Who Are AmeriKKKans?

Throughout the journey of the course, we’ve been introduced to new angles and directions to familiar narratives. Personally, I’ve discovered unconventional ways of thinking regarding the history of not only this nation but individuals who have grown because of their insurmountable circumstances. Whether introducing perspective from Ron Eglash and the insight provided by detailing the humanity in a mathematical process: Recursion, which expresses processes in which a problem/function solves itself within its own code. In a symbiotic-Esq relationship, where the answers and stories occur within the organism. (The usage of recursion will be mentioned subliminally often in this paper as it was throughout the course) or internalizing the beauty of a quilt from the mind of Barkley Brown, I began to understand how circular the nation’s history is.  

When trying to place myself in the grand scheme of American history (in my very so personified ego) I realized that the agendas our heroes sacrificed so much for are still sitting at the table. That the check marked with “insufficient funds” Martin Luther King Jr once reference has yet to be rectified. That the lyrics of the many traditional/sacred/freedom songs of America’s past are being hummed today with the same purpose. That those who stood up to face the sun before our emancipation have descendants expected to make that same call for action in this century. These are the statements I remind myself when walking in our classroom, that the journey for me was meant to be a retelling of what I, what we, have to become. 

One of the epigraphs that has resonated with me the moment I read it was Sydneys Smith’s excerpt from “Who reads an American Book?”, not because of my chuckle that followed (filled with a slither of American arrogance) but because of the date in which it was written. 1820, up to that point the nation had no solidified individual identity. Even if the independence was thought to be won in 1776, an American had not served the highest title of presidency till 1837. The identity of an American has not yet been solidified nor determined, and up to that point, the molding of what that may be was up for the taking. As time progressed beyond the 1800s, it seemed as if the image of America was one of a tyrant; controlling new-age colonialism and spreading its arms around the globe tightly. But within that analysis, I’ve discovered that it wasn’t the image was not one of a big bully- but that of a fractured child. The illegitimate child from a nation built on conquering, finally attempting to one-up the parent. But within this analysis of mine, I’ve discovered that America is nothing more than that anger and greed to be better than. In this oblivious path of being superior, the people that make up this nation are as fractured as the is the land. In our very own self-destructive quilt, reusing and re-weaving what’s already been broken. 

I emphasize the fact that what fulfills the image of the great quilt of Americana is a fractured canvas full of evil, pain, some heroism, and terror. But as I glanced at the cover of Percival Everetts’s The Trees I noticed that it was covered with a list of names. At first glance the names were unrecognizable, nothing but a cover neatly spaced with names that uniformly had the same font and font size: not much of a quilt. But as we slowed down and the novel unveiled itself as the story of America, the names grew more and more familiar, and the uniformity within them became lost. The color of the quilt began to become more apparent, violently splashed soon to be nothing short of a masterpiece. 

Throughout the novel, we attempt to discover who is causing the eerie terror that’s sweeping the nation. After the classic schematics of a good detective/nail-biting novel, we discover that the sins of Americans arose and sought out vengeance. A consistent sight of a gory death shocked the characters throughout the novel… scenes that left many speechless and clueless. What may seem like justice for some, but violence is something that persists in both reality and the novel. That’s when I discovered who Americans are: Millions waiting for Karma to come to collect, millions of us left in darK crevices that preach “justice for all”, millions who frequent church even if their vibes are all deadly, tragic voices whose flag is nothing but a symbol for tragic orphans: AmeriKans are the root of evil. People who couldn’t abide by old rules, so they made new ones. 

The art of war is the finest picture, and guess who’s appraising the picture? 

As the course continued to develop, the lessons became clearer to me, that question in the epigraph was starting to unfold. The themes behind my favorite works, my favorite pieces of art and literature, were all revolutionary and labeled as fugitive. The American theme in the eyes of Alexander revolved around uncut gems, black diamonds in rough terrain. The rough terrain is littered with souls that are darker than genocide. 

But we aren’t lost in the land of freedom, even if we are still fighting for freedom. 

I was shown throughout the epigraph and the dynamics of the characters within the novel is that America’s greatest fear is to be forgotten. In this everlasting battle of identity, the preservation of a group’s identity is this nation’s(?) most important quarrel. Some Americans(?) lost within a flag that represents a losing cause but evolved into a symbol meant to ignite tension and hate, not pride. But even then, that failed flag is stitched on the quilt of Americana, it is undeniably American (have the confederates lost?).  

The Americans are a scared, cynical, and soulless people; and have provided the modern world great horrors, and have gone to great lengths to be the best of the worst, both socially and politically… there lies their David Dukes, their J. Edgar Hoovers, their Grand Wizards, the Proud Boys? There lies their Emmit Tills, their Yusef Hawkins, their Amadou Diallo’s their Eric Garners, their Micheal Browns, their Akai Gurley’s, their Jerame Reids?- or their Jeffersons, Bidens, Trumps, Clintons, or Nixons? Or their parallels to millions of other names who can be identified or not, as their blood has seeped through the fabric of the quilt of Americana, both as victims and perpetrators; the impact that the nation has left on regimes all over the world assuring that horror is an arms reach away labeled “Democracy & Freedom”… but who can top the proud stars and stripes, as we supply mankind with diseases so toxic, that the cure is genocide itself. America is the reliving of bloodshed over ideologies of lesser men; A war-stricken country bent on infecting the world… That the demons that were buried away centuries ago rise to possess the living, and the cycle continues….

Percival Everett’s The Trees within this Semester’s Story

“I cannot recall the words of my first poem

but I remember a promise 

I made my pen

never to leave it


in somebody else’s blood” – Audre Lorde

When beginning this course, this was one of the epigraphs that struck me most. Out of all the epigraphs written, it was the one that made me stumble and second guess what it truly meant. I hesitated over Lorde’s words… how could one leave their pen “lying / in somebody else’s blood”? I considered different interpretations and consulted others in the class, but it was only as the work in this course progressed, and my growth in the class escalated as I slowed down, that I began to understand what this epigraph meant, and why it was included as an epigraph in this course alongside the others – why its presence was so important. This course revolves around concepts such as sustainability, possession, recursion and repetition, freedom, accountability, and several others, which promote student growth, understanding, and accepted accountability for things we have done within “other people’s homes”, so to speak. We, as students, speak on these matters in class, but how do we respectfully do so, and with care and accountability? It is through this journey in the semester that this specific epigraph has been defined to me – when one is to write on a victim of historical horror or mistreatment, or on a matter as important as Black rights, it must never be done in vain, and the writing must never be left without justice or honor attached to it. Those who write on these matters should be doing so with grace, care, and diligence. The author who wrote this epigraph, Audre Lorde, was one who dedicated her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices such as  racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia – she was one who fought for justice and never wrote on topics that she did not strive to grant justice and honor to, such as African American rights and Black individuals who were wronged in the years before and during the time she began to write. She was not one to leave her pen “lying / in somebody else’s blood” – she was one to grant that “somebody else” the justice they deserved and the honor they had been deprived of. In that pen she holds, there is power and the ability to change the narrative. This epigraph has remained prominent throughout our reading in this African American Literature course, but the one text which has cemented this epigraph within its pages is Percival Everett’s The Trees.

The Trees is a novel about resurrection, repetition and recursion, and accountability – all course concepts from our African American literature class thus far. Everett grants justice in his novel by taking a real life victim of lynching and racism, Emmett Till, and presenting a fictional continuation in which individuals seek revenge and justice by murdering not only those related to those who murdered Till, but also other racist individuals across the country, which evolves into a revoluation and revolt against racism and the murder of innocent Black individuals. The epigraph mentioned above, “I cannot recall the words of my first poem / but I / remember a promise / I made my pen /never to leave it / lying / in somebody else’s blood” by Audre Lorde is one that reemerged in my mind as I sat and read The Trees. I considered Lorde’s words in correlation with this novel of revolt, revenge, and revolution … how Everett took one young Black man’s tragic end and crafted a world in which he, in a way, was avenged. Everett did not allow his work to remain “lying / in somebody else’s blood” – that somebody being Emmett Till – and instead wrote a dedicated piece to him, of sorts – granting him the justice that today’s modern world so deeply seeks on equality and justice, and planting his case in the center of it. In this world Everett has made, the name of Emmett Till was not forgotten, and instead served as the base of this revolution that arises in his honor in The Trees. 

