My Semester’s Story

surely i am able to write poems 

celebrating grass and how the blue

in the sky can flow green or red

and the waters lean against the

chesapeake shore like a familiar

poems about nature and landscape

surely        but whenever I begin

“the trees wave their knotted branches 

and…”      why

is there under that poem always

an other poem? 

–Lucille Clifton

The first week of the semester I did not see much purpose in this epigraph by Lucille Clifton or understand how it would carry itself through the entirety of our course, but as the semester is coming to a close, I am able to not only realize its significance but also how much of our reading and course concepts it can be connected to. Throughout the semester we touched on several course concepts that have not only deepened my understanding of African Literature, but also how these concepts can be connected to my practical life as well. This includes concepts such as recursion, sustainability, and good and bad faith. Admittedly, I struggled at first with how these concepts could possibly be related and why I needed to know them, but after wrapping up our course with The Trees by Percival Everett, it made me realize how these concepts can be intertwined and opened up my eyes to the true effect of failed sustainability, recursion, and administering bad faith.  

We defined sustainability in our collaborative essay as, “meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Although sustainability is commonly misunderstood as being strictly environmental, the pillar of sustainability we see in The Trees is social sustainability, which is defined by the website “Toward Sustainability” as, “maintaining and improving social quality with concepts such as cohesion, reciprocity and honesty and the importance of relationships amongst people. It can be encouraged and supported by laws, information and shared ideas of equality and rights.” In other words, the social pillar focuses largely on the idea of equality, something that most of society is lacking in Everett’s novel. Although Everett does not specifically mention the importance of social sustainability, he illustrates the significance of it by tackling a series of murders and makes it clear that the actions occurring both before and after 1913 have compromised the ability of future generations to live peacefully and equally in the country. 

Tracing back as far as 1913, where Mama Z began to keep track of lynchings, Everett illustrates the poor treatment that Black and Asian people received, and more specifically the violence that was inflicted on them. For the span of a hundred and five years that the novel focuses on, the treatment of minorities continued through the use of derogatory terms and Ku Klux Klan meetings still being held in Money, “We go back to the old, tried-and-true ways of our KKK forebears, the sacred ways, the ways of fury, fire, and the rope” (Everett, 97). Allowing for the continuation of poor treatment of both Black and Asian people to go unnoticed resulted in built up anger and a lack of justice for victims and their families, resulting in failed social sustainability and causing a spread of similarly described murders to take place across the United States. Due to a lack of cohesion, reciprocity, equality, and honesty, which have been defined as critical aspects of maintaining a social pillar, Gertrude, Mama Z, and eventually many others, find themselves forced to go to extreme measures to brings our attention to the large number of lynchings that was ignored by society. 

As we get deeper into the novel, it gets revealed that all of the victims from Money Mississippi have something in common; they come from families that were connected to lynchings in the past: “I’ll tell you what, though: if spirits are out for revenge, there’s going to be a lot more killing around here. Those spirits are going to have a field day around here. Every white person in this country, if they didn’t lynch somebody themselves, the somebody in their family tree did” (Everett, 102). This is the point in the novel where Everett allows readers to connect the motivation of the murders to past lynchings, but before we can discover who is behind these murders, the string of murders spreads outward and past the borders of Money Mississippi, illustrating an even larger problem at hand, “There weren’t enough troops. Colfax, Louisiana. Omaha, Nebraska. Tulsa, Oklahoma. Chicago, Illinois. Thirty-five White casualties. Panic in the streets. Rosewood, Florida. A mob of dead-eyed Black men left behind six dead Whites” (Everett, 294). By making the murders take place on a mass scale, Everett is illustrating a larger problem and not just one that we originally believed to only be taking place in a small town in Mississippi. 

