The Broken Earth Trilogy as a Study of the Social Sciences

The Broken Earth trilogy tells a story rooted in the social sciences, its gripping plotlines and diverse, complex characters sowing the various branches, with observations and statements about systems of power and the imbalance of justice within these systems unfurling like leaves. 

To recap from my first reflective piece, social science is the study of human society and societal relationships and can be broken down into archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, law, politics, psychology, and sociology, to name a few. For N.K. Jemisin, who has a degree in psychology, her works commonly center around a social system in which, as Raffi Khatchadourian describes it after an interview with Jemisin, “the oppressed often possess an enormous capacity for agency—a supernatural ability, even, that their oppressors lack—but they exist in a society that has been engineered to hold them down. Eventually, the world is reordered, often with a cataclysm.

It’s not just the degree that makes this a subject of interest for Jemisin though. As a Black author, Jemisin is also conscious of the long history of the science fiction genre marginalizing minority writers, continuously failing these authors by putting white men at the forefront of who’s recognized within the genre. As one study of Jemisin’s trilogy presented through a masters thesis by Imogen Bagnall points out, “Science fiction and African-American interests were seen as mutually exclusive categories, as the most dominant representatives of the science fiction and fantasy author—and readership were white men. This assumption, however, is baseless, and is merely representative of the ethnocentrism and racial bias prevalent in almost all social and commercial spheres.

I noted in my reflection on The Fifth Season that Jemisin intentionally combats the racism within the genre by presenting a story told through “a slate of people of different colors and motivations who don’t often appear in a field still dominated by white men and their protagonist avatars,” as Vann R. Newkirk II wrote for The Atlantic. Reviewing the characters of the first novel, I focused on the three main girls and women, all described by Jemisin to be “Orogenes,” a race classified by their “ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events,” and how these characters document the systematic oppressions against Orogenes because of their abilities. While the Orogenes do not have visually distinct traits and can be from any region, the main characters are all “Midlatter,” which is a multiracial group. Perhaps this should have forewarned me for what we would discover later in the trilogy, which is that these three girls and women are actually the same person, just broken across periods of her life and accordingly narrated with or through the name she identified with during those times.

Crucially, though, the discovery that these three characters are all the same person does not diminish the character diversity in the novel. In fact, the character diversity increases as more individuals are introduced and the storyline threads deeper into Orgogenic history and beyond. 

During the time of the Orogenes, it is explained through stonelore that Orogenes are “born evil—some kind of agents of Father Earth, monsters that barely qualify as human” and that they are the reason why Father Earth seems to hate the human race, constantly waging war against humanity through brutal Seasons, which lorists say originates with the Orogenes separating the Moon from Father Earth, sending his child out of alignment.

By the third book though, it is divulged that before there were Orogenes, there were tuners who also had abilities and were created in the image of the Niess, a race who was tyrannized through war and defamed. Hoa, the immortal character who we discover has been narrating the sections of the novels told through third person, was once a tuner and he recounts that in the early years of his life, “It became easy for scholars to build reputations and careers around the notion that Niess sessapinae were fundamentally different, somehow—more sensitive, more active, less controlled, less civilized—and that this was the source of their magical peculiarity. This was what made them not the same kind of human as everyone else. Eventually: not as human as everyone else. Finally: not human at all.”

Reading through the abuses to both of these minority groups within the trilogy makes readers aware of the notion that “Trauma and oppression work cyclically, as each generation of oppressors infects the next with notions of prejudice and discrimination, and each generation of the oppressed are re-traumatised by the collective memory of the past,” as expressed by Bagnall. This cycle has been described before as a donut, which is depicted below. There are certain needs, built on social foundations, that all people have and, if these are not being met for all, a whirlpool of trauma is created. However, as seen with both The Broken Earth trilogy and the graphic, social institutions are not the only possible source for trauma since an abuse of the climate can also disrupt the “safe and just space for humanity,” meaning that resources have become so exploited that the Earth is endangered. With the trilogy, we see these lacking social foundations and ruptures of the ecological ceilings lead to the Seasons, a time when societies are forced to reset as the homes they built and the societies they formed are demolished by natural disaster. But each and every time, as we see by the end of the first book, society chooses to once again build the same social foundations and continue to overuse the materials the Earth provides. This is why, in the second and third books, Jemisin writes of love so powerful that it can shake the oppressive foundations society tries to rebuild during the most recent Season.

(Above is the donut graphic that Dr. Reitz introduced us to this semester.)

The first powerful love that Jemisin explores, based on the timeline of events in the novel, has lasted centuries, even as Hoa’s memories of his siblings have ebbed and receded in the vast ocean that is time. Since his existence was also built on social inequity, Hoa and his siblings lived in ignorance of the true severity of their situation until a woman named Kelenli was introduced to them and quickly became “something to lose” to Hoa. She also became a source of knowledge, and as the siblings learned about their conditions and where their siblings who had been taken away were sent, they found a collective desire to overthrow the system. In a heart-rending moment in book three, when the tuners resist at the same time the Moon does, resulting in is misalignment with Father Earth, Hoa recalls, “We entwine our presences in a layer of cold coal, which is perhaps fitting as Remwha sends a hiss through all of us like sand grinding amid cracks. It’s an echo of the static emptiness in our network where Tetlewha—and Entiwha, and Arwha, and all the others—once existed.”

Centuries later, we meet Nassun, the daughter of Essun and a crucial character beginning in book two, and witness her grief and fervent attachments as she learns that blood-related family isn’t always the strongest source of love. After her parents have tarnished her perceptions of the loving relationships they could have had with her, Nassun depends on Schaffa, a Guardian. In order to keep this love intact, Nassun essentially destroys the last Fulcrum, a sort of school where Orogenes were kept and forcefully bent to the wills of non-Orogenic people, when she realizes it was what made her mother “something else” and “wrong” in the sense that she couldn’t love Schaffa, who was also her Guardian, like Nassun does. Although Nassun did this to prevent her love for Schaffa from souring, it also marks the end of the Fulcrum’s presence at this point in the timeline.

Now, the main character Essun experiences many different loves. She loves her children, her romantic partners, and has even come to love the people in the comm that she has been a part of throughout much of the Season. The most powerful attestation of love in her life though is actually her death, when she meets her daughter again after years of searching and, even though they have different motives and beliefs on how to end the Season, Essun tries to laugh with pride as she dies, narrated as, “So rusting amazing, your little girl. You are proud to lose to her strength.” It’s these actions that make Nassun consider that “the world took and took” from her mother as well, though “for some reason that she does not think she’ll ever understand…even as you died, you were reaching for the Moon.” No matter her understanding though, Nassun ultimately decides to use her abilities to bring the Moon back into alignment with the Earth as her mother intended, which ends the Season and will predictably alter social foundations.

You might notice, if you had read my first reflection on The Broken Earth trilogy, that I’ve hardly mentioned geology compared to how in-depth I explored it before. This is partly because I think that after Jemisin drew the attention of readers and proved her wealth of knowledge and ethos with the first book, she could play around with the science fiction elements. Of course, these elements are still rooted in real geology, like the concept of the moon being separated from the Earth and causing the Seasons coming from a question at a NASA workshop that Jemisin attended. Mostly, though, it’s because sociology becomes a driving force as the trilogy progresses, as Essun makes more relationships and experiences more love, which invigorates her desire to quake unjust social foundations and assert her power after others have wrongfully suppressed it for far too long.

Love, Hate, and Justice through the Earth

There have been few books in recent memory that have gotten me to think quite as much as N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy. A grand fantasy tale involving its own form of magic in various forms as well as fully fleshed out histories and societies of its own, the series had me gripped from the very start and held my attention for much of its duration. There are several different themes at play throughout the book, themes that inform the decision making and development of many characters in the series. And many of these themes can be traced back to how they relate to the very earth itself, as well as the magic-esk orogeny used to control it. Orogeny is many things in the world of the Stillness, inspiring awe and fear, hate and reverence. But the aspect that I focused on for much of my early readings of the book was the sense of justice that came bundled along with it. What I had focused on originally had been the power dynamic between the orogenes and the stills, those with and without the ability to control the earth respectively. How the expected dynamic between the two groups had been turned on its head as those with these powers were hunted by those who lacked them. And though my thoughts on the world of the Stillness have changed, the many ways justice, or the lack of it, is embodied by the earth and orogeny do much to embody my understanding of the books and their characters. 