Emmett Till was not the only person that Everett granted this justice to. In the novel, the character of Damon Thruff is written to write down a list of names which fills up almost nine and a half pages – the names of victims of lynching. Thruff informs Mama Z, “When I write their names they become real, not just statistics. When I write the names they become real again. It’s almost like they get a few more seconds here. Do you know what I mean? I would never be able to make up this many names. The names have to be real. They have to be. Don’t they?” (Everett 190). By having Thruff write all of these names down – and also, Everett cementing these names in his novel for all to read – it grants justice and freedom to these victims. Everett refuses to leave his pen “lying / in somebody else’s blood” and instead, has the character Thruff erase them. He states “When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free”, essentially granting these victims the freedom they had been deprived of due to their names and stories being forgotten over time. This is one of the core elements of The Trees being brought forth over and over again (repetition and recursion, one may say). Everett followed the words of Lorde’s epigraph through his novel’s revolution and fight for justice for those that some never even notice. The character of Gertrude reiterates this idea once she is discovered as one of the individuals responsible for the original three killings of Wheat Bryant, Junior Junior Milam, and “the Milam in Chicago” (Everett 292), stating “Everybody talks about genocides around the world, but when the killing is slow and spread out over a hundred years, no one notices. Where there are no mass graves, no one notices” (291). One of Evertt’s key purposes in this novel is to make people notice. To present the names of victims and some of their stories (primarily Emmett Till) and grant them closure – grant them justice. Though it is fictional justice, Everett does what the real world has not yet to the extent that he writes, stating things such as “In New York City, a fat police officer shot a young Black man in Central Park, only to find dirt-encrusted Black men waiting for him at his patrol car.” (Everett 294). Despite current, real movements of justice for those wrongly killed or attacked, Everett presents one that is far more intense, far greater than what has been present in modern times. In this world he has crafted, he does not leave anyone “lying in somebody else’s blood” – he takes that pain and the story of those wronged and writes them a new story… a continuation where instead of forgetting his crimes, that police officer who wrongly shot a young Black man in Central Park is faced with his crimes and confronted with the pain and hurt he has caused. A revolution is crafted with the story of Emmett Till and the ‘blood’ he has left in history. This is perhaps why Everett chooses to end the novel in a way that could be interpreted as both hopeful and confusing. He writes: “‘Shall I stop him?’ Outside in the distance, through the night air, the muffled cry came through, Rise. Rise. ‘Shall I stop him?’” (Everett 308). This ending – so powerful and illuminating – can be interpreted as Everett being Damon Thruff (the writer of all the victims’ names in this scene of the novel) and the readers being Mama Z. In this scene, we, as Mama Z, ask those who do not seek justice for those wronged, if we should stop Everett from doing just that. We ask, as the modern day mistreatment of Black individuals continues through things such as police brutality, should we really stop what Everett is doing, that being, granting justice and freedom to individuals such as Emmett Till … Bill Gilmer … Dorothy Malcom … W.W. Watt … Bartley James … Stella Young … and so many others? As the people wronged are able to rise, shall we stop them as others would like them to? Or shall we continue to seek justice? Continue to learn, to grow, to do whatever it is we can to ensure equality and making sure no other pen is left “lying / in somebody else’s blood”?

This course epigraph, as well as Everett’s The Trees, in a way, allows me to interpret my own semester’s story in this class. Admittedly, when I entered African American Literature, I had never taken a class dealing with the same or similar subject, and I knew I was going to be put on a learning journey. I knew I would not know everything, nor would I be able to try and know everything, for I was and am a ‘guest in someone else’s home’, as our instructor puts it. I was going to stumble, to be surprised by things I had never learned before, and I would have the privilege of writing on author’s and their works as well as be involved in discussions on author’s and their works where I could learn alongside my peers in the classroom. Now, as I sit and type this final essay, I look back on my first day in the class and compare it to the present, and I feel grateful to learn what I have learned, and had the opportunity to write on and speak on things that taught me more than I would have imagined. I felt as though my understanding of the works we have covered in class resembles the journey, that in some ways, resembles Jim and Ed’s unraveling and understanding of the case in The Trees – they begin with facts and ideas, and end with an understanding of what justice truly means, and the importance of letting others rise. I end my time in this class with similar ideas… and I will promise myself that I will never leave my own pen “lying / in somebody else’s blood”. This being said, I undertake this reflection, something does happen to my understanding of literature – that there are some things that are vital to understand, even if the answers must be searched for over a long period of time (perhaps even a semester’s worth). I learned to never assume, to always seek answers and learn in any way possible. To understand. To grow. More importantly, to treat my misunderstandings with grace and the determination to do better. Going forward, it is vital to take the knowledge learned on concepts such as sustainability, possession, recursion and repetition, freedom, accountability, and others, slow down, and use them as stepping stones to understand the literature we study and the lives we live.

The Erosion of Family in The Broken Earth Trilogy

In my first blog post, I centered on N.K. Jemisin’s use of tension, both seismically and socially, in her novel The Fifth Season. As the first book in a trilogy, The Fifth Season naturally leaves questions to be answered at its conclusion: will Essun and Nassun reunite? What other strange powers resonate within the deadciv obelisks, waiting to be unlocked (and how did they get there in the first place)? And, if this is truly the way the world ends “for the last time,” then who could possibly have survived to tell the story? Jemisin answers these questions and countless others over the course of the next two novels in the Broken Earth trilogy. The themes of political and geological unrest which she employs in The Fifth Season return as well; however, just as the land of The Stillness is in constant flux, Jemisin’s portrayal of these themes takes different forms throughout the trilogy. I found her examination of family dynamics to be a particularly compelling iteration of Jemisin’s use of tension. Several of her characters are related, but in The Stillness, genealogy is no refuge. In fact, through the erosion of Essun and Nassun’s relationship, Jemisin exposes the reality that familial bonds are not always indicative of biological family. 

In The Fifth Season, family dynamics are sketched in negative; we see Essun, in three separate instances, lose her family. As Damaya, her parents lock her in a barn after discovering her orogeny and don’t care if she’s killed. As Syen, she is forced to kill Corundum after watching a Guardian kill Innon. And as Essun, after her husband Jija kills their son Uche, she treks over a continent in search of her last living child, her daughter Nassun. Essun is partially defined by the losses she suffers; each of her names was once attached to a now-fractured family. The pressure that splits Essun from her families is the same pressure that formed the Fulcrum and its structures of oppression. Widespread and factually inaccurate information about the innate dangers of orogeny results in the hate that led Damaya’s parents to lock her in the cold and Jija to kill his own son. Additionally, the Fulcrum’s animalistic treatment of its orogenes is the impetus for Coru’s conception; and, even when Alabaster and Syen manage to find some respite, it is brutally ripped from them. Through the dissolution of families, Jemisin shows the transient nature of love in Essun’s life; at the center of each instance is the same intolerance that follows her life with the tenacity and longevity of a stone eater. 

The effects of Essun’s tenuous relationship with family dynamics can be seen through Nassun’s development. Throughout The Fifth Season, Essun is consumed with worry for her daughter’s safety, from the environment and from her father. In her fear, Essun imagines Nassun as defenseless, unable to save herself and in need of a protector: “at the end of this, when Jija is dead and it’s finally safe to mourn your son… if she still lives, Nassun will need the mother she’s known all her life.” Essun perceives her daughter as an incapable child. In reality, during the first scene centered around Nassun, she redirects an earthquake and emotionally manipulates her father out of killing her. Nassun is already capable, and continues to grow stronger as she continues her journey. However, the same training which sharpened her orogeny also causes her great emotional distress. At Found Moon, she finds solace with Schaffa, and eventually reveals to him Essun’s method of teaching: “she got really quiet. Then she said, ‘Are you sure you can control yourself?’ And she took my hand.” She bites her lip then. “She broke it.” Essun reapplies the abusive manner of her own education while teaching her daughter, but Nassun has no knowledge of the Fulcrum’s methods; all she sees is a mother willing to hurt her own child. Schaffa’s response that “it’s wrong to hurt someone you love” only reinforces the disconnect between Nassun and Essun which was spurred by intense pressure to conceal their orogeny. As a result, Nassun rejects her mother, referring to her as “Essun” internally. Essun’s way of raising her daughter, so similar to the method by which she was raised, results in Nassun’s gradual estrangement.

Though Essun initially thinks of her daughter as helpless without her, this conception is challenged by the end of The Obelisk Gate. During the attack on Castrima, Essun takes control of the obelisks to fight the Rennanis army; when she tries to control the sapphire obelisk, she realizes Nassun is already using it. Still, she later dismisses this feat as “playing with an obelisk,” infantilizing her daughter’s accomplishments. It takes a major blow for Essun to realize her mistakes. When Hoa tells her that Nassun has killed Jija, Essun asks him to take her to the site. There, as she contemplates the stone remains of her husband, she confronts her misconceptions about her daughter: “You didn’t save her from Jija. You haven’t been there when she’s needed you, here at the literal end of the world. How dare you presume to protect her?[…] She has found the strength to protect herself. You are so very proud of her. And you don’t dare go anywhere near her, ever again.” This is a painful moment for Essun, as she realizes that she has failed as a protector. Her only living child has rejected her, due to actions which she intended to be loving but had the opposite effect. She replicated the cruel behaviors of her teachers while raising her daughter, and now Nassun regards her in the same light as Essun regards the Fulcrum. Essun’s epiphany at Found Moon is crucial to her final decision during the showdown at Corepoint. Hoa, watching the battle, laments, “you so wanted to make a better world for Nassun. But more than anything else, you want this last child of yours to live… and so you make a choice. To keep fighting will kill you both. The only way to win, then, is not to fight anymore.” Essun sacrifices herself to save her daughter; in this moment, she finally protects Nassun. Her love for her daughter– her love for all the children she’s lost– occludes all other motivations. Whether or not Essun’s death redeems her, it ends a destructive cycle once perpetuated by the Fulcrum, and gives her daughter the autonomy to choose a better path. As Hoa tells Nassun at the end of The Stone Sky, after she has closed the Rifting and seen her mother turn to stone, “all of these were choices. Different choices have always been possible.” The freedom to choose was never one afforded to Essun; in her death, she gives it to her child. 

