Did you mean: recursion?

“surely i am able to write poems

celebrating grass and how the blue

in the sky can flow green or red

and the waters lean against the

chesapeake shore like a familiar

poems about nature and landscape

surely        but whenever I begin

“the trees wave their knotted branches

and…”      why

is there under that poem always

an other poem?”

–Lucille Clifton

            Within a poem itself, Lucille Clifton expresses the difficulties in her writing process due to one specific condition: recursion. Whenever Clifton begins a poem, she finds that there is “under that poem always an other poem,” suggesting that within literature, within nature, within life, there is always recursion: a repetition of similar and sometimes seemingly identical instances, yet unique in their own way. Clifton cleverly uses nature’s most recursive symbols as imagery throughout her poem: the overwhelming repetition and quantity of blades of grass, the continuous drove of waves hitting upon a shore, and the branching out of tree limbs that all stem from one single trunk. While these natural structures are offered as subjects of Clifton’s poems, they also speak to the larger presence of how recursion in our lives can be immense and never-ending. The themes and structures we see in literature (such as recursion) are undeniably connected to the themes and structures we see in everyday life. For instance, one could relate to the theme of recursion in Clifton’s poem by personally identifying with the narrator’s literary struggle to contain the endless build-up of poetic possibilities. On the other hand, a reader can also relate the structure of recursion to their life, whether it be the repetitive nature of the work-a-day world or the recognition of the physically recursive structure of grass, waves, and trees. When dealing with recursive literature, it is hard to not acknowledge that each real-life instance is either birthed from or gives life to a similar but unique instance; but especially in the realm of African American culture and literature, it is vital to recognize the importance of recursion’s relation to reality.

            The most literal definition of recursion is a concrete, mathematical term. Merriam-Webster defines recursion in mathematical terms as: “the determination of a succession of elements (such as numbers or functions) by operation on one or more preceding elements according to a rule or formula involving a finite number of steps.” Ron Eglash takes this very technical definition and applies it broadly in his book African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design. Eglash explores the mathematical and technological possibilities of recursion in its relation to fractals, which are structures “created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop,” or in other words, a visual design created precisely by recursion at various scales. However, he does not do so without paying close attention to cultural recursion and fractal roots in Africa, and especially how the computing possibilities of these should relate directly back to cultural uses of recursion.

            Eglash explores recursion in various forms throughout African culture and highlights its importance. He first looks at recursion in African construction. Some forms are for practicality such as braids and some of which were used for aesthetics like textile designs. Eglash also highlights the “cultural meaning” that is “often attached in these techniques,” acknowledging how recursive construction techniques have cultural identifications such as labor and prestige (Eglash, 112-113). Eglash also notes how recursion has been used in African culture to represent a process in time, such as a growing scale of recursive eyes in a mask could represent “scaling iterations of knowledge” gained over time or to represent a specific clan’s divination in their descent (Eglash, 123-124). African cultures even use recursion to explain cosmology, some suggesting that God has created three iterations of the world, each one similar to and dependent upon the last (Eglash, 132). The theme of recursion is all around in African culture. It illustrates how iterations of small structures “are spun into whole cloth, and the patterns that emerge often tell the story of their whirling birth”; how the parts make up and influence the whole (Eglash, 109). Eglash acknowledges this aesthetic and cultural theme within Africa, so it’s also important to explore how modern Black authors in America have examined both tangible and intangible recursive symbols.

Elsa Barkley Brown uses African American women’s quilting to “center” others in the African American female experience in “African American Women’s Quilting” (Brown, 921). One may not initially understand recursion in the frame of African American women’s quilting due to its rather sporadic and unsymmetrical patterns, but it is in the more intangible, cultural facet of quilting in which recursion surfaces (Brown, 923-924). Brown explains that she uses these quilts to teach African American women’s history because they stand as symbols of how the lessons of each class individually “stand alone, like the contrasting strips of the quilt, and at the same time remain part of the group” (Brown, 928). In other words, Brown uses the comparison to a quilt as a symbol of recursion in African American culture: how individuals can be unique and diverse yet contribute a recursive “strip of the quilt” that, repeated over time with a multitude of other unique “strips,” creates a “whole.” The “whole” in this sense is African American women’s history in general, which may seem disorganized or nonsensical to Western eyes but is truly strongly bonded and self-empowered from the individuals that comprise it (Brown, 926). Brown’s method of teaching this cultural recursion through a physical representation of something so un-recursive such as an African American woman’s quilt lends itself to Lucille Clifton’s insinuation that each iteration of something is the result and the cause of something else; that each individual thread, color, or pattern combined in repetitive patterns can create something wholly different from, but influenced by, its parts.

