My Semester’s Story

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

The first week of the semester I did not see much purpose in this epigraph by Lucille Clifton or understand how it would carry itself through the entirety of our course, but as the semester is coming to a close, I am able to not only realize its significance but also how much of our reading and course concepts it can be connected to. Throughout the semester we touched on several course concepts that have not only deepened my understanding of African Literature, but also how these concepts can be connected to my practical life as well. This includes concepts such as recursion, sustainability, and good and bad faith. Admittedly, I struggled at first with how these concepts could possibly be related and why I needed to know them, but after wrapping up our course with The Trees by Percival Everett, it made me realize how these concepts can be intertwined and opened up my eyes to the true effect of failed sustainability, recursion, and administering bad faith.  

We defined sustainability in our collaborative essay as, “meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Although sustainability is commonly misunderstood as being strictly environmental, the pillar of sustainability we see in The Trees is social sustainability, which is defined by the website “Toward Sustainability” as, “maintaining and improving social quality with concepts such as cohesion, reciprocity and honesty and the importance of relationships amongst people. It can be encouraged and supported by laws, information and shared ideas of equality and rights.” In other words, the social pillar focuses largely on the idea of equality, something that most of society is lacking in Everett’s novel. Although Everett does not specifically mention the importance of social sustainability, he illustrates the significance of it by tackling a series of murders and makes it clear that the actions occurring both before and after 1913 have compromised the ability of future generations to live peacefully and equally in the country. 

Tracing back as far as 1913, where Mama Z began to keep track of lynchings, Everett illustrates the poor treatment that Black and Asian people received, and more specifically the violence that was inflicted on them. For the span of a hundred and five years that the novel focuses on, the treatment of minorities continued through the use of derogatory terms and Ku Klux Klan meetings still being held in Money, “We go back to the old, tried-and-true ways of our KKK forebears, the sacred ways, the ways of fury, fire, and the rope” (Everett, 97). Allowing for the continuation of poor treatment of both Black and Asian people to go unnoticed resulted in built up anger and a lack of justice for victims and their families, resulting in failed social sustainability and causing a spread of similarly described murders to take place across the United States. Due to a lack of cohesion, reciprocity, equality, and honesty, which have been defined as critical aspects of maintaining a social pillar, Gertrude, Mama Z, and eventually many others, find themselves forced to go to extreme measures to brings our attention to the large number of lynchings that was ignored by society. 

As we get deeper into the novel, it gets revealed that all of the victims from Money Mississippi have something in common; they come from families that were connected to lynchings in the past: “I’ll tell you what, though: if spirits are out for revenge, there’s going to be a lot more killing around here. Those spirits are going to have a field day around here. Every white person in this country, if they didn’t lynch somebody themselves, the somebody in their family tree did” (Everett, 102). This is the point in the novel where Everett allows readers to connect the motivation of the murders to past lynchings, but before we can discover who is behind these murders, the string of murders spreads outward and past the borders of Money Mississippi, illustrating an even larger problem at hand, “There weren’t enough troops. Colfax, Louisiana. Omaha, Nebraska. Tulsa, Oklahoma. Chicago, Illinois. Thirty-five White casualties. Panic in the streets. Rosewood, Florida. A mob of dead-eyed Black men left behind six dead Whites” (Everett, 294). By making the murders take place on a mass scale, Everett is illustrating a larger problem and not just one that we originally believed to only be taking place in a small town in Mississippi. 

While reading The Trees, I sat in shock, left wondering what single character or group of characters could be behind so many murders, assuming that each victim had to have some relation to the Bryants or Milams. It wasn’t until Everett described mobs of Black and Asian individuals that I realized the problem wasn’t small, nor was the problem really the people being murdered at all. This is where I was able to relate back to our course concept of recursion, which we defined as “a feedback loop,” or in other words, “defining a problem in terms of itself.” It wasn’t until I uncovered the plot of Everett’s novel that I truly understood the meaning of recursion, and how a problem can be defined “in terms of itself.” The real problem in the novel wasn’t the murders occurring, but instead the failed social sustainability on a larger scale, which in turn resulted in the murders. Going back to our course epigraph by Lucille Clifton, her last line, “but whenever I begin “the trees wave their knotted branches and…” why is there under that poem always an other poem?” finally began to click for me, realizing that she was showing the idea of recursion as well. As Clifton is beginning to write, “the trees wave their knotted branches and…”, she gets stopped abruptly, unable to continue without addressing the “other poem” underneath. The same holds true for Jim and Ed, who cannot possibly discover the answer behind the horrifying murders without stopping to identify the lynching victims of the past. Clifton’s last line is forcing us to notice that there are always underlying causes of everything, the same way Everett is forcing us to notice the inequality and injustice that resulted in the murders.

