Disturbing Threads in Discourse of African American Literature

In attempting to discern a central “seed shape” for our ENGL-337 course thus far, I found it difficult to focus on just one. There have certainly been several thematic throughlines that we have followed between pieces of writing over the course of these first few weeks, but as I have begun to delve into each of them, I have found that every possible seed shape has its roots in another possible seed shape, all of them intertwining and spiraling into the infinitely complex whole of African American literature. Any given individual concept that can be identified in the study of African American literary history cannot be separated from the whole that it is a part of, and that whole is also a part of each of its own fragments. Many of the concepts we have discussed in this course can be traced back to a uniting core of the many perniciously sprawling limbs of American white supremacy, but this is less a seed shape than it is the structural groundwork from which the study of African American literature has grown. However, even as the whole of American white supremacy is self-reproducing, some of its manifestations may be seen as having their own unique ways of recurring on their own, exemplified by common threads prominent in this course.

Before I go on to identify what I believe is the most significant of these threads given the information I have now, I would like to make it clear what my understanding of a “seed shape” is, as this is what I will be basing my argument off of. The terminology of seed shapes has its origin in the mathematical study of fractals, which Eglash at one point describes as “simulations for natural objects…with a seed shape that undergoes recursive replacement” (African Fractals, 12). Essentially, fractals are patterns resulting from one basic shape replacing each section of its own form with itself, and then doing the same substitutions with the resulting form, and so on; the output for one iteration becomes the input for the next. The possible result is an infinitely complex shape made entirely of a simple, self-reproducing shape– the fractal’s “seed shape.” This phenomenon is often seen in objects of nature, hence why manufactured fractals are often seen as “simulations” of nature’s patterns. More abstractly, then, a seed shape could be considered to be any core concept that recursively reproduces itself until it has created a deeply complicated mechanism of phenomena wherein the original, basic concept is always underpinning each resultant example of it.

Applying this to our course, and to the study of African American literature more broadly, I view a seed shape as being a societally ingrained thought system of which certain of the issues prevalent in the history of African American artforms are symptoms. Most of what we have talked about in this course are symptoms of several, interconnected conceptual seed shapes, but I have found myself continually returning to one idea, which is threaded through all of the readings we have at this time done as a class. African American literature was first cultivated in a society that did not want it to exist; and in a sense, the same is still true of more modern African American literature. As much as the myth of a post-racial America is pushed onto us, the fact remains that we live under a state where black voices may only be systematically uplifted on the terms of white hegemony. Therefore, a prominent seed shape germinating through the history of black literature has been the black literature as a study and as an artform has consistently been viewed as socially valuable in the context of “Western” notions of value.

Interestingly enough, the first iteration of this seed shape that made me think of this idea was with Ron Eglash himself, in his discussion of fractals. In our first class session, we watched a video of a presentation by Eglash about his studies of the usages of fractals in a variety of African societies. While it is clear that he is trying to be respectful and reverent of the often monolithicized “African culture,” but there was one comment that particularly stuck out to me, which I think reveals a problematic mentality that often accompanies white people trying in good faith to bring awareness to achievements by people of color worldwide. When explaining the successes his foundation has had with the application of his research in education, he claims that introducing young children in America of African descent to the history of African fractals has been “very successful teaching [them] that they have a heritage that’s about mathematics, that it’s not just about singing and dancing” (“African designs,” 14:40). 

This comment may seem innocuous at first, but it carries troubling implications. It apparently subverts the stereotype of African culture being more centered on the body and nature, with European culture being more centered on the mind and intellect; however, it implicitly creates a hierarchy in which “mathematics” is to be more valuable than “singing and dancing.” Eglash is aiming to introduce African cultural traditions into the EuroAmerican world, but only the ones that have a use-value that adheres to EuroAmerican thoughts of value. He seems to dismiss soul-affirming practices of singing and dancing as trivial, emphasizing only aspects of African American heritage that are deemed practical. He creates a similar hierarchy between intention and intuition. He dispels the thought that African usages of fractals are based purely on intuition, but in doing so degrades the value of intuition and the just as valid use of intuitive thought over intentional thought in many cultural practices. This may be digging a bit too deep into a couple of well-intentioned but simply misguided statements, but it did prime me to be more aware of similar ideations made manifest further in the class.

It became clear to me that this framework of black achievements being promoted only on white has been a challenge faced by black authors since the inception of the African American literary tradition. This is perhaps most apparent in the prefaces of the autobiographies of formerly enslaved people chronicling their experiences with slavery, a genre of literature now known as the “fugitive slave narrative.” In order for these artistic works to be published for a wider, largely white audience, the narrative would have to be prefaced by accounts from white people establishing the credibility of the narrative’s black author. Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is preceded in most printings by a preface in which William Lloyd Garrison asserts that the following narrative “is, in [his] judgment, highly creditable to [Douglass’] head and heart” and he is “confident that [the narrative] is essentially true in all its statements (Garrison, May 1, 1845). Following this is often included a letter from Wendell Phillips to Douglass, in which Phillips states that he “can put the most entire confidence in [Douglass’] truth, candor, and sincerity” (Phillips, April 22, 1845). For another instance, Harriet Jacobs’ Life of a Slave Girl was not widely accepted until a white scholar offered support for the truth of the narrative. The fact that the initial perceived value of these foundational pieces of African American literature was dependent on notable white people attesting to their veracity suggests that what was valued about the literature was not the authors’ artistry, but the framing of the literature by white activists as solely calls for abolition. Compounding this is the unfortunate truth that these authors were pressured to give simply a clear description of their enslavement to be most convincing for the cause of abolition; dominant society was not interested in African American literature as “literature,” but rather as a political tool.

Distressingly, it appears that this idea is still underpinning the foundations of modern “black studies.” When African American artforms and histories stopped being fully excluded from the realm of academia through the 1970’s and 1980’s, they were introduced as separate areas of study from Eurocentric cultural studies. As Toni Morrison expressed in a quotation that is featured as a central epigraph for this course, “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form” (Morrison, 1989). The way I have connected this to my argument is that hegemonic American academia seems to present African American literature as being valuable in the same way that white literature. Students are often taught to read works in the classic “canon” for their artistry and their expressions of profound thought and deep feeling. African American literature, on the other hand, tends to be taught more as a study of African American people and their history, focusing less on the authors’ very real artistic achievements in their works. This is so prevalent that readings by white readers of any works by black authors may come with the assumption that every piece of black literature must have some “political” purpose; something very obviously evidenced by the fact that white readers frequently believe that Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” must be about slavery, even though there is little textual evidence to support this. The shadow of white supremacy remains uncomfortable with non-white voices being centered; thus, there is an underlying societal thought instilled in white Americans that the study of works by black authors is valuable because it will help the white readers feel better about themselves– as though reading about past and current injustices towards African Americans will help absolve the guilt of white Americans– and not because it is valuable in and of itself.

As I am currently taking a class in African American literature, especially one where the majority of my classmates and my professor are white, I think it is paramount for me to remain aware of this apparent trend, being someone brought up by blatantly white supremecist systems. I want to make myself as aware as possible of the ways in which this strain of thought may have seeped into my own subconscious perceptions of African American literature and African American art more broadly. As we continue through the semester I hope to continually challenge my own experience of the course, and recognize the biases I may have that could suggest that the centering of black voices in this class could be valuable to me for the self-serving reasons that are often implicitly given, distracting from the inherent value of the literature’s artistry. Awareness that we are living in an environment that has a foundation in refusing black voices speak for themselves without being superimposed by what dominant white society views as valuable about those voices is key in working to dismantle those trends, especially in education.

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