Just as Brown breaks the boundaries of recursion, James A. Snead in “On Repetition in Black Culture” also analyzes recursion in an African American cultural sense based upon repetition. Snead argues that in cultural repetition, we are not seeing the “same thing” over and over as we may see in fractals; instead, it is a similar “transformation” that uniquely contributes to “the shape of time and history.” Snead argues that culture is never a stand-alone entity because it is “both immanent and historical”: it is created and influenced by the past (Snead, 146-147). In this piece, Snead uses historically Euro-centric scholars such as Hegel to accentuate that despite their predictions, Black culture is now actually more recognizant and appreciative of repetition than European cultures. African cultures were initially not seen by Europeans as cohesive enough to hold on to their culture and pay homage to it. Snead cites, though, that modern day Black culture is particularly reliant upon this, such as in dance, percussive and melodic patterns, cosmogony, ceremonies, holidays, etc. Not only does Black culture incorporate recursion but it even invites space for the “accidents and surprises” that inevitably come with new iterations, whereas Snead feels European cultures are solely interested in a perfect repetition that accumulates and exponentializes into profit and progress (Snead, 149-150).

Recursion in African American culture has often been represented by the Sankofa bird. The word “Sankofa” comes from the Ghanaian Akan tribe and translates literally to “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind,” signifying that in a pursuit of further knowledge, one must look to the past for “critical examination, and intelligent and patient investigation.” The Sankofa bird also has a visual representation: the body and feet of the bird are facing forward, while the head is facing backwards. Not only does this represent the African/African American consciousness that all instances in life are influenced by the past and will influence the future, but it also recognizes the cultural importance of applying the lessons learned. It is an acknowledgment of the existence of recursion, but the simultaneous acknowledgement that every iteration is transformable.

Lucille Clifton does not accentuate whether the poetic recursion she experiences is a positive or negative thing. Based on different perspectives, I can understand it as both. I believe that recursion is the same in African American culture. The work of Eglash, Brown, and Snead, as well as the representation of the Sankofa bird, represent the empowerment behind the roots, the present, and the future of the Black experience. These are all positive interpretations. But it must be acknowledged that recursion has played an overwhelmingly negative role in African American lives, specifically when it comes to what has been done to them. For example, the history of discrimination, oppression, brutality, and murder of African Americans has shown a recursive pattern, almost in the form of a tree. First, the roots represent the countless entangled thoughts against African American existence that lives underground but has a strong and seemingly indestructible foundation. The main tree trunk that spurts from the ground represents an outbreak of a single incident that makes its way into public sight or knowledge, such as a racial slur, a beating, or a murder. Then, the recursive nature of sequential branches that sprout new sequential branches represents the multitude of related incidents that spark in its aftermath. As the branches grow, they drop acorns which in time plant new trees. Eventually, a whole forest of these trees becomes a dense culture against African Americans.

This is where, in the frame of my semester’s story, we wrap up with the novel The Trees by Percival Everett. The main plot of this novel is based entirely upon recursion: mysterious murders continue happening in a small town where a white people are murdered and at the scene is the body of a dead Black person with the testicles of the white of people clenched in their fists. Soon, these murders begin multiplying and repeating in similar iterations all around the country, sometimes involving Asian or indigenous bodies at the scene instead of a Black body. Just like a fractal, the instances multiple out of control. It turns out that the murders started as a statement by some of the radical African American population in the original small town of Money, Mississippi where they attempted to make a statement (and possibly start a movement) that accentuates the historical continuation and utter horror of African American lynching but from the other side in which the white population experiences the recursion of murder and brutality (Everett, 291-293).