The focus of the series has to do with orogenes and their interactions with both the earth itself as well as the people that they share the Stillness with. It is these interactions that influence much of what is considered just within the world, and my perception of it has evolved along with the characters’ understanding of it. To start, the relationship between the stills and the orogenes is one where justice is thrown to the wayside. Orogenes are feared and despised by those that lack their power and are hunted simply for existing. Whether or not their fear is based on actual backing or purely superstition does not matter to them, as their fear only adds to their hatred. Several examples of this blind hatred can be seen throughout the books, particularly in the third book, The Stone Sky. At the end of many of the book’s chapters, there will be a historical passage about an instance where an orogene revealed who they truly were through use of their powers, only to be brutally tortured and murdered by the stills they had known before. Many of these orogenes use their powers to help their villages, only for their kindness to be met with hate and violence. While my understanding of the power dynamic between these groups at the start of the series was already clear, the plethora of examples that Jemisin provides the reader only serves to further prove the unjust nature of this hatred; how it stems from a lack of understanding, and how the innocent are more than often slaughtered simply for the crime of existing. 

Regarding this sense of justice, there is another relationship worth exploring within the Stillness; that of the relationship between humanity and Father Earth. Within the story, it is revealed that the earth is more than just soil and minerals, but has a consciousness of its own. It is the force that controls the Guardians, as well as the force responsible for all the natural disasters that humanity faces on the surface. Father Earth, as the earth is called by the characters, seeks revenge on humanity for the loss of his child, the Moon. Though the people alive now were in no way responsible for the loss of the Moon, Father Earth continues to barrage the surface with these attacks through the fuel of revenge. And though the consciousness embodying the earth may feel as though these attacks are justified, there is no justice to a natural disaster. A natural disaster is indiscriminate in who it hurts, there can be no targets of the damage that they cause. The earthquakes and tsunamis that the people of the Stillness face care little whether one is a still or an orogene. And this disregard for life is reflected much in the real-world consequences of natural disasters. As me and my group saw when studying the effects of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the loss of life there was in no way just. The people who lost their lives were not killed for any higher purpose. And even beyond the senseless death, the amount of history that was lost through the destruction of art was indiscriminate as well. There is no justice to natural disasters, and whether they are fueled by revenge or not, the death caused by natural disasters can never be justified. 

Aside from Father Earth, the other force that takes the movement of the earth into their own hands is the orogenes. And being the ones who get to choose how the earth moves at many times, their own personal sense of what is right and wrong gets put to the test once they set about using their powers towards some sort of goal. A clear example of this can be seen at the very start of the first book, The Fifth Season, when the character Alabaster decides to destroy the city of Yumenes. Alabaster, after having suffered for many years from working under the Fulcrum, finally decides that enough is enough and chooses to destroy the capital city using a fault line. To do so, he uses the orogeny of the many node maintainers to fuel his own, killing them as a result. However, he is successful, and before long the entirety of the Stillness is plunged into a Fifth Season that will last for thousands of years. Alabaster’s actions in this moment are motivated by many different factors, but despite all the death he inflicts upon the world one of his main motives is love. He holds so much love for the node maintainers who have been forced by both the Fulcrum as well as the whole of society to serve as little more than tools, so much so that he would justify killing them as an act of mercy. Though the loss of life in any sense is inherently bad, Alabaster takes the justice of the world into his own hands and chooses who is worthy to live or die, motivated by hate, love, or even a mixture of both at times. It is not his right to decide what is morally correct, and yet through his connection to the earth he is allowed the opportunity to do just that. 

Regarding the idea of love and hate interacting through the medium of orogeny, there is no character in Jemisin’s trilogy that embodies this quite like Essun. Essun’s journey across the Stillness is motivated by a multitude of things, constantly changing as more and more information comes to light. Her journey at first is motivated by the desire to kill her former husband for murdering their son, and to save her daughter from him. As the plot progresses, though, and Essun becomes more and more intertwined with the people of Castrima, Essun’s focus later becomes keeping her fellow com members alive, even at the cost of halting her search for her daughter. But even though her direction changes, her motivations are still tied to both love and hatred. Being one of the most powerful orogenes of all time allows her the ability to hold the fate of many people’s lives in her hands, and oftentimes she teeters between wanting to cut all ties or create friendships, such as when she uses the force of her abilities to intimidate the Castrimans to follow her orders. These values of love and hate also define much of her relationships with others, often holding intense feelings of hate towards people like Jija before she later realizes that it is worth more to love those she still has. The worth of each value is sometimes ignored for the other, but Essun always seems to bounce between the two. And as these values are so impactful to Essun as a character, her orogeny is also intertwined with them. Essun proves time and time again that she is willing to cause destruction if it is for the sake of those she loves, or even as a weapon against those she hates. The earth becomes a vessel for her, defending or attacking those who she deems fit to protect or attack. While Alabaster’s sense of justice is explored in his decision to destroy Yumenes, Essun’s morals are put to the test around every corner of the book, all the way to the end where she is faced with the decision of stopping her daughter from destroying the world or fighting to save it. Her journey evolves alongside her abilities, but her connection to these values of love and hatred remain constant throughout her story. 

Orogeny is an interesting basis for a story. While supernatural abilities are common in the world of literature, the way that the world of the Stillness has evolved around the presence of this ability and the people who wield it reinforces its importance. But the influence of the earth is revealed by the third book to be so much more than just the materials of orogeny. It comes to represent so much for each of the characters, ranging from morality to revenge to even the simple feeling of love, serving as the connection between characters. The world of The Broken Earth Trilogy is one that is filled with strife. With chaos and injustice, values that can unfortunately be seen reflected in our own world. But after having finished the series, I can say that there is also hope in unlikely places. There are people who try to defy the unfair odds. And there is love, love between people and love through the earth. Jemisin has crafted a world that is not black and white and shows the readers the truth of how things are through a fantastical lens. It was a joy to read the series, and I can only hope that the value of love that she explores can make its way more and more into our world. 

Love and Catastrophism Within The Broken Earth Trilogy

In my first ThinkING essay that I published back in February of 2022, I chose to discuss the loss of power the orogenes experience as a result of the skills that are bestowed upon them and how this loss compels them to use their orogeny as a means to exact justice within an oppressive system, in relation to the first novel of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, The Fifth Season. Throughout my essay, I focused on Jemisin’s exploration of the duality of orogeny as she illustrates how the orogene’s power is restrained in an effort to prevent destruction and turmoil, while demonstrating how this limitation of their power can be perceived as a forceful attempt to control them. Although I conveyed my thoughts on power and justice within the novel, I neglected to incorporate a geological concept to substantiate my thinking about them. Towards the end of my first essay, I briefly mentioned the concept of catastrophism to illustrate how the orogenes may be perceived as catastrophes, but I never fully explained or expanded on my thought process. Thus, as I have been given the opportunity to reflect and reconsider the essay I wrote after reading the Broken Earth Trilogy in its entirety, it is my belief that Jemisin uses the concept of catastrophism to illustrate the orogene’s response to the injustice and loss of power they endure with love as their driving force. 

Throughout the Broken Earth Trilogy, it is clear from the first novel, The Fifth Season, that there is an injustice within the system of the Stillness. Jemisin is quite transparent about the overt distinction between the stills and the orogenes, as the latter are trapped within a continuous cycle in which they experience the loss of power and are denied several forms of freedom. The most distinct example of this is the Fulcrum where orogenes “are legally permitted to practice the otherwise-illegal craft of orogeny under strict organizational rules and with the close supervision of the Guardian order” (The Fifth Season 460). Thus, as I mentioned in my first essay, once an orogene enters the Fulcrum they are stripped of their power and their humanity. Jemisin provides her readers with an insight to this order of life within the Fulcrum through Damaya’s experience there. She learns quite quickly of the injustice of the system she has been placed in as she is informed that she will be judged by the behavior of the other children within the Fulcrum and that “friends do not exist. The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not children. Orogenes are not people. Weapons have no need of friends” (The Fifth Season 297). Therefore, it is quite evident that the Fulcrum is an oppressive system that treats the orogenes as less than human. 