Across the many english classes I’ve taken at Geneseo, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that novels and the themes they discuss should never be considered in isolation, but rather in conjunction both with the myriad of influences with which the novel is in conversation and the subsequent influence the novel has on those who engage with it. Through Essun’s character arc, and Nassun’s perception of her mother, Jemisin shows the same can be said about people: we don’t always know the full story. Jemisin’s careful construction (and subsequent implosion) of the mother-daughter relationship which motivates much of the trilogy has led me to reflect many times on my own relationship with my mother. I resonated strongly with the representation of a young girl struggling to come to terms with her own identity while also trying to understand the actions of her mother, a woman whose past she has no access to. As readers, we of course understand Essun’s past lives: her time in the Fulcrum, her life on Meov, her fears around being exposed as an orogene. Nassun, however, only knows the mother who terrorized her into compliance as a child. My mom, thankfully, doesn’t share Essun’s propensity for violence; she’s great and I love her very much. But I’ve realized that I don’t know much about her, other than things that have happened to her during my life. I don’t know every twist and turn of my mother’s life, and I doubt I ever will. But reading the Broken Earth trilogy has strengthened my appreciation for the knowledge I do have, and it has encouraged me to find out more. The mother-daughter relationship in the Broken Earth trilogy is of course framed within a fantasy world, but it portrays real-world dynamics with painful accuracy.

African American Literature: Do You Understand?

Dr. Beth McCoy’s English course, African American Literature, is built on the foundation of five distinct course epigraphs. The class has circled back to these epigraphs throughout the semester and continuously found connections to their messages to our various course concepts, conversations, and assigned readings. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines an epigraph as “a quotation set at the beginning of a literary work or one of its divisions to suggest its theme.” The use of this literary device serves the purpose of not only providing us as students with a constant reminder of the objectives of the course but further immediately exposes us to quotes by experienced and well-revered Black authors and poets like Lucille Clifton and Audre Lorde. Using our fifth course epigraph by Toni Morrison and Percival Everett’s novel The Trees, I will be reflecting on how this epigraph has overall impacted my experience and learning in this course and the reading of our final novel. 

The epigraph I will be informing my writing around is a quote from the late renowned African American author and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. In a 1989 interview with journalist and author Bonnie Angelo on her novel Beloved, Morrison states, “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” In response to Angelo’s question of how to improve America’s racial climate of the late 1980s, Morrison brings up how our educational system institutionalizes racism and explains this in the profound quote about Black literature. As expressed by Morrison in the quote, although Black literature is much more than a study of social problems, it is underestimated and even disregarded by many when it is an exhaustive and thorough craft in all actuality. Using this bold statement exposing the failure of American education, I will connect Percival Everett’s creativity in The Trees and what else I have learned in this course to concur with and further prove Morrison’s statement. 

To begin with, The Trees is an unorthodox thriller about America’s legacy of lynching. Defined by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as the “public killing of an individual who has not received any due process…often carried out by lawless mobs, though police officers did participate,” lynching is just one side effect of the brutal epidemic of racism in the United States. The NAACP reports that 4,743 lynchings occurred in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968. There has been a resurgence of lynchings of Black men, women, and children by police officers alongside hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans in recent years. Percival Everett connects these past atrocities to recent ones with the listing of names like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin on the book’s cover. Notably, the plot of the murder mystery, beginning in Money, Mississippi, is reminiscent of the infamous murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. After visiting his uncle for the summer in Money, young Till was lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman at a convenience store. Photos of his dehumanized body were displayed all over the country, and it was one of America’s most vicious lynchings. In The Trees, the ancestors of Emmett Till’s murderers were the first to be killed in the act of revenge, which spirals into a series of killings of white people all over the country. 

Although, as an African American man, Everett’s topic of lynching and revenge may seem predictable or even simple for him to write, The Trees is much more complex and creative than that. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Everett recognizes this perception and states, “It would be very easy to write a dark, dense novel about lynching that no one will read; there has to be an element of seduction…The absurdity of the inattention to the subject was the driving force of the comedy, but the novel lives as much in turning around stereotypes as it does in revealing the truth of lynching.” As our epigraph describes, Everett’s literature is more than just a history lesson about lynching in America but additionally is a work of art and comedy. Understanding his intended audience, Everett crafted a story that would make people laugh and further grapple with the ongoing fight against racism and the complexities of justice. One example of Everett’s both creativity and seriousness can be seen in this conversation between the characters Sheriff Red Jetty and his wife as they look at a picture found in their basement: “‘Who’s this one of?’ She pointed…‘Is that your father?’ Jetty said nothing. ‘Red? Is that a n***** beside him? He’s light but I can tell.’ ‘No, that n****** is my father’” (pp. 225). In this short snippet of dialogue, Everett uses irony to discuss racism. Using the n-word and the building of suspense in this scene with the series of questions asked by the wife, Everett transports us into what could be a real-life, modern conversation. Everett does this effortlessly throughout the novel, thus making it such a page-turner.

Additionally, The Trees connects to various overarching class concepts. The first one that stood out to me while reading is framing: placing a piece of literature in a particular perspective or lens that impacts how you interpret or understand what you are reading. This occurs in Everett’s novel by mentioning Emmett Till and the corresponding setting of Money, Mississippi, where he died. When an unknown body of a Black man keeps showing up at bloody crime scenes in the novel, characters even suggest that it is the ghost of Emmett Till. By mentioning this historic lynching, Everett intentionally causes readers to consider the past and its correlation to our present – by juxtaposing Till and characters like Donald Trump. Another course concept present in The Trees is that of repetition and recursion. Throughout the novel, similar gruesome crime scenes were reoccurring in different parts of the country, all including the killing of white men by Black and Asian individuals. This deliberate repetition helps readers come to terms with the reality of how often lynchings occur in America. While their cases are not all the same as in the novel, they do similarly affect Black and Asian communities and keep our country in a place of fear and hostility. Lastly, Everett’s novel relates to our class concept of social sustainability: the maintenance and development of structures to benefit people – including the promotion of health, social justice, and education. Throughout the novel, white characters become afraid of an impending race war because of the recent mysterious murders. On the other hand, these murders of retribution by Black and Asian communities are a response to every single lynching since 1913 – 7,006. I understood this as competing motivations for social sustainability – just like the white characters scared of their race being erased, minorities in the novel and real life are afraid that theirs are already endangered. As all these concepts are evident in the novel, Everett’s writing is undoubtedly a work of rigorous and deliberate art. 

Looking beyond The Trees for a moment, I have seen this epigraph in use throughout the course. For example, in reading and discussing Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild, the class had trouble thinking unconventionally about the short story’s more profound meaning. Like my previous point about writing a novel about lynching, Black writers are often unfairly minimized to the assumption that their stories are about slavery. Minimizing Bloodchild – a science fiction including aliens, pregnant men, and an unconventional love story – to an allegory of slavery is precisely what Toni Morrison said in her interview. While Black writers do not have control over how their writing is interpreted and analyzed, their autonomy and innovativeness should be appreciated and acknowledged for its craftsmanship. 

Our Toni Morrison epigraph and reading of The Trees has caused me to contemplate the perseverance of not only Black writers but African Americans in general. The novel shows that African Americans have been threatened for centuries by the cruel realities of racism that still haunt our systems and daily lives. For Black writers like Percival Everett, they have yet to break free from the confinements of white perspectives and expectations when trying to express themselves creatively and freely. As they continue to push on despite these structural and undeniable obstacles that come with being Black in America, African Americans and all people of color must keep finding joy in breaking the status quo. Like Mama Z asks the detectives at the end of the novel, “Shall I stop him?” (pp. 308). Shall we stop Black writers from determining the meaning of their own writing after once not being able to write at all? Shall we stop Black people from taking justice into their own hands when justice was once not a part of their vocabulary? Shall we stop Black people from sustaining their culture when they are constantly wrestling to persevere it? My answer is now and forever no, and I appreciate Everett and this class for helping me see that.

Call & Response : A Cultural Nationalist Approach

As I first began thinking about African American traditions, I instantly began to think about cultural traditions and values. Perhaps I was right and wrong to an extent. I was right to think that traditions involve cultural values, but I was wrong to think that that was all the word ‘tradition’ had to offer. When looking back at the governing aesthetics of Call and Response, the editors state that it is a Black Aesthetic. I was intrigued and wanted to know and learn more. Upon further research, I determined that the editors note, which states its aesthetic is a “call” to the reason why they’ve put together this book (a response). I came to the conclusion that the editor’s note is a cultural nationalist one. 

There are three distinct motifs that the editors wanted to ensure the reader understands about this book, the first is the antiphonal pattern, the “Theme of the journey of African American people toward freedom, justice, and social equality.”(Hill, xxxiii), and the overall call and response pattern that this book follows.

The term cultural nationalism as found on Encylopedia.com, defines it as referencing “to movements of group allegiance based on a shared heritage as in language, history, literature, songs, religion, ideology, symbols, land, or monuments. Cultural nationalists emphasize heritage or culture, rather than race or ethnicity or institutions of statehood.”(Encyclopedia.com, 2022). When I said I was wrong “to an extent” this is why. I didn’t take into account that any traditions shared could be even more reason for a group of people to want to share with the larger community. This definition relates back to the editors note when they state “It is the first comprehensive anthology of literature by African Americans presented according to the Black Aesthetic, a criteria for black art developed by Americans of African descent”(Hill, xxxiii). I feel that it is important to acknowledge that the first call in relation to this book is because the editors felt as though there was not a book already existing or established that tells the whole truth and story of various African American authors, writers, and artists. While putting together this anthology, there are over 150 authors (major and minor) and of these 150+, about 70+ are female writers (which is less than half). However, the women that are mentioned include Elizabeth Keckley, Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, and Harriet A. Jacobs. Now that there is an anthology out there that shares the stories of African American authors, from a cultural nationalist perspective, there is so much more room to learn and expand our ways of learning.

