Sustainability In Literature

By: Americus Burke, Isabel Landers, Emma Pozak, Danielle Scolton, Amber Ellis, Jake Elvers, Rachel Sharpe

Sustainability can be defined as, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” (Sustainability | United Nations). Sustainability can then be further broken down into three smaller categories, also known as the three pillars of sustainability. These three pillars are: environmental sustainability, which can be defined as, “the responsible management of natural resources to fulfill current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs,” (Examples of Environmental Sustainability | SNHU), social sustainability, which can be defined as, “identifying and managing business impacts, both positive and negative, on people,” (Social Sustainability | UN Global), and economic sustainability, which can be defined as, “ practices that support long term economic growth without negatively impacting social, environmental, and cultural aspects of the community,” (Economic Sustainability). When looking at the connection between sustainability and literature, we can find a profound connection between how different time-dependent views on sustainability affect how literature portrays its function in everyday life. Reading historical works “ depict an ecocentric worldview provide us with deep and rich accounts of the non-human, teaching us environmentally friendly attitudes in ways in which other texts and media do not,”(Sustainable Literary Competence). By focusing on social, environmental, and economic sustainability, we will be able to make deeper connections to the literature.

While exploring issues of economic sustainability, Invisible Man also deals heavily with social sustainability as it applies to the relationship between institutions and their laborers. Using the definition of social sustainability from our first paragraph, it’s obvious that the business model used by Liberty Paints is unsustainable in its treatment of lower level workers. Brockway, arguably one of the plant’s most valuable laborers, takes on a heavy workload for very little pay, even though his actions as an individual are key in the success of the company as far as the actual production of the paint. Not only is he taken advantage of, he is also taken for granted, as “They thinks ‘cause everything down here is done by machinery, that’s all there is to it. They crazy! Ain’t a continental thing that happens down here that ain’t as iffen I done put my black hands into it!” (19). Liberty Paints as a corporation benefits from keeping workers like Brockway desperate for employment, discouraging them from seeking union representation or better wages. In separating their workforce like this, the company is able to enact more control over their workers, which is an unsustainable connection between institution and individual. Within similar media there is also the institution of the college that the protagonist previously attended before his job at Liberty Paints in chapter 10. It’s revealed later in the book that the supposed letter of recommendation written by his former college president, Dr. Bledsoe, was instead a request for the man’s employers to keep him running. The protagonist remarks: “I had a feeling that something had gone wrong, something far more important than the paint; that either I had played a trick on Kimbro or he, like the trustees and Bledsoe, was playing one on me…” (9). The institution of the university continues to have a negative impact on the protagonist’s life, setting him up for failure even after he is expelled. By continuing to assert their power over an individual like the protagonist in such a damaging way, the rule of the university and the company over its individuals is made socially unsustainable. 

Furthermore, in the poem, “The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant”, a few examples of social sustainability are present. At the end of the poem, the servant says, “‘Tis God alone can give us peace;/ It’s not the pow’r of man:/ When virtuous pow’r shall  increase,/ ‘Twill beautify the land” (Hammon). The emphasis on virtuous power increasing to beautify the land suggests a vision of a society where justice, fairness, and equity are recognized. Social sustainability requires the acknowledgment of systemic inequalities and promoting inclusivity to ensure that everyone has access to opportunities and resources. By prioritizing virtues like fairness and equity, people can work towards creating a more sustainable and just society for everyone. Again, the servant says, “Then will the happy day appear,/ That virtue shall increase;/ Lay up the sword and drop the spear,/ And nations seek for peace” (Hammon). The imagery of laying down weapons symbolizes the dedication to resolving conflicts peacefully. Social sustainability requires building techniques for conflict resolution and promoting dialogue. By prioritizing peaceful means of conflict resolution, societies can create an environment where all people have the opportunity to thrive and contribute to the common good.

Economic issues can be found in every aspect of society, so naturally they find their way into literature to be consumed and regurgitated once more. Chapter 10 of Invisible Man follows the protagonist through a day at a new workplace – Liberty Paints. He soon discovers that the company has been “Firing the regular guys and putting on you colored college boys…they don’t have to pay union wages” (2). Unions have a history of excluding African Americans even though the general goal of a union is workers’ rights (a living wage, job security, insurance, etc.). Without these things, making a living is not economically sustainable, but neither is an exclusionary union that limits who has access to these benefits. Economic sustainability is often not a single goal, as different economic decisions benefit some, but not others. Through this, a long history of discrimination against African American workers at the economic level can be uncovered. 

Within the economic structure there is a distinct hierarchy between worker and boss. As a worker, there is a fear of making a mistake and losing one’s livelihood. Without a union, workers have few rights and can’t argue for a number of things such as a living wage or insurance. As the boss, there is no sense of fear as they hold all the power, and without proper restrictions they can fire anyone they please. Unions must provide workers with the power to negotiate; to fight back against unfair treatment in work environments. Yet the history of unions is one wrought with conflict and racial discrimination. As previously touched upon, African American workers were often excluded from unions and so they often found himself receiving lower wages compared to their white counterparts, which is reflected in The Invisible Man’s union. The progression of unions has been a complex and evolving journey, marked by both challenges and advancements and encompassing both social and economic sustainability. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, many unions were racially segregated, excluding African American workers or offering them limited membership rights. This discrimination persisted through much of the 20th century, gradually improving as Civil Rights Movements gained momentum. At the time Invisible Man takes place, however, unions were not sustainable. 

However, over time, unions have played a pivotal role in reducing economic disparities between black and white workers. One key aspect of this progression is the recognition of unions as a vital institution for enforcing more equal outcomes by income class in the U.S. economy. The policy-driven shrinkage of unionization has been identified as a significant factor contributing to the rise of income inequality in recent decades. Despite the historical issues with racism within organized labor, unions’ overall effect has been to reduce economic disparities between Black and white workers, making it one of the most equalizing institutions in American society. Moreover, unions have actively contributed to the Civil Rights Movement, providing direct political and economic support starting as early as the 1930s. The decline in unionization after 1980 has been linked to the steady rise in the black-white wage gap, highlighting the importance of unions in narrowing racial pay disparities. African American workers have been more likely to be in unions than white workers since the mid-1940s, and they have experienced a larger pay premium from unionization. Furthermore, unions have been instrumental in reducing racial wealth gaps. Overall, unions play a crucial role in strengthening democracy by mobilizing workers to vote and advocating for policies that benefit workers of all races. Despite the challenges unions have faced and continue to face, they remain essential for promoting economic equality and racial justice in the United States (Bivens et al., 2023 ). Therefore, through intentional inclusion, unions have become a sustainable model for all workers, not just white workers. 