We saw something similar occur in Ellison’s Invisible Man, which helped to deepen my understanding of the effect failed social sustainability has. Although the result of not maintaining all three pillars was on a much smaller scale, Ellison illustrates the same concept as Everett does by also showing recursion through unfair and poor treatment of Black workers. The constant tension between Mr. Kimbro, Mr. Brockway, and the company’s union creates a feud that leads to a complete breakdown of the social pillar and eventually a literal explosion of a tank in the basement. The poor treatment of Black workers is clearly displayed through the language they use to describe them, “…you old-fashioned, slavery-time, mammy-made, handkerchief-headed bastard…” (Ellison, 26). It is clear here that the characters in Invisible Man are administering bad faith through their actions and even words towards other members working for the company, which doesn’t reflect the overall goal the institution is trying to achieve, and therefore, means their company was bound to fail, the same way the country was in The Trees. The real problem, and the main plot of the story wasn’t about the paint being sold, but instead the underlying problem of social inequality and unfair treatment, creating a feedback loop that parallels Everett’s. 

Once the underlying cause of the murders are revealed, as well as the fact that Gertrude and Mama Z are behind the murders of Wheat Bryant, Junior Junior Milam, and the other Milam in Chicago, it leaves Jim and Ed battling with the idea of good and bad faith. With failed social sustainability being caused by bad faith actions, it leaves the question of whether the response it created was done out of good or bad faith. Were Gertrude and Mama Z administering good faith through their actions? Did the fact that they were hoping to bring some justice to people who were lynched mean their actions were justified? Gertrude states, “Everybody talks about genocides around the world, but when the killing is slow and spread over a hundred years, no one notices” (Everett, 291). This leads us to another question, if those who lynched several men and women in bad faith, went unpunished, is it okay that Gertrude and Mama Z, possibly acting in good faith, go unpunished? This is a question that Everett leaves us to battle with ourselves as well and makes us wonder whether or not their response should be seen as acceptable. Although these questions are left unanswered, it’s important to go back to our very first day of class and slow down to consider the same for our own decisions and actions and ask ourselves similar questions in order to ensure we are acting out of good faith. 

At the beginning of the semester if you asked me to define sustainability, recursion, or good faith, I would not know how to respond, other than will a google search like our very first day of class; however, looking back at the progress made, I can now not only define these concepts, but also identify them, expand on them, and discuss the significance of them. I have come to realize that they’re not only important when it comes to understanding African American literature, but also when it comes to implementing them in my practical life. Social sustainability, for example, is key to success in so many aspects of life. Unfair treatment of any person would not only be administering bad faith but would also impact their life in a way that I am unable to truly understand. When looking at how my actions can affect others it’s also important to stop and consider the question of good and bad faith that Everett left us with in his novel. Having anything other than sincere intentions when interacting and maintaining relationships with others, would result in me failing to uphold the social pillar. Now although these ideas and statements may seem obvious, unfortunately I have come to realize that they aren’t to some. Although Everett’s novel is fiction, the horrifying language and actions toward Black and Asian men and women aren’t as fictional as I hoped they would be. Throughout this course and my reading of The Trees, I began to notice the recursion that is taking place in our own society today as well: the exact problem Everett illustrated. Living in a world where people are stereotyped, threatened, killed, and enslaved because of their race, with no justice and little outrage, how is it acceptable to ignore a problem this large? How is it that we can set future generations up for failure and then ask them to move on? These are questions that I am unable to answer, but ones that I am now aware of are even questions, and ones that through good faith, effort toward creating social sustainability, and by acknowledging the “other poem,” I hope to change.

ENGL337 African American Literature Essay 1

            For centuries, African American history has been repeatedly suppressed, ignored, and undermined in education despite the importance and vast amount of information that can be found within. As stated by Suzan-Lori Parks in her work “Possession,” one of her tasks is to “locate the ancestorial burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.” This statement is referring to the need for African American history to be dug up and expressed through literature, a task that Patricia Liggins Hill and the many other editors also set out to do in her book Call and Response. Call and Response is a chronological anthology of African American literature that places emphasis on both written and oral dimensions of the black aesthetic. The book is guided by a folk aesthetic that shows the cultural production of ordinary people, who despite the hardships, racism, and brutality towards them created a cultural identity for themselves through community that has empowered them by giving them both comfort and a voice to share their stories. Through both a folk aesthetic and the conscious structuring of Call and Response, Patricia Liggins Hill and the many editors of this book were able to convey the beauty of community and African American culture as well as its significance.   

            In music, call and response is a technique in which a phrase of music serves as the call and that call is answered by a following phrase of music. Call and Response is set up in exactly this way, starting with the call, which expresses the hardships inflicted upon black people and black culture, and then following their response, which shows how they overcame it and continued to empower black culture. This is a continuous theme throughout the book showing how everyday people came together as a group to fight for basic human rights that they weren’t receiving. On page 1354, we see a response to the call for social revolution and political strategies. The major response was the Black Renaissance, which resulted in the rise of newly emerging African intellects, artists, poets, novelists, and dramatists. They began to teach, perform, travel, and turn to black journals that allowed for their independence from commercial publishers who censored their language. This was a time in which black activities and events began to flourish and “for the first time in the nation’s history, black was considered beautiful, and Black Power and black pride were images and attitudes to be celebrated and revered, not hidden and feared.” Vibrant murals were painted outside portraying black hero’s and black goals for everyone to see, powerful images of black heroes were on movie screens, black comedians and actors began to be recognized, black music captured the interest of white people even before the civil rights movement, and big afros and African beads were being embraced; however, these accomplishments were not written about to be marked as a “high culture aesthetic,” but instead quite the opposite.