In class we learned about an African American author, Elsa Barkley Brown and read “African American Quilting”. Brown’s anthology helps explain that there is a large majority of people who simply don’t understand the importance of African American culture and in an attempt to connect with the audience, she compares quilts. “In other words, the symmetry in African-American quilts does not come from the uniformity as it does in Euro-American quilts; rather, the symmetry comes through the diversity” (Brown, 924). Brown is taking a cultural nationalist approach towards teaching African American women’s history. In the beginning of her writing she starts off with stating how the most centralized problem in trying to teach or write about “non-white, non-middle class, non-Western persons is how to center our work, our teaching, in the lives of the people about whom we are teaching and writing” and later states “in my own teaching… [I] address both the conscious level, through the material, and the unconscious level, through the very structure of the course, thus, perhaps, allowing my students, in Bettina Aptheker’s words, to “pivot the center,” to center in another experience”(Brown, 921). Brown continues to connect to her audience by sharing experiences, cultural traditions, and history. These are all things that a cultural nationalist does in their approach towards educating a specific set of individuals or persons in order to fully have them be able to comprehend the full experience. 

Another instance in which the editors note demonstrates taking a cultural nationalist approach towards educating their target audience, states, “Unlike other literature anthologies, Call and Response unfolds the historical development of the oral tradition simultaneously with the written literature” (Hill, xxxiii). This is important to note because oral tradition is a distinct tradition within African American literature. Not only does Call and Response utilize this tradition in their work, in fact one of the motifs mentioned in the editors note mentions the antiphonal pattern. Upon researching, for a better understanding of this definition I found that it is “a collection of antiphons, hymns, or psalms sung in alternating parts” (Dictionary, 2022). The book includes a lyric, song, or other musical pieces before diving into the story they’re about to tell as the response. The oral tradition has been used in song, and text to tell the stories of African Americans throughout history. A lot of songs that we know as freedom songs were sung while many were still enslaved. Cultural heritage is kept alive beyond slavery through song, sermon, and other spoken written forms. Another artist that kept the culture alive through oral tradition and also taking a cultural nationalist approach in how they carried themselves was Bernice Johnson Reagon. Reagon reiterates in “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” how critical it is to acknowledge that there is often an ideal image for African Americans to portray in the larger society, but to also find a way to balance their own understanding of their culture and values beyond the greater scope. She further emphasizes that the experience of African Americans is to straddle. She states “We are born in one place, and we are sent to achieve in the larger culture, and in order to survive we work out a way to be who we are in both places or all places we move” (Reagon, 114). Reagon is trying to point out what must feel so obvious to African Americans, but took the time to explain why we can’t simply just celebrate those who speak up, such as Martin Luther King Jr. as heroes. Of course they appear as heroes, but in fact it’s every single African American man and woman who are brave enough to speak up about their experiences. And when they all come together such as the authors and editors of this book, Call and Response; they demonstrate how a cultural nationalist perspective can shape thinking altogether.

It’s quite incredible how it took so long for something as well put together as Call and Response, an anthology of the Black aesthetic.  There are so many great artists, writers and contributors to this book that can finally share their true, authentic stories. The stories that were undermined by others trying to learn and understand their culture in good faith, but ended up studying research conducted by white people who hadn’t had any of those experiences. The cultural nationalist approach truly allows for the editors to ensure that they’re educating in the ways that will benefit the larger community/society. The underlying aesthetic is meant to guide us with stories of those who simply lived through their experiences. The way this book is set up allows for the larger community/society to indulge in the beliefs, values, and pride that African Americans have and to continue hearing their voices and stories that will be shared throughout history.

Considering Personhood in Jemisin’s Trilogy

In my first essay, I began with a discussion which delineated two opposing worldviews concerning the formation and fluctuation of the earth’s geological condition. These were the doctrine of uniformity and catastrophism. I played with the definition and scope of uniformity in geology by transcribing these slow and miniscule changes with that of Stonelore’s restrictive political impact on oppressed peoples, such as orogenes, within The Stillness. In effect, it became a social doctrine as well as a metaphysical teaching. I then explained how catastrophism functioned in the text through the actions of these oppressed groups to upheave the uniform social structures which consequently led me to the conclusion that Jemisin is proposing that true change must be a quick and powerful strike in order to be effective. While this is all true, I am concerned that I simplified Jemisin’s trilogy too much as purely consisting of a message of liberation. Of course the texts ask us to deal with the rights of individuals, but it also asks us to accept the personhood of supposed non-humans in order for their desires of autonomy to be verified in our eyes. This is what’s bugging me; How and why does Jemisin force us to expand our definition of humanity?

Without going a step further, I would like to make something very clear. Despite the freedom and space that this genre offers, I will try my best not to establish the boundaries of what makes something human and throw each character into a category. By merely attempting to do this, I fear that I might as well be shouting from the rooftops in support of genocide and be no better than those who caused The Rifting. No. Instead, I will explore how Jemisin urges us to demolish our preconceptions and experience the same degree of empathy characters indulge in with their friends and requests from their enemies. The aforementioned acceptance of their humanity is largely subjective, and therefore I can only relate my own personal journey regarding my recognition of Orogenes, Stoneaters, and Guardians as people and the following ethical obligations. Please know that my intentions within this essay are made in good faith, and are meant to illustrate my growth as a consumer of fictional peoples.

Hoa and the Stoneaters

Coming from years of discriminating (and killing) “weird” or “bad” fictional species such as aliens and monsters, it was challenging for me to understand Stoneaters as something more than distant, dangerous, and mysterious. Surely, they are just one-dimensional beings who function outside of the sphere of humanity, right? This understanding was initially reinforced when Hoa emerged from the geode at the beginning of The Fifth Season. His movements are described as “fast and jerky” and similar to “a clockwork puppet.” (13) This image screams horror. Yet, at the same time we are introduced to him as “the boy.” (13) This duality perplexed me because the name of this creature illustrated a kind of innocence, but the circumstances surrounding his birth and his initial mannerisms were disturbing to say the least. Regardless, the humanity of Hoa is further amplified during his first meeting with Essun as the success of this encounter relies on trust and empathy; “Then you toss him the bedroll. He catches it and looks confused for a few moments, then figures it out. Happily he rolls it out and then curls up on top of it, like a cat.” (82) Based on these events, and the way they are related to us, it is clear that this boy plays the human quite well. That is enough for Essun to relax and decide that she “can manage to be human for a little while.” (82) So, what’s going on here? Obviously the two individuals decide that they can stand each other but there’s a wider point that goes beyond plot development and characterization. Even at the time, I could tell that this boy was the geode creature. That being said, I was a bit disgruntled at the notion that he was so evidently vulnerable, sweet, and human. I could not write him off as evil or strange anymore, but I still tried. Going further into the trilogy, Hoa is emphasized as Essun’s protector and guide throughout their journeys in the post-apocalyptic hellscape known as a season. When the two come across supplies and are approached by feral beasts, Hoa acts; “And then the boy is facing the creature…the whole kirkhusa is solid.” (187) While this moment served to represent Hoa’s level of commitment and care towards Essun, I still remained unconvinced that Stoneaters are to be trusted. Plenty of mythical creatures assist the protagonist in almost every fantasy/science fiction text and then pull a fast one so-to-speak. Jemisin discusses her opposition to this standardized narrative in her blog post entitled “Creating Races”; “the reader doesn’t have that bank of cultural capital to borrow against.” We have no wall against which to evaluate the patterns of mythological morality as we would with Orcs or Elves. This is a double-edged sword because the limiting barriers are taken away but we also don’t really know what to expect from this race of people (especially considering their age and ability). This brings me to two important points regarding when I really believed in the humanity of Stoneaters. It was not until I learned the true nature of Hoa’s relationship with Essun that I began to believe in his personhood as illustrated through his self-sacrificial tendencies borne out of empathy. When Hoa and Lerna are discussing their relationships to Essun, our Stoneater relays “I resist the urge to crush his head. ‘I love her, of course.’” (382) This, as cliche as it is, was my turning point because one of the most noble characteristics of an individual is the willingness to help other(s) at the expense of oneself (love) and Hoa’s actions indicate that he’s probably not lying. However, my view on the humanity of Stoneaters was ultimately solidified when Steel screams at Nassun for not understanding how difficult his life is and how the right decision is the cruel one (hate); “You have no idea what that’s like, BUT I DO.” (307-308) Without getting into character analysis, it’s clear that these two Stoneaters respectively represent and enact the best and worst of humanity and therefore, are unequivocally people. My definition of humanity may not be as biological as I thought it was…