Economic and environmental sustainability clash in Farming While Black and a visit to a heating plant emphasizes connection with nature and pushes back against unsustainable practices. Also touched on is the overtaxing of resources through industrialization, an attempt to “force in nature and to act accordingly” (54) with human will. The chapters sparked a discussion of comfort and sustainability; the workshop mentioned in the text, Black Latinx Farmers Immersion (BLFI) program, is intense, and participants “ sacrificed just as [they] hoped to receive” (53). The give and take of effort and labor to and from a people and their environment, however, is not always practical. Manual labor is more time consuming and expensive than machine labor in most cases, and heating a home is not environmentally friendly; there is a balance to be found between long-term and short-term comfort. However, this tension is not black and white, as a visit to the heating plant revealed. Steve Morrison, our guide, stated himself that if one of the chamber doors were to open then it would cause an explosion. This would indicate that, by taking things the earth gives us and attempting to exert control over them without giving back “we invite a kind of death” (57). On the other hand, In terms of safety within the workplace in reference to short term comfort, monitors, valves, constant staffing, and alarms protect workers and students alike. The plant uses water to heat buildings as opposed to oil, is incredibly efficient, and shuts down heat to most buildings for breaks, all of which support environmental sustainability. Although industrial does not mean non-sustainable, intentional design is essential, and is often found through connection with nature, as is discussed in Farming While Black. The practices of sustainable farming using African dark earth; fertile soil invented by women in Ghana and Liberia 700 years ago, and heating a university using steam may mirror one another, if important connections between the earth and its people are recognized. In a field, “If you pause in stillness, you can hear the honeybees dancing on the buckwheat crop all the way on the other side of the field” (99) just as the sounds of the heating plant hum above voices.  Sustainability can be defined as acting intentionally as to protect those who come after us. While environmental sustainability is often the first to come up in discussion, all three pillars, environmental, social, and economic, are not only important but also intrinsically linked. They also allow us a medium through which to look back on ideas regarding sustainability that we have pushed past. Through empathizing with characters in narratives we understand motives and circumstances that define historical sustainability, which provides the groundwork for a future unlike our past: a sustainable future. Examining sustainability beyond just environmental concerns and incorporating perspectives from Black literature offers a more comprehensive understanding of the concept. Sustainability covers not only the preservation of natural resources but also social justice, equity, and cultural preservation. Black literature provides rich insights into these aspects, shedding light on historical injustices, resilience, and the ongoing struggle for environmental and social sustainability within Black communities. Furthermore, our course concepts emphasize the importance of looking beneath the surface, delving into the underlying narratives and historical contexts that shape our understanding of sustainability. Black literature serves as a powerful tool for uncovering these deeper layers, challenging dominant narratives, and amplifying marginalized voices. Through works like Lucille Clifton’s poetry, Invisible Man, and Farming While Black we learn to interrogate surface-level assumptions and confront the complexities of sustainability in relation to race, power, and privilege. Moreover, integrating Black literature into our exploration of sustainability aligns with the broader goals of our Geneseo education. As a liberal arts institution aiming to foster critical thinking and inclusive excellence, Geneseo encourages interdisciplinary approaches to learning that engage with diverse perspectives and experiences. By incorporating Black literature, we enrich our understanding of sustainability and cultivate a more inclusive and equitable learning environment.

The Covering of History: The Implications of The Past on an Unsustainable Future

By: Nicole Malley, Catie Prospero Mcguire, Makel Harris, Hailey Luczak, Victoria Slade, and Jordan Wilson

According to the United Nations, sustainability is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainability can be broken up into three pillars: environmental, social, and economic. Environmental sustainability is the most well-known and refers to conservation of the Earth’s natural resources and preservation of nature. Social sustainability is the creation and maintenance of social structures that provide for the well-being, equality, and stability of the community. Economic sustainability refers to economic gain without negatively impacting social, physical, and environmental well-being.

Sustainability is capable of manifesting outside of these pillars. Sustainability in literature applies to recycling ideas within a piece of text. Written work can also be used to convey ideas, practices, or critiques of sustainable or unsustainable practices (weather, environmental, social, or economic). The book Literature and Sustainability: Concept, Text, and Culture discusses the process of using literature to write about sustainability. “Literature might equally, we would argue, provide a space in which to explore the complexity of sustainability as an ongoing, never fulfilled aspiration, or the difficulties of attaining a sustainable world, or the nuances and dimensions of the unsustainable.” When authors attempt to tackle a concept such as sustainability in their works, they may find themselves realizing that sustainability cannot be 100% achieved. There is always something that can be improved and when one issue is solved there is always another problem buried beneath. That being said, this does not stop authors from writing about the problems with unsustainability in our world. Authors like Ralph Ellison call attention to the unsustainable social structures of racism as well as the harmful intertwined economic and environmental practices through use of a metaphor. 

The importance of sustainability, although the two may not seem connected, proves its relevance throughout African American literature in many ways. Authors write about the problems during their lifetimes that can help lead to a more sustainable world, although this battle is never-ending. In works such as “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, sustainability is shown to be a major issue that impacts society socially, economically, and environmentally. Ellison draws attention to the systematic issues present in the Liberty Paint Factory by bringing attention to social sustainability by writing aboutyoung, black college students who are used for cheap labor. The Liberty Paint Factory uses “optic white” paint as a metaphor for covering up Black history, due to its use being primarily government buildings. The use of black chemical drops called dope is combined with the paint to create “pure white.” The irony of the “pure” white paint, is that it’s not pure white. The black dope is essential in its creation, yet it is hidden and masked in the same way that the government masks Black history. Ellison wrote, “Struggling to remove an especially difficult cover, I wondered if the same Liberty paint was used on the campus, or if this ‘Optic White’ was something made exclusively for the government.” (Ellison 4). This is Ellison’s way of bringing attention to the fact that America is haunted by a history of slavery, and the paint is a representation of the government’s attempt to cover up the wrongdoings.

This idea of covering up slavery is something that we see as terrible and is in essence turning a blind eye to the true history upon which America has been built. Environmental sustainability is becoming a more and more important issue, and there is a growing fear that this destruction of the environment is going to lead to a similar destruction of history. The poem Life by KwameAlexander, approaches the idea of displacement, “This morning / I woke to find / termites / eating away / at my home … / my friends / assured me that / the good/liberal ones / were not involved” (Alexander). The termites can be read as a reflective metaphor of real people. It is humans who are destroying the earth and the land. But this blame is absolved, and the narrator ignores it, placing responsibility on the conservative termites making them the only ones at fault. Meanwhile, the real consequences of the destruction of his home.

This home could have multiple interpretations, one being the idea of “home” as a reference to land; the destruction of land. Ironically, the narrator pays more attention to the political-social world than the consequences of his home being destroyed. The narrator disregards the reality of the situation, the destruction of the land. They will be displaced, losing connection with the land. This could be reflective of practices that have, and continue to dispose of indigenous persons from their land. America has a past of covering up indigenous history, especially dispossession. On the Geneseo campus, the Treaty of Big Tree, in which the Seneca Nation signed over the land of the Seneca Valley to the United States. Now, where this treaty was signed, is a parking lot. The college does not recognize or educate about the history of this land, as close and significant as it is to this community and history. 

This forced removal leads to both a historical and spiritual disconnection from the land. In Farming While Black, Leah Penniman addressed the audience with the statement “In African Cosmology… there is no separation between the sacred and the everyday… Each spring before breaking the ground… we ask permission from the Spirit of the Land and make offerings of gratitude.” (Penniman 53)” There is a respectful relationship between people and the land because of this cultural connection. Penniman also addresses the history of racism (and possibly alludes to slavery) which forced both black and indigenous people to move out of the South, resulting in a spiritual disconnect as they were forced from their land, “I believe that in our exile from the red clays of the South to the paved streets of the West and North, we left behind a little piece of our souls. Forced by structural racism into overcrowded and under-resourced urban neighborhoods.” (Penniman 58) This narrative explains the large disconnect that occurred between the land and the people who inhabit it. By destroying the respectful spiritual relationship that there once was between nature and people, the relationship now consists of taking from the land without giving anything back. This is present due to the lack of respect seen in the modern day. This selfish relationship has devastating effects on the environment. 

On the SUNY Geneseo campus there exists a place called the heating plant. The heating plant is a predominantly steam powered highly efficient plant that provides heating for all the buildings on campus. Even as a “highly efficient” system, the heating plant consumes hundreds of gallons of water a day, and during the colder months or emergencies, the boilers run on fossil fuels. This plant relies on finite natural resources extracted from the environment, but their extraction has detrimental effects on the surrounding ecosystems and communities. There is a lack of awareness, from both the staff and the students, of the process occurring in this building on campus. It is easier to abuse natural resources if people don’t know where they’re coming from. There is no spiritual connection or recognized importance of the land, which helps justify the harm done.  

There is widespread unawareness on the campus. Students are ignorant of how the land is being used where the heat is coming from, and the unsustainable ways in which the buildings on our campus are heated. Furthermore, we are unaware of the land’s history. This obliviousness about history connects back to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the use of optic white paint to symbolically cover up history. By hiding history, we are allowed to ignore the important interlocking issues that exist in our world. A history of dispossession of land, spiritual disconnection, and racism are all relevant when discussing sustainability, whether that be social, economic, or environmental. Issues of unsustainable practices are deeply rooted in the past. By covering up this history, people are ill-equipped to confront, much less attempt to fix/set right, the complex web of social, economic, and environmental problems. 

