My Semester Story

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  (Links to an external site.) “N.K. Jemisin on H.P. Lovecraft”

Epigraphs can be defined as inscriptions carved usually into buildings, statues, or coins (Oxford English Dictionary). However, the definition goes far beyond that of an engravement. When applied to literary disciplines, an epigraph is a paragraph or line of text that serves to preface a larger text. Usually found at the beginning of a book, chapter, piece of poetry, or otherwise, an epigraph provides the audience with a suggestion with which to underscore their reading. Though its meaning may not seem clear initially, an epigraph will gain relevance as a reader moves through the text. For the shape of our course, the epigraphs were provided at the beginning of the class, with the purpose of guiding our learning as we moved through the different texts and conversations. For this assignment, students in this class could choose to focus on an individual epigraph from a handful of options. The course epigraphs, which can be considered at times as a singular unit and at other times as individual blurbs of text, serve to inform us as readers through challenging yet necessary topics of discussion. A question that arises in the consideration of epigraphs is why they are placed at the beginning of a piece rather than at the end. An epigraph could be compared to the way an appetizer relates to the main entree, a taste of what’s to come. This question, however, would suggest that they could just as easily be dessert. I argue that an epigraph is only as strong as the reader to whom it is offered. Its purpose is to spark reflection on the text overall, to keep the reader engaged and thinking while reading, and to bring the reader back after finishing. 

N.K. Jemisin, revered author of “The Broken Earth” trilogy as well as several other books, spoke on H.P. Lovecraft, a problematic author whose contributions to the horror genre have iconized him despite his troubling values in regard to race. Jemisin’s thoughts on the topic can be simplified as the famous phrase “separate the art from the artist.” She describes the distinction between absorbing the art and celebrating where it came from. In Jemisin’s description of the relationship between Lovecraft as a morally corrupt human being and his work, Lovecraft himself almost becomes an epigraph to his own writings. Jemisin suggests that readers use their understanding of Lovecraft as a person to inform their interpretation of his work, and to apply this elsewhere when dealing with problematic artists. Art is innately multilayered and complicated, it is in its nature to handle the seemingly contradictory fashion of simultaneous beauty and pain. It is the goal of art to move people, and movement is not purely positive. As Jemisin says, “…that art has an impact, [it] hurts people…” to acknowledge the power of the material people produce. A point she makes is to engage with the work despite the harm it does. She advises to flag it for its potential to cause damage, but look it in the face in order to dissect why it has the ability to cause that damage. Through thorough examination of the effect of art such as Lovecraft’s, work can be done to prevent future harmful or offensive works of art.

There are several ways that Jemisin’s stance can inform our reading of Percival Everett’s The Trees, mainly in considering the characters Gertrude and Mama Z’s actions. The plot of the novel brings forward an interesting suggestion: can murder be justified? And, if so, in what circumstance does that become the case? Gertrude and Mama Z inspire a string of murders as acts of revenge against the descendents of extreme racists, who often inherited their ancestors bigoted values. The nature of the killing mimics the brutal mutilation of Emmett Till, as well as starting with those both directly and indirectly involved with Till’s lynching. Grappling with the existence of art that causes pain, as Jemisin discusses with Lovecraft’s work, mirrors the struggle that readers partake in after finishing The Trees. I use the word mirrors intentionally here, as the two situations are inverses of each other; the tension of when the “art” and the “artist” do not seem to properly reflect each other. If impactful art can be created by a problematic person, then can vicious crimes be committed by good-hearted people? In other words, do our actions and the product of our actions define us, or do our moral alignments perhaps define them? This is the conflict that readers are left with, how can characters we grew to love and cherish be responsible for the horrible misdeeds that serve as the focus of the novel? Is it excusable given their circumstances, as victims of centuries worth of oppression? Or given the connection both the reader and other characters within the book have built and relied on? And again, is murder excusable at all?

It seems a reasonable assumption that officiants of the law should be a reliable compass with which to orient our moral standing. However, Everett reminds his readers that officers and investigators are simply people, just the same as any of us. It is arguably in our human nature to hold biases, and Everett makes a point to show that those that we depend on to uphold the law are no exception to that rule. Firstly, he establishes it in the overt racism of the white officers in Money, Mississippi. At several points within the novel, white officers discuss Jim and Ed in blatantly racist ways. Everett then includes in the novel a scene in which Jim, Ed, and Hind get pulled over, with no connection to plot development and purely for the sake of exemplifying the daily struggles that Black people face. The officer pulls their car over for going “two miles over the speed limit. Now that could be very dangerous,” (Everett 134). To prevent there being any confusion as to the nature of the situation, Everett has the cop say “Okay, y’all some funny darkies. Well, out of the car,” (Everett 134). It is only when the three investigators reveal their badges to the officer that he lets them go, but not before calling them “Stupid sumbitches,” (Everett 135). Once that end of the spectrum of possible biases is established, Everett goes on to reveal the other. In interviewing in order to further the investigation, Ed tells the wife of a victim that “Between you and me, I don’t even care who killed him. I just want to figure this mess out. It’s sort of my job,” (Everett 180). Ed’s surprising moral alignment lets the reader relax into the fact that these murders do not evoke the greatest sense of mourning. That, though murder and mutilation is wrong, these particular killings may not require grieving. It is Everett’s message that there are deaths more urgently in need of consideration. That if there is time at all to lament over the deaths of profoundly bigoted people, there is certainly time to properly mourn the countless Black Americans that suffer the same horrific fate.

Everett’s novel falls into the likes of classics that shape our understanding of the human existence. Posing a question that seems to have only one right answer, like can murder be justified, and planting the suggestion that there may be more ways to look at it is a difficult and commendable feat to take on. It lends to larger questioning of why humans moralize issues with such nuance, so much so that it should be far more difficult to generalize about. Turning to face the gray areas of life reveals more about humanity than any examination of black and white topics, especially when the lines are blurred within seemingly unambiguous issues. Everett bringing a question that our established morality automatically rejects into the forefront of our minds is a fascinating and necessary dissection of the implicit manner in which humans approach certain topics. Or, in other words, how for most people, Everett’s novel will be the reason behind the first time that they deconstruct their understanding of murder. That if we are to live in a world where there is no justice for innumerable senseless murders, why is there be an expectation to abide by a code of law that only targets or absolves certain individuals depending on the color of their skin? I mean not to defend murder in any regard or circumstance, but The Trees proposes an interesting grounds to ponder the biased nature of our justice system and in the structure of human morality. 

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