Although the Fulcrum is not the sole reason orogenes are compelled to use their orogeny as a means to exact justice for the loss of power they experience within their lives, it does perpetuate this loss and illustrate the severity of the injustice they endure. Therefore, one could imagine the type of response an orogene may have when this lack of power and justice affects the ones they care and love for. Over the course of the Broken Earth Trilogy, Jemisin displays the lengths some of the orogenes will go to in an effort to protect the ones they love and to exact justice for those they can’t protect. In doing so, it appears as though she uses the concept of catastrophism, a “sudden, typically unpredicted natural disaster that leads to abrupt changes in a culture or lifestyle that has been stable for a long time,” as Amos Nur and Dawn Burgess define it in the introduction to their book Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God, to illustrate the intensity of their response. With that being said, the first glimpse at a catastrophic response by an orogene to the lack of power and justice is within the first novel of the Broken Earth Trilogy, The Fifth Season, when Essun uses her orogeny to ice the entire town of Tirimo. Jemisin begins this novel describing the way Essun “cover[s] Uche’s broken little body with a blanket–except his face, because he is afraid of the dark” (The Fifth Season 1) after she discovers his dead body on the floor in the den of their home. As the story progresses, Jemisin discloses that the cause of Uche’s death was his father, Jija, discovering that he was an orogene, thus illustrating the fear the stills have towards orogenes and how they use their fear to justify their treatment of them. Furthermore, Essun is aware that Jija is responsible for killing their son and uses this anger she has towards him, as well as the love she has for her son, as her motivation to avenge Uche’s death and to exact justice for the abuse enacted upon all orogenes. In doing so, Essun uses this moment as an opportunity to chastise all of Tirimo even though “Jija’s the one to blame for Uche, some part of [her] knows that–but Jija grew up here in Tirimo. The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around [her]” (The Fifth Season 57). Thus, Essun acknowledges that yes, Jija was the one responsible for murdering Uche, but he is a product of his environment–an environment in which he was taught to loathe the orogenes because of the skills they possess. Therefore, “these people killed Uche. Their hate, their fear, their unprovoked violence. They. (He.) Killed [Uche]” (The Fifth Season 58). As a result of this, Essun uses her orogeny to ice Tirimo, “from your feet, the circle of frost and swirling snow begins to expand. Rapidly” (The Fifth Season 58). Essun’s ability to destroy Tirimo and cause an abrupt change within the comm illustrates how orogene’s response to a lack of power and justice can be perceived as a form of catastrophe, with regard to the way in which their orogeny operates. For instance, as I mentioned previously, Nur and Burgess defines catastrophism as “sudden,” while in The Fifth Season Jemisn also defines orogeny as “sudden” when Essun begins to ice Tirimo, “that’s why people like these fear people like you, because you’re beyond sense and preparation. You’re a surprise, like a sudden toothache, like a heart attack” (The Fifth Season 56). Thus, it appears as though Jemisin uses Essun icing Tirimo as a form of catastrophism to illustrate an orogenes response to a lack of power and justice, as well as to demonstrate how the love Essun has for her son was the catalyst for her response.

Like mother, like daughter, another instance in which the concept of catstrophism is used to illustrate an orogene’s response to the lack of power and justice is displayed in the third novel of the Broken Earth Trilogy, The Stone Sky, through Nassun’s character and her relationship with Schaffa. Jemisin’s readers are first introduced to the connection Nassun and Schaffa form in her second novel of the trilogy, The Obelisk Gate. Throughout this novel, Schaffa becomes a true parental figure to Nassun as he demonstrates how much he loves and cares for her by taking her in at Found Moon and protecting her from her father, Jija. Nassun is quick to return this affection to him as she is very adamant about healing him and “offering herself” to soothe the discomfort of the corestone in his head “as it punishes him with lashes of silver pain” (The Obelisk Gate 301). The connection between the two of them only grows stronger over the course of The Obelisk Gate and throughout The Stone Sky as Nassun discloses “you’re the only one I love, Schaffa” (The Stone Sky 91), while also promoting him to a new role within her life, “you’re not my guardian anymore, you’re…You’re my new father” (The Stone Sky 199). Thus, it becomes evident that their love for one another makes their situation more complex as Nassun is left to make the difficult decision of keeping Schaffa alive or ending the world’s hatred–she cannot have both. Ultimately, Nassun’s love for Schaffa serves as her motivator in deciding to “change the world” (The Stone Sky 344) in order to keep him alive and in her life. However, as Nassun begins the process of activating the Obelisk Gate, Essun appears in Corepoint before she can open the Gate and turn herself into stone. In this moment, in which Essun intervenes in an attempt to prevent her daughter from killing herself, it is clear through Hoa’s narration that they are both motivated by their love, “she is just as determined as you. Just as driven by love–you for her, and she for Schaffa” (The Stone Sky 383). Thus, Essun comes to the realization that if she continues to fight Nassun on her decision to open the Gate and protect the one she loves they will both die, so she gives up and releases her control of the Gate. It is because of Essun’s sacrifice that Nassun decides to complete her mother’s task and use the Gate to return the Moon to orbit. In doing so, Nassun “ends the Seasons”and “fix[es] the world” (The Stone Sky 387). Therefore, it is my belief that Jemisin uses Nassun’s activation of the Obelisk Gate as a form of catastrophism to illustrate her response to a lack of power and justice. The opening of the Gate causes an abrupt change to the society they live in, just as a catastrophe “leads to an abrupt change in a culture or lifestyle” (Nur and Burgess). Although Nassun could not protect Essun from turning herself into stone, she uses this loss as her motivation to exact justice for all her mother endured as an orogene.

Thus, after reading the Broken Earth Trilogy in its entirety, it has become clear to me that love is a very powerful concept that has the ability to motivate and create change in a world that lacks power and justice. I’ve learned through Jemisin and the characters she created within this trilogy that even “when the world is hard, love must be harder still” (The Stone Sky 321).

The Reality of Balance and Love in The Broken Earth Trilogy

Love and geology may not be synonymous, but their relationship in N.K. Jemisin’s, The Broken Earth trilogy, is surprisingly solid. The characters in Jemisin’s trilogy lived lives where unpredictability was considered the norm. Because of this less-than-fortunate lifestyle, the love stories that came about were always faced with challenges that were not necessarily solvable. Only the healthiest, wealthiest, and most intelligent could survive during the seasons, and not every family/relationship made this cut. Sacrifices are often non-negotiable and intense, as Essun experienced first-hand many different times. One such sacrifice included suffocating her own child rather than letting him be taken by the Guardians of the Fulcrum. This act also drove a wedge between Essun and her child’s father/her long-time friend, mentor, and lover, Alabaster. Sacrifice is necessary in unpredictable times. Attachment without fear is a luxury few, if any, can afford.

In my original ThinkING Essay, I chose to write about balance. While the topic of balance remains an important part of the trilogy and relates closely to geological concepts, it is not always realistically attainable. Keeping the Earth restrained to create forced equilibrium will ultimately result in retaliation. As the series progressed, ideas and opinions began to shift. The use of aggressive force to keep balance, or in some cases love, will often end up backfiring. Each relationship that Essun experiences has some sort of impact on her, and causes her life to shift in one way or another.

Every character, in this trilogy as well as in reality, has their own story. Motives cannot always be understood, and decisions cannot always be explained without context. Certain things require trust, which is a difficult request to make when the world is constantly changing and falling apart around these characters. The unique romantic relationships that Essun experiences throughout The Broken Earth trilogy are each important to her development in different ways; with the ever-present yet slightly looked-over message of love being one of the only themes that stays consistent throughout the series. Balance, love, power, and justice are all products of life on Earth.

Balance and safety are something that many people crave, and many people take for granted. Essun had spent most of her life lacking both, or having one and not the other. Orogenes are very rarely safe from threats and unprovoked attacks. Additionally, while the Fulcrum did technically offer young Damaya a form of balance, her safety was never guaranteed. In fact, her first introduction to the Fulcrum was Schaffa, the perfect example of what the Fulcrum represents. Polite, direct, and professional outwardly, but cruel, manipulative, and power-hungry inwardly, Schaffa had Damaya wrapped around his finger almost immediately, as he offered what she lacked: a home with others like her. However, to teach her control, Schaffa broke her hand. Love and power go hand in hand, and Schaffa is a character that knew how to play the game. Offer just enough love while instilling just enough fear. Damaya was immediately attached to him, and probably would have been to anyone who treated her halfway humane. 