Sustainability Through Literature: Greenwashing and Awareness

Authors: Regan Russell, Abigail Axton, Kayla Clark, Kira Magnus, Brennan Borden, Abigail Kennedy, Sophia Olechowski 

Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. There are three pillars: social, environmental, and economic. The UN has 17 sustainable development goals. The UN has created an agenda for sustainable development that “provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future” (17 Goals). These include strategies to improve health and education, reduce inequality, and improve economic growth, while simultaneously tackling climate change. From the resources to create literature to the concepts tackled, sustainability and literature are intertwined. Literature tackles concepts and serves to promote change through awareness, often African American stories highlight these needs and how actions affect your environment, showing the importance of connections with nature. Both the African American stories and the 17 goals share a common thread of saving future generations and promoting awareness of the effects of present issues.

In Chapter 10 of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Lucius Brockway is training the invisible man to perform the job that he has been in charge of for years, but Brockway does not provide him with the crucial information that is needed to safely handle the job. The relationship between the two characters could be seen as akin to the relationships between activists and those in power. Without this education, Climate activists across the country consistently warn companies and authorities of the potential effects of climate change but are ignored by many and overlooked due to the lack of baseline education on the topic. While Brockway does warn the invisible man to watch the pressure, he fails to explain the drastic repercussions of failing, “I wants you to keep a ‘specially sharp eye on this here sonofabitch. The last couple of days he’s ‘veloped a habit of building up too fast. Causes me a heap of trouble. You see him gitting past 75, you yell, and yell loud!” (13). The invisible man ignores the pressure, due to the gaps in his training, which leads to the explosion that occurs at the end of the chapter despite constant warnings, the explosion affects the Invisible Man but not Brockway because he runs away, which can be a symbol of younger generations bearing the brunt of environmental downfall that was brought on by older generation’s mistakes. This generational cause and effect is also represented in Lucille Clifton’s Generations poem which discusses the need to work because when you die there will still be people after you.

Beyond this, many companies have been guilty of something that has been coined as the term “greenwashing,” misleading consumers to believe that their products have been produced in a sustainably sound manner or have environmental benefits that they do not possess. The company that Brockway and the invisible man work for is named Liberty Paints who advertise their paint as pure. Even creating a slogan advertising this; “Keep America Pure With Liberty Paints”, but their paints are shown to be impure. This false advertising shows the behind-the-scenes deceit that major companies produce to cut costs whilst still maintaining a positive appearance despite the negative effects they have on the environment. This is dangerous as without awareness there is no room for improvement or reform. As mentioned in the UN’s goals, education is necessary to create changes in sustainability. In both of these examples from Invisible Man, a lack of education directly leads to misinformation and a disastrous accumulation of pressure. Similarly, Kwame Alexander’s Life poem demonstrates the concept of instead of trying to fix issues it turns into a political contest to see who is more morally right while ensuring a lack of blame. This promotes the growth of negatives rather than reworking issues to find new solutions.

Another work of literature that raises questions about sustainability and climate change is the poem “Life” by Kwame Alexander. This poem follows a narrator who finds their home being eaten by termites (ll. 1-4). In response to the termites eating his home, Alexander’s narrator’s friends assure them that “the good/liberal ones/ were not involved” (ll. 6-10). Rather than taking action to protect the narrator’s home, the friends are worried about the identity of the termites. After the narrator’s friends assure the narrator about the termites, the poem ends, implying that the termites were not stopped from destroying the home entirely. The termites in the poem can be used as a metaphor for many issues, including climate change. Using that metaphor, one can see how the poem is critiquing how issues relating to climate change often go unsolved because there is a greater focus on preserving the “innocence” of one’s political identity. No one wants the world to end because of climate change, just like the narrator’s friends don’t want the narrator’s house to be destroyed, but the need for one’s identity to be right often distracts from doing the work that will solve the problem. Alexander’s poem illustrates and criticizes this prioritization of keeping the image of one’s identity innocent. 

In addition to criticizing the prioritization of one’s image over meaningful change, Alexander also discusses individual and collective action concerning climate change. The feeling of need to preserve the blamelessness of one’s political identity stems from the desire for individual emotional comfort. The work that it takes to fight climate change is uncomfortable, and it is much easier to feel that one is doing the work by being on the “correct” political side. However, the desire to put one’s comfort first sacrifices the collective survival of all; it puts others who do not have the privilege of being distracted from climate change at risk. Alexander illustrates this in the urgency of his poem. His narrator does not have the privilege to be distracted by the termites destroying his home. By focusing on the identities of the termites, his friends are putting him at risk for their own comfort. The friends are also putting people other than the narrator at risk through their actions. It is termites that are destroying the narrator’s home, and termites will spread and eventually affect everyone involved. In this way, “Life” shows that a focus on one’s individual experience can be dangerous for everyone, especially those who are already vulnerable.

One could also argue that Alexander’s poem also highlights where and how individual action is necessary. The poem is very short and ends without an actual answer to what has happened to the narrator’s house. While this may just imply that the house was destroyed, it also allows room for a double meaning that implicates the reader. By stopping the poem before the house is potentially destroyed, Alexander gives room for the reader to intervene in the conversation. In doing so, Alexander highlights the need for individual action on the part of the reader and allows them to start putting the survival of all over their own comfort. 

Another poet who discusses the implications of individual and collective action and experience is Lucille Clifton. Clifton’s poetry, specifically her poem Generations illustrates how individual actions can have an impact on larger societal structures. In her verses, Clifton expresses the “responsibility to something/besides people,” ensuring that our presence leaves a positive impact rather than worsening its challenges. Clifton sheds light on the importance of individual actions when it comes to sustainability saying “if it was only/you and me/sharing the consequences/it would be different” acknowledging that the consequences of our actions will not only affect the people on Earth now. As Clifton observes, even after humans become “the bottoms of trees” their legacy continues through future generations. As one explores how individual actions can affect broader social systems and groups of people, Clifton’s words emerge as a powerful tool for educating people on the necessity of sustainable thinking and behavior. Clifton reveals how personal choices intersect with systemic forces and highlights the urgency for collective action to ensure a future for all. 

Additionally, Ellison’s depiction of events in the paint factory raises important issues about how we view industrial labor, especially in relation to problems with sustainability. There are many types of labor that we tend not to encounter in our day-to-day lives, and as a result, the products of such labor are taken for granted, their origins going unquestioned. This sort of “invisible labor” is represented by the work in the basement of the factory. Little recognition is given to the workers who keep the company functioning by being, as Brockway describes them, “the machines inside the machine” (18). The important labor in the basement is literally concealed by those working upstairs, and much of the rigorous work is assumed to be mechanized. Ellison’s protagonist being behind the scenes has to do with the fact that the men upstairs are all white but he’s doing all the hard work that is overlooked. These kinds of hidden industrial jobs are often unsustainable at a structural level, as when the public generally does not see the processes that produce the products they take for granted it is easier for companies to greenwash their processes and leave themselves implicated in dangerous and environmentally unfriendly industrial practices. 

Furthermore, with much of this industrial work largely concealed, it is easier to place the blame for its deleterious effects on individual workers, rather than on institutional structures. This is shown in Ellison’s work as well. The equipment worked with in the basement is shown to be potentially dangerous, and when this causes a catastrophic explosion, the blame is placed on the new worker rather than on the institutional environment that set up the conditions for the accident. The cause of the accident is attributed to the fact that people like the protagonist “ain’t no good for the job,” making no mention of workplace hazards or lack of extensive training (28). Not only is the protagonist’s labor taken for granted in the industrial process, but he also ends up facing the consequences of how the industrial process is structured. Corporations are the ones who contribute the majority of negative climate change but it is the individuals who feel the pressure and experience the side effects- similar to Brockway working for years but the other character is the one there when everything explodes and he feels the pressure.

These perspectives contextualize our reliance on productive forces that are harmful to the environment and to workers, and how unsustainability can persist so perniciously. People depend heavily on the work of those who are most dependent on resources and are often most affected by environmental issues. They keep us safe and comfortable, but the nature of their work is kept separate from ordinary life leaving them largely unacknowledged and unappreciated. The relative lack of attention to these sections of the labor force makes it easier for them to get stuck in the unsustainable practices they are built upon and directs public scrutiny away from the practices of such institutions.