I interpret that one of Everett’s main messages in this novel is the duality of lynch recursion. On one hand, the repetition of Black lynchings over the course of the past few hundred years does not seem to disturb the country at large. It disturbs the small pockets of activists and the affected, but the recursion of murders has created mass desensitization, especially amongst the people of Money, Mississippi where the story takes place. Many white characters even recount past lynchings with either great ease or admiration (Everett, 280-281). The sheer number of racially based lynchings only comes as a surprise to the few that actually review Mama Z’s records of every American lynching since 1913 (Everett, 153). It would likely not have the same impact upon the white population of the town because they witnessed and took part in the country’s lynchings (Everett, 185-194). On the other hand, this same population (as well as the country at large) is acutely attuned to the horror of the lynchings against white people in the novel. The white characters often use exclamations such as “what the freegone fuck is going on” in response to this type of recursion (Everett, 41). When the murders spread around the country, news channels pick up the stories and excite horror into the masses (Everett, 232).

When confronted with the recursion of white populations lynching minorities across the country, it is part of a unifying and righteous culture (just look at the Ku Klux Klan). In these cases, “no one was interviewed. No suspects were identified. No one was arrested. No one was charged. No one cared” (Everett, 161). When it is now the recursion of an unknown population (but presumed to be the Black population) lynching white people, it is a horrifying national epidemic. In these cases, the white characters are “scared to death” that a race war is beginning; they speak highly of the white population and call for protection; they caution the “good White” population to “be wary of any Black individuals” (Everett, 240; 260-261). Both are types of lynch recursion, but the white population gets to name the game.

I also view Everett as a master of recreating social interactions and attitudes in which he has realistically yet fictionally recreated much of the recursive racism, microaggressions, and sentiments that African Americans experience. While these repetitive instances are almost secondary to the overarching theme of lynch recursion that we see throughout the novel, added together they are wholly just as significant and true-to-life. For instance, Everett does not shy away from the casual racism that still plagues much of the United States. When in private, almost all the white characters use the N-word and try to restrain themselves in the presence of Black folk (Everett, 170). Recursion appears when Mama Z claims that Teddy Roosevelt warned “the main cause of lynching was Black men raping White women” out of pure racial bias (Everett, 215). We see the same logic in contemporary characters such as Charlene when she tells Jim and Ed, “I got every right to be scared of you. I could shoot you if I wanted. Could say you scared me real bad and I had to shoot you,” implying that it would be an acceptable excuse to kill a Black man just for knocking on the door of her home (Everett, 62). Braden also implies that the Black population of Money is going to “take over” and is worried that the white population will be too slow to stop them (Everett, 217). Everett portrays that the white population is too skeptical of Black people while they are alive, but once they are dead, they are negligent of their condition. For instance, the white people that discover each crime scene are more focused on the brutality committed against the white people rather than the black person. Even in the cable news report of the murder scene in Hernando, Mississippi, the details of the unidentified Black male barely received any coverage (Everett, 232-233). Each of these instances are marked by a deeply rooted problem that, like a tree, merges into open air and multiplies itself into more widespread iterations until it gets tangled and out of control.

When searching the definition of “recursion” on Google, a notification will appear asking, “Did you mean: recursion.” Most users will likely click on the blue highlighted word, assuming that they misspelled the word, just to find that the redirected page asks the same question, ““Did you mean: recursion.” Some users may immediately get the joke, but some will certainly think something is wrong with the page. However, the more the user thinks about it, the more it makes sense: the link creates a recursion within itself. While each iteration of clicking the link may bring up an identical page, it is not identical: each iteration is unique because it causes the user to think differently about what they are seeing. Eventually, the question will become so expected that the user is desensitized to it. This is precisely the problem I see with recursion in African American culture. It should both be recognized as a source of empowerment and as a source of oppression, but instead the world becomes desensitized to its importance. The recursive roots of Black become muddy and the historical and modern state of Black lynching has become normalized. Recursion not only teaches us about Black culture itself, but it also reminds us to look at the past often and apply what we’ve learned to the present and remember it in the future; to not become accustomed; to not become desensitized.

Whitewashed: The Fourth Step of Development

In W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, a chapter is dedicated to what DuBois refers to as “Sorrow Songs,” or what other Black scholars and figures have referred to as “spirituals” or “freedom songs.” Du Bois claims that there are four steps of development of slave songs: the first being “African music, the second Afro-American, while the third is a blending of Negro music with the music heard in the foster land.” DuBois hints towards a fourth step developing, in which white music has been “distinctively influenced by the slave songs or have incorporated whole phrases of Negro melody” (Hill, 751).

