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, https://doi.org/10.2307/2078089. 

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