The Recurring Theme of Recursion & Institutionalized racism throughout Percival Everett’s Text

This semester has not only taught me the importance of African American literature and its impact but the struggles of African American individuals throughout history. By collaborating heavily with classmates and understanding their points of view on controversial events, I began to see past my own biases and truly recognize the significance of learning about African American experiences through literature. Specifically, one piece of literature that impacted my learning the most regarding African American perseverance was The Trees by Percival Everett, which is a mystery novel that focuses on the gruesome murders within the town of Money, Mississippi. Being enrolled this semester in the course African American Literature has allowed me to dive deeper into the topic of systemic racial injustice and connect it to course concepts such as the concepts of recursion and repetition. This intricate yet important topic was also analyzed frequently throughout Ron Eglash’s text African African Fractals, which allowed me to take my prior knowledge of the concepts of repetition and recursion. and then apply it to Percival Everett’s text by expanding on the repetition of transgressions against African Americans throughout history. 

Furthermore, The Trees is written about a subject that is, unfortunately, all but familiar to American citizens, which is the lynching and horrific murders of African Americans. The title can be acknowledged to have a double meaning, alluding to the actual trees the victims were hung from as well as the family trees that connect both the victims of these crimes and the offenders. The text starts off by telling the story of a young teenager named Emmett Till who is in Chicago for the summertime visiting family. However, when he was accused of flirting and inappropriately touching a white woman named Carolyn Bryant, he mysteriously is found murdered. When two detectives (Jim Davis and Ed Morgan) investigate another murder of a black man, the audience soon discovers that the heinous murder of Emmett Till can be seen as a catalyst for all the horrific murders of African Americans soon to come throughout the text. However, when the FBI gets involved in the murders due to the suspicion of hate crimes, special agent Herbeta Hind joins the mix. The novel, although filled with dark humor and profane language, ultimately ties back to the course epigraph discussed within class written by Toni Morrison, which is “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” Morrison is essentially illustrating how racism has infiltrated our education and we need to insert more diverse pieces of literature within our curriculum so students are more tolerant of other cultures. This quote by Morrison also suggests to the reader that racism is not randomly inherited, but rather it’s taught and institutionalized within our education system. We as students are taught to simply “tolerate” other forms of art that aren’t written by individuals similar to our culture because it’s “socially acceptable.” However, Morrison is demanding that not only students, but scholars as well should start viewing black literature as a serious form of art that has just as much significance as works that have been created by other well-regarded individuals. 

This epigraph relates to Everett’s text because although it would make us more content as a society to believe that the era of racism is far behind us, we are still living in it.  There are still a mass amount of black authors who don’t get the recognition they so rightfully deserve because of the stigma behind black literature being not “a serious, rigorous art form.” Similar to the appalling murders seen within Everett’s The Trees, even though we like to think these behaviors and mindsets are simply a thing of the past, history has a strange way of repeating itself. This concept of repetition or recursion is an extremely significant idea throughout black literature that needs to be thoroughly comprehended before diving into texts. Ron Eglash defines the concept of recursion as an “iterative feedback loop” that in some cases “continues forever” or “bottoms out.” (Eglash, page 17). In addition, Eglash in chapter 8 of African African Fractals also determined that there are multiple types of recursion, all three being extremely different from each other. One type of recursion frequently spoken about throughout the text, which is the weakest of all the different types, is cascade recursion “in which there is a predetermined sequence” that eventually bottoms out (Eglash, page 109). Eglash also mentions the concept of “nesting” which is conceptualized as loops within loops. 

This concept of recursion ultimately ties into the text The Trees by Percival Everett due to the recurring theme of social injustice against the African American community. Racism is like a never-ending loop that has continued to affect individuals for centuries. We would like to tell ourselves that transgressions such as lynchings and unjust murders of African Americans only occurred decades ago when the social climate was too uneducated to realize the true oppressive nature of the world. However, it’s terrifying to think that the crimes described in the text still occur today in the year 2022. Thus demonstrating how the maltreatment of African Americans can easily be compared to loop or recursion. In addition, another concept that should be considered when discussing recursion is the Sankofa bird. Discussed in-depth on the Carter G. Woodson Center website, this symbol is derived from the Akan tribe in Ghana and the translation of the word Sankofa is “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” is based on a mythical bird whose feet remain forward while its head is turned backward, signifying that an individual must always look forward and plan for the future. The Sankofa bird also signifies the importance of learning from the past in order to ensure a prosperous future. Once again, this concept correlates to the overall theme of the text by Percival Everett because readers must take reflect on the unjust and appalling murders of African American individuals within the text, because if we don’t learn from past mistakes made in history these killings with continue to act as a recurring loop. 