Our visit to the heating plant adds further perspective to these issues of sustainability. Although Geneseo lauds itself as a sustainable campus, claiming the label of “one of the nation’s most environmentally responsible colleges,” it exhibits many of the failures in sustainability common in industrial processes ( For example, Geneseo gives the sense that its energy sources are highly efficient, yet as displayed by a graphic posted in the office of an energy specialist for the heating plant which compares beer to AC power, a significant portion of the energy produced in the heating plant is considered wasted, not all of it being “usable” energy. It was also stressed that using steam energy as the heating plant mostly does is much more sustainable than using oil as energy, but the heating plant still uses oil and natural gas as an energy source to fall back on if needed. However, these resources are only used if it is absolutely necessary to provide heat for the campus, which is seen as essential for the campus to function. This clearly shows how dependent we still are on finite and inefficient resources, no matter how well-intentioned the energy-producing processes are

Our experience is also connected in some ways to the labor conditions displayed in Ellison’s work. There are many safety measures in place to protect the laborers often invisible to the general campus body, but these measures do not guarantee safety for all employees; for example, in the case of an explosion, only one of the building’s walls is equipped to withstand the force of the blast. There were also many ways in which an explosion could occur that were outlined to us, and these are only prevented by strict adherence to safety guidelines, adherence that seemed to be lacking in the sense that students were allowed to cross taped caution lines that mark where only workers should be allowed to be. Sustainable industrial practices also include security and justice for industrial workers, which often do not take the forefront of these processes.

As current college students, we are all actively a part of the future generation, one of which is consistently affected by the generations that have come before us and the decisions that they have made. Students on the Geneseo campus can see the amount of waste that is produced, especially in places like on-campus dining halls. However, many students are unaware of important factors in their daily lives, such as where their heat is coming from. Students must be cautious while shopping because greenwashing is something that many large corporations take part in, making it difficult to decipher what purchasing decisions will have a harmful effect on the planet and which ones will not. The exploration of sustainability and black literature, both as interactants and individuals, matters to not only this class but our overall Geneseo education because of the awareness and implications it brings about concerning intersectionality and performativity. Through the literature we have read we have learned the importance of having a duality when it comes to fighting injustice and not focusing all efforts on one injustice in particular, but rather on a certain issue as a whole. The need for more information and education on sustainability and how it interacts with our lives, both past, present, and future, becomes more apparent every day. While efforts are being made to promote awareness on campus, there is still a severe lack of information and misinformation being spread. Climate change will affect everyone, in one way or another. For example, the current changing of the seasons. What once was winters full of snow days, now becomes a season where the temperature changes on a whim. Schools rarely use their snow days now. In this, anyone can see the real-time changes that have happened to our planet. Change needs to occur, if not for ourselves, but for the future.

Reaching Sustainability Through Embracing Black Literature

By Claire Lustig, Alice West, Emily Bosworth, Chloe Dion, Emily Sneider

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, sustainability has three pillars. There is environmental sustainability—which seems to be the most obvious—along with economic sustainability and social sustainability. The EPA defines sustainability as “economic development with environmental protection and human well-being.” The EPA takes a dedicated stance on the environmental pillar of sustainability as well as having a small focus on the social pillar. However, there are other organizations that have different focuses and perspectives on sustainability. The United Nations Brundtland Commission defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The UN has a focus on keeping human society productive and safe for future generations while not risking the livelihood of people who are living now. This definition takes a more social approach to sustainability in contrast to the EPA. Through a comparison of the EPA’s stance on sustainability and the UN’s stance on sustainability, we can see that different people with motives and focuses have their own ideas of what sustainability means. 

Many people from different cultures around the world have a different focus on what sustainability means to them. For example, the Western world mainly focuses on economic sustainability. The culture is surrounded by expectations of consumerism and capitalism and ideals about how those two things are single-handedly responsible for the monetary success of the Western world. Unfortunately, this focus on economic sustainability puts the other two pillars of sustainability (social and environmental) in the background and at risk of being forgotten altogether. What we, as a humanity of people of different global cultures, need to recognize is that the ideal implementation of sustainability is one that combines all three pillars. As a collective, we should devise a plan of sustainability that puts emphasis on preserving the natural environment, ensuring that society is prosperous, and providing equitable opportunities for all citizens of society. 

Literature informed by Black Americans can give us a lot of insight into how to achieve this implementation of sustainability. Lucille Clifton’s poem titled “Generations” gives us insight into social sustainability. Leah Penniman’s book Farming While Black gives us a unique perspective on environmental sustainability. And Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man provides insight into economic sustainability. All three of these texts also provide insight into what happens when one pillar is favored over the others and the consequences that humanity faces. For generations, Black people around the globe have understood how to balance the three pillars of sustainability. They have instructed and educated the rest of the world on their ways through their literature. By looking to Black literature, readers gain a new angle on the various aspects of sustainability, how those aspects are presented in our world, and what we can do to improve all three pillars of sustainability simultaneously. 

As we focus on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Ellison introduces the narrator as a nameless person influenced into involvement in the Liberty Paints company as a young male worker. The text asks us to consider the flawed objective that is deeply embedded in many industries and makes the system unsustainable. Ellison suggests there is an inseparable relationship between social and economic sustainability based on the culture cultivated within the workplace and throughout society. Our society favors those with opportunity or social capital even if they do not have pre-existing wealth or resources—those who tend to be White middle to upper-class workers. The layers of class and social position are found in the structure of the building. Though White workers are noted in Invisible Man as being those walking above ground, able to access their own agency, Black labor is not as easily visible if at all.

Regarding social implications, Ellison uses effective symbolism and figurative language about the object of their labor: the paint itself. The imagery of “Optic White” coincides with harmful ideas about purity as marked between paragraphs as “Keep America Pure” that is on Liberty Paint cans. It stands for a type of sought-out dominance that the company pushes for to, “make the best white paint in the world” (Ellison 168). The irony of the symbols is that in order for the paint to reach its brightest potential and desired effect, it depends on the bit of dope that the narrator is instructed to mix until the blackness disappears. The process could be an analogy for Blackness and Black labor as it is often discredited until it is completely unrecognized. It is revealed that the resume the narrator was handing out for possible employers was created to encourage said employers to just keep the man running in more vulgar terms. A sort of language that suggests capitalism solely reinforces Black people for what they have to give in a forced process that further isolates Black bodies. One of the very first things the superintendent says to the narrator is,  “Never mind how it looks. That’s my worry. You just do what you’re told and don’t try to think about it” (Ellison 155). Mr. Kimbro expresses no actual interest in the narrator but only cares about extracting the labor and products of his time spent. As it relates to our own world, the context makes us rethink how the same systems that supposedly keep us living “well” and what we “need” to survive hurt us. There is an assumption that the source of labor is endless and it is a dangerous idea to run under since it results in exhaust for workers and depletion of resources. 

Economic unsustainability appears in the need for constant production coming from a stable source—someone providing necessary, fundamental work much like Brockway does. Brockway’s efforts for some sort of respect and milder treatment shows how he is at the base of the company to ensure that the product is “sustained” yet he is at the lowest place in the company alienated away. The company’s strive for productivity and profit caused faults in worker energy and satisfaction, but depending on workers lives is unsustainable as they cannot go on forever. In Camille Dungy’s Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, June Jordan’s “For Alice Walker (a summertime tanka)” and Lucille Clifton’s “Generations” both preface the idea that as the years have passed, values of Black culture have undergone a similar loss.

Many Black authors present a deep connection to and respect for the natural world which is evident in their writing. The poetry anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, contains hundreds of examples of the relationship between Black authors and sustainability. One of the poems, “generations” by Lucille Clifton contains the line “People who are going to be in a few years the bottoms of trees bear a responsibility to something besides people…” This line supports the idea that people come from the ground and will once again return to the ground. Our lives are part of an ancient cycle of life that is bigger than ourselves. Clifton suggests that because of this, we as people have a duty to respect and recognize that we are simply a part of it. Alongside Clifton’s view that humans must do better at honoring our natural environment, she argues the institution of war makes it much more complex. “This business of war… [is] erasing those natural obedient generations who ignored pride…” Clifton argues that the constant fight over resources and land is not only damaging for both, but also damages the people themselves. How people used to carry on these sacred practices, but because of war, those people have been eliminated. “Generations” is a poem that describes the threat for future generations of people that stems from the disrespect of the natural world by current generations. 