This excerpt from DuBois is featured in Call & Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, edited primarily by Patricia Liggins Hill, amongst an immense compilation of other African American works throughout history. Of all the recorded works collected in Call & Response, there seems to be a central focus on the ever evolving yet culturally rooted music of Black folk. Amidst the various literary works, Black music in the form of spirituals, slave songs, ballads, jazz compositions, and much more seem to dominate the governing aesthetic of what has shaped the African American experience.

The governing aesthetic of African American music is not limited to the songs provided in the anthology; it can even be found in other included African American literary works. For example, Frances Watkin Harper’s poem “Songs for the People” is included, in which she advocates for strength and importance of African American music in inspiring its people (Hill, 352-353). Countee Cullen’s “Colored Blues Singer” poetically expresses in his appreciation for Blues singers being able to turn sorrow into beautiful music (Hill, 914). Also included is a series of Michael S. Harpers’ poems, three of which directly address three highly influential Black musicians: John Coltrane, James Brown, and Bessie Smith (Hill, 1648-1652). Black music is everywhere throughout this anthology; it serves to credit Black populations and creators as well as protect against the increasing problem of DuBois’ fourth step of development in which white music has been not only influenced by Black music but has even attempted to take it over in some respects. DuBois merely hinted at this phenomenon in his time, but this influence on white music has increased to the point that Black musical creations have become whitewashed, sometimes to the point of being unrecognizable as Black creations. Thus, Call & Response’s governing aesthetic serves to protect and preserve against this.

 As a white young adult who considers himself well-versed in the music and musical trends of the past century (granted, mostly music created by white English-speakers, but most of which has been influenced by African American music), I immediately recognized that many of the songs featured in Call & Response were songs that I knew to be songs of African Americans. Songs featured in the anthology such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Wade in nuh Watuh Childun,” “Follow the Drinking Gou’d” were typical textbook-tunes that were taught to me and my peers as “spirituals” that I would always be able to immediately identify as African American slave songs. Other featured songs like “Respect” by Otis Redding (as interpreted by Aretha Franklin), “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown, and “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye were songs I’d known as unmistakable products of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. That being said, these inclusions should not reduce the anthology down to a basic collection of well-known works.

Even amongst songs that are generally recognized as Black literary works, the anthology’s collection serves to help listeners/readers make connections between works from different eras. Thus, certain artistic decisions from African American literary work can be traced back by exploring the anthology’s music. From personal experience, I had been long familiar with Richie Haven’s “Freedom” without knowing that the “Motherless Child” verses were based upon lyrical poetry spirituals from enslaved Africans until upon scanning the anthology (Hill, 51). As a fan of the song “The Weight” by The Band, I have appreciated Aretha Franklin’s cover for some time now; however, I had previously wondered why she changed the original lyrics “go down, Miss Moses,” to simply, “go down Moses.” This was clarified for me upon finding “Go Down, Moses” in the anthology, an old slave spiritual (Hill, 42). Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” along with an immense number of other African American songs reference the Jordan river. Upon review of the lyrics to “Hail Mary” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Deep River,” all 19th century African American spirituals, the artistic decision to use the Jordan river as a symbol in African American music is clear: it is a reference to birth, salvation, and rebirth amongst African Americans which served as a glimpse of hope (Hill, 237, 560). Lastly, I always understand the closing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as an empowering statement he developed himself: “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I am free at last.” I credited the audience’s reaction to this statement as an in-the-moment agreement with his assertion. Until I reviewed Call and Response, I had no ideathat both the audience’s reaction and MLK Jr.’s choice of words were due to a referential understanding of the post-emancipation spiritual “Free at Las’” (Hill, 558). Call & Response helps solidify connections between past and recent Black literary traditions, which in itself emulates the call and response technique typical of Black music from which the title gets its name.

While the anthology does a great job of cataloging and crediting the work of African Americans, what must not be ignored by audiences is that many of the songs included in the anthology have been adapted by white voices, just as DuBois hinted to. The white adaptation of Black music was inevitable; without searching for the origin, listeners are often under the impression that these songs are works of the white interpreters. Due to the predominantly white society that we live in, many listeners of these white artists may be unaware of the Black origins in so much of their favorite music.

