The Recurring Theme of Recursion & Institutionalized racism throughout Percival Everett’s Text

This semester has not only taught me the importance of African American literature and its impact but the struggles of African American individuals throughout history. By collaborating heavily with classmates and understanding their points of view on controversial events, I began to see past my own biases and truly recognize the significance of learning about African American experiences through literature. Specifically, one piece of literature that impacted my learning the most regarding African American perseverance was The Trees by Percival Everett, which is a mystery novel that focuses on the gruesome murders within the town of Money, Mississippi. Being enrolled this semester in the course African American Literature has allowed me to dive deeper into the topic of systemic racial injustice and connect it to course concepts such as the concepts of recursion and repetition. This intricate yet important topic was also analyzed frequently throughout Ron Eglash’s text African African Fractals, which allowed me to take my prior knowledge of the concepts of repetition and recursion. and then apply it to Percival Everett’s text by expanding on the repetition of transgressions against African Americans throughout history. 

Furthermore, The Trees is written about a subject that is, unfortunately, all but familiar to American citizens, which is the lynching and horrific murders of African Americans. The title can be acknowledged to have a double meaning, alluding to the actual trees the victims were hung from as well as the family trees that connect both the victims of these crimes and the offenders. The text starts off by telling the story of a young teenager named Emmett Till who is in Chicago for the summertime visiting family. However, when he was accused of flirting and inappropriately touching a white woman named Carolyn Bryant, he mysteriously is found murdered. When two detectives (Jim Davis and Ed Morgan) investigate another murder of a black man, the audience soon discovers that the heinous murder of Emmett Till can be seen as a catalyst for all the horrific murders of African Americans soon to come throughout the text. However, when the FBI gets involved in the murders due to the suspicion of hate crimes, special agent Herbeta Hind joins the mix. The novel, although filled with dark humor and profane language, ultimately ties back to the course epigraph discussed within class written by Toni Morrison, which is “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” Morrison is essentially illustrating how racism has infiltrated our education and we need to insert more diverse pieces of literature within our curriculum so students are more tolerant of other cultures. This quote by Morrison also suggests to the reader that racism is not randomly inherited, but rather it’s taught and institutionalized within our education system. We as students are taught to simply “tolerate” other forms of art that aren’t written by individuals similar to our culture because it’s “socially acceptable.” However, Morrison is demanding that not only students, but scholars as well should start viewing black literature as a serious form of art that has just as much significance as works that have been created by other well-regarded individuals. 

This epigraph relates to Everett’s text because although it would make us more content as a society to believe that the era of racism is far behind us, we are still living in it.  There are still a mass amount of black authors who don’t get the recognition they so rightfully deserve because of the stigma behind black literature being not “a serious, rigorous art form.” Similar to the appalling murders seen within Everett’s The Trees, even though we like to think these behaviors and mindsets are simply a thing of the past, history has a strange way of repeating itself. This concept of repetition or recursion is an extremely significant idea throughout black literature that needs to be thoroughly comprehended before diving into texts. Ron Eglash defines the concept of recursion as an “iterative feedback loop” that in some cases “continues forever” or “bottoms out.” (Eglash, page 17). In addition, Eglash in chapter 8 of African African Fractals also determined that there are multiple types of recursion, all three being extremely different from each other. One type of recursion frequently spoken about throughout the text, which is the weakest of all the different types, is cascade recursion “in which there is a predetermined sequence” that eventually bottoms out (Eglash, page 109). Eglash also mentions the concept of “nesting” which is conceptualized as loops within loops. 

This concept of recursion ultimately ties into the text The Trees by Percival Everett due to the recurring theme of social injustice against the African American community. Racism is like a never-ending loop that has continued to affect individuals for centuries. We would like to tell ourselves that transgressions such as lynchings and unjust murders of African Americans only occurred decades ago when the social climate was too uneducated to realize the true oppressive nature of the world. However, it’s terrifying to think that the crimes described in the text still occur today in the year 2022. Thus demonstrating how the maltreatment of African Americans can easily be compared to loop or recursion. In addition, another concept that should be considered when discussing recursion is the Sankofa bird. Discussed in-depth on the Carter G. Woodson Center website, this symbol is derived from the Akan tribe in Ghana and the translation of the word Sankofa is “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” is based on a mythical bird whose feet remain forward while its head is turned backward, signifying that an individual must always look forward and plan for the future. The Sankofa bird also signifies the importance of learning from the past in order to ensure a prosperous future. Once again, this concept correlates to the overall theme of the text by Percival Everett because readers must take reflect on the unjust and appalling murders of African American individuals within the text, because if we don’t learn from past mistakes made in history these killings with continue to act as a recurring loop. 

Furthermore, one excerpt from the text that effectively demonstrates this recurring loop of injustice is from chapter 72, where Everett wrote “‘unknown male is a name,’ the old woman said. ‘In a way, it’s more of a name than any of the others. A little more than life was taken from them.’” (Everett, pg 215) This powerful statement made by the old man displays to the reader how so many murders throughout history against the African American community have nameless victims. Unlike the other victims, more than their life was taken, but also their identity. Even in today’s world there continues to be an extraordinary number of Jane and John Does (unidentified bodies), whose names just get lost throughout history. However, it’s important to remember that we need to say and acknowledge the names of these victims. Without saying these names aloud, it makes it easier for society to continue to not take accountability for these racial injustices because not identifying a victim with their name makes it easier for their death to get lost in translation. It also makes it easier for society to dehumanize them, and ultimately forget about them. This is why Percival Everett includes pages worth of victims’ names throughout his work, so society can not only mourn the loss of these individuals but also finally take ownership of the ignorance that allowed these killings to continue on throughout history. Without taking ownership, these occurrences will only continue to loop or repeat themselves. 

Another topic considered to be a recursive loop in Everett’s text is the concept of police brutality against African Americans. Everett attempts to demonstrate to his readers that however unjust killings have occurred at the hands of citizens, just as many have occurred due to the ignorance of police officers. Everett portrays this message to his reader in chapter 33 where he writes “‘you should know that I consider police shooting to be lynchings.’” (Everett, page 103) This excerpt from the novel is signifying that systematic racism is often institutionalized and embedded into the laws our society is taught to follow. Everett is telling readers that just because a police officer shoots an individual, does not mean it’s justified killing. These rouge police officers are just as responsible for the unjust murders of African Americans as the individuals who choose to unlawfully lynch them. As a society, we would like to believe that racism within our police system is an issue of past due, however, the unjustifiable killings of African Americans by police officials still continue today, as we have seen in the horrific cases of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two African American individuals unfairly killed due to police ignorance. Ultimately, what Everett is attempting to relay to readers with The Trees is that if we continue to not stand up and attempt to learn something from these unjust police brutalities, they will continue to occur for many generations to come like a recursive loop.

Therefore, Percival Everett’s The Trees does an extraordinary job of connecting to the various concepts embedded within the course such as the course epigraph derived from Toni Morrison and the concept recursion. With these in mind, it’s imperative for readers of Everett’s novel to not get distracted by the immense amount of satire implemented throughout the text and to keep in mind that these brutal events being described unfortunately do occur in today’s world and will continue to occur if we fail to stop this cyclical pattern of wrongdoings. Failing to use these unjust killings as a learning opportunity for society to recognize its institutionalized racism should ultimately be seen as ignorance, rather than seen as simply a missed opportunity for change. Even though these brutal killings are described within a fictional book, readers should never fail to remember that the pages of names included with the text are the real names of individuals who have fallen victim to our prejudiced justice system, and we must continue to say their names in hopes to one day stop this recursive loop of discriminatory tragedies.

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