Kwame Alexander’s poem “Life” is short yet extremely powerful. Alexander describes a scene of termites eating away at his home and his friends assuring him that “the good liberal ones were not involved.” Of course, the “termites” eating his home represent people with unsustainable habits who are slowly destroying the natural environment we live in with no regard for the lives of others. The tone of the poem suggests that the speaker does not believe what his friends say about the liberal termites not attacking his home. Alexander makes the claim that no matter what political view a person claims to take, they still need to be held responsible for keeping a sustainable lifestyle. Everyone, no matter their politics, needs to take action to progress sustainability and needs to be held responsible for when they are not living sustainable lifestyles. Kwame Alexander’s poem “Life” is a powerful reminder to readers that every individual and institution needs to be held equally liable for protecting the natural world and living sustainably. 

Leah Penniman touches on this idea of providing for the Earth in her book Farming While Black. Penniman talks about the importance of caring for and sustaining the environment, and in doing so, sustaining the soul and providing for others. The farmers’ relationship with the Earth is one that is a give and take, rather than one solely of taking without in turn, restoring. They prioritize caring for the Earth, because without a requited relationship with our home, “we may invite spiritual poverty, impairments to our physical and emotional well-being, or a sense of disconnection from our purpose” (Penniman 57). The farmers constantly give thanks to the spirits and the earth for providing them with their resources, as they treat the earth as though they are “guests and stewards on this Earth, not owners” (Penniman 54). Additionally, they touch upon the effect that caring for the Earth, or the lack thereof, has on environmental sustainability issues such as forest fires in California, stating that “it is scientifically justified to see rampant wildfires in California and devastating hurricanes of the South as a consequence of human disregard for the laws of nature, specifically, the balance of the carbon cycle.” (Penniman 57). This reading, Farming While Black teaches us that taking care of the environment is just as important and necessary as the resources that the environment provides for us. 

Our trip to the Heating Plant on SUNY Geneseo campus provided us with a similar lesson. In the Facilities Services Mission Statement, “the Heating Plant unit is charged with the responsibility of providing service utilities in an economic, efficient, safe and timely manner. These service utilities include high pressure steam, heating hot water, domestic water and natural gas. To ensure that we are able to meet our responsibilities, the Heating Plant unit in conjunction with both Facility Services and Environmental Health and Safety, have developed efficient customer service, maintenance and safety programs which allow the unit to maintain a user friendly, safe and clean work environment.” During our trip to the heating plant, we learned from Steve Morse, one of the Plant Utilities Engineers, about what it takes in order to keep the residents here safe, comfortable, and warm. The workers’ labor ensures hot water, warm rooms during cold nights, and prevention from explosions and other possible accidents from the machines necessary to make this possible. It is so easy to take for granted what is given to us, whether that be by the earth, or by those we can’t see working to benefit us. We wouldn’t have these necessities and privileges if it weren’t for those at the Heating Plant. The facility acts as a local reminder for us that embracing every pillar of sustainability is possible as they uphold the responsibility of energy conservation and consumption in an efficient manner and serving the people here well. 

These two experiences illuminate the complexity of sustainability issues because there are so many factors and consequences of prioritizing one aspect of sustainability over another. The farmers in Farming While Black contribute to the sustainability of the environment, by taking care of the soil and giving back to the Earth. They also are contributing to social sustainability, because through caring for the environment, in return, they are provided with healthy, natural food, and in the process, they feed their soul. However, the one pillar that the farmers don’t contribute to is economic sustainability, because although they are giving back to the Earth, they aren’t supporting the sustainability of the economy. Meanwhile, the heating plant improves social and economic aspects of sustainability, by providing for the people residing in Geneseo with warmth and protection, and provides for the economy because they use hot steam and natural gasses for heat which is cheaper than hot water. However, the heating plant lacks a benefit to the environment. Although the heating plant takes steps to ensure that their space is clean and safe, and although they are carbon neutral, they are not actively giving back to the environment. Therefore, the complexity of sustainability issues is emphasized through the fact that a good intended action could provide sustainability for one aspect of life but hinder a contribution to the sustainability of others. This also exemplifies the difficulty of providing for every pillar of sustainability and the importance of taking steps to provide for the sustainability of life. 

Literature and sustainability studies reflect and shed light on various areas pertaining to cultural practices, environmental issues, and societal interactions. In observing how literature in itself holds sustainable attributes, we can propose solutions for advocacy and change that could benefit the hierarchical paradigm of sustainability as well as further support literary studies of Black culture. The three pillars of sustainability work in their own unique ways of representing the pros and cons that have been created due to the preaching of sustainable practices. Specifically, the economic pillar raises multiple issues in society. The generational oppression of Black farming practices has had detrimental and long-lasting effects on our Earth. The destruction of the indigenous fertile soil and stripping it of its nurtured past reveals the recklessness of white colonists and their disregard for Black cultural environmentally sustainable practices in order to maintain a stable profit and economy. As discussed in the literature on Black agricultural practices, there is an emphasis on a spiritual connection to the Earth that is perceived as rewarding and nurturing. Perhaps, if we were to equally value the three pillars of sustainability then we would be able to reach a point where we can fully appreciate sustainable practices and where they came from. The importance of this topic goes far beyond practicing sustainable ways of living but rather puts emphasis on the generational issues found within social and economic systems. The various examples seen in the literature we’ve studied show us sustainability issues and its relation to systemic aspects of maintenance and respect. The complexity of sustainable practices is embedded in the generational beliefs of society, the roots of white power come from the oppression and labor endured by the Black community.

Lithosphere Essay

As a distinct group establishes a set of regulations that restrict another group’s entry to wealth and resources, structural inequalities arise. Political, economic, and health inequalities have, historically, been used to immortalize discriminatory practices that sustain a single group’s power. The most normalized and even casual practice in society is perhaps the idea of “race.” As it stands, one’s race is not a biological factor but rather a system “to distribute positions and power…so as to construct a hierarchy of peoples for differential treatment” (Heng 27; course epigraph). This stratification of the individual has the potential to either impart privilege or to oppress; nobody is unaffected by race. The Fifth Season—novel—serves to produce a fictional world in which race and its repercussions can safely be explored.

N.K. Jemisin, author of The Fifth Season, unmistakably investigates themes of structural inequality, oppression, and power throughout her storytelling. Jemisin’s sophisticated creation of racial hierarchy within the novel is, in effect, a sensationalized and eerie retelling of US history. There is a strange ease and comfortability with understanding The Fifth Season’s class structure that can only be attributed to having lived similarly. Although Jemisin traverses the underlying policies that have shaped these societal norms, they are greatly accentuated by the commonplace of supernatural powers and unchecked murder. Rather than an assessment of inequality in the novel, however, I believe that this narrative functions as way for us to assess our own reality.

The Fifth Season opens in action. Essun, mother to Uche (son) and Nassun (daughter), is distressed. Her son lies dead on the floor; her daughter is nowhere to be found, and her husband, Jija, has fled. Without any direction, Essun lies in wait, knelt next to her son’s stiffened body for two days. The reader is left to wonder how an innocent child could be callously battered and brutally murdered. Essun seems to believe deeply that Jija is to blame, subsequently fleeing with their daughter. Another question arises: how could Jija murder his own son? Both uncertainties are soon answered as an implicit reference to race is made. Jemisin states that Essun is “an orogene” and “that [her] children are like [her].” The reader is left to infer that orogenesis (the process of mountain-building) is a recessive trait—undesirable, at that. At this point, it is known that Jija was unaware of his familial ties to orogeny. Essun, mature, is able to control her own powers, but Uche, young and untrained, may have lost his temper, revealing his true nature. From this point on, there is an established class system of which orogenes suffer. Although the supernatural abilities portrayed in this work are far-fetched, the endured brutalities are not.