There is a strong possibility that Essun reverted back to her younger self and the way Damaya loved. Syenite branched out and finally allowed herself to feel passion and even a bit of safety and comfort. Yet it was all ripped away from her just as her new life was truly beginning. Essun was stunted by her childhood, and repeated the behaviors of the Fulcrum with her daughter Nassun, which did not necessarily work out any better than it did for Essun. Essun had a traumatic childhood, but she didn’t change much for her own daughter. Many children who experience abuse don’t realize what it was until much later in their lives, and by the time this happened for Essun, Nassun’s image of her was already scarred. 

The relationship between Syenite and Alabaster was both tumultuous and beautiful. They were lovers by instruction, and with this assignment understandably brought about feelings of resentment. Forced breeding does not emanate a theme of romantic love, and forced collisions create a reaction that cannot be so easily controlled. Syenite and Alabaster were two of the most powerful orogenes, but with two strong personalities comes stubbornness and conflict. Syen and Alabaster always felt strong emotions towards one another, but these emotions started as negative ones, before slowly turning into love. This love was not strictly romantic, and their relationship always had a deep friendship at its core.

Once they began to trust each other and Syenite started to learn more about the true nature of the Fulcrum, she and Alabaster became a nearly unstoppable duo. Syenite did not ask questions before Alabaster, she simply did what she was told and did it well. Alabaster was a disruptive force in her life, but he also saved her from being a manipulated slave of the Fulcrum for the rest of her life.

Syenite’s time with Innon was the closest she came to a truly balanced life. She could still have Alabaster, one of the only people who really knew her and what she went through, but she could also have a passionate romance with Innon. Innon was the first time that Syenite really let go, and he was also part of her son’s life. While the relationship was short-lived and Innon died like most others in her life, he made a lasting impact on both Syenite and Alabaster that only furthered their intense connection.

Essun’s marriage to Jija was very representative of her craving for normalcy and escape from the chaos and loss in her life. With him she created a new family, became a teacher, and tried to move on. Yet, we cannot always outrun our past, and it will follow until it has been put to rest permanently. Essun could not hide her orogeny forever, especially when it manifested in her children and resulted in Uche’s death at the hands of Jija. Jija’s violent side was something that Essun had not seen before, and it shattered the illusion she had fought to create. She reverted back to her roots, and her decision to kill Jija was quick and solid.

Lerna was a steady presence in Essun’s life. He knew what she was, he was the one who found her after Jija murdered her son, and he provided her comfort in some of the most difficult times of her life. He loved her without an arm and without a breast, and did not show her resentment for the fact that she would not be able to give birth to his child. Lerna and Hoa were some of the most balanced, safe characters in Essun’s life, and also the two she seemed to feel the least passionate about. After Lerna’s sudden death, it took her a moment to even realize he was gone, and then she proceeded to say, “I didn’t even think I loved him.”

Hoa was the safe option for Essun. He was steady and reliable and she would not lose him. He was solid, in more ways than one. Hoa cared for Essun in a way that she was not used to. She was his priority, and he would have done anything to keep her safe. It took Essun a long time to realize this, as years of trauma had not allowed her to imagine a future with someone who could not die and leave her all alone.

Essun spent so much of her life being controlled, that her difficulty with being alone is understandable. The amount of loss and abandonment that she experienced was astronomical. She didn’t realize until she was being asked to make decisions with Ykka that she had choice and free-will in her life. After Schaffa and the Fulcrum, Syenite/Essun jumped from one relationship to the next, looking for comfort and understanding. Essun married Jija after she had lost Alabaster, Innon, and Coru. He was supposed to be her new beginning, but instead ended up killing one of her children and triggering trauma that he could never possibly understand.

Exploitation of both people and the Earth is abundant throughout the trilogy. Nearly everyone has a goal, and for many of the characters this was simply survival. For others, it was domination, power, and control over all. Jemisin states many times throughout the trilogy that the Earth “does not like to be restrained.” Using the Obelisks to fulfill a selfish agenda, and destroying Earth’s people and places in the process is a despicable act that impacted/ended countless lives. Love is arguably the deepest emotion that living beings can experience. Essun had to navigate through surviving life while also finding moments of happiness. She allowed herself to truly let go and love reluctantly, but her moments with Alabaster, Innon, Coru, Ykka, Tonkee, etc. showed her that life did not always have to be completely dark and isolated. Balancing pain and contentment is a difficult act, and the characters of The Broken Earth trilogy passionately represented the struggles of humanity. While a shake in Jemsin’s world results in mass death, the shakes and bumps in everyday life cannot be discounted either. Darkness is different for each individual, but everyone deserves to find a community that will embrace them. As Essun reflects at the end of The Stone Sky, “You keep yours open, though, as the world goes dark and strange. You feel no fear. You are not alone.”

Generational Trauma and Cyclical Violence: The Creation of a ‘Broken Earth’

In Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, continuous geological disasters represent the cyclical violence between orogenes and stills. This violence becomes cyclical when— to create autonomy—the bullied become bullies. In my first essay, I explored how Jemisin uses the orogenes to frame the concept of “scapegoating”. I stand by my initial claim that self-preservation is, as with all survival mechanisms, an intrinsic and hard-wired urge. Jemisin says it herself in The Fifth Season, “frightened people look for scapegoats”. She addresses a universal truth: vulnerable populations always get the brunt of the blame. As a result of the fears of stills, orogenes are societally conditioned to believe that they are evil. Ultimately, this image of the orogenes becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ is perfectly encapsulated by Nassun, as she says “It’s like everybody wants me to be bad, so there’s nothing else I can be.” The first book in the trilogy provides a setup for this concept; it discusses the ways that the orogenes are dehumanized and, consequently, sacrificed. After revisiting The Fifth Season with the context of the other two novels, I realize that Essun uses anger as an expression of autonomy. She is not awarded autonomy, so she must pry it out of unwilling hands. By exacting violence, Essun harbors the control she never received as an ostracized child. However, she shows us that violence is a dead-end and nonviable coping skill. 

The Fifth Season provides insight into the nature of revenge. Unless someone breaks the cycle of violence, healing is impossible. For instance, Essun often lets her rage and grief consume her, using orogeny to kill people and destroy towns. She even goes so far as to smother her own child, which seems to be a response to her own traumatic childhood. When she first meets Schaffa, she is told “Don’t think unkindly of your parents, Dama. You’re alive and well and that is no small thing”. This idea—that parents do not owe their children love and affection— creates a deep wound. It is also revealed that she is locked in a barn, “freezing and pooping in a corner”. She suffers abuse through both emotional and physical neglect; this dehumanization follows her well into adulthood. When she discovers her son has been murdered and her daughter is gone, it seems to reopen this wound of abandonment. The cycle continues, and she resorts to murder and destruction as coping mechanisms. Essun never allows herself to sit in anguish, instead, she violently blocks it out. Although her violence can be an outlet for difficult emotions, it also becomes a form of maternal protection. When she makes the decision to kill Coru, she thinks “Better that a child never have lived at all than live as a slave…Survival is not the same thing as living”. In her own way, Essun tries to break the cycle of violence. In her mind, killing Coru is the only way to stop him from experiencing the hurt that she did.

Between the first and second book, Essun realizes the full weight of generational trauma. In the Broken Earth trilogy, Essun and her daughter suffer from the same hatred that is deeply ingrained in their environment. Essun’s abusive childhood makes her prone to coldness and a stranger to mother-daughter affection. She is shunned from parental love the very moment her orogeny is discovered. The feelings of abandonment only persist when Schaffa justifies her parents’ actions, telling her that it was better for them to “keep something rather than lose everything”. This separation from her parents occurs at an incredibly formative age, but the pain of being shunned continues well into adulthood. Later in her life, Alabaster tells Syenite, “That we’re not human is just the lie they tell themselves so they don’t have to feel bad about how they treat us”. No matter where she turns, Essun is constantly reminded of the “core belief” she learned as a young kid: Her orogeny makes her unworthy of love. Her ‘inner child’ never truly heals, so she is unable to understand how to love and protect her children. To exacerbate this, after Uche is beaten to death and Essun kills Corundrum, Essun has no room in her heart to properly nurture Nassun. Although she loves her daughter, she can never truly show her. Nassun, then, inherits her mother’s childhood wound. After finishing the trilogy, I realize that Coru’s ‘mercy killing’ is inherently connected to Essun and Nassun’s relationship. Because she failed to protect Nassun, Essun harbors guilt. This guilt, I believe, led her to ‘protect’ Coru by killing him. 