Furthermore, one excerpt from the text that effectively demonstrates this recurring loop of injustice is from chapter 72, where Everett wrote “‘unknown male is a name,’ the old woman said. ‘In a way, it’s more of a name than any of the others. A little more than life was taken from them.’” (Everett, pg 215) This powerful statement made by the old man displays to the reader how so many murders throughout history against the African American community have nameless victims. Unlike the other victims, more than their life was taken, but also their identity. Even in today’s world there continues to be an extraordinary number of Jane and John Does (unidentified bodies), whose names just get lost throughout history. However, it’s important to remember that we need to say and acknowledge the names of these victims. Without saying these names aloud, it makes it easier for society to continue to not take accountability for these racial injustices because not identifying a victim with their name makes it easier for their death to get lost in translation. It also makes it easier for society to dehumanize them, and ultimately forget about them. This is why Percival Everett includes pages worth of victims’ names throughout his work, so society can not only mourn the loss of these individuals but also finally take ownership of the ignorance that allowed these killings to continue on throughout history. Without taking ownership, these occurrences will only continue to loop or repeat themselves. 

Another topic considered to be a recursive loop in Everett’s text is the concept of police brutality against African Americans. Everett attempts to demonstrate to his readers that however unjust killings have occurred at the hands of citizens, just as many have occurred due to the ignorance of police officers. Everett portrays this message to his reader in chapter 33 where he writes “‘you should know that I consider police shooting to be lynchings.’” (Everett, page 103) This excerpt from the novel is signifying that systematic racism is often institutionalized and embedded into the laws our society is taught to follow. Everett is telling readers that just because a police officer shoots an individual, does not mean it’s justified killing. These rouge police officers are just as responsible for the unjust murders of African Americans as the individuals who choose to unlawfully lynch them. As a society, we would like to believe that racism within our police system is an issue of past due, however, the unjustifiable killings of African Americans by police officials still continue today, as we have seen in the horrific cases of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two African American individuals unfairly killed due to police ignorance. Ultimately, what Everett is attempting to relay to readers with The Trees is that if we continue to not stand up and attempt to learn something from these unjust police brutalities, they will continue to occur for many generations to come like a recursive loop.

Therefore, Percival Everett’s The Trees does an extraordinary job of connecting to the various concepts embedded within the course such as the course epigraph derived from Toni Morrison and the concept recursion. With these in mind, it’s imperative for readers of Everett’s novel to not get distracted by the immense amount of satire implemented throughout the text and to keep in mind that these brutal events being described unfortunately do occur in today’s world and will continue to occur if we fail to stop this cyclical pattern of wrongdoings. Failing to use these unjust killings as a learning opportunity for society to recognize its institutionalized racism should ultimately be seen as ignorance, rather than seen as simply a missed opportunity for change. Even though these brutal killings are described within a fictional book, readers should never fail to remember that the pages of names included with the text are the real names of individuals who have fallen victim to our prejudiced justice system, and we must continue to say their names in hopes to one day stop this recursive loop of discriminatory tragedies.

Sustainability Collaborative Essay

The term sustainability can be defined as meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Additionally, there are three pillars relating to this concept which are social, environmental and economic. The social pillar expresses the importance of maintaining relationships and engaging with sustainability in social situations. In a broader sense, having good faith with your actions is key to practicing social sustainability. For example, maintaining relationships specifically within a group collaborative assignment is demonstrating good faith in social situations by respecting everyone’s thoughts and opinions which will shape the way the assignment will be viewed. Being economically sustainable is another important aspect in regards to sustainability, this can be understood as using and creating resources intelligently without sacrificing future access to these resources. This is directly related to environmental sustainability which focuses on interacting with your environment responsibly to successfully avert the depletion of natural resources and allow for long-term environmental quality. To illustrate, being sustainable in regards to our environment is extremely important to avoid greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and unsustainable energy usage. There is a strong correlation between sustainability and literature, specifically literature classes. In class, we become informed about what is going on in the world as well as what has taken place in the past. Reflecting on these events makes us more informed about the issues going on around us, where we then can use that information to make effective decisions to better our environment for future generations to come. This allows us to shape our future actions and thoughts which will hopefully result in a sustainable environment. 