On May 20<sup>th</sup>, 2023, less than one year ago, an eleven-year-old black boy was shot and wounded in his own home (Wagster Pettus, 2023). Unarmed, Aderrien Murry phoned 911, seeking assistance in a domestic dispute. His mother’s partner had become angry and violent; in an attempt to diffuse the situation, Murry contacted law enforcement. Instead of receiving the necessary help, Murry was shot by a young white man (Wagster Pettus, 2023). Like Uche, Aderrien was young and “untrained.” As the boy walked into the hallway, veering around a corner, police had allegedly confused the young boy for the perpetrator. Aderrien Murry was a mere 4’11” while the true offender was about 6 feet tall; confusing the two was unlikely. It has been speculated that Murry’s assigned race scared the officer, prompting the discharge of his weapon. An investigation was opened, but the shooting was deemed “unintentional” by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. Unfortunately, like Jija thus far into the Broken Earth Trilogy of which The Fifth Season belongs to, no accountability has been taken.

The previous account of Aderrien Murry is all too familiar to America’s black communities. Aderrien and Uche share an ominously similar fate. Each boy, young and naive, were unable to hide their predetermined identities, paying the ultimate price. Feasibly, both anecdotes are tales of crude inequality, fixed at birth. The only obvious difference between their experiences is the apparent fantastical nature of Uche. Despite Uche’s fictional abilities, Jemisin is, impressively, able to paint an explicit and realistic picture of race.

The stories of oppressed individuals in our own reality are under intense scrutiny; school districts continue to ban literature pertaining to black history. The “inappropriate” nature of critical race theory and its place in the public school system incites anger. Those in power—white men—fear that their children will hear intensely nauseating accounts of black lives. Is it because the narratives are simply too grotesque for young ears—or—will their children question the mass murder that their fathers have so eagerly encouraged? Not every powerful individual is wielding a weapon like the officer in Aderrien Murry’s case, nor are they brutalizing with their own fists like Uche’s father, but rather sitting safely behind their desks, enacting the policies that enable and affirm structural inequalities. I believe that Jemisin has fabricated The Broken Earth trilogy in an attempt to appeal to this very proclivity for safety. It’s much easier for us to discuss and unpack the story of a fictional character than that of a real person who once had real feelings and continue to have an aching family. We tiptoe around the subject so as not to upset the grieving or the powerful. The issue with this tendency is that change doesn’t occur within our comfort zones. The white man is comfortable with his status. Once he becomes uneasy, it is only then that he may change.

The Fifth Season is an opportunity to safely investigate structural inequalities in our own reality. Jemisin’s plausible narratives, although fictional, would likely touch members of the black community. She recognizes that a historical and anecdotal understanding of racist policy is a precondition to overcoming those systemic inequalities. Thus, Jemisin provides the reader with easily digestible, exacerbated accounts of injustice in the hopes of shifting their perspective. Recognizing that those in positions of power may be more inclined to engage with a highly acclaimed science fiction novel than confront uncomfortable headlines in a newspaper, Jemisin strategically utilizes her platform to foster awareness and stimulate critical reflection on societal issues.

Pettus, E. W. (2023, May 26). Officer who shot an unarmed 11-year-old boy in his home should be fired, family attorney says. AP News.

Exploring the Seed Shape: Unveiling Complexity in African-American Literature

The seed shape as defined by Ron Eglash in his book “African Fractals” is a fundamental motif in African American design and culture, it exhibits self-similarity and complexity on multiple levels. Although the seed shape and other forms of African Fractal design seem to reflect nature, Eglash makes sure to state that “for those rare cases in which African fractals are representations of nature, it is clearly a self-conscious abstraction, not a mimetic reflection. The geometric thinking that goes into these examples may be simple, but it is quite intentional,” (Eglash, 53). Eglash emphasizes the tendency to overlook intentional abstraction in African design and challenges the primitive narrative imposed by colonialism. He works to highlight the intentionality behind African thinking and within their culture. Exploring the seed shape further, one can see how its purposes and principles can be applied to much of African American literature and culture that is being taught (especially) in the United States. It is important to understand that the seed shape is a simple one designed with a scaling property, meaning one can examine the shape at different levels of magnification. Understanding the intentional abstraction and scaling properties is particularly significant when studying African American literature, culture and history, as it underscores the complexities behind seemingly simple narratives. Much like fractals, African American experiences often require an in depth examination, requiring one to zoom in to scrutinize individual stories and zoom out to comprehend broader societal norms designed to perpetuate narratives of inferiority. 

Unveiling the layers of African American literature requires the study of African American narratives on an in depth scale. In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” a clear enemy is made of one of the daughters, Dee. After being away for some time Dee comes home and tries to claim some old quilts which had been promised to her sister Maggie. Dee exclaims “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!” she said. “She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use,” (Hill, 1801), and tries to explain that she wants to preserve them and not use them. Dee often emerges as the focal point for criticism due to her portrayal by her mother, the narrator. It is crucial to recognize the limiting perspective of Dee’s mother that has been influenced by her own experience and trauma; and how Walker chooses to show this. Their daunting past leads to a very colorful portrayal of Dee. While Dee’s actions may seem confrontational, her desire to preserve her family’s heritage reflects wanting a deeper connection to her roots and pursuit of her own identity. This narrative, like many other African American storytellers, invites the reader to consider the complexities within familial relationships. Within every story, true or not, the narrator’s individual perspective shapes interpretations of heritage and identity within the African American experience. This is an example of “zooming in” on the pieces of a narrative that influence the way readers feel about certain characters. 

Exploring how African American writers historically sought approval from white audiences in order to be able to publish and to influence white minds, reveals a complex dynamic reflective of the recursive nature of the seed shape. In literature such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs’s slave narratives, the influence of white readership is evident in strategic plots and diction that catered to white sensibilities. Douglass, for instance, strategically appealed to educated white women, knowing that they had potential influence in abolitionist circles and with their husbands. Douglass begins by appealing to women (specifically mothers) emotions stating, “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night,” (Hill, 276), and dramatically recalling never seeing her in the light of day. By modifying or emphasizing certain parts of their narratives, African American writers have had to navigate the intricacies of power dynamics in a racist society. The need for validation from white folk comes in a more literal sense too, as African American writers often needed a white intellect to give their stamp of approval on the narratives otherwise most of the population would take the narratives as falsehoods. The recursive pattern of seeking acceptance within systems of oppression mirrors the fractal-like nature of African American experiences within broader social contexts. Thus, zooming out to explore larger landscapes and societal institutions emphasizes the struggles behind African American literature and the strategies employed to navigate white dominated spaces.

Bernice Johnson Reagan’s “Nobody Knows the Trouble I see” serves as a critique of the idealization of Martin Luther King Jr. and the oversimplification of civil rights activism. Throughout her work, Reagan challenges the common tendency to idolize King as the sole hero of the civil rights movement and urges readers to recognize the collective efforts of countless individuals overlooked in mainstream education and media. Reagan claims “the Civil Rights Movement was peopled by ordinary people who did extraordinary things, and that included the leaders,” and hints that the real challenge is looking at who tells the stories of African American history (Reagon, 112). By highlighting the struggles and contributions of ordinary people, Reagon’s critique changes the prevailing notion of only focusing on charismatic leaders. Instead, she emphasizes the grassroots activism and the everyday acts of resistance that pushed the movement forward. This deconstruction of a simplistic narrative created within the American education system not only honors the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights era but also invites a reevaluation of historical narratives that marginalize African American voices. Reagon therefore does work to zoom in, on those overlooked initially and zoom out focusing on why the Civil Rights Movement has been portrayed with one main hero. 

The exploration of the seed shape in African American literature unveils layers of complexity and interconnectedness within the African American experiences previously covered by Eurocentric arrogance. Just as the seed shape represents self-similarity and complexity on multiple levels, so do the narratives crafted by African American writers. Through the scaling properties inherent in the seed shape, these narratives challenge simplistic interpretations and confront the primitive narratives imposed by colonialism and continue until today. They invite readers to scrutinize individual stories while also zooming out to comprehend broader societal norms perpetuating narratives of inferiority. Moving forward with intention, there is a need to continue navigating the complexities of African American experiences and narratives, using the seed shape as a lens through which one can see the recursive nature of African American literature and examine it with scaling methods. Through this ongoing exploration, readers can deepen their understanding of African American identity, heritage and resilience; moving past over simplistic narratives that do not encapsulate all African American life. 