Schaffa and the Guardians

Speaking of cruelty, let’s take a look at this group. Despite their ironic title, the Guardians are inhumane to say the least. When Schaffa is traveling back to the Fulcrum with Damaya, he breaks her hand to assert superiority and control; “She closes her eyes, feeling tears run freely from her lashes. She’s queasy, cold. The sound of her own blood pounds in her ears.”  (99) To make matters worse, Schaffa seems to take a sick pleasure in this act as “he soothes her with a soft shush in her ear” and exclaims, “I love you.” (99) This is pure psychological horror and the stuff out of a serial-killer documentary. Despite his form and ability to feign empathy, I did not consider Schaffa as human. Would you? Those who hurt children are the worst of the worst in our society. In true Jemisin fashion, this belief which I held so concretely, came to be shaken. Of course, I am alluding to Syenite’s decision to save Corundum, but that is another essay. After Schaffa forces Syenite to do that, he winds up going through a near-death experience and, in order to regain his strength, eats an innocent young boy’s family during his opening moments of The Obelisk Gate; “Schaffa rises and moves through the quiet, dark house, touching each member of Eitz’s family and devouring a piece of them.” (51-52) Not only does he hurt children, but he eats people too. There is no possible way that Schaffa can be human. Even with the corestone in his head and an identity to uphold, there has to be some sort of defiance within him against the monster. Enter Nassun, the only orogene who he actually seems to care about. I remember when their relationship first started, we discussed the idea of symbiosis in class. Instead of destroying the pathos through paraphrasing, I will just introduce these quotes around when she murdered Jija; “I wish you could love me anyway, even though I’m bad.” and “She thinks of Schaffa as she says this, though. Schaffa, who loves her no matter what, as a father should.” (387) The fact that Schaffa becomes a father figure to Nassun is surprising, but provides us with a silver-lining in regards to his morality. Keeping with the idea of symbiosis, one of the major aspects of being human is co-existing with other organisms peacefully (thank you, Butler). Schaffa is obviously able to achieve a meaningful relationship, but I cannot say that I considered him entirely human until witnessing the pain he suffered during the vehimal ride with Nassun to Corepoint. Going back to the idea of sacrifice as a marker of humanity, Scaffa knew that traveling that close to Father Earth would be the most painful experience he has ever endured. But, he did it anyway, for Nassun.

Alabaster and the Orogenes

When I first learned about how Orogenes were treated despite the power they held, my first thought was that their condition is very similar to that of oppressed groups within our world. I believe that Jemisin purposefully created this parallel. That being said, I really want to admire this character and put him up as a savior. But, I can’t and perhaps that aids his humanity. The Fifth Season opens up with him causing The Rifting and ensuring that a house divided cannot stand. Going back to my original essay, what’s more human than pushing up against boundaries and defying the expectations of others? He also sacrifices himself and displays the whole array of human emotions like hate and love. So why am I dedicating a section to him and other Orogenes who are obviously the most human out of all the “non-humans” in the text? Answer: their power is disturbing. I am not going to lie, similar to The Stills’ way of thinking, Orogenes are dangerous and the text makes that very clear. Imagine you met a guy who could level Manhattan with his mind because he thinks it’s right for whatever reason, would you really trust him? As Alabaster puts it to Syenite when they are staying in Allia together, his kind are “gods in chains.” (167) If you look around this genre enough you’ll see that it only takes one evil mage to mess up everything. It is so easy for me to label Alabaster as selfish and lacking empathy. But, of course, I have to be aware of my gravitation towards the “us” way of thinking here as well. The Stills subjugate Alabaster’s people and children within the various node stations around The Stillness; “Even the least of us must serve the greater good.” (139) The main question here is one of made evil versus born evil, and as I listened to the stories of Alabaster and Essun’s defiance, I saw that their humanity was undeniable and that just because they hold immense power, they are not monsters. However, I believe that the true lesson when considering the Orogenes comes back to Stonelore and forced narrative; If you treat somebody like a monster, they will become one. Houwha puts it best when recounting his decision to cause The Shattering on page 329 of The Stone Sky; “They have never believed us human, but we will prove by our actions today that we are more than tools. Even if we aren’t human, we are people. They will never be able to deny us this again.” Very little has shifted from my original view of Orogenes, since I was always able to appreciate their desire for freedom despite my trepidations surrounding their abilities, but my commitment to their cause has bolstered as a result of witnessing all the tragedies they endured and realizing the allegorical nature of this group.

The focus of this text around natural disasters speaks volumes. When a hurricane or earthquake strikes, every ounce of stability and power in a region endures devastation. Without seeking to exaggerate, I needed to rebuild my understanding of the word “human” after this trilogy. Throughout both of my courses with Professor McCoy, the main concept that has stuck with me throughout the years and impacted almost all of my writing is very simple; so what? I have just worked through my initial conceptions of these groups and the shifts in favor of recognizing their humanity or personhood; why do you care? While I fear the ending on messages of empathy and equity are too straightforward, I remain convinced that Jemisin’s expansion of the definition of humanity in this trilogy is aimed at challenging people’s ability to forgive and understand. After all, that’s what being a human should be about.

Did you mean: recursion?

“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

            Within a poem itself, Lucille Clifton expresses the difficulties in her writing process due to one specific condition: recursion. Whenever Clifton begins a poem, she finds that there is “under that poem always an other poem,” suggesting that within literature, within nature, within life, there is always recursion: a repetition of similar and sometimes seemingly identical instances, yet unique in their own way. Clifton cleverly uses nature’s most recursive symbols as imagery throughout her poem: the overwhelming repetition and quantity of blades of grass, the continuous drove of waves hitting upon a shore, and the branching out of tree limbs that all stem from one single trunk. While these natural structures are offered as subjects of Clifton’s poems, they also speak to the larger presence of how recursion in our lives can be immense and never-ending. The themes and structures we see in literature (such as recursion) are undeniably connected to the themes and structures we see in everyday life. For instance, one could relate to the theme of recursion in Clifton’s poem by personally identifying with the narrator’s literary struggle to contain the endless build-up of poetic possibilities. On the other hand, a reader can also relate the structure of recursion to their life, whether it be the repetitive nature of the work-a-day world or the recognition of the physically recursive structure of grass, waves, and trees. When dealing with recursive literature, it is hard to not acknowledge that each real-life instance is either birthed from or gives life to a similar but unique instance; but especially in the realm of African American culture and literature, it is vital to recognize the importance of recursion’s relation to reality.

            The most literal definition of recursion is a concrete, mathematical term. Merriam-Webster defines recursion in mathematical terms as: “the determination of a succession of elements (such as numbers or functions) by operation on one or more preceding elements according to a rule or formula involving a finite number of steps.” Ron Eglash takes this very technical definition and applies it broadly in his book African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design. Eglash explores the mathematical and technological possibilities of recursion in its relation to fractals, which are structures “created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop,” or in other words, a visual design created precisely by recursion at various scales. However, he does not do so without paying close attention to cultural recursion and fractal roots in Africa, and especially how the computing possibilities of these should relate directly back to cultural uses of recursion.

            Eglash explores recursion in various forms throughout African culture and highlights its importance. He first looks at recursion in African construction. Some forms are for practicality such as braids and some of which were used for aesthetics like textile designs. Eglash also highlights the “cultural meaning” that is “often attached in these techniques,” acknowledging how recursive construction techniques have cultural identifications such as labor and prestige (Eglash, 112-113). Eglash also notes how recursion has been used in African culture to represent a process in time, such as a growing scale of recursive eyes in a mask could represent “scaling iterations of knowledge” gained over time or to represent a specific clan’s divination in their descent (Eglash, 123-124). African cultures even use recursion to explain cosmology, some suggesting that God has created three iterations of the world, each one similar to and dependent upon the last (Eglash, 132). The theme of recursion is all around in African culture. It illustrates how iterations of small structures “are spun into whole cloth, and the patterns that emerge often tell the story of their whirling birth”; how the parts make up and influence the whole (Eglash, 109). Eglash acknowledges this aesthetic and cultural theme within Africa, so it’s also important to explore how modern Black authors in America have examined both tangible and intangible recursive symbols.

Elsa Barkley Brown uses African American women’s quilting to “center” others in the African American female experience in “African American Women’s Quilting” (Brown, 921). One may not initially understand recursion in the frame of African American women’s quilting due to its rather sporadic and unsymmetrical patterns, but it is in the more intangible, cultural facet of quilting in which recursion surfaces (Brown, 923-924). Brown explains that she uses these quilts to teach African American women’s history because they stand as symbols of how the lessons of each class individually “stand alone, like the contrasting strips of the quilt, and at the same time remain part of the group” (Brown, 928). In other words, Brown uses the comparison to a quilt as a symbol of recursion in African American culture: how individuals can be unique and diverse yet contribute a recursive “strip of the quilt” that, repeated over time with a multitude of other unique “strips,” creates a “whole.” The “whole” in this sense is African American women’s history in general, which may seem disorganized or nonsensical to Western eyes but is truly strongly bonded and self-empowered from the individuals that comprise it (Brown, 926). Brown’s method of teaching this cultural recursion through a physical representation of something so un-recursive such as an African American woman’s quilt lends itself to Lucille Clifton’s insinuation that each iteration of something is the result and the cause of something else; that each individual thread, color, or pattern combined in repetitive patterns can create something wholly different from, but influenced by, its parts.