The parallels between Essun and Nassun’s childhoods are clear: both are shunned early on for their societally-imposed identities. Nassun experiences healing because she is the one who allows herself to truly love. Essun, on the other hand, is imprisoned by her hurt and bitterness. As The Obelisk Gate explores the perspective of Nassun, we learn that she is initially Jija’s “favorite” and his “little girl”. However, his image of her becomes tarnished when he learns of her orogeny. Although Jija and Nassun’s journey is a way for Jija to protect her, he ultimately wants to change the core of her being. Essun was raised with this mentality as well; her parents completely defined her by her orogeny. Once found out, she was no longer a child; she became a monster. Although Jija is trying to get Nassun help, he upholds the idea that her ‘evil’ must be eliminated. Both Essun and Nassun have trauma stemming from identity suppression. This societally-imposed ‘pollution’ of self is communicated by Nassun: “The way of the world isn’t the strong devouring the weak, but the weak deceiving and poisoning and whispering in the ears of the strong until they become weak, too”. After Nassun is constantly conditioned to believe she is evil, she says to Jija,“I wish you could love me anyway, even though I’m bad”. So, she knows that Jija does not truly love her. He cannot get overcome his societal conditioning. However, Schaffa “loves [Nassun] no matter what, as a father should”. The difference between Essun and Nassun, then, is that Schaffa tries to break the cycle of abuse with the latter. Although his very nature is exploitative towards Nassun, he tries his best to protect her. This contributes to Essun’s bitterness, as she never had a father figure like Nessun did. Both Essun and Nassun are traumatized by ‘scapegoating’, but Schaffa’s love for Nassun is what saves her. The dynamic between Schaffa, Essun, and Nassun is a perfect example of cyclic trauma. Schaffa’s trauma causes him to abuse Essun, who in turn traumatizes Nassun. 

Towards the end of The Stone Sky, it is a big question whether Essun can overcome her childhood trauma and reach out to her daughter. After all, she was not equipped with any lessons on how to heal relationships—or how to heal in general. Ultimately, it is Essun’s ability to confront her own trauma that saves the world and ends the Seasons. She mends her relationship with Nassun by showing her that love and forgiveness is the only path to healing. Nassun is imparted with her mother’s wisdom: “Open the Gate, pour the Rifting’s power through it, catch the Moon. End the Seasons. Fix the world. This, Nassun sess-feels-knows, was your last wish”. Their relationship transformation is represented through this particular quote, as Essun and Nassun develop an intuitive connection. Both mother and daughter fight through their hurt, anger, and resentment to heal the world. Essun finally assumes her motherly duty: to instill in her daughter kindness and love. 

The transformation of Essun really moved me, and the final page of The Stone Sky solidified a lesson I will always carry with me. Even after experiencing an entire existence of rejection, Essun decides to heal the world that burned her. Although, simplifying her transformation through so few words seems like an injustice. Even to someone with all the empathy in the world, the amount of suffering Essun went through is unfathomable. Not only does she forgive the world for being so cruel, but she also sacrifices herself to preserve it. It is no coincidence that when Essun and Nassun make the decision to heal, geological disasters are quelled. When they make a decision to stand against violence, the Earth calms itself as well. Although geological destruction will never cease entirely, the ending of the Seasons marks an interruption of cyclical violence. When Essun sacrifices herself, Nassun finally realizes that her mother loved her all along, and a mother’s love is the ultimate survival tool. Hoa perfectly captures this at the end of the book: “That is how one survives eternity…or even a few years. Friends. Family. Moving with them. Moving forward”.

Growth & Reflection: Analyzing Geologic Events in The Broken Earth Trilogy

It is always strange to have to reflect on yourself, to go back in (meta) time and evaluate your ability to notice things, and see what it is that made you think about those things. Looking back to my ThinkING Essay, I feel very nuanced about my execution and my thought processes that I used to craft the essay. While I do remember working with real geologic events like “The Earth is Breathing”, “Buried in Volcanic Ash”, and others, I didn’t make any writing moves to work them into my essay. Even though I did discuss and analyze brief ideas of power and justice in The Fifth Season, I disregarded the part that asked about real world geologic sources—which I had realized through instructor feedback and some personal reflection at the time. My process in this essay will be to reflect on where I was and what I was thinkING about, application of my changed thinkING, and then why my thinkING has changed throughout The Broken Earth Trilogy

When I was thinking about the course concepts of Justice and Love, I began to try to bring my own collection of experience with these concepts in other areas of my life, as a frameworks perspective to have with me. A lot of my engagement with ideas of justice and power have been through the consumption of media, including TV shows, movies, and anime. I noted in the first “Care for my Growth” check-in that “I watch a lot of TV shows and anime where justice, truth, and peace are central themes and ideas…relating to this class… I find myself thinking about it a lot.” Given how much interest in those I’ve had it is fairly clear to see that one of my synthesis moves was to incorporate those into my thinkING process this semester. While I think that at some level this was helpful—and I recognize that this partially aligns with Geneseo’s GLOBE outcomes of “Integrative Inquiry” and “Application and Transfer”—I believe that this contributed to my oversight of the geological concepts/sources, and how they interact with The Broken Earth Trilogy

A major aspect of my essay was how Jemisin used the geologic concept of orogeny (the process of mountain formation especially by folding of the earth’s crust) and how that ability was given to Orogenes as a marker for oppression and control in the Stillness. The stripping of autonomy within this series is abundantly clear, and I still do believe that it is a key concept N.K Jemisin crafts into it. The Orogenes are shown to be a group controlled by the Fulcrum, they are feared and hated by the Stills, and the forced conception(s) I mentioned in my essay show that. Where I fell short in my ThinkING essay was a true comparison to geologic events, and this is when I knew I had to change the way I was working and thinking about The Broken Earth Trilogy.

Once we started working through the rest of The Broken Earth Trilogy, there was a noticeable shift in how I saw Jemisin use geological events/concepts to portray power and justice. When I started to actually look at these concepts and how they are literally put into the novels. Using the article “Buried in Volcanic Ash ” now to look at Jemisin’s use of geologic events, I could compare this aftermath to that of the Rifting, set in place by Alabaster. The ash in that article came as a result of a volcanic eruption in the Spanish island of La Palma, and tragically blanketed the landscape and homes of the people living there. Then looking at the Rifting and its impacts, you can notice the destruction and the ashfall that followed caused the displacement of peoples from their homes (Comms). Continuing from The Fifth Season, the impacts of the Rifting are still present and noticeable in The Obelisk Gate. One passage that shows the human impact is when Essun, Ykka, and others from Castrima-under go to the surface to gauge the damage: “Up here there’s nothing…Ykka’s just reacting to the starkness of the comm around her. So many silent houses, dead gardens, and ash-occluded pathways where people once walked…Yet it was also a real comm once, alive and bright and anything but still,” (The Obelisk Gate 30-31). The damage caused from the eruption is eerily similar to what happened to La Palma in November of 2021. I think by looking at real world events and seeing how events like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and other geologic events harm and change civilizations, that is what started to help me understand the connection to The Broken Earth Trilogy.

During the collaboration essay I saw even more concretely how comparing The Broken Earth Trilogy to the real world 2010 earthquake in Haiti brought up ideas of power and justice. When the group first started thinking about why we might want to look at Haiti and their experience, we almost immediately started drawing up any connections that we saw from just a first glance. There were so many ideas being brought into the discussion like how the earthquake had exacerbated issues that were already existing including political instability and food/water insecurity. During the research phase of the collaboration, a peer brought to our attention an article that claimed officials in Haiti had ignored warning signs of the fault-line being ready to rupture. This brought out the Jemisin phrase seen often throughout her trilogy “Oh. Oh.” as it aided us more in constructing the rest of our work. 

Through working out the “Human Impact” section of the collaborative essay, this felt like one of the bigger tests of my understanding of geologic concepts and justice. We had elected to split up within the group and each group of three would focus specifically on the section everybody felt they were most able to synthesize. In my subgroup, the three of us began by discussing how we thought we could best craft this section to portray the impact on Haiti, while also weaving in N.K Jemisin’s work. Upon discussing and narrowing down specific topics, we chose to compare the vulnerability of lives in Haiti, along with the lack of food/water resources, to the parts in The Broken Earth Trilogy where we noticed similarities. The number of casualties that were reported, as well as a tragic first hand account of a parent losing their child in the destruction, were directly connected to the vulnerability of people within the Stillness. This was a specific section that I found–while extremely saddening–gripping. It is a direct example of the tragedy and injustice that comes along with geologic movements and the destruction they can bring.

