Am I Atlas Or The Firmament?

A firmament is a material force, the touching of the sky, or, in Morrison and Dante’s works, the heavens to the ground below. This is, naturally, a terrifying concept for me. As a nineteen year old college student, it seems that we are consistently denied a place in building and forming the firmament. Politicians tell us we are too young to make decisions and speak out. We as students are seen as children incapable of acting with dignity, but still are expected to be productive adults to the system we are within. Frankly, I’m quite sick of this particular both/and pushed upon myself and my peers. For a tangible future where the sky will not rest on someone’s shoulders alone, like Atlas in Greek mythology, we must turn to one another for collaboration, for strength in numbers and the diverse ideas each person holds. Morrison proposes time and time again in her works that a collaborative both/and, where those with diverse ideas are allowed to speak and be heard in difficult conversations, is the best form of this. Her examination of justice in particular epitomizes the need to look outside of our own ideas.

In my time in this class, I have come to fully appreciate the value of collaborative work. Frankly, at the beginning of the semester, I was petrified by the idea of a group essay. I envisioned a process in which we would all argue about every word, appointing one person as a scribe and moving tediously through each section. However, this was not the case. I was relieved to find we had a more standard approach of dividing work, while also then bringing in a peer review process that enabled more views to be shared. My first essay with my first group didn’t go very smoothly, however.. For example, I thought it was important for our Beloved piece to write a detailed piece on Dante’s ideas of punishment in contextualization of his own guilt. Rather than making a case for this as Morrison’s baseline for her judgment of this system, I wrote another, focusing on the idea of punishment. However, while in retrospect I can see how this was better for the paper itself, I wish that the group as a whole had allowed for more conversations.  I am not innocent in this, as I also advocated for cutting certain parts to cut down the paper. We cut several sections of this paper rather than critically examining people’s ideas, such as shortening the piece on the contemporary criminal justice system. Therefore, it can both be beneficial to engage in these critical group assignments, and acknowledging that it isn’t always the ideal solution. In this, I learned to ask for what I need in order to flourish with projects like this. When Professor McCoy asked for honest feedback on the group work, I answered rather guilty that I thought it might be beneficial for me to see how other groups worked with one another and gain a broader understanding on the project. With this new advancement, I found that I was able to flourish within another group. I believe that the key to making sure these projects can work is carefully selecting people who will work well together. Of course this also requires trial and error, and I discovered that I work better in a more discussion based group. 

Within the text of Morrison’s trilogy itself, the idea of the both/and is emblematic of the themes of the work. For example, one topic we touched on briefly in class and much more in small group discussions is the idea of justice. Most people, in the padlet responses and onward, were firm in their definitions of justice, myself included. For Beloved, many believed that Paul D should have not been allowed to just get away with his sexual relationship with Beloved. But what is the alternative? This is the conundrum we were confronted with as readers in the case of Joe Trace. While we like to believe we could serve as judge, jury, and perhaps executioner in these cases, we are inherently shaped by our own internal biases. While we can struggle and insist upon justice being delivered in these works, it is clear that no form of it would have been possible. Looking back, Professor McCoy was attempting to hint at this with the feedback from our first group project, where she wrote “I am inviting each and every one of you to put a pin in this line, and leave it where you can remember to find it when we get to Paradise: ‘Morrison seems to suggest that there is no such thing as Divine Justice, and this idea is just that: a literary device”. Morrison is the master of the both/and, particularly in literary criticism. While we as readers may yearn for justice, or ask ourselves why, justice simply cannot be fairly distributed and served. The so-called justice system today is incredibly corrupt and biased against minorities, particularly people of color. Everyone’s responses to the idea of justice within the initial padlet called for either ostracization or imprisonment of Joe Trace. However, the context the majority of us failed to take into account initially is that Joe Trace is a Black man in 1920s Manhattan. An officially condoned enforcement of justice would inherently harm him. Who can say that the police, perceiving a Black man who murdered a young white-passing girl, wouldn’t simply murder him upon finding him? Where would this leave Violet, a Black woman whose only source of income is sporadic hairdressing sessions? It is made clear within Jazz itself that the community will not support Violet, both for her husband’s actions and her manic attack of Dorcas’ body. If Joe was arrested, she would have no financial or social support from her community. This is the same issue with the banishment option. If Joe leaves town, he either has to bring his grieving wife with him, trapping her further within a social setting where no one, not even Alice, will offer her relief from his company, or leave her behind. Neither can live without some form of support, whether it be from each other, their family, or society. Either way, this does not bring justice to Dorcas or Violet. The both/and has never been clearer; Joe simultaneously deserves to be brought to justice, but a fair punishment is impossible. Morrison’s examination of justice exhibits her control of the both/and within her writing itself.

The earlier portion of this piece was the easiest, as I struggle with self reflection most of the time. I tend to lean more towards condemnation on skills I must continue working on rather than those I’ve learned throughout the semester and my life. To complete this, I turned back to and reread the Reflecting Writing resource given. I learn best when analyzing people’s written feedback, so I went back through the comment history of the Jazz/Purgatory collaboration. As expected, my immediate reaction was to be apologetically mortified in response to constructive criticism. I find that this sensation is muted, however, when it is in writing. Somehow it feels less defensive if someone simply suggests something in text rather than having to look at someone. This is, admittedly, not the healthiest coping skill for my writing progress, but I’m working on it. For example, with the Paradise/Paradiso piece, when I was out for the day, I was worried I was falling behind. So when we came back the following Friday, I asked what in the sections I’d already written could be improved on and how I could further help. Asking for someone to proofread my piece is horrifying, but ultimately makes my writing more cohesive and comprehensible. I don’t have to work by myself, holding the firmament up by myself. I am also now more comfortable giving feedback. For our Jazz essay, we initially had a section that suggested that Joe Trace purposely set out with the intention to purge Dorcas’ sin from his body by murdering her. Upon rereading the book, however, I realized that Joe didn’t obviously set out to kill Dorcas, but rather to get her back as an affair partner. Following this revelation, I nervously pointed this out in the comment section of the paper. To my surprise, this was immediately accepted by the others once they reread the pertinent sections, and they even thanked me for noticing this. 

The both/and epitomized by Morrison’s writing has finally become clear to me with these projects. While I still am apprehensive about giving and receiving feedback, I recognize that this is necessary to actually improve. If everyone was too focused on their own insecurities with their writing, then we wouldn’t be able to help point out areas of improvement for others. No one can stand alone in any process, let alone with writing. Morrison, in showcasing the value of not relying entirely on one piece or another, whether it be ideas of justice or in writing, is a valuable resource for examining our own internal biases and anxieties. When we allow for other people to share their thoughts on the world at large and our own work, we can become part of the firmament. The sky does not stand alone, but rather we all must hold it up together, gradually melding into it. Once we accept that we cannot hold it alone, we can join the others there, becoming the firmament itself.

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