Just as Brown breaks the boundaries of recursion, James A. Snead in “On Repetition in Black Culture” also analyzes recursion in an African American cultural sense based upon repetition. Snead argues that in cultural repetition, we are not seeing the “same thing” over and over as we may see in fractals; instead, it is a similar “transformation” that uniquely contributes to “the shape of time and history.” Snead argues that culture is never a stand-alone entity because it is “both immanent and historical”: it is created and influenced by the past (Snead, 146-147). In this piece, Snead uses historically Euro-centric scholars such as Hegel to accentuate that despite their predictions, Black culture is now actually more recognizant and appreciative of repetition than European cultures. African cultures were initially not seen by Europeans as cohesive enough to hold on to their culture and pay homage to it. Snead cites, though, that modern day Black culture is particularly reliant upon this, such as in dance, percussive and melodic patterns, cosmogony, ceremonies, holidays, etc. Not only does Black culture incorporate recursion but it even invites space for the “accidents and surprises” that inevitably come with new iterations, whereas Snead feels European cultures are solely interested in a perfect repetition that accumulates and exponentializes into profit and progress (Snead, 149-150).

Recursion in African American culture has often been represented by the Sankofa bird. The word “Sankofa” comes from the Ghanaian Akan tribe and translates literally to “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind,” signifying that in a pursuit of further knowledge, one must look to the past for “critical examination, and intelligent and patient investigation.” The Sankofa bird also has a visual representation: the body and feet of the bird are facing forward, while the head is facing backwards. Not only does this represent the African/African American consciousness that all instances in life are influenced by the past and will influence the future, but it also recognizes the cultural importance of applying the lessons learned. It is an acknowledgment of the existence of recursion, but the simultaneous acknowledgement that every iteration is transformable.

Lucille Clifton does not accentuate whether the poetic recursion she experiences is a positive or negative thing. Based on different perspectives, I can understand it as both. I believe that recursion is the same in African American culture. The work of Eglash, Brown, and Snead, as well as the representation of the Sankofa bird, represent the empowerment behind the roots, the present, and the future of the Black experience. These are all positive interpretations. But it must be acknowledged that recursion has played an overwhelmingly negative role in African American lives, specifically when it comes to what has been done to them. For example, the history of discrimination, oppression, brutality, and murder of African Americans has shown a recursive pattern, almost in the form of a tree. First, the roots represent the countless entangled thoughts against African American existence that lives underground but has a strong and seemingly indestructible foundation. The main tree trunk that spurts from the ground represents an outbreak of a single incident that makes its way into public sight or knowledge, such as a racial slur, a beating, or a murder. Then, the recursive nature of sequential branches that sprout new sequential branches represents the multitude of related incidents that spark in its aftermath. As the branches grow, they drop acorns which in time plant new trees. Eventually, a whole forest of these trees becomes a dense culture against African Americans.

This is where, in the frame of my semester’s story, we wrap up with the novel The Trees by Percival Everett. The main plot of this novel is based entirely upon recursion: mysterious murders continue happening in a small town where a white people are murdered and at the scene is the body of a dead Black person with the testicles of the white of people clenched in their fists. Soon, these murders begin multiplying and repeating in similar iterations all around the country, sometimes involving Asian or indigenous bodies at the scene instead of a Black body. Just like a fractal, the instances multiple out of control. It turns out that the murders started as a statement by some of the radical African American population in the original small town of Money, Mississippi where they attempted to make a statement (and possibly start a movement) that accentuates the historical continuation and utter horror of African American lynching but from the other side in which the white population experiences the recursion of murder and brutality (Everett, 291-293).

I interpret that one of Everett’s main messages in this novel is the duality of lynch recursion. On one hand, the repetition of Black lynchings over the course of the past few hundred years does not seem to disturb the country at large. It disturbs the small pockets of activists and the affected, but the recursion of murders has created mass desensitization, especially amongst the people of Money, Mississippi where the story takes place. Many white characters even recount past lynchings with either great ease or admiration (Everett, 280-281). The sheer number of racially based lynchings only comes as a surprise to the few that actually review Mama Z’s records of every American lynching since 1913 (Everett, 153). It would likely not have the same impact upon the white population of the town because they witnessed and took part in the country’s lynchings (Everett, 185-194). On the other hand, this same population (as well as the country at large) is acutely attuned to the horror of the lynchings against white people in the novel. The white characters often use exclamations such as “what the freegone fuck is going on” in response to this type of recursion (Everett, 41). When the murders spread around the country, news channels pick up the stories and excite horror into the masses (Everett, 232).

When confronted with the recursion of white populations lynching minorities across the country, it is part of a unifying and righteous culture (just look at the Ku Klux Klan). In these cases, “no one was interviewed. No suspects were identified. No one was arrested. No one was charged. No one cared” (Everett, 161). When it is now the recursion of an unknown population (but presumed to be the Black population) lynching white people, it is a horrifying national epidemic. In these cases, the white characters are “scared to death” that a race war is beginning; they speak highly of the white population and call for protection; they caution the “good White” population to “be wary of any Black individuals” (Everett, 240; 260-261). Both are types of lynch recursion, but the white population gets to name the game.

I also view Everett as a master of recreating social interactions and attitudes in which he has realistically yet fictionally recreated much of the recursive racism, microaggressions, and sentiments that African Americans experience. While these repetitive instances are almost secondary to the overarching theme of lynch recursion that we see throughout the novel, added together they are wholly just as significant and true-to-life. For instance, Everett does not shy away from the casual racism that still plagues much of the United States. When in private, almost all the white characters use the N-word and try to restrain themselves in the presence of Black folk (Everett, 170). Recursion appears when Mama Z claims that Teddy Roosevelt warned “the main cause of lynching was Black men raping White women” out of pure racial bias (Everett, 215). We see the same logic in contemporary characters such as Charlene when she tells Jim and Ed, “I got every right to be scared of you. I could shoot you if I wanted. Could say you scared me real bad and I had to shoot you,” implying that it would be an acceptable excuse to kill a Black man just for knocking on the door of her home (Everett, 62). Braden also implies that the Black population of Money is going to “take over” and is worried that the white population will be too slow to stop them (Everett, 217). Everett portrays that the white population is too skeptical of Black people while they are alive, but once they are dead, they are negligent of their condition. For instance, the white people that discover each crime scene are more focused on the brutality committed against the white people rather than the black person. Even in the cable news report of the murder scene in Hernando, Mississippi, the details of the unidentified Black male barely received any coverage (Everett, 232-233). Each of these instances are marked by a deeply rooted problem that, like a tree, merges into open air and multiplies itself into more widespread iterations until it gets tangled and out of control.

When searching the definition of “recursion” on Google, a notification will appear asking, “Did you mean: recursion.” Most users will likely click on the blue highlighted word, assuming that they misspelled the word, just to find that the redirected page asks the same question, ““Did you mean: recursion.” Some users may immediately get the joke, but some will certainly think something is wrong with the page. However, the more the user thinks about it, the more it makes sense: the link creates a recursion within itself. While each iteration of clicking the link may bring up an identical page, it is not identical: each iteration is unique because it causes the user to think differently about what they are seeing. Eventually, the question will become so expected that the user is desensitized to it. This is precisely the problem I see with recursion in African American culture. It should both be recognized as a source of empowerment and as a source of oppression, but instead the world becomes desensitized to its importance. The recursive roots of Black become muddy and the historical and modern state of Black lynching has become normalized. Recursion not only teaches us about Black culture itself, but it also reminds us to look at the past often and apply what we’ve learned to the present and remember it in the future; to not become accustomed; to not become desensitized.

Literature and The Reality of Powerful Language


I cannot recall the words of my first poem 

but I remember a promise 

I made my pen 

never to leave it 


in somebody else’s blood. 

–Audre Lorde 

Audre Lorde’s poem, IV, and the use of strong imagery creates a stark meaning in the minds of her readers. While poetry is typically up for interpretation, I find this poem to teeter almost into the literal, in the sense of sacrifice and authority. As the author, Lorde possesses a kind of responsibility for the reality she creates and the reality she writes of. Her vow to never sacrifice another for the sake of her truth and her writing is an obligation which may differ from the authors before or surrounding her. In her mind, while truth is imperative, so is the absence of spilled blood.  

An unfortunate fact of the history of the United States that remains true to this day is: This country was founded on blood and violence. Shying away from that fact is a dangerous falsity that has its own consequences. The often used saying that comes to mind is, “history is doomed to repeat itself.” Throughout the entirety of Percival Everett’s novel, The Trees, violence and death seem to make itself front and center. I believe this was a deliberate choice on the author’s part, to call to attention this fact. As Audre Lorde- the renowned poet, a feature in our course epigraphs- put it in one of her famous rallying cries, “Your silence will not protect you.” By using language, these two writers (among many others) make it difficult to remain in complacency with history. 

Words hold power. Despite the idea that I have heard countless times- typically from those trying to excuse their own actions- that words only hold the power you give them, language is one of the most compelling forces that human beings have to offer. I believe it is the main reason humans have come so far as a species in the first place. Literature is but a vessel for this power and there are those that wield this power in a purposeful manner. 

Everett’s novel, though full of humor and can be seen as somewhat fantastical, is a serious look on the horrors perpetuated by people in this country- not only of the past, but currently, as well. Emmett Till’s (among hundreds and hundreds of others) death is a marker of a not-so-distant history that unfortunately seems to remain intact. While I am somewhat familiar with the trial, taught in my high school history course, I feel that the murder of Emmett Till has gone largely underdiscussed. It was a highly publicized case at the time, in 1955 and subsequent years, with his mother calling for justice for her 14-year-old child. Unfortunately, justice was not served, and the perpetrators lived their lives in freedom and without due consequence. As Percival Everett’s novel deals directly with the case and even using the actual names of the individuals that incited the violence against this child, it was clear to me that he understands the power he holds with language. 