Another reason my thinkING changed over time was because I started to “Slow Down”, as Dr. McCoy often advises. By this I mean to say that I stopped rushing to try and interpret the series as a whole based on just one moment, and I also began to sideline my own outside  knowledge and experience with topics of justice and power. I stopped trying to make the course concepts fit into all situations. By doing so, I noticed my interpretations were more concrete and grounded in both the real-world and the text.

By being able to see where geologic concepts are used within the text, and through understanding the human impact these events have I do think there is a better understanding of how justice and power plays into this series. Consistently in this series groups of people are put in unjust situations, and are consequently put at the mercy of those in positions of power above them. What exacerbates these power dynamics are the geologic concepts that Jemisin weaves in, and this became most clear, as I’ve stated, during the collaboration effort in which our group compared and contrasted the 2010 Haiti earthquake with The Broken Earth Trilogy. The parallels between these fictional and real-world events and how justice and power implicates itself within them is something that I’ve gained through a process of slowing down, grounding myself in analyzing the texts, and opening myself to peer contributions/analyses.

Fear vs. Love

There is power in fear, but there is also power in love. Throughout the entirety of the first novel, the audience can see Essun in all three stages of life– whether as Damaya, Syenite, or Essun– being driven by the fear instilled in her by those around her. Essun has never known what real love is. How can she love her daughter in the ways her daughter craves when she has never received that kind of love herself? When Schaffa came to pick Essun up, her parents had been keeping her in the freezing barn in their backyard, isolated from anyone else. Her parents were too scared to be around her. To a normal person, a parent should be lobbying and comforting, but for Essun (or Damaya, at the time), her reality was skewed. She did not seem fond of this treatment of her parents, as most people would not be, but Schaffa insists, “You’re very lucky… Don’t think unkindly of your parents, Dama. You’re alive and well, and that is no small thing.” Her parents may have been acting in her best interest by giving her to the Fulcrum, but to a small child who just wants her family to love her, she already feels the isolation setting in. She is taught to fear her powers and those around her because she can cause them harm if she is not trained. Already, she finds herself living in fear, which will only progress as she moves forward. Damaya saw the power she held when she killed the boy on the playground and felt the fear of the people around her, including her own mother, leading to her going with Schaffa to the Fulcrum. Syenite was fueled by the fear of what could happen to her or Coru, her first child, if the Fulcrum discovered them after years of being on the remote island. When the Fulcrum did manage to track her down, she killed her own son in fear of him being sent to one of the node stations where his body would be kept half alive in an attempt to still any Earthly shakes until he became useless. In the midst of her struggle with the Fulcrum leaders, she thinks to herself, “Everyone she loves is dead. Except Coru. And if they take him–… Better that a child never have lived at all than live as a slave. Better that he die.” She allows her fear of the Fulcrum catching Coru to kill him and, in the process, maybe even kill herself. She does not think about what could happen if she escapes, but, instead, lets her fear lead her into killing everyone around her. When Syenite inevitably escaped that situation and the Fulcrum once more, only to rename herself as Essun, marry Jija, and start a new life with him, she allowed her fear to control her again as she demanded her children keep their abilities a secret. Her fear did not influence her, it controlled her, leading to a strained relationship with her daughter, Nassun, who resented Essun for never showing her the love and comfort she always longed for.
In the final installment of the trilogy, when Lerna dies, instead of being affected by his death (as they have since began a relationship and even have a child on the way), she says, “I didn’t even think I loved him.” She does not seem fazed much at all by his sudden death, showing her lack of love for those around her and begins her journey again, fearful that her daughter will destroy the world and kill herself in the process. Every time she does something, it is in fear of what the outcome will be. It never has to do with her love for those around her, the world, or even herself, it is always, somehow, rooted in the fear that has driven her entire life. Essun allowed her fear to lead her life, giving her power to those around her instead of keeping it for herself.
Nassun, on the other hand, found and granted power in love. Nassun loved her father, Jija, despite his hatred for orogenes and the fact that he killed her younger brother, Uche, because he was an orogene. She looked beyond this because her father had been so kind and endearing to her throughout her childhood when her mother had not. Because of this love, she followed her father to a far away comm and vowed to learn how to not be an orogene so that they could live harmoniously together. When Nassun began finding a new love, both for her orogene and her teacher, Schaffa, the love and admiration she once possessed for her father began to fade and she realized her father could never truly love and accept her due to her orogene status. She had once feared her father and what he could do to her if she stepped out of line, leading to her saying or doing specific things to ensure she never angered him. When her love died down and she saw her father for what he truly was (an abusive, fearful coward), the power he once held over her dwindled, allowing Nassun to escape her father’s grasp and become an even more powerful orogene. She realized, “he’s said that he loved her, after all, but that obviously isn’t true. He cannot love an orogene, and that is what she is.” The power dynamic shifted. She blames her mother for the “loss of that perfect love,” which is how she describes the love she once shared with her father (the love he gave her before he realized she was the one thing he always hated– an orogene). Nassun thinks “You should have had us with someone stronger” placing the blame on her mother, whom she feels no love for because “She knows her mother can bear it.” The power was no longer in the hands of outside forces, but rather in Nassun’s own hands. She takes it into her own account to kill her father, gaining revenge for all of the fear, lying, and years of fake love he has provided her with. She gives herself power and learns to live for herself. She would soon relinquish her power to the likes of Schaffa and Steel, allowing them and their wills, respectively, to lead her decisions, but her awarding of this power was never based in fear, but always in love. She chooses to give her power away to Schaffa and follow Steal’s will because it will help Schaffa. All she wants is for someone to love her– all of her, not just the pretty parts, but the strong, orogenic parts as well. Nassun wanted to do whatever she could to make Schaffa comfortable, which is why she listened and followed Steel in the first place. He promised his will would help Schaffa feel better and escape his past guardianship and Nassun was so entranced she blindly followed him. Even at the end of The Stone Sky when Steal tells Nassun to “Put us broken monsters out of our misery, Nassun. The Earth, Schaff, me, you… all of us,” she allows her love for Schaffa to lead her. She wonders if making him a stoneater will ease his pain, but knows that living for the rest of eternity could be as unbearable as that pain is. She must choose to let him go– the one person who has ever loved her unconditionally– or make him live for eternity just so she does not lose him. When she decides to change the world, it says, “Marvel, instead, at how easily she loves, how thoroughly. Love enough to change the world!” Even in her final moments, Nassun wishes to use her love as a means of leading her decisions and changing the cruel world they have been living in for so long. Despite her terrible life, she allows love to peak in through the cracks of herself and guide her in her decision-making. Where her mother allowed her fear to dictate every move she made, Nassun allowed her love to do the same.
One could argue that Essun was also led by love– for Coru, for her children, for herself– but this is far outweighed when you realize that it is hard for Essun to love anyone because she never truly loves herself. As cliche as it might sound, Essun has never truly been loved by anyone. Every person she has come into contact with, besides maybe Innon, have had some reason to fear her or not love her. In the end, one of the hardest things for the characters to come to terms with is love. Orogenes are so despised by the world around them that they never truly get to know what it feels like to be loved and accepted unconditionally. There is alway some fear or hatred thrown their way by the people they are around, even if they are trying to protect them. Hoa sums it up perfectly when talking to Essun, saying, “I think… that if you love someone, you don’t get to choose how they love you back.” No matter how Essun and Nassun choose to live their lives, they will never get the opportunity to make someone love them back in the same unconditional way. This can be seen in the instances with Essun’s parents, her acquaintances at the Fulcrum, and even Jija. She could not make any of them love her or accept her the way she wanted them to and she began to fear those around her because of it. Jemison’s trilogy and her portrayal of Essun’s fear and Nassun’s love shows the complexity of life and of the world around them. These characters are just like metamorphic rocks– when they are put under pressure, they grow stronger, adding more layers to them as they progress. Their pressure is very similar, yet each character allows this build-up to shape them differently, drastically impacting how they lead their lives and what they live for. In the end, Nassun was always driven by her love for those around her and Essun was always fueled by the fear of what is to come.
From the first essay to this one, it was so interesting to see how different the two characters were in their journeys and how they adapted to the pressures they were put under. It was crazy to see how skewed Essun’s view on love was and how disconnected her and Nassun ended up being. Hoa’s quote, written above, about not being able to choose how people love you was so insightful and real and the characters expertly backed this idea up. The different kinds of love and the differences in motivations quickly became my favorite part of the story from the beginning of the semester until now.