Works Cited

Eglash, Ron. African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design. Rutgers   University Press, 2005.

Hill, Patricia Liggins. Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Reagon, Bernice Johnson. “‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I See’; or, ‘By and By I’m Gonna Lay Down My Heavy Load.’” The Journal of American History, June 1991, pp. 111–119, 

Seed Shape Essay

It is a warm day as the sun seeps through the gaps between the trees. The ground, littered with growth, is lush and green. The sweet song of a bird is there, and off in the distance, the gleeful splashing of water. A glance around shows nothing but greens and browns, the soft hues of nature. From these colors emerge shapes, at first appearing random. A second look will reveal the truth: the repetition of a shape gives way to the leaves, bushes, and vines all around. These are fractals, an unending pattern that often appears in nature. 

Fractals are commonly used in geometry, yielding five essential components: recursion, scaling, self-similarity, infinity, and fractional dimension. In African Fractals, recursion is described as “…fractals are generated by a circular process, a loop in which the output at one stage becomes the input for the next. Results are repeatedly returned, so that the same operation can be carried out again” (Eglash 17). Essential recursion is the repetition of input becoming output and vice versa. Scaling is when multiple parts of varying sizes are taken into consideration. Self-similarity is what aspects of the pattern are repeated and how. Infinity is the tool used to connect fractals to dimensions. Finally, the fractional dimension is the dimension that fills in between the dimensional areas of the plane (Egral 19). Fractals always have a seed shape or the starting shape that is then repeated. In any class, there are seed shapes that connect one part to the next. These appear in course concepts. The central idea that seems to be this course’s seed shape is the concept of the both/and. Through the analysis of the works we go through we find the application of the both/and.

The both/and is the careful consideration of a muli-point-of-view state of mind. It is understanding one side and then looking at a concept from the other. With every encounter with the works in this course, the both/and has been applied demonstrating the recursion of the seed shape. One of the first instances was when working with Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use.” This story features the visit home by Dee/Wangero, the daughter of the narrator, and her partner. The concepts of art versus use and which honor heritage more come into play. Upon the first encounter with the story, the class was practically in unanimous agreement: Wangero is a dislikable character who is condescending and entitled. This is an easy opinion to obtain from the way she is described. However, on a second look, one must recognize that the story is written from one perspective: the mother’s. It is from this perspective that the audience gains all information about Wangero. However, with this knowledge, one can glean an understanding of Wangero’s perspective. Here came a reading with the notion of resentment. Wangero seems to be everything the mother is not, she is confident, beautiful, graceful, and smart. When the mother reflects on how Dee used to read to them she thinks, “She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice…Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away, like dimwits, at just the moment we seemed about to understand” (Walker). Wangero was the only one able to read in the family, placing her above her mother and sister. In the section alone, a sense of resentment can be found from the emphasis on dimwits and ignorant and from how the mother phrases the reading as “forcing words.” with this in mind, perhaps what appears as Wangero’s transgressions might be dramatized from the quiet envy seeping from the narrator. In this instance, the both/and is necessary to fully understand the story. Without it, the work is almost incomplete. 

Another work is Octavia Butler’s short story “Bloodchild.” In this story, the tale of a young man who lives in a human colony on an alien planet is told. It grapples with concepts of pregnancy, insects/parasites, and knowledge. At the end of the story, Butler includes a section titled “Afterword” in which she explains the intentions of the story, “On one level, it’s a love story between two very different beings. On another, it’s a coming-of age story in which a boy must absorb disturbing information and use it to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life” (Butler 30). The story is about so many things and yet, somehow, people reduce it to something it is not: a story about slavery. Here is where the both/and appears in its next iteration. For most of the class, it was easy to interpret the story as about anything but slavery. There is not any subtext that even seems to hint at this being the hidden goal. Despite this, many believe the story is actually about slavery. Since we could see one side very clearly, the next step was to view the opposing viewpoint. This was the tricky part, but with considerable effort, there were a few potentials for why we guessed someone maybe could see it as such. One option was the notion of being owned. In the story, a point is made that the main character is owned by the alien, something that could be seen as justification for this view. The other potential was simply the fact that people believe that African Americans only write about slavery as a narrative. While this is untrue, it is something people genuinely believe. With this story, both/and requires you to think outside of your comfort zone, working actively to see from every perspective, even the ones you do not agree with.

The seed shape of the both/and is imperative to the analysis of literature. Without this careful thought, certain themes, tones, and perspectives can be lost. The intentions and meanings fall to the wayside, leaving a more literal and flat study. Even beyond literature, keeping an open mind to varying perspectives and the simultaneousness of seemingly opposite aspects allows for a deeper understanding of the world and other people. If an open mind was a constant, there would seemingly be a more general sense of respect and acceptance. Trying to see the both/and of any situation or literary work can be difficult, but it is certainly needed. With every iteration of the both/and, the fractal shape of the ENGL 337 African-American Literature begins to take its shape. 

The Process of Racialization in The Fifth Season- Stella Kahnis

By using the process of racialization, Jemisin is able to create a world of science fiction with an oppressive social system comparable to our own world. Jemisin uses the fictional world in the Fifth Season in order to magnify the corruption and prejudice that has become so normalized and unnoticed in our society. Although the fictional aspects in The Fifth Season such as the powers of orogenes, stone eaters, and guardians are obviously not a reflection of our world, Jemisin uses these embellishments as a way to entertain the reader while stressing the correlation to racism, social classes, and corruption in governmental powers in our society. According to “The Sociology of Racism”, from Scholars at Harvard, the process of racialization uses “perceived patterns of physical difference” in order to distinguish people into groups, thus classifying each group as a “race”. This description goes on to detail the difference between racialization and racism, explaining how exactly racism develops. “Racialization becomes racism when it involves the hierarchical and socially consequential valuation of racial groups.” (The Sociology of Racism). I believe that this definition directly correlates to The Fifth Season. There is a hierarchy established in this society, and there are severe consequences from valuing each “race” differently. Jemison uses the process of racialization in The Fifth Season by distinguishing each “race” clearly, showing the effects of this distinction and describing the hate and violence that it causes, and creating a governmental system that uses its power in order to control society. Jemisin unfolds a deeply layered plotline that unveils a social system with a corrupt imbalance of power and uses the process of racialization to create a prejudiced and divided society.

Jemison introduces the world where the story takes place as “The Stillness”. It is a world full of environmental chaos such as “quakes” and “seasons”, but the theme of chaos continues as the social constructs that are in place develop. Jemisin combines myth, science, and racialization in order to stress the idea of racism in our own society. She does this by first introducing and distinguishing each “race”. In this society, there are many different groups, such as leaderships, guardians, orogenes, and stone eaters. The orogenes are an essential part of this story seeing as they are constantly discriminated against and controlled. Orogenes have the power to harness energy from the earth which can help them perform certain tasks such as calming the quakes which can have catastrophic effects on the towns that exist throughout this world. This is the reason why orogenes are crucial to the survival of the human race. Their powers can also be unpredictable and deadly, which is one explanation as to why orogenes are so feared, hated, and disrepected. When we meet the character Damaya, an orogene who was born from nonorogenic parents, we learn more about what orogenes are and how they are treated. “Damaya had hidden it from them, Mother said, hidden everything, pretended to be a child when she was really a monster, that was what monsters did, she had always know there was something wrong with Damaya, she’d always been such a little liar” (Jemisin, 31)”. This quote shows Damaya’s mother’s reaction to her being an orogene. This quote only begins to explain how hated and misunderstood orogenes are, and how that hatred translates to orogenes’ perceptions of themselves. 