There are countless songs, only which a fraction of is mentioned in Call & Response, that I was exposed to by white artists and likely would not have known were Black tunes if it weren’t for my personal research. “Crossroad Blues” by Robert Johnson is a perfect example: I was exposed to the song initially by Eric Clapton (a white blues guitarist from England who is no stranger to receiving criticism for stealing the work of Black artists) just as many other white audiences were and still are today. Another tune I recognized from the anthology was “Go Tell It on de Mountain,” which was introduced to me and many white audiences by Peter, Paul, & Mary’s rendition. Peter, Paul, & Mary’s cover is significant because they have rewritten the traditional lyrics to incorporate the lyrical adaptations of “Go Down Moses” into the verses and the chorus (Hill, 561). I was aware that “Go Tell It on The Mountain” was a historically Black song, but I had always figured that Peter, Paul, & Mary had created the altered lyrics themselves considering how active they were in the Civil Rights Movement. Upon perusing the anthology, I found the lyrics to “Go Down Moses” to be eerily similar to the Peter, Paul, & Mary version and concluded that the latter had heavily based their lyrics upon the traditional verses of Black folk (Hill, 42-44).   

I was taken aback by the prevalence of other familiar tunes that I had no idea were created by Black voices. “Back Door Man” and “Big Boss Man” initially caught my attention. I was very familiar with the cover of the former by The Doors and the cover of the latter by the Grateful Dead. My personal research had failed to prove that they were created by Black artists until now. Upon this realization, the themes of the songs made sense. The lyrics to “Back Door Man” are clearly an allusion to a white-female desire for Black men but the simultaneous necessity for Black men to pursue them in secret (Hill, 1386-1387). The lyrics to “Big Boss Man” can be applied on a more universal level, but when centered around the Black experience there is an additional layer of intersectionality that affects how the narrator is treated by their boss. “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” were two of the biggest surprises. I’d heard them both performed many times by Pete Seeger and his other white contemporaries involved in the Civil Rights movement, thus I always figured they were covering his songs. It was to my shock to find out that these were not songs written in solidarity, but instead songs that were written in Black struggle and the latter adapted to the Civil Rights movement with an alteration of “I” to “We” in the title and the lyrics (Hill, 1093, 1393).

My surprise continued when I took a deeper look into three other songs that were created by Black voices but are generally recognized as race-less songs today by many. “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho” is often recognized as an African American spiritual, but has somewhat been obscured from its hidden emphasis on race as it has become popular within white society (I also speak from personal experience, as I went to a 95% white high school and heard this performed countless times at chorus concerts with no mention of its Black origins). The lyrics seem to compare the biblical story of the Battle of Jericho with the social struggle against slavery in which, eventually the “walls come tumbling down” (Hill 47). “When the Saints Go Marching In” has also been obscured from its Black origins as many marching bands and white Christian gospels have given their takes on the song. However, the lyrics in the context of this anthology show one of the many examples of Black faith in a judgment day and recognizing that then, in salvation, they will be saved, especially during a time when many African American felt unwelcome on earth in America (Hill. 561). Lastly, “This Little Light of Mine” is a spiritual that has been enjoyed by many as a lullaby and even covered famously by Bruce Springsteen. However, Call & Response provides us with a richer history: it was adapted for the Civil Rights movement and included clear references to the ostracization and discrimination that Black people felt in the country (specifically in places like “Birmingham” and “Mississippi”) pitted against the glimpse of hope, or “light of freedom,” that they felt would help them persevere. Without the anthology’s categorization of this as a “Gospel Adapted for the Liberation Movement,” I wouldn’t have known the transformative history of this song, as I’m sure many other don’t (Hill, 1392).

The fact that so many of these familiar and even some popular tunes were rendered unrecognizable as African American songs signals the importance of music in an African American anthology. Music is one of the easier aspects of culture to obscure from its origins due to its universality, especially when incorporated into a society where the origin culture does not hold the power. As DuBois asks in The Souls of Black Folk, “would America have been America without her Negro people?” (Hill 754). In regard to music, I believe no, but it would be easy for those that don’t know the rich and influential history of Black music in this country to believe yes. This is where the importance of an inclusive anthology with an overarching aesthetic comes in. One cannot even skim through the table of contents of Call & Response without noticing the sheer amount of music and musical references that make up this anthology, much of which is likely unbeknownst to readers (especially those of newer generations) as African American creations. This governing aesthetic not only ties together the African American experience, but it also ties together many of the loose ends, many of the misconceptions, that individuals may hold. This is where Call & Response is unique: databases from the internet will satisfy seekers with quick answers that are stagnated by the illusion of understanding; this anthology, however, will force the average listener and reader to question their understanding of American music and to further ponder what hasn’t been challenged yet.