Everett’s ability to bring humor in to juxtapose the darkness he is speaking of is a way of keeping readers engaged, despite the heaviness of the subject matter. The reality of this is that it can be severely depressing, and I imagine that people would avoid this book if it were any less entertaining and any more serious. In recent years, with the constant onslaught of horrible injustices being thrown onto the internet where millions of people can access it with a click or even come across it involuntarily, escapism is ever more prevalent. Speaking from experience, I tend to rely on comedy and “comfort shows” about nothing to relieve myself of daily stressors. I think this is a common practice among my generation and the younger generations as well (though I cannot speak to those before me). Everett being able to use comic relief without shying away from the tragedy in the book is insightful and crafty, and I believe it mirrors “real life” slightly more realistically.  

To use one example that showcases this spectacularly, in chapter 42, beginning on page 126, readers join the Doctor Reverend Cad Fondle and his wife Fancel, for dinner. The entire scene renders very comically, with their southern vernacular and straight hypocrisy in their actions and words. However, not one full page in, and their hypocrisy turns frightening, with Fancel asking her husband how a cross burning went as if it were just another day at work, or a simple outing with friends. His response, “It’s called a lightin’, a cross lightin’. It ain’t right to burn a symbol of our Lawd Jesus H. Christ. I would think you knowed that by now” (126). Fondles’ correcting of his wife and slight change in the words he used was an attempt to change the meaning of his actions, but what he did remains the same. He burned a cross to insight fear and weaponized his religion in the process. The deceit in his language is one that I believe Everett deliberately showcased to call to attention the way people use language to their advantage, whether in good or, in this case, extremely bad faith.  

Another interesting facet of the language yielded by Everett is his choice of names. As mentioned previously, some of the names were true to the original case from 1955. Carolyn Bryant, the woman who lied about Emmitt Till and was ultimately responsible for his death, remained, as well as J.W. and Roy, the perpetrators of the boy’s murder. In the sense of staying true to history, and not shying away for the sake of fiction, I can appreciate the fact he kept the right names. The names of the invented characters, like Jim and Ed, were somewhat simple, so two that stuck out to me, specifically, are Gertrude and Damon. I don’t think that these names were notable on accident. The name Gertrude has its roots in Germanic words that mean spear, or strength. Given that Gertrude helped to orchestrate murders and other violent crimes to send a message to the world, her name is fitting. Despite not knowing the depth of exactly what she got into, she exhibited strength and cunning as we see her elude the police while being with them multiple times throughout the investigation. Damon is brought in as a tool for their cause. The Greek origin of his name means to tame, but it is also associated with loyalty. However, in English and Scottish definition of the name, it also means to kill. While Damon himself does not commit murder, he is tasked with writing the names of the lynching victims of America; and though the end of the book may seem fantastical, he seems to summon the dead from their graves with the help of Mama Z. Mama Z herself is also a fascinating use of language. A self-proclaimed witch with a message to get across and justice to serve is certainly a dangerous woman to behold. The Germanic and Hebrew definitions of her true name, Adelaide, means noble. Her surname, Lynch, is a tad more obvious in the context of the novel. The conflicting feelings that may be brought on by her actions may not be necessarily considered noble, though Everett may or may not disagree. Adelaide Lynch is the true orchestrator of the murders and placing of the Emmett Till look-a-likes from the beginning, and her name demonstrates the meaning behind it. The chosen names at the hand of the author seem to deliberately speak on the roles of each of the characters. 

Throughout this novel, it is clear that Everett has a deep understanding of language and what power it holds. The Trees is a very bloody book in terms of the deaths of characters and the violent actions that are showcased throughout. To connect to the course epigraph, with Lorde’s sentiment on sacrificing people and leaving her pen in someone else’s blood, it leads me to wonder if she would appreciate or despise this novel. Would the use of Emmett Till’s body (later proven to be not his, but in fact multiple others), be considered insensitive? Too violent? Writing the names of lynching victims was an important part of the book to be sure, the reality of the matter is, a reader may not fully comprehend the prevalence of lynching and police brutality throughout the country. However, like Lorde, could some see issue with the way Everett presents the conflict? I think that Everett may have metaphorically left his pen in someone’s blood, but perhaps that was necessary to convey his message. That may be up for debate, though I believe The Trees succeeds in its attempt to call to attention America’s past, as denying the past dooms the future. 

Justice, Power, and Node Stations in Jemisin’s ‘The Broken Earth’ trilogy

In my thinking essay, I focused on N.K. Jemisin’s use of earthquakes or “shakes” and the node stations in The Fifth Season. Jemisin begins world-building by showing readers symptoms of the society our main characters Essun, Damaya, and Syenite exist in. This is a world of oppression, control, and racism that is constantly one disaster away from a Season. Orogenes are people that have the innate ability to control and quell earthquakes which makes them both helpful and dangerous to “stills” or people that cannot control the earth. Orogenes are helpful because of their skills in quelling the shakes of the earth, helping prevent a new “Season” of death. Seasons are times when natural disasters caused by Father Earth lead to an apocalyptic environment and abundant death for those to live in it. Jemisin begins The Fifth Season with the story of the beginning of the end of the world, continuing throughout The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky

Jemisin gives the reader background information about the Stillness or continent that this series takes place on, and Yumenes a government city where the end of the world begins. Earthquakes in this world are constantly happening even if stills cannot feel most of them. “Here is the Stillness, which is not still even on a good day.” (The Fifth Season, p. 7) The end of this world is set off because a huge earthquake up North in Yumenes triggers a Season, making it an incredibly important geological event ending the world for the last time. “So he reaches deep and takes hold of the humming tapping bustling reverberating rippling vastness of the city, and the quieter bedrock beneath it, and the roiling churn of heat and pressure beneath that. Then he reaches wide, taking hold of the great sliding-puzzle piece of earthshell on which the continent sits. Lastly, he reaches up. For power. He takes all that, the strata and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. He holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him. Then he breaks it.” (The Fifth Season, p. 7)

Jemisin gives readers a peek into the society that our characters live in right away, using a non-linear timeline to build an unstable world of “The Stillness”, immediately throwing the reader into the tension between orogenes and stills. With this worldbuilding, we immediately and rightfully sympathize with our orogene characters; Essun, Syenite, and Damaya (later revealed to be the same person at different points in her life). Jemisin shows the horror of a world constantly afraid of its ending and another Season beginning threatening the livelihood of all the communities or comms of the stills. 

The Fulcrum is characterized as a safe place that takes orogenes away from the hatred of stills and trains them to be useful instead of dangerous. However, through the eyes of one of our characters in The Fifth Season Syenite, we are shown a much less polished version of propaganda the Fulcrum uses to control orogenes and stills alike, node stations. Syenite is under the impression that grits (students training at the Fulcrum) who will not listen are sent to node stations to quell local shakes and protect comms as a punishment. “Is Crack’s control really a problem? Or is it simply that her tormentors have done their best to make her crack?” (The Fifth Season p. 204) “It could be worse, though. No one ever sees or mentions Crack again.” (The Fifth Season p. 211) In the eighth chapter, we are shown what the node stations really are. “Even the least of us must serve the greater good,” (The Fifth Season, p. 139) “The body in the node maintainer’s chair is small, and naked. Thin, its limbs atrophied. Hairless. There are things- tubes and pipes and things, she has no words for them- going into the stick-arms, down the goggle-throat, across the narrow crotch. There’s a flexible bag on the corpse’s belly, attached to its belly somehow, and it’s full of- ugh,” (The Fifth Season, p. 139) We find out that these stations are a gruesome use of orogene children who could not be taught or refused to be controlled by the Fulcrum. These node stations are used by Jemisin to show not only how powerful orogenes are as a people because they are so capable at such a young age, but also how violently the Fulcrum oppresses them. Throughout the trilogy, Jemisin references node stations as a way to remind us of the gruesome reality that few know of. We are reminded of node stations when Corundum was killed, when the tuners’ wire chairs are described, and when Essun thinks about the Fulcrum and their treatment of orogenes as a people.

Throughout the trilogy, Jemisin uses geological events and concepts to display power. While Jemisin uses the node stations and control of orogenes by the Fulcrum to display the power that the Guardians (people who can negate orogenic power) have over orogenes, Jemisin brings this idea back with the story of Syl Anagist and the briar patch that powers the city (the predecessor to node stations). Jemisin also makes a commentary on social issues of race and racism. This hatred of orogenes by stills is reminiscent of real-life issues of racism towards minority groups, specifically Black people. In The Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin uses stills and orogenes to comment on racism and the use of racist language. Stills in this world are taught to be afraid of and hate those with orogenic powers, going so far as to make up the slur rogga which is mirroring the real-life use of the n-word which white people and other minority groups use to disempower those of Black heritage. In real life, there is no reason to be hateful against Black people, but Jemisin gives stills an excuse of sorts by making orogenes powerful and intimidating. While this doesn’t make it okay to treat orogenes as such, this does help contextualize the world readers have been dropped into. 