Final Reflective Essay

“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 on H.P. Lovecraft”

To call my semester good would be a lie but to say that I learned nothing would also be incorrect. I am struggling immensely with the contradictions I see in my past semester. A student who loves class but never goes. Someone who loves to read but won’t pick up a book. A perfectionist who refuses to start until the last minute, leaving himself with no time to achieve anything. I would love to write on this page that through the process of learning and growing this semester that all of these problems have been solved, but saying that would not be in good faith and the process of good faith is perhaps my biggest takeaway from any class with Professor McCoy. Still, thoughtful reflection is a good thing and perfection is impossible. If N.K. Jemisin can support the reading of H.P. Lovecraft, a vile racists, because “Artists are human beings. 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”, then I can look back at this past semester and separate the failings I see from the growth I know to be there. The quote above is one that I originally thought had a shallower meaning at the beginning of the semester. To me it meant that you can set aside “the bad” and engage with a book or work of art as you see fit. Leave the bad things out and look only at the positive. I now recognize that interpretation to be wrong. In her quote Jemisin calls on the reader to engage with the problematic art, not to ignore it. If I were to apply the concept of “ignoring” to everyday life there would be no growth in my life. Instead, “engaging”, even if its problematic, is the only way to improve and grow. For literature the same must be true. It is definitely easy to simply ignore the parts of a novel that make me uncomfortable but engaging with them will almost always give me a better understanding of the work as a whole. 

This semester we read Percival Everett’s The Trees. The story mainly follows two detectives as they try to solve a complicated series of murders in Money, Mississippi. At each of the crime scenes there is a body of a black man resembling Emmett Till that everyone sees to be dead but the body is quickly lost after each crime scene is closed. Money is the town in which Emmett Till was murdered and the men who were murdered were descendants of Emmett Till’s murderers. At first the town thinks the body must be the ghost of Emmett Till come to seek revenge on his murderers descendants. Even the local police are not entirely convinced that this isn’t the work of some supernatural force. 

Our main characters Ed Morgan and Jim Davis are two black men working for the MBI (Mississippi Bureau of Investigation). They have the air of fatigued experience and dry humor that’s to be expected out of middle aged detectives. They are soon joined by Agent Herberta “Herbie” Hind of the FBI and together follow the breadcrumbs of the murders. 

It is hard to talk about Percival Everett’s The Trees without worrying that I am misinterpreting or making a blunder. The course of this semester has done its best to teach me that mistakes are inevitable and there is no shame in any interpretation made in good faith but The Trees is a book that I find to leave me unsure on how I am feeling about characters actions. The satire and deadpan comedy encouraged the reader in me that wants to laugh while the seriousness of the story and the nuanced political and moral commentary grabbed the reader in me that wants to contemplate the deeper things in life. While the book is certainly funny, and in my opinion downright hilarious at certain points, the comedy does not undercut the core idea of the novel which is that black deaths matter and their names need to be heard. The story is complicated and I am certain I will be pondering it for some time after I have finished this essay. Even the title has multiple interpretations. The Trees refers to where the victims of lynchings were hung and refers to the family trees that connect the past atrocities to the present.  The book takes place mostly in Money, Mississippi. A town crawling with racists which also happens to be where the murder of Emmett Till took place. Everett does not hold back when writing about the people of Money, Mississippi. Our two main characters Ed Morgan and Jim Davis describe Money as “chock-full of know-nothing peckerwoods stuck in the prewar nineteenth century and living proof that inbreeding does not lead to extinction.”. They are not wrong. Money’s population consists of many, many, racists and in several cases I had to remind myself that this book takes place in the present day. From the language used by its people to the dinner with Elvis pictures on the walls, Money seems to be frozen in the past. Most white characters in this book are guilty. Whether they’re frequent users of the N-word, unabashed racists, or members of a pathetically stupid chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, I cannot recall a white person that I related to. I would claim that rejection of the idea than any of these characters have some sort of saving grace that excuses them of fierce judgment and condemnation is intentionally done by Everett to add to the moral ambiguity of their murders. Yes murder is wrong but killing a racist who shouts their racism with pride is much more preferable to say lynching a young man for the crime of being born with a skin color that is different from yours.
The Trees is a complicated novel. Satirical and dark, this revenge fantasy left me uneasy about how someone like me would fit into this world. However, engaging with the uneasiness leads to a greater understanding of what Everett is writing about. He wants readers to understand that the deaths of Black people matter. Their names matter.

Final Reflection Essay

Ben Timmons 

After reading Lucille Clifton’s poem, “surely i am able to write poems”, I am left with an interesting interpretation of her words. I believe Clifton is opening up to her readers and admitting the struggle that African American authors may face when it comes to writing only about trivial matters such as nature and what seems beautiful to them. This struggle is paired with the desire and urge to write about the reality and truth of living in the world as an African American human. Writing about the history of injustice and cultural suppression that has troubled African Americans in America is the “other poem” that Clifton feels is more important to write over poetry about natural beauty.

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 message in Clifton’s words has become quite apparent for me in much of the literature that we have read in English 337: African American Literature. The relevancy of Clifton’s poem can be found in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”, and Percival Everett’s novel titled “The Trees”. Frederick Douglass details his experience of being enslaved while also bringing awareness to the history of slavery and inequality in America. Alice Walker creates a story that portrays the hesitancy of some African American folk in America to move on from their cultural roots and adapt into a new world of opportunity and transparency. Percival Everett depicts the ongoing issues of racial violence and injustice that have been rooted in some parts of America for over a hundred years. For these African American authors, these topics are the “other poems” that are desired to be written, like Clifton mentions in her poem.

In Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, the horrors of slavery and inequality are made aware. Douglass details his upbringing as someone who was enslaved at a very young age and never knew his age nor celebrated his birthday. He writes, “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). Beside the fact that Douglass was enslaved against his will, he was deprived of the simple pleasure of knowing his age and celebrating his birthday. This inequality and terror faced by Douglass must be told, for this matter is more important than literature about the trees and sky. Douglass continues to speak on the horrors that he witnessed while enslaved, “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). This harsh reality outlined by Douglass is crucial for others in America to hear, it creates a sense of belonging for those who may have previously been enslaved or those who may have faced the inequality and injustice forced upon African American people. I think this is what Clifton feels in her poem, the desire and urge to bring these experiences as African African individuals to light.

In the short story titled “Everyday Use”, Alice Walker achieves something similar to that of Douglass. Walker details a story about a Mother and her two daughters who struggle with leaving some of their deeply rooted traditions behind and finding a new identity in the world. In doing this, she brings attention to a dilemma that other African Americans may also face. One daughter, Maggie, lives with her Mother, who is hesitant to let go of tradition, and sticks to the status quo of her culture alongside her Mother. The other daughter, Wangero, is a college educated and religiously inspired woman who tries to shift her mother and sister’s lifestyles by encouraging them to change their ways and make something of themselves as African American women. Wangero tells her sister, “You ought to try to make something 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). Walker brings awareness to the idea that African American culture and tradition has been both suppressed and made inferior by others in America. Now that the world is beginning to change with more opportunities and attention for African American people, there is an identity and lifestyle crisis that ensues, as some do not want to lose their traditions and deeply rooted culture. While Alice Walker is more than capable of writing a short story about superfluous concerns, she, just like Lucille Clifton, feels there are more important topics to bring attention to as an African American woman and author. This short story about African American struggle and concern creates a sense of community for those who may be dealing with something similar.

In addition to Frederick Douglass’ narrative and Alice Walker’s short story, I see a relationship between Clifton’s message in her poem and Percival Everett’s novel, “The Trees”. Everett’s confronting novel about revenge and the dark history of Money, Mississippi is not solely a mysterious crime tale which details lynching and murder. Rather, Everett does more with his novel and brings attention to the racial violence and inequality that is still prevalent in the world. Everett delivers his message by incorporating a couple concepts that our class has been using for direction throughout this semester. First, Everett incorporates the idea of straddling in his novel by straddling the boundary of morality. In an interview with The Guardian’s Anthony Cummins, Everett is asked the following question, “What led you to write a novel about lynching?” Everett admits, “While I very seldom say what any of my novels mean, one thing I think is true is that there’s a distinction to be made between morality and justice: justice might not always feel moral to us, and that’s a scary thought” (Everett). Everett certainly straddles on the line of morality by using black on white murder to represent justice and equity. This is a bit scary, like Everett says, however, in a town where the law is all but fair, using scenarios like this is sometimes necessary to bring awareness to a crucial problem like racism and inequality.

