Seed Shape Essay: The Tension of Twoness

When thinking of a seed, plants are likely to come to mind; all genetic material needed to form a plant nestled into one tiny tear. The same principle applies to seed shapes of mathematical fractals which are “characterized by the repetition of similar patterns at ever diminishing scales” (Eglash 4). Just as seeds contain the genetic material of the plant, but one could not, at a glance, identify said plant by its As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, the seed shape of a fractal is often lost in its progression. By looking at the smaller elements and perhaps digging a little, however, one may identify the starting point, the connections, and the central movement. The nature of a course containing a wide variety of materials spanning hundreds of years is that there is no singular, central seed shape like the triangle of a Koch Curve; thus recursion also becomes more complex. Ironically, course materials are defined by this tension between simplicity and complexity, the “Twoness of things’” expressed by W.E.B Du Bois, or the threeness and fourness of things as expressed by Bernice Johnson Reagon. 

Tension in this instance is used somewhat loosely. The identification of tension between movements, ideas, and themes is driven by a notion of homogeneousness of culture, which often can be traced back to a white American and European cultural script. Several texts we have reviewed in class reflect this idea, even those well-intentioned such as James A. Snead’s “On Repetition in Black Culture,” which sets a strict line between all of Africa and all of Europe. The idea that difference exists within a cultural framework challenges absolutism and employs the reader to identify context, as well as recognize the misuse of “authenticity,” as a singular way of “performing” culture. Class discussion gave rise to the idea that minority groups are often “not allowed the privilege of multifacetedness” as a result. Evaluation of what first appears to be tension yields complexity and offers deeper insight. 

A small contradiction between texts, and also the first discussed in class, is an aesthetic difference. “African-American Women’s Quilting” focuses on the cultural aesthetic of asymmetry in quilting, of “unpredictability and movement” (Brown 922). She describes “A people’s cultural aesthetic [as] not different from their economic or political aesthetic” (Brown 926), which adds a tremendous amount of weight to the aforementioned aesthetic leanings in African American quilt making. However in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” quilts are described as having a Lone Star pattern and a Walk Around the Mountain pattern. Both patterns are symmetrical, raising a question of authenticity and presenting a false tension. Although the pattern choices may be commentary on assimilation, a central theme in the story, they may also be a contradiction that is not a contradiction at all, but rather a result of differences that occur inside of every group, whether that be aesthetic or contextual, natural or forced. 

Much larger tensions between cultural ideals crop up in Bernice Johnson Reagon’s “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” which seems in conversation with Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” The tension lies not between the texts themselves, but in the ideals which are addressed. The struggle between assimilation and community and comfort, which Reagon describes as a matter of survival, and “sanity threatening for the elders and the children” (Reagon 113), is addressed in both texts. “Everyday Use” sets a dichotomy between the two, between returning college student Dee’s (or, rather, Wangero’s) views of her childhood home as full of potential decor, and her mother’s view that such items are meant for everyday use. Walker’s description of a churn Dee is determined to take as still being full, still being put to practical use, emphasizes this difference. Reagan, however, also highlights how some may be able to “straddle” this line between cultures that Walker sets as diametrically opposed. Those who straddle “don’t move totally from one place to the other place, but we construct a new network of rules, regulations, and standards that are a shifting blend” (Reagon 115). This presents a new space not addressed in “Everyday Use,” a space in which there is no singular choice between worlds, but instead a third space between. Though the difference between a “home” space and an “other” space remains, the apparent dichotomy becomes more nuanced. 

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself are often compared. Incidents narrates an experience of slavery unlike Douglass’; Harriet Jacobs contends with sexual violence and the jealousy of her enslaver’s wife, and several chapters and a number of years are spent hiding, (441) compared to Douglass’ more rivoting escape, something which readers lean into. The unimaginable conditions of Jacobs’ 9 by 7 foot hideout in which she “suffered for air even more than for light…was tormented by hundreds of little red insects” (Jacobs 453) and could see her children only through a small hole, was the primary reason it was declared in the white academic world to be fiction. The tension between the narratives, and the differences that lead Doughlass’ narrative to be generally favored, do not delegitimize Jacobs’ experiences, but instead speak to the diversity of horrors of enslavement.  

Both narratives required a preface by a white person, and Incidents was accepted as a true narrative only after the research of a white historian, Jean Fagan Yelliln, was completed, demonstrating how white people must attest to the validity of Black struggles in order for them to be taken seriously. This “looming” that we discussed in class prevented full stories from being told overtly. It prevents both Douglass and Jacobs from naming many individuals in their stories, as they “deemed it kind and considerate towards others” (Jacobs 435). On one occasion, Douglass omits the names of children who helped him learn to read, as “it might embarrass them; for it is almost an unpardonable offense to teach slaves to read in this Christian country” (Douglass 289). The protection of the reputations of people, particularly white people involved in the lives of Douglass and Jacobs, reflects the constant pressure of white publishers, scholars, and a general white audience. 

This looming also leads to a number of creative decisions in regards to audience. Upper class white women were the particular audience for many slave narratives, in the hopes that they might be moved to speak to their power-holding husbands. This can be seen in many places throughout the narratives, such as in how Douglass opens his narrative by telling his audience about how mothers and children were separated, and Jacobs speaks of how her children do not know she is so close to them when she is hiding out in the same house, how she “longed to tell them [she] was there” (Jacobs 452). Targeted also was the fear that they, too, might become like Dr. Flint’s wife, like Mrs. Auld, a “woman of the kindest heart…changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon” (Douglass 287). Decisions made directly to cater to a certain audience demonstrate the friction between author and audience in the case of slave narratives and adds layers to said narratives. 

Module 4’s epigraph is a Lucille Clifton poem asking the question “is there under that poem always//an other poem?” This begs the question: what layers lie beneath surface tension? From questions of aesthetic to assimilation to narrative, beneath tension lies difference, lies context, suffering, and joy. Beneath tension lies a seed shape that is, in and of itself, based in variation. The fractal emerging from such a shape reflects the same purposeful disorder. Questions generated from complexity are new with each text, discussion, and revelation, and, as the fractal continues to grow, it becomes more important to remember the root idea. Taking the next step past the initial cultural script of inauthenticity or confusion is essential in learning within a community of students, where conversation is fruitful above argument.

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