Bad Faith Decision-Making in Literature

At the beginning of this semester, I was tasked with exploring race and oppression as it pertains to the work of N.K. Jemisin. In my initial exploration (Lithosphere Essay), I asserted that Jemisin’s novel, The Fifth Season, serves as a powerful tool for exploring and understanding structural inequalities in society. By weaving themes of oppression, power, and racial hierarchy into her narrative, Jemisin prompts readers to confront uncomfortable truths about discrimination and injustice. The essay argues that while the novel is fictional, its parallels to real-world events and experiences make it a valuable lens through which to examine systemic inequalities. I also suggested that Jemisin strategically utilizes her platform as a writer to provoke critical reflection and awareness of societal issues among readers, particularly those in positions of power. As opposed to immediately unpacking my own thoughts, it was first important to lay the foundation on which any following argument could be made. It was impossible to discuss my own experiences without proving that The Broken Earth trilogy is an appropriate vehicle for such examination. Ultimately, the purpose of my “Lithosphere Essay” was to highlight the potential of literature in challenging and addressing structural inequalities so as to now analyze my thoughts that have emerged.

Originally aimed at proving the validity of its basis—that being the Broken Earth trilogy—The “Lithosphere Essay” serves as a precursor to this thought-analysis/work. Months ago, we studied legal terminology for the purpose of understanding, generally and concretely, the circumstances under which one may operate in “good faith.” In that discussion, good faith was said to require a “belief or purpose, faithful performance of duties, observance of fair dealing standards, or an absence of fraudulent intent” (Cornell Law, 2023). In essence, one who operates in good faith truly and wholeheartedly believes that their thoughts/actions are noble and good. This concept stuck with me throughout the semester, and I imagine that it will continue to follow me beyond SUNY Geneseo. I have personally implemented this thinking into my own life, evaluating my actions, thoughts, and emotions. I have concretely achieved the most rudimentary outcome of this course. It is time, however, to move beyond my own interests and understand how this concept applies to broader sociological contexts. This essay will discuss good/bad faith decision-making such that the reasoning and impact of my own personal beliefs and actions are examined, broadly, in the contexts of race, oppression, and power.

When the question was posed, I didn’t quite grasp its complexities. What is good faith? The answer seemed simple and conclusive. Law journals, educational institutions, and even blogs each have similarly fixed definitions. Based on these sources, the class settled on a good amalgamation. From this, another question arose: in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, what are some good/bad faith examples? There were obvious depictions of bad faith in The Fifth Season; within the first chapter, the audience learns that Jija has murdered his son for being an orogene—a powerful, minority race in the Broken Earth Trilogy. In agreement, we nodded our heads. But was he really making a bad faith decision? The definition that we had so meticulously created didn’t include a list of “right” and “wrong;” good faith action only required one to believe that their intentions were just. Jija truly believed that orogenes were too powerful, creating destruction and chaos. The outcome was undoubtedly appalling, but the act, according to Cornell Law, was in good faith. I became infatuated with this discussion, searching for other misleading examples in Jemisin’s work(s). I would eventually come to find that the Broken Earth trilogy has more examples of this phenomenon than non-examples.

N.K. Jemisin works diligently to fabricate a world in which race, power, and oppression are poignant topics. Although the addition of orogenic powers make for a fantastical story, the Broken Earth trilogy does well to mimic real-life issues. She also portrays several instances in which characters may or may not have been acting in good faith. Exploration of these are pertinent in understanding how the concepts of race, power, and oppression are carried out in either good or bad faith. One of the most interesting paradigms that Jemisin creates occurs in her second novel, The Obelisk Gate, however, the results of this event are not revealed until The Stone Sky. Essun, the main character, possesses orogenic powers, meaning that she can manipulate, understand, and feel the earth around her. She is now living in a community (Castrima), located inside of a geode, that accepts people like herself—orogenes. Armed with their own division of orogenes, the Renannis military attacks Castrima. Essun realizes that they are in “serious danger of being murdered” (Jemisin 2017). Orogeny on her side, Essun takes a stand, deciding, perhaps nobly, to protect Castrima. She accesses an additional source of power, an obelisk, allowing Essun to “ensnare the attackers” within the crystals of Castrima’s geode (Jemisin 2017). Now, The Stone Sky opens on Castrima’s residents travelling away from their uninhabitable geode. Essun has “saved the community of Castrima at the cost of Castrima itself” (Jemisin 2017). At the time of our good/bad faith discussion, we hadn’t yet reached this portion of the trilogy. However, as I approached this reading on my own, the discussion reemerged. Had Essun acted righteously? Sure, the blood of her community members aren’t on her hands, but now they are alive and displaced. Is this a faith worse than death? For the orogenes living within the walls of Castrima, perhaps this is still a death sentence; they are no longer a protected community member and must find new acceptance. Just as Jemisin portrays it, throughout US history, it is reckless “good faith” decision-making that has displaced and killed so many.

Post WWII, the US government searched for ways to strengthen political, social, and economic growth. Legislators first looked to major cities, deciding to rectify urban issues. These issues of course, included clearing out inner-city families, primarily those of color. In order to stop the “disease” of economic stagnation, urban centers were allowed to abolish “slums” or “ghettos.” Local municipalities would apply for federal grants that funded the acquisition of property from poor families and the land’s redevelopment. Exercising imminent domain, families were now displaced from their homes, just as those in Castrima. Although they may not have seen such sums of money, redlining and other institutional practices disallowed relocation.

This class’ exploration of good faith, through literature and history, reveals an interconnectedness that is significant in shaping human experiences. At its core, the question of what constitutes good faith serves as a lens through which we examine morality. From the fixed definitions found in law journals to the nuanced portrayals in fiction like N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, we engage with the ambiguity of intentions and outcomes. The narrative of Essun’s choices in defending Castrima mirrors the real-world consequences of well-intentioned actions, prompting us to confront institutionalized injustices. Through the lens of post-WWII America, we witness how the pursuit of progress can often come at the expense of marginalized communities, echoing the themes of power, race, and oppression woven into Jemisin’s storytelling. I will certainly continue to examine and criticize my own thinking while bearing in mind the core of this class and Jemisin’s work.

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.