Oh, no. No, no, no. There’s too much to learn from examining that tension between the power and the impact of the art and realizing where that art comes from and what the impetus behind that art is. The best way to engage with twisted or otherwise problematic art, in my opinion, is to first off acknowledge that that art has an impact, hurts people, and understand that engaging with it could perpetuate some of the harm that that art is capable of doing, but flag it, warn it, put it off to the side where people can engage with it at their leisure, at their choice or at a point where they’re strong enough or capable of doing so, but then engage with it. There’s a line between respecting the work and honoring the person. You can respect the craft. You don’t have to put that person on a pedestal. Artists are human beings and that means you need to examine them in all their facets. You have to recognize that these are people and that the things that make them sometimes horrible people are sometimes the things that make them good writers or good artists and that’s what you want to engage with.–N.K. Jemisin, “N.K. Jemisin on H.P. Lovecraft”
On the first day of this class, we were presented with a collection of epigraphs to give us a peek into what we would be learning and focusing on for this semester. An epigraph is a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme. This class is a study on African American Literature and our epigraphs reflect that by, for the most part, focusing on African American voices and issues. Throughout the semester we have returned to these epigraphs again and again because they are a common thread throughout all of our texts and assignments, therefore, allowing us to make deeper connections between works than just “they both have a Black author.”
How it relates to Percival Everett’s The Trees
My chosen epigraph is the quote from N.K. Jemisin on H.P. Lovecraft and engaging with problematic art. Jemisin discusses art and its impact on people interacting with it. No matter when or how art is created, it is never created in a vacuum. Art is a product of its time as well as its artist’s personal beliefs and views. Over time views on different social issues shift and change as new generations establish themselves. H.P. Lovecraft is a great example of art being a product of its creator. While Lovecraft was one of the most influential authors of his time and a talented artist, he was also “a man who, in a 1934 letter, described ‘extra-legal measures such as lynching & intimidation’ in Mississippi and Alabama as ‘ingenious.’” making him one of the most racist authors of his time. These extreme views and the horror content of the majority of Lovecraft’s stories made his work difficult to engage with at times because it left the reader disgusted and uncomfortable.
As Jemisin says in the epigraph above, “The best way to engage with twisted or otherwise problematic art, in my opinion, is to first off acknowledge that that art has an impact, hurts people, and understand that engaging with it could perpetuate some of the harm that that art is capable of doing, but flag it, warn it, put it off to the side where people can engage with it at their leisure, at their choice or at a point where they’re strong enough or capable of doing so, but then engage with it.” throwing oneself into art can be harmful, and it is a good idea to slow down and read or engage with it at a pace that makes it more digestible. This epigraph overall reminds me that you cannot ever fully separate the artist from the art because it is a product of who the artist is and where they came from. Jemisin said, “You can respect the craft. You don’t have to put that person on a pedestal.” reminding us as readers that we can enjoy art and still criticize the artist, or vice versa because they are still human and they will make mistakes. One of the first pieces of text we engaged with as a group that supports this epigraph is Barkley Brown’s African American Women’s Quilting. The article on the different art of quilts reminds us that art can be misrepresented and misunderstood without context. One of the first things we discussed with the difference between the two styles- European quilt styling and African American quilt styling- was the visual difference of one following an expected pattern (European) while the other seemed almost random without understanding the culture behind the different rhythms in the quilt. (African American) Slowing down to remember the context between art and the artist has been integral to studying African American literature.
In the context of Percival Everatt’s The Trees, this epigraph reminds us to focus on the author and the reasons why he may write the way he does. Everett includes many uses of the n-word because he is making a point to his multiple audiences. He is using this repetition of an uncomfortable slur to be accurate and as authentic as possible for his Black audience. For his white audience that is not met with constant microaggressions in their daily life, Everett uses the uncomfortable fact that people in 2022 are still that racist and that slur is used in everyday conversations without a second thought. This proves the point by making white audiences feel the discomfort that Black people have had to live with every single day. Everett employs specific character dialogue to show characters starting to say the n-word and catching themselves partway through, further pushing the idea that they know it is not right to say it yet they still do it because they don’t believe that Black people are equal to them. This also shows the complexity of the language use because the characters are completely fine using the slur without a thought when around other like-minded people, but stutter to catch themselves when faced with a human being in the minority group that they are disrespecting. Everett knows that the use of the n-word on nearly, if not, every page of the book is uncomfortable for the reader because they are presented with the constant attack of the language. While Everett is writing for multiple audiences, he is especially focusing on giving his white audience a taste of how constant microaggressions in the life of a person who belongs to a minority group can affect them. Percival Everett shows us as readers that the purpose of art is to evoke emotions; be those good or bad. Everett displays this power through the use of the n-word. Art is often born out of pain and suffering; it is not meant to be entirely positive or beautiful. Everett knows that the purposeful consistent use of such an ugly and degrading word would weigh on the reader’s emotions. Often as a reader, I forgot that The Trees is set in the present era of 2020, and not way back in the 1920s. This was something that Everett wanted to evoke from his readers, he wants to bring attention to issues that are uncomfortable, and gruesome. In The Trees, Everett brings attention to the subject of mass lynchings across the country in the form of a murder mystery. These short chapters, usually two to six pages long give The Trees a fast and confusing pace. This is an entirely calculated choice on Everett’s part because it gives his white audience something to grasp and struggle with as they try to follow the plot and abundant character perspectives. This confusion is mirroring the feeling Black folks had when there were mass lynchings this uncertainty of never knowing who, or if you were next to be accused of a false narrative and sentenced to death. This discomfort for the multiple audiences is an integral part of Everett’s purpose in writing The Trees, he wanted to write a book everyone hated.