While reading The Trees, I sat in shock, left wondering what single character or group of characters could be behind so many murders, assuming that each victim had to have some relation to the Bryants or Milams. It wasn’t until Everett described mobs of Black and Asian individuals that I realized the problem wasn’t small, nor was the problem really the people being murdered at all. This is where I was able to relate back to our course concept of recursion, which we defined as “a feedback loop,” or in other words, “defining a problem in terms of itself.” It wasn’t until I uncovered the plot of Everett’s novel that I truly understood the meaning of recursion, and how a problem can be defined “in terms of itself.” The real problem in the novel wasn’t the murders occurring, but instead the failed social sustainability on a larger scale, which in turn resulted in the murders. Going back to our course epigraph by Lucille Clifton, her last line, “but whenever I begin “the trees wave their knotted branches and…” why is there under that poem always an other poem?” finally began to click for me, realizing that she was showing the idea of recursion as well. As Clifton is beginning to write, “the trees wave their knotted branches and…”, she gets stopped abruptly, unable to continue without addressing the “other poem” underneath. The same holds true for Jim and Ed, who cannot possibly discover the answer behind the horrifying murders without stopping to identify the lynching victims of the past. Clifton’s last line is forcing us to notice that there are always underlying causes of everything, the same way Everett is forcing us to notice the inequality and injustice that resulted in the murders.

We saw something similar occur in Ellison’s Invisible Man, which helped to deepen my understanding of the effect failed social sustainability has. Although the result of not maintaining all three pillars was on a much smaller scale, Ellison illustrates the same concept as Everett does by also showing recursion through unfair and poor treatment of Black workers. The constant tension between Mr. Kimbro, Mr. Brockway, and the company’s union creates a feud that leads to a complete breakdown of the social pillar and eventually a literal explosion of a tank in the basement. The poor treatment of Black workers is clearly displayed through the language they use to describe them, “…you old-fashioned, slavery-time, mammy-made, handkerchief-headed bastard…” (Ellison, 26). It is clear here that the characters in Invisible Man are administering bad faith through their actions and even words towards other members working for the company, which doesn’t reflect the overall goal the institution is trying to achieve, and therefore, means their company was bound to fail, the same way the country was in The Trees. The real problem, and the main plot of the story wasn’t about the paint being sold, but instead the underlying problem of social inequality and unfair treatment, creating a feedback loop that parallels Everett’s. 

Once the underlying cause of the murders are revealed, as well as the fact that Gertrude and Mama Z are behind the murders of Wheat Bryant, Junior Junior Milam, and the other Milam in Chicago, it leaves Jim and Ed battling with the idea of good and bad faith. With failed social sustainability being caused by bad faith actions, it leaves the question of whether the response it created was done out of good or bad faith. Were Gertrude and Mama Z administering good faith through their actions? Did the fact that they were hoping to bring some justice to people who were lynched mean their actions were justified? Gertrude states, “Everybody talks about genocides around the world, but when the killing is slow and spread over a hundred years, no one notices” (Everett, 291). This leads us to another question, if those who lynched several men and women in bad faith, went unpunished, is it okay that Gertrude and Mama Z, possibly acting in good faith, go unpunished? This is a question that Everett leaves us to battle with ourselves as well and makes us wonder whether or not their response should be seen as acceptable. Although these questions are left unanswered, it’s important to go back to our very first day of class and slow down to consider the same for our own decisions and actions and ask ourselves similar questions in order to ensure we are acting out of good faith. 

At the beginning of the semester if you asked me to define sustainability, recursion, or good faith, I would not know how to respond, other than will a google search like our very first day of class; however, looking back at the progress made, I can now not only define these concepts, but also identify them, expand on them, and discuss the significance of them. I have come to realize that they’re not only important when it comes to understanding African American literature, but also when it comes to implementing them in my practical life. Social sustainability, for example, is key to success in so many aspects of life. Unfair treatment of any person would not only be administering bad faith but would also impact their life in a way that I am unable to truly understand. When looking at how my actions can affect others it’s also important to stop and consider the question of good and bad faith that Everett left us with in his novel. Having anything other than sincere intentions when interacting and maintaining relationships with others, would result in me failing to uphold the social pillar. Now although these ideas and statements may seem obvious, unfortunately I have come to realize that they aren’t to some. Although Everett’s novel is fiction, the horrifying language and actions toward Black and Asian men and women aren’t as fictional as I hoped they would be. Throughout this course and my reading of The Trees, I began to notice the recursion that is taking place in our own society today as well: the exact problem Everett illustrated. Living in a world where people are stereotyped, threatened, killed, and enslaved because of their race, with no justice and little outrage, how is it acceptable to ignore a problem this large? How is it that we can set future generations up for failure and then ask them to move on? These are questions that I am unable to answer, but ones that I am now aware of are even questions, and ones that through good faith, effort toward creating social sustainability, and by acknowledging the “other poem,” I hope to change.

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