After distinguishing each “race”, Jemisin takes the process of racialization further by describing the complexity of the valuation of orogenes. The Leadership, Guardians, and the institution of the Fulcrum all work together in order to control orogenes. I believe that their need for control comes from their deep rooted fear of orogenes and the power that they hold, which is not completely known by anyone. The first instance we see of violence towards an Orogene happens almost immediately in the book when we meet Essun, an orogenic mother who has hid her orogeny from the town she lives in, including her husband. Her baby is killed by her husband when he finds out that the child is an orogene. When imagining the scene of her child’s death, she explains that she had “seen the imprint of Jija’s fist, a bruise with four parallel marks, on Uche’s belly and face” (Jemisin, 19). This description shows the extremely violent nature of the death of her son, Uche, and successfully introduces the dynamic between orogenes and the rest of the world. This is the first instance in the book where we see extreme discrimination against orogenes, to the point of violence.  This horrific event in Essun’s life causes her to leave her town in order to track down her husband. When she is aggressively confronted about leaving, her emotions take hold of her, and her powers become out of control. “These people killed Uche. Their hate, their fear, their unprovoked violence… People run out into the streets, screaming and wondering why there was no warning, and you kill any of them who are stupid or panicked enough to come near” (Jemisin, 59).  I believe this quote is extremely important because it describes the effect that discrimination has on orogenes directly from an orogene’s point of view. It also describes the immense power and destruction that orogenes are capable of.

The final aspect of racialization that Jemisin uses to fully develop a hierarchical society is creating a governmental system that uses its power in order to control society. The Fulcrum does train orogenes on how to use their power, but the teaching methods they use specifically cater to the needs of society. When we first meet Damaya, we learn more about what the Fulcrum is, and what it aims to do. When a Guardian comes to bring her to the Fulcrum, he tells Damaya that, “The orogenes of the Fulcrum serve the world… Within a comm or without one, you are orogene. With training, however, and with the guidance of other skilled orogenes at the Fulcrum, you can be useful not merely to a single comm, but all the Stillness” (Jemisin, 34). This quote shows how orogenes are used for their power in order to service the world and the comms that they work for. Although this aspect of control over orogenes doesn’t seem too severe, we later learn how much worse this control becomes. When Syenite, another orogene introduced later in the book, realizes that Alabaster, the man she is working with, is settling the small quakes around them, she claims that it is the job of the node maintainers to settle the quakes. Alabaster then decides to show her how the node maintainers accomplish this job. “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” (Jemisin, 139). This quote depicts a child orogene attached to a chair that controls their power in order to perform the job of the node maintainer. This horrific image signifies to Damaya and to the reader that the Fulcrum and the guardians take control of orogenes more forcefully and violently than the world seems to understand. 

Jemisin flawlessly creates a dangerous and chaotic world out of environmental disasters, fictional geological ideas, and humans with extreme power. I believe that the underlying intention in creating this dangerous world is to create a need for power so desperate that the only solution is force. In this world, it seems as though there is a common conception that a corrupt system of power is the only solution for survival. This conception leads even the most powerful beings to fall under this system. Jemisin works to aid the reader in asking the question: Why do these extremely powerful beings continue to allow themselves to be controlled? I believe that this is a point that Jemisin strives to imply throughout the book, and it seems there is potential for her to continue to develop this idea throughout the trilogy. As we discussed in our mini-collaboration in class, “The Fifth Season works to reverse the false assumption that societal power is an inherently dominant force by exaggerating the idea that people instinctively condemn themselves to systems of power in society.” I hope that throughout this trilogy, we are able to see more clearly why the orogenes feel so stuck under this system of power. Perhaps if they are able to overcome it, we as readers will understand more about the systems of power in our society and how we can overcome that control.

-Stella Kahnis


Sociology of Racism | Matthew Clair | Scholars at Harvard, Accessed 23 Feb. 2024. 

N.K Jemisin, The Fifth Season English 111, Mini-Collaboration 1,

Seed Shape Essay

Fractals are patterns of shapes created by a mathematical algorithm, these structures are repeatedly building the same shape onto itself, and they have no defining end. As mentioned in “African Fractals” by Ron Eglash, fractals undergo recursions, which is the output for a first iteration is the input for the next iteration, and so on. These structures can either follow a seed shape or a base shape. The seed shape fractal can be visually represented by the Koch curve, where the seed shape undergoes a recursive replacement process. Fractal shapes and patterns are commonly found in a wide variety of things—in nature and in culture.

Fractals are intentionally designed in some places, and randomly appear in others. In African culture, fractals are used in architectural design to create a divide between sacred and everyday buildings/structures. For example, according to “African Fractals”, an aerial photo of Ba-Ila settlement in southern Zambia reveals that the whole settlement has the same shape; “it is a ring of rings.” Fractal structures are also seen in naturally occurring things, such as the structure of human lungs and the way roots travel in soil. 

Fractals appear very frequently across many different aspects of culture. Some cultural artworks include fractal patterns, like a couple kinds of quilt designs. Even though they are composed of mathematical algorithms, fractals structures can be observed in literature as well. In African American literature, fractals take form as concepts—a concept that is repeated and built upon. In class we’ve discussed ‘seed shapes’ (concepts) that we’ve noticed present throughout many of our course texts; some are more commonly seen than others and some are more important than others. 

In this course, African American literature, the author’s context in their writing is a really important seed shape that we have to think about when approaching our course texts, and for just reading in general. Thinking about the context something was written in when reading is useful to your comprehension of the text because it can help explain why something happened, a decision was made, etc… (in fiction or non-fiction). 

We can observe the importance of this seed shape in our course text, “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler. The story takes place on an alien planet that humans, or “Terrans”, are living on. The planet is dominated by the “Tlic” which are an insect species. Unable to reproduce on their own, they depend on using the bodies of human men to carry and birth their young, in order to keep their species’ survival. “Bloodchild” is narrated by the main character, Gan, a human boy living on the planet. The story begins, “My last night of childhood began with a visit home,” because Gan is now approaching the age of being able to carry one of the Tlic’s young, and first witnesses a birthing process: it is so disturbing and violent. Gan struggles with a crisis when he begins to question why they are complicit with continuing this tradition. At the end of the story, Gan is forced to have the Tlic eggs implanted into him, and he will have to live through the horrifying act he just observed. 

This story is actually often misinterpreted to be about slavery. This kind of mistake typically comes from generalizing—because the author is a black American, people will just assume they must be writing about slavery. Octavia Butler addresses the readers and writers who interpreted “Bloodchild” this way in her afterword, where she describes what the story is actually about. It’s about so many things: it’s about love, coming of age, colonialism, and gender. Authors will write an afterword for their work, providing readers with more context and information when trying to understand ideas and make connections in the reading. 

Paratext is material that surrounds but is separate from any piece of writing (poem, story, essay, etc…). The paratext basically ‘sets the tone’ for the text, giving readers an idea of what the writing is going to be about. It’s another mode in which authors can tell something important to their readers. In W.E.B. Dubois’s writing, he includes a song as a paratext, including some lyrics and the music notes on a staff. He describes each of these phrases as, “a haunting echo of these weird old songs in which the soul of the black slave spoke to men.” Chapter III of Dubois’s book recalls some of the events of Mr. Booker T. Washington’s career. The paratext song for this chapter says, “From birth till death enslaved; in word, in deed, unmanned! Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not who would be free themselves must strike the blow?”. These lyrics describe the intense and dark emotions expressed when wanting freedom. This idea relates to what is said in this chapter, Mr. Washington acted as a mediator between the South and the North for the discussion of what civil rights Freedmen should get. While the North was much more progressive than the South, Mr. Washington was able to find a way the two sides could compromise. 

In James Snead’s essay “On Repetition in Black Culture”, he describes some of the differences between “Black culture” and “European culture”. First, in European culture, culture is viewed as linear; something with consistent growth. On the contrary, Black culture believes culture to be like a circle, and being able to achieve an equilibrium. This difference between cultures exists in economical opinions. Because European culture pushes the idea of accumulative growth, that perspective prefers to see the economy be linear. 

Since “European culture” cultural norms dominate the United States, in general, but specifically the school systems, it’s especially important for American students to be careful and considerate readers of writing from authors of all cultures. It’s very important to be understanding and open-minded of the perspective and intent of the authors when studying all kinds of literature. We should be applying this same mindset when reading African American literature.