediting the work of African Americans, what must not be ignored by audiences is that many of the songs included in the anthology have been adapted by white voices, just as DuBois hinted to. The white adaptation of Black music was inevitable; without searching for the origin, listeners are often under the impression that these songs are works of the white interpreters. Due to the predominantly white society that we live in, many listeners of these white artists may be unaware of the Black origins in so much of their favorite music.

There are countless songs, only which a fraction of is mentioned in Call & Response, that I was exposed to by white artists and likely would not have known were Black tunes if it weren’t for my personal research. “Crossroad Blues” by Robert Johnson is a perfect example: I was exposed to the song initially by Eric Clapton (a white blues guitarist from England who is no stranger to receiving criticism for stealing the work of Black artists) just as many other white audiences were and still are today. Another tune I recognized from the anthology was “Go Tell It on de Mountain,” which was introduced to me and many white audiences by Peter, Paul, & Mary’s rendition. Peter, Paul, & Mary’s cover is significant because they have rewritten the traditional lyrics to incorporate the lyrical adaptations of “Go Down Moses” into the verses and the chorus (Hill, 561). I was aware that “Go Tell It on The Mountain” was a historically Black song, but I had always figured that Peter, Paul, & Mary had created the altered lyrics themselves considering how active they were in the Civil Rights Movement. Upon perusing the anthology, I found the lyrics to “Go Down Moses” to be eerily similar to the Peter, Paul, & Mary version and concluded that the latter had heavily based their lyrics upon the traditional verses of Black folk (Hill, 42-44).   

I was taken aback by the prevalence of other familiar tunes that I had no idea were created by Black voices. “Back Door Man” and “Big Boss Man” initially caught my attention. I was very familiar with the cover of the former by The Doors and the cover of the latter by the Grateful Dead. My personal research had failed to prove that they were created by Black artists until now. Upon this realization, the themes of the songs made sense. The lyrics to “Back Door Man” are clearly an allusion to a white-female desire for Black men but the simultaneous necessity for Black men to pursue them in secret (Hill, 1386-1387). The lyrics to “Big Boss Man” can be applied on a more universal level, but when centered around the Black experience there is an additional layer of intersectionality that affects how the narrator is treated by their boss. “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” were two of the biggest surprises. I’d heard them both performed many times by Pete Seeger and his other white contemporaries involved in the Civil Rights movement, thus I always figured they were covering his songs. It was to my shock to find out that these were not songs written in solidarity, but instead songs that were written in Black struggle and the latter adapted to the Civil Rights movement with an alteration of “I” to “We” in the title and the lyrics (Hill, 1093, 1393).

My surprise continued when I took a deeper look into three other songs that were created by Black voices but are generally recognized as race-less songs today by many. “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho” is often recognized as an African American spiritual, but has somewhat been obscured from its hidden emphasis on race as it has become popular within white society (I also speak from personal experience, as I went to a 95% white high school and heard this performed countless times at chorus concerts with no mention of its Black origins). The lyrics seem to compare the biblical story of the Battle of Jericho with the social struggle against slavery in which, eventually the “walls come tumbling down” (Hill 47). “When the Saints Go Marching In” has also been obscured from its Black origins as many marching bands and white Christian gospels have given their takes on the song. However, the lyrics in the context of this anthology show one of the many examples of Black faith in a judgment day and recognizing that then, in salvation, they will be saved, especially during a time when many African American felt unwelcome on earth in America (Hill. 561). Lastly, “This Little Light of Mine” is a spiritual that has been enjoyed by many as a lullaby and even covered famously by Bruce Springsteen. However, Call & Response provides us with a richer history: it was adapted for the Civil Rights movement and included clear references to the ostracization and discrimination that Black people felt in the country (specifically in places like “Birmingham” and “Mississippi”) pitted against the glimpse of hope, or “light of freedom,” that they felt would help them persevere. Without the anthology’s categorization of this as a “Gospel Adapted for the Liberation Movement,” I wouldn’t have known the transformative history of this song, as I’m sure many other don’t (Hill, 1392).

The fact that so many of these familiar and even some popular tunes were rendered unrecognizable as African American songs signals the importance of music in an African American anthology. Music is one of the easier aspects of culture to obscure from its origins due to its universality, especially when incorporated into a society where the origin culture does not hold the power. As DuBois asks in The Souls of Black Folk, “would America have been America without her Negro people?” (Hill 754). In regard to music, I believe no, but it would be easy for those that don’t know the rich and influential history of Black music in this country to believe yes. This is where the importance of an inclusive anthology with an overarching aesthetic comes in. One cannot even skim through the table of contents of Call & Response without noticing the sheer amount of music and musical references that make up this anthology, much of which is likely unbeknownst to readers (especially those of newer generations) as African American creations. This governing aesthetic not only ties together the African American experience, but it also ties together many of the loose ends, many of the misconceptions, that individuals may hold. This is where Call & Response is unique: databases from the internet will satisfy seekers with quick answers that are stagnated by the illusion of understanding; this anthology, however, will force the average listener and reader to question their understanding of American music and to further ponder what hasn’t been challenged yet.