Everett uses the concept of straddling in another way as well. Everett shows what it’s like to straddle between two Americas: one white and the other black. The difference in these two worlds is the acceptance and inclusion of African American lives. Money, Mississippi is certainly an America where acceptance and inclusion of African American lives is lacking. This is evident in Everett’s character named Gertrude. Gertrude works at a diner in Money where she uses the alias of Dixie to get better tips and create the appearance of  “more white”. We find out later in the novel that Gertrude is actually a black woman. 

“Excuse me for asking, but are you Black?”

“Why yes”

“I knew it, I didn’t know that you’re Black. I didn’t know that, but I knew there was something. Does Whitey know?

“They know. They forget” (Everett 69).

If Gertrude lived in a town where there were not two separate worlds, there is a good chance she would not have to use a “white” name while she worked and would not be asked about her race when someone suspected her to be black. Everett depicts what it likes to straddle between two worlds and essentially live two different lives. This is a result of the lack of acceptance and inclusion that many African American people face in real life.

The next concept that Everett includes in an attempt to bring awareness to deep and meaningful issues is transparency, a topic that has resurfaced in much of the literature we’ve read for this class. Everett is not shy with his transparency of the history of racial violence in America, specifically with the infamous lynching of Emmett Till which took place in Money in 1955. In the same interview between Cummins and Everett, Everett is asked about his inspiration and influence for the story. He answers, “A lot of experimental novelists experiment for the sake of experimentation, but if it doesn’t add meaning, I have no interest in it; the only reason I come to this art form is because I’m interested in playing with how meaning gets constructed” (Everett). Everett experiments with this novel but makes sure to be transparent in his writing about racial violence and inequality in America. The infamous lynching of Emmett Till is brought up multiple times by Everett, especially through one of his characters, Granny C, who was responsible for wrongly accusing Emmett Till of offending her which led to his murder. 

“What was you thinking on, Granny C?”

Granny C stared off again. “About something I wished I hadn’t done. About the lie I told all them years back on that n***** boy.”

“Oh Lawd,” Charlene said. “We on that again.”

“I wronged that little pickaninny. Like it say in the good book, what goes around comes around” (Everett 9).

The power of literature such as Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”, and Pericval Everett’s “The Trees” can be seen in the portrayal of  important matters like racial injustice, African American culture, and the history of slavery in America. Writing about these concerns instead of trivial matters such as natural beauty in the world is what Lucille Clifton pushes in her poem “surely i am able to write poems”.

Say My Name

Sidney Smith’s 1820 short reading Who Reads an American Book introduces us to a new perspective on people’s interpretations of America’s first. According to Sidney Smith, a British writer, America has not introduced anything worth honoring or naming; instead, they are doing quite the opposite: taking the identity of others. Smith writes, “The Americans are a brave, industrious, and acute people; but they have hitherto given no indications of genius, and made no approaches to the heroic, either in their morality or character. They are but a recent offset indeed from England; and should make it their chief boast, for many generations to come, that they are sprung from the same race with Bacon and Shakespeare and Newton” (Smith). Although America was still a freshly established country when this written work was released in 1820, its ties to England were still strong. Smith admits this by assuring readers that people like Shakespeare have a significant influence in this country. However, is Smith wrong? Shakespeare’s work is regarded as the father of literature in America when we look at the famous literary canon. Shakespeare’s works are mentioned frequently in the K-12 curriculum. Even in colleges, there are classes dedicated solely to Shakespeare’s works. 

Smith’s words are regarded as factual because they include the names of well-known British authors. He asks, “Where are their Foxes, their Burkes, their Sheridans, their Windhams, their Horners, their Wilberforces?—where their Arkwrights, their Watts, their Davys?—their Robertsons, Blairs, Smiths, Stewarts, Paleys and Malthuses?—their Porsons, Parts, Burneys, or Blomfields?—their Scotts, Campbells, Byrons, Moores, or Crabbes?—their Siddonses, Kembles, Keans, or ONeils—their Wilkies, Laurences, Chantrys?” (Smith). Smith’s words reveal what I believe is part of the ugly truth in the United States; what are those names we choose to use concerning our history and discoveries. The concept of stolen identity is spread throughout Smith’s writing; we celebrate the work of Shakespeare but not of Maya Angelou; we celebrate George Washington as a hero but consider Malcolm X a criminal. But Smith’s questions in the year 2022 still stand, who are the people that make America honest and noble?  

As a Black woman who has seen and experienced racism, discrimination, and sexism and is a first-generation American, I am solely witnessing America’s hatred towards people of color. Sidney Smith writes, “Finally, under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a slave, whom his fellow creatures may buy and sell and torture?” (Smith). Sidney Smith’s work is essential in understanding who he considered important within his knowledge of honoring writers. When mentioning names such as Campbell, Paleys, Wilkies, etc., he says the names and honors those who have left their mark. When ridiculing the United States, his discussion upon enslavement is essential in grasping what I believe should be the United States’s need to say people of color’s names.  Enslavement occurred in this nation because of the need for control and power; people of color experienced enslavement in ways that can not be put into words. After enslavement was “abolished,” a new form of terror was constructed known as lynching. Lynchings were violent public acts done by white people in the 19th and 20th centuries, primarily in the South, to intimidate and subjugate Black people. Lynchings are often associated with images of Black men and women being hung from trees, including torture, mutilation, mutilation, and humiliation. Some of the victims were set on fire. Strange Fruit, written by Abel Meeropel and performed by Billie Holiday, depicts lynching as “Southern trees bear a strange fruit blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” (Meeropel, Holiday). This piece is a haunting protest against racism’s inhumanity. Those strange fruits hanging from those trees were the lives of Black folks who were often wrongly accused by white people. 

Saying the names of the Black lives that have been taken from their families was an element of Percival Everett’s resistance and honor in his novel The Trees. The reality of the murder of Emmett Till is infused within this text is what captivated my attention. For instance, most of the main characters were of color, and through their reactions to the day-to-day events found in the novel, it became clear to me why saying people’s names is revolutionary. Everett writes “Granny C stared off again, “About something I wished I hadn’t done. About the lie, I told all them years back on that n***** boy” (9). Readers are unaware of the issue Granny C was alluding to when they read this scene. The phrase used to characterize the individual is discriminatory and demeaning, while also othering the individual. However, this particular section exemplifies a comparable aspect of Smith’s criticism of the United States. As he previously stated, this is a country where Black people were regarded as objects and exclusively property. Names are the weapon for visibility, recognition, and respect, it is only after the novel’s narrative twist that I was able to realize the novel’s significance. Everett writes, “Long time ago. It was their daddies who killed Emmett Till back in the fifties” (78). Emmett Till’s name has enormous significance because it reflects the harsh truth of the United States and its ongoing ramifications. Emmett Till was only 14 years old when he was murdered in the state of Mississippi by two white men. Many Black Americans were inspired to join the Civil Rights Movement after his death. Percival Everett was able to respect Emmett Till through his choice of words by not hiding his identity or the events that occurred to him. Saying his name was a noble act of resistance.

Saying someone’s name is highly significant, especially in the Black community. During enslavement, enslavers would modify and give enslaved people new names to which they had to respond to. Enslaved people were frequently marked with an enslaver’s last name to signify who they were forced to labor for. I was struck by Everett’s work because of the respect he paid to the victims of lynching. His work prompted me to see the default America has when it comes to honoring their successes and how the inventors are people of color who rarely receive credit for their work. For instance, Daniel Hale Williams was an African American surgeon and was the first surgeon to perform successful open-heart surgery. African American nurse Mary Van Brittan Brown, created a home security system in which the makeup is similar to those being used today. These are just a few examples of the way people of color have contributed so much to our society but are usually not recognized. By naming people like Dale Hale Williams and Mary Van Britan Brown, I am honoring those who came before me as well as those who are distinctive and deserving of recognition.