Seed Shape Essay

In Ron Eglash’s 2007 TED talk, he defined a seed shape as the starting point of a fractal, and to create a seed shape, “you start with a shape and iteratively integrate smaller versions of the shape back into the design.” A seed shape is a starting point that continually builds upon itself, making itself into a fractal. This simple design can branch into intricate and infinitely detailed patterns. This concept transfers over to our class reading of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, written by himself. We can look at these kinds of narratives as seed shapes on a fractal that represents injustice against African Americans throughout history, with the theme of both oppression and resilience in each of the many stories. These stories help represent the idea of a fractal, as these narratives serve as microcosms that reflect on the broader struggle of African Americans. Through his individual story, Douglas tells a tale of enslavement, adding to the complex web of oppression and resiliency that runs through African American history. 

This story falls into the genre of fugitive slave narrative. In one of our classes with Professor McCoy, we discussed how these stories often start with a sense of order and peace, then things progressively get worse and worse for our characters until they reach a point that we defined as rock bottom. Only once these characters have reached the bottom can they climb out of the hole they are in. This is the part of the story where Professor McCoy describes a shift in the narrative towards order being restored. The order is restored when freedom is reached, aka reaching the North. Both of these narratives build upon this theme of both oppression and resilience by adding seed shapes to this infinitely growing fractal that represents African American struggle.

We can say Douglas’s story helps build on this fractal of African American struggle through the mistreatment he experienced during his enslavement. In his story, he describes how one of his mistresses had been teaching him how to read and write. This mistress would soon be reprimanded by her husband, Master Hugh, stating that ‘it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read… ‘If you give a (slave) an inch, he wil l take an ell. A (slave) should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best (slave) in the world. Now,” said he, ‘if you teach that (slave) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”  Douglas’s account of being forbidden to learn to read and write by his master serves as an example of the systematic suppression of education among enslaved African Americans, as this denial underscored the fear among slaveholders that knowledge would empower slaves to challenge their bondage. This seed of oppression continues to build upon itself as, after some years, Douglas would be sent to live on Mr. Covey’s farm. Douglas would describe that during his one year with Mr. Covey, “the first six months of that year, scarce a week passed without his whipping me. I was seldom free from a sore back….This woman was named Caroline. Mr. Covey bought her… He hired a married man, Mr. Samuel Harrison, to keep up with her every night! At the end of the year, the miserable woman gave birth to twins. The children were regarded as quite an addition to his wealth. We worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow. It was too hard for us to work in the field. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold, a man transformed into a brute!” This idea of “breaking a slave” was something Mr. Covey was known for, and Covey had succeeded in breaking the body and spirits of Douglas. From being worked to the absolute limit no matter the weather, being brutally whipped, and seeing women be raped on the daily just so Covey could make a profit, Douglas was, as he stated, “broken in body, soul, and spirit.” The atrocities inflicted upon African Americans under the oppressive system of slavery illuminate the connection between these various forms of oppression, whether it be physical brutality or sexual exploitation, this dehumanization is inherently rooted in the institution of slavery, which adds another layer to the fractal of struggle and resistance that defines the African American historical struggle.

Through all this pain and struggle, there was still a drive in Douglass to reclaim his humanity and defy the oppressive forces that sought to degrade and dehumanize him. Douglas’ would go on to describe how these next experiences would turn him from a slave into an. “All went well till Monday morning… I was called to go and rub, curry, and feed the horses. I obeyed and was glad to obey. Mr. Covey entered the stable with a long rope, and just as I was half out of the loft, he caught hold of my legs and was about to tie me. Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me and could do what he pleased, but at this moment—from whence came the spirit I don’t know—I resolved to fight, and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat, and as I did so, I rose. I watched my chance and gave him a heavy kick close under the ribs. This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.” Through all this pain and struggle, there was still a drive in Douglass to reclaim his humanity and defy the oppressive forces that sought to dehumanize him. This drive for freedom made sure Covey never messed with him again and eventually gave him the confidence to assert his autonomy. This pivotal moment not only deterred Covey from further mistreatment but also empowered Douglass with confidence. This would eventually pave the way for his eventual escape from slavery in the pursuit of a life of freedom.

Through this journey of Frederick Douglass going from a dehumanized slave to a resilient man reclaiming his humanity, we witness the resilience and determination in the African American struggle. Ron Eglash’s concept of the fractal provides a lens through which we can understand the connection between the various forms of oppression faced by African Americans throughout history. Douglass’s narrative serves as a seed shape within this fractal, representing these themes of oppression and resilience that define this struggle.

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