            High culture is commonly defined as cultural objects, material or nonmaterial, that is held in the highest esteem by a culture, and typically looked at as superior. High culture is also usually associated with wealth and those of higher class. The goal of the Call and response isn’t to boost their accomplishments as more important or more valuable than those of Euro-Americans, but instead to show how everyday people, with no special political power, money, or influence, were able to come together as a community to express their shared values and beliefs. This directly reflects a folk aesthetic, which is defined as traditions that root from community and culture. Black traditions and movements have rooted directly from culture and community. We see the Black Arts Movement, originating off the concept of self-determination; the idea of Black Power, beginning from a rallying call for black pride and unity; folktales, which were either based on the belief of native-born Africans to call on African-derived power or the African archetypal pattern; jazz music, originating from an intertwining of European classical music and African and slave folk songs; and Spirituals, which were drawn from native rhythms and African heritage.

            Call and Response is effective in using a folk aesthetic to guide the presentation of the African American Tradition because they show the black community as a group of everyday people who had not one powerful influence, but instead several members of the community working towards a common goal. In “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” by Bernice Johnson Reagon, she mentions how people try to make public figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., viewed as either a hero or evil, when in reality, “He needs to be shared as a member of a community.” Call and Response does this by not only writing about several members of the black community, but by also showing their roots, which did not start with any heroic figure, but instead a group of slaves fighting for their lives and freedom.

            Going back to the very first call in the book on pages one to sixty-eight, we learn about the development of oral traditions as well as African survival in folk culture. Here we are exposed to the truth of Africans involvement in the exploratory expeditions of the new land and the fact that African Americans arrived as slaves even prior to the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. Despite arriving to the new land in shackles, African culture was already being further developed through work songs, folk cries, spirituals, and folktales. Additionally, much of their creations were carried over from Africa and strong connotations of their place of creation can be seen, which is an element of folk culture. I believe this first call was consciously placed at the start of the book to not only begin to unveil the truth about African history, but to also show how even early on, community was a huge factor in the works and art being produced at the time. We can see from this section, that folktales, spirituals, folk cries, and sermons weren’t being created to be popular or well liked, but instead to bring together a group of people who were fighting a continuous battle of oppression. Here we can see that these enslaved people were no heroes, but instead as Reagon says about Martin Luther King Jr.: “A man who did brilliantly with the greatest challenge facing him, he also often operated ordinarily, and at time disappointed others and probably himself.” This same thing can be said for other figures shown in Call and Response such as, James Madison Bell, David Walker, William Wells Brown, Benjamin Banneker, Claude McKay, Margaret Walker, Chester Himes, Sonia Sanchez, and John Edgar Wideman, who all made great strides in their fight for freedom.

            One man in particular who embodies the image of “A man who did brilliantly with the greatest challenge facing him” is William Wells Brown. The man who wrote the first African American novel, protest play, travel book, and history of the black soldier in the civil war. He played a huge role in helping pioneer African literature, but he was no lucky or wealthy man. William Wells Brown started from nothing and was very much an ordinary man, living among many other members of the black community as a slave. He managed to escape from slavery by slipping away from his owner’s steamboat that was docked in Cincinnati Ohio in 1834; however, William Wells Brown didn’t manage to make it far alone. He was taken in shorty after by a white Quaker family and helped to safety by Mr. and Mrs. Wells Brown. Out of respect and appreciation for their help, William decided to adopt their last name. William Wells Brown is an example of someone who was able to gain freedom and the ability to help pioneer African American literature because of the help of others working towards a common goal. Although Mrs. And Mr. Wells Brown were not part of the Black community, they held the same values and beliefs as William did, acknowledging the wrongs of slavery, and putting themselves on the line to help a stranger make his escape. William Wells Brown was not portrayed as a hero or someone with the ability to escape on his own in Call and Response, but instead as someone who could not only acknowledge those who helped him, but as an ordinary man who was able to overcome a horrible situation and make strides for the Black community in despite of it.

            The many traditions, groundbreaking works, and achievements made by members of the black community were not written about in Call in Response to brag about how far they’ve come, but instead to show the community effort and determination it took from an ordinary group of people to work their way up toward more and more freedoms. The Black Renaissance, where we saw African intellects, artists, poets, novelists, and dramatists emerge was just a long awaited and deserved moment for the Black community, as well as only a beginning step to a long battle for equality. Black journals, black heroes in movies, black art, and black music will all continue to emerge in mainstream media and be recognized by the rest of society due to the determination and unity of the Black community. The underlying folk aesthetic of Call in Response is meant to guide us through the reading with the idea in mind that these figures we are reading about are no heroes, but instead everyday people who are trying to make their history and experiences come to light, despite every effort made by society to bury them. Their shared beliefs, values, and pride in their cultural identity is what has taken them this far and is what will continue to empower them to make their voices heard.