 Jemisin also uses geological events and concepts to display justice. Jemisin shows us the concept of justice throughout many events including the murder of Corundum in Meov, and the journey Essun makes throughout the entirety of The Broken Earth trilogy to avenge her son Uche and save her daughter Nassun from their father Jija. “‘I have to go now.’ Because you do. You need to find Jija,” (The Fifth Season p. 24) “You should have told Jija, before you ever married him, before you slept with him…Then if the urge to kill a rogga had hit him, he would’ve inflicted it on you, not Uche.” (The Fifth Season p. 272) Syenite chooses to kill Corundum rather than have the Fulcrum claim ownership over him because she knows they will turn him into a node maintainer. “You know what they’ll do to him, Syen. A child that strong, my child, raised outside the Fulcrum. You know.” (The Fifth Season p. 433) While murder isn’t necessarily a just option, with the context of the Fulcrum using Alabaster’s son as a node maintainer back in chapter eight of The Fifth Season combined with Alabaster begging Syenite not to let that happen to another one of his sons (Corundum) we can see how it is a murder of mercy, love, and protection. Essun’s journey to find Jija and Nassun is not only for revenge because Essun wants to kill Jija as an atonement for murdering her son Uche. Uche was an orogene, but also for justice because Uche should not have died just for who he was. “You cowards. You animals, who look at a child and see prey. Jija’s the one to blame for Uche, some part of you knows that-” (The Fifth Season p. 57) “No Nassun. And now no direction, no realistic way to find her. You are suddenly bereft of even hope.” (The Fifth Season p. 406) Jemisin’s focus in my interpretation of The Broken Earth trilogy was justice and how important it is in the world-building for the Stillness. Jemisin is not only trying to show how unjust the world is now, but she is also giving us background on how the world was unjust before the Stillness in Syl Anagist.

In The Stone Sky readers are given a look into the history of Syl Anagist and the reason behind the Seasons of death. Jemisin uses this history of Syl Anagist to show readers how tuners, or people capable of working orogenic power with the power of magic in harmony, are treated like they are not people, much like orogenes are treated by stills in the Stillness. Tuners in Syl Anagist are created for a purpose of powering the Plutonic Engine so that the conductors (like Guardians for the tuners) and people of Syl Anagist can harvest lifeforce from the Earth. “Life is sacred in Syl Anagist- as it should be, for the city burns life as the fuel for its glory.” (The Stone Sky p. 334) “No one would do this for a mere lump of iron… We drilled a test bore at one of the Antarctic Nodes. Then we sent in probes that took this from the innermost core. It’s a sample of the world’s own heart.” (The Stone Sky p. 325-326) “There’s not enough magic to be had just from plants and genengineered fauna; someone must suffer, if the rest are to enjoy luxury. Better the earth, Syl Anagist reasons. Better to enslave a great inanimate object that cannot feel pain and will not object.” (The Stone Sky p. 334) Life is considered sacred in Syl Anagist, yet they are taking life from the Earth without ever thinking if it was a living being. 

My understanding of the use of geological concepts to show power and justice in The Broken Earth trilogy has not changed much throughout the series. Jemisin uses these concepts to justify the actions our characters make by showing readers the reasoning behind them. Syenite chooses to murder her child Corundum when the island of Meov is attacked by the Fulcrum and Guardians. The tuners in Syl Anagist choose to revolt and break the Plutonic Engine because they are not treated as people and will be useless after its successful launch. Essun chooses to avenge Uche’s death and save Nassun because Jija killed Uche and kidnapped Nassun out of fear and hatred of orogenes. Each different event is chosen intentionally by Jemisin to weave a thread of justice, and the choice between love and hatred throughout every integral moment in the trilogy.

N.K. Jemisin on Problematic Art and Percival Everett’s The Trees

The Epigraph:

Oh, no. No, no, no. There’s too much to learn from examining that tension between the power and the impact of the art and realizing where that art comes from and what the impetus behind that art is. The best way to engage with twisted or otherwise problematic art, in my opinion, is to first off acknowledge that that art has an impact, hurts people, and understand that engaging with it could perpetuate some of the harm that that art is capable of doing, but flag it, warn it, put it off to the side where people can engage with it at their leisure, at their choice or at a point where they’re strong enough or capable of doing so, but then engage with it. There’s a line between respecting the work and honoring the person. You can respect the craft. You don’t have to put that person on a pedestal. Artists are human beings and that means you need to examine them in all their facets. You have to recognize that these are people and that the things that make them sometimes horrible people are sometimes the things that make them good writers or good artists and that’s what you want to engage with.–N.K. Jemisin, “N.K. Jemisin on H.P. Lovecraft”

On the first day of this class, we were presented with a collection of epigraphs to give us a peek into what we would be learning and focusing on for this semester. An epigraph is a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme. This class is a study on African American Literature and our epigraphs reflect that by, for the most part, focusing on African American voices and issues. Throughout the semester we have returned to these epigraphs again and again because they are a common thread throughout all of our texts and assignments, therefore, allowing us to make deeper connections between works than just “they both have a Black author.”

How it relates to Percival Everett’s The Trees

My chosen epigraph is the quote from N.K. Jemisin on H.P. Lovecraft and engaging with problematic art. Jemisin discusses art and its impact on people interacting with it. No matter when or how art is created, it is never created in a vacuum. Art is a product of its time as well as its artist’s personal beliefs and views. Over time views on different social issues shift and change as new generations establish themselves. H.P. Lovecraft is a great example of art being a product of its creator. While Lovecraft was one of the most influential authors of his time and a talented artist, he was also “a man who, in a 1934 letter, described ‘extra-legal measures such as lynching & intimidation’ in Mississippi and Alabama as ‘ingenious.’” making him one of the most racist authors of his time. These extreme views and the horror content of the majority of Lovecraft’s stories made his work difficult to engage with at times because it left the reader disgusted and uncomfortable. 

As Jemisin says in the epigraph above, “The best way to engage with twisted or otherwise problematic art, in my opinion, is to first off acknowledge that that art has an impact, hurts people, and understand that engaging with it could perpetuate some of the harm that that art is capable of doing, but flag it, warn it, put it off to the side where people can engage with it at their leisure, at their choice or at a point where they’re strong enough or capable of doing so, but then engage with it.”  throwing oneself into art can be harmful, and it is a good idea to slow down and read or engage with it at a pace that makes it more digestible. This epigraph overall reminds me that you cannot ever fully separate the artist from the art because it is a product of who the artist is and where they came from. Jemisin said, “You can respect the craft. You don’t have to put that person on a pedestal.” reminding us as readers that we can enjoy art and still criticize the artist, or vice versa because they are still human and they will make mistakes. One of the first pieces of text we engaged with as a group that supports this epigraph is Barkley Brown’s African American Women’s Quilting. The article on the different art of quilts reminds us that art can be misrepresented and misunderstood without context. One of the first things we discussed with the difference between the two styles- European quilt styling and African American quilt styling- was the visual difference of one following an expected pattern (European) while the other seemed almost random without understanding the culture behind the different rhythms in the quilt. (African American) Slowing down to remember the context between art and the artist has been integral to studying African American literature. 

 In the context of Percival Everatt’s The Trees, this epigraph reminds us to focus on the author and the reasons why he may write the way he does. Everett includes many uses of the n-word because he is making a point to his multiple audiences. He is using this repetition of an uncomfortable slur to be accurate and as authentic as possible for his Black audience. For his white audience that is not met with constant microaggressions in their daily life, Everett uses the uncomfortable fact that people in 2022 are still that racist and that slur is used in everyday conversations without a second thought. This proves the point by making white audiences feel the discomfort that Black people have had to live with every single day. Everett employs specific character dialogue to show characters starting to say the n-word and catching themselves partway through, further pushing the idea that they know it is not right to say it yet they still do it because they don’t believe that Black people are equal to them. This also shows the complexity of the language use because the characters are completely fine using the slur without a thought when around other like-minded people, but stutter to catch themselves when faced with a human being in the minority group that they are disrespecting. Everett knows that the use of the n-word on nearly, if not, every page of the book is uncomfortable for the reader because they are presented with the constant attack of the language. While Everett is writing for multiple audiences, he is especially focusing on giving his white audience a taste of how constant microaggressions in the life of a person who belongs to a minority group can affect them.     Percival Everett shows us as readers that the purpose of art is to evoke emotions; be those good or bad. Everett displays this power through the use of the n-word. Art is often born out of pain and suffering; it is not meant to be entirely positive or beautiful. Everett knows that the purposeful consistent use of such an ugly and degrading word would weigh on the reader’s emotions. Often as a reader, I forgot that The Trees is set in the present era of 2020, and not way back in the 1920s. This was something that Everett wanted to evoke from his readers, he wants to bring attention to issues that are uncomfortable, and gruesome. In The Trees, Everett brings attention to the subject of mass lynchings across the country in the form of a murder mystery. These short chapters, usually two to six pages long give The Trees a fast and confusing pace. This is an entirely calculated choice on Everett’s part because it gives his white audience something to grasp and struggle with as they try to follow the plot and abundant character perspectives. This confusion is mirroring the feeling Black folks had when there were mass lynchings this uncertainty of never knowing who, or if you were next to be accused of a false narrative and sentenced to death. This discomfort for the multiple audiences is an integral part of Everett’s purpose in writing The Trees, he wanted to write a book everyone hated.