The Seed Shape in Black Literature

Simply put a fractal is an infinite, recursive shape often occurring in nature. But if one were to look deeper, they would discover that there is much more to fractals than meets the eye. There are five essential components that make a shape a fractal. Likely the the most important self-similarity. Self-similarity is the central seed shape that the rest of the figure is branched off of. (Eglash) The seed shape as described in its name is the start of every fractal and branch of the fractal. It is the commonality that connects every aspect of the very complex and diverse shape. English 337: African American Literature is an in-depth course that examines a multitude of texts written by several Black authors. The course just so happens to follow the rules of fractal geometry. 

Although we have explored many texts and various forms of art, gone down many different paths, and branched off into many different directions, there is a central seed shape that connects the texts throughout the course and provides a connection between them. Interestingly enough, I think that seed shape is the diversity and complexity of literature written by Black authors. Every text that we have read, every folk song we have listened to, and every poem that we have investigated displays a different life and experience with Blackness in America. There is a diversity of styles, genres, and opinions within the literature as well. That variety is in itself the connection between all Black literature and is the seed shape that connects the concepts of the English 337 course. 

Frederick Douglass is perhaps one of the most famous authors of all time, not to mention one of the most famous Black authors. His autobiography The Narrative Life of Fredrick Douglass: An American Slave was an instant success as soon as it was published and has remained one of the most popular books in America. In the book, he tells the story of his enslavement as a child and a young man. One of the most key scenes in the narrative is when Douglass fights his enslaver, Mr. Covey. Douglass himself says that the “battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave.” (Douglass 302) It is this conflict that makes him realize that his freedom is something he wants to fight for. Not only is his battle with his enslaver about his freedom as a human being but it can be interpreted as a fight for his manhood. Douglass says “It… revived in me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence…” (Douglass 302) By fighting and winning against the most classically masculine figure in his life, he not only claims his freedom but reclaims his own masculinity. 

The Narrative in general could be categorized as a more traditionally masculine presenting story. It is a plot-driven narrative that focuses more on the physical actions and steps Douglass overcame to fight his way to freedom. There is not much focus on deep inner monologue or overcoming thoughts of self-doubt. Also, Douglass did not have to worry about any children or other members of his family while escaping, and there isn’t much discussion from him about them. All of this is in contrast to another story of escaping enslavement we read in the course. 

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl written by Harriet Jacobs is at first glance a similar story to that lived and written by Frederick Douglass. It is a story of a young Black person risking and dedicating their life to escaping enslavement. On closer inspection, however, one starts to notice massive differences between the two. So much of Jacob’s writing focuses on the intersectionality of “the disadvantages of being an attractive black female and a slave.” (Call and Response 433) Jacob’s story of escaping slavery is long and drawn out because she could not easily run away. Her enslaver was regularly sexually abusing her and would come to her house often asking for sexual favors. Also, Jacobs had two young children to think about. She couldn’t simply pack her things and run away on her own. The solution that she finally arrived at was to hide in the crawl space of her grandmother’s house for seven years until her enslaver finally stopped looking for her and her children were old enough to travel. It was this incredible feat of dedication and sacrifice that led readers and historians alike to dismiss “her narrative as fictionalized when she recounted the incident.” (Call and Response 433) So much of the way Incidents was written and received by the public was because Jacobs was a woman.

 A vast part of what makes Incidents so intriguing is the amount of stream of consciousness that is displayed. We get to hear, understand, and become well acquainted with Linda/Harriet’s inner thoughts. It is a deep character study and introspective look at the life of an enslaved black woman rather than an action-focused narrative. It was also the fact that Jacobs was a woman that made her story unbelievable to the public. When Incidents was published, it was not an instant success and it took until the 1980s to be authenticated and treated as such by the public. This is a common phenomenon in literature written by women and it contrasts with literature of the same type written by men.

The differences in both the content of the writing as well as the reception of the two slave narratives are glaringly obvious despite their similarities. It is this that provides us with insight into the vast diversity of Black literature. Both The Narrative by Fredrick Douglass and Incidents by Harriet Jacobs are classic slave narratives that tell the stories of young enslaved Black people who do everything in their power to escape enslavement. But even so, there is so much that is different about the two narratives and the writers that created them. Douglass was an action-based man and his writing followed suit. His story is suspenseful and exciting to read. He describes in great detail the gore he witnessed while being a slave. The Narrative is fast-paced and comes to a satisfying close where Douglass has gained his freedom in the North. Incidents functions completely differently. Jacobs is deeply retrospective and spends a lot of time in her story with her inner thoughts and feelings while experiencing enslavement. She heavily discusses the emotional pain of being sexually abused and experiencing the loss of multiple friends and family members. While both slave narratives pull at the heartstrings of their readers and function as abolitionist works, they do so in very different ways. 

One can see through the vast differences in The Narrative and Incidents that Black literature is full of diversity and variety. It is so important to not only recognize this diversity but to respect it. Unfortunately, among White people, there is the assumption that everything made by Black artists has the same meaning and message. Not only is this assumption false, but it is hurtful and damaging. The Black experience is very diverse and therefore the literature written by Black people is just as diverse. To ignore or diminish this diversity is to delete and disregard the Black experience itself.  This is the seed shape of English 337… identify and validate diversity in Black literature and in doing so to respect and identify as many Black experiences in America as possible.