Although it is not the literal meaning of the work, chapter ten of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man tackles several potential issues in not acting in a way that aligns with the pillars of sustainability. Firstly, it shows a prime example of a dysfunctional workplace. Right from the start, the reader sees there is no cohesion in the paint company the main character applies to, with new workers referring to the main character’s boss as “the colonel” (Ellison, 3). Later on, we see a clear conflict between Mr. Brockway, the main character’s new boss, and a union within the company, a feud which sends Mr. Brockway into a fit of rage (Ellison, 24). These two conflicts show a breakdown of the social pillar. The relationships within Liberty Paints are shown as fragile and tense, lacking any good faith and creating a tense work environment. This is not manageable, and will continue to exist at the company, and every new hire will experience this hostility. Another potential problem in practicing sustainability is shown through the company’s hiring practices. At one point, a character states that higher-ups at the company are avoiding union wages by firing current workers, and instead hiring young black college workers (Ellison, 2). By doing this, the business is forsaking workers who have experience, and getting rid of old values and knowledge within the company. This shows a clear motivation of profit behind the company, prioritizing lower wages over experienced workers, and shows that the economic pillar is trumping the rest of the goals for the company. The result of these failures? The author has a clear idea of what happens as a result of not acting carefully. At the end of the story, due to an argument between the main character and his boss, one of the tanks in the basement explodes. Simply put, although the message is not literally “act sustainably or explode,” the disaster is figurative. If businesses and society as a whole do not act in this way, disaster will strike.

The company’s failure to implement the three pillars into their work successfully is what ultimately led to the destruction of their company; specifically, their failure to maintain a strong social pillar. Throughout the chapter, we are reminded of the constant tension between Mr. Kimbro and Mr. Brockway. The two men saw themselves as very prominent members of the company and prioritized proving their individual importance within the company. Mr. Brockway in particular, emphasized the importance of his work in the production of the paint, “He spat on the floor and laughed. “Heh, heh, heh, he was a fool, that’s what. A fool! He wanted to boss me and I know more about this basement than anybody, boilers and everything” (Ellison, 17). Mr. Kimbro can be seen expressing similar thoughts, “He snatched up several of the later samples, smearing them, and letting out a groan. ‘Of all the things to happen to me. First, they take all my good men and then they send me you. What’d you do to it?’” (Ellison, 7). Both men are complaining about the actions of other members within the company. Mr. Brockway calls Mr. Kimbro “a fool” for trying to fire him, while Mr. Kimbro blames the men responsible for hiring the main character for the mistakes the main character made. The problem is that both men are too caught up in their belief that their decisions and actions are superior, instead of looking to improve the company and their paint as a whole. Working only towards individual success will not allow for sustainability to be reached. With good faith being key to practicing social sustainability, it is clear here that the men are administering bad faith through their actions and even words towards other members working for the company. This idea suggests that in order for an institution to be successful, individual actions must reflect the overall goal the institution is trying to achieve.

Furthermore, we were able to gain multiple new perspectives immediately following our reading of Penniman’s Farming While Black and our exploration of the Heating Plant on campus. During our visit to the Heating Plant, we learned about the importance of maintaining sustainability throughout the entire facility. With that being said, every worker must be trained and well versed with the processes and machines within the plant. Within the Heating Plant, there is an organized and effective schedule/process that is used which leads to their success and sustainability. The Geneseo Heating Plant implements the three pillars of sustainability by ensuring that they are not putting too much steam into a building that could negatively affect the people in it. The plant is environmentally sustainable by shutting down the plant at the end of the year, “as soon as everyone throws their caps in the air, we start our shutdown process” (Steven Morse). This further proves that they’re environmentally aware of the effects their plant has on the environment. However, quite the opposite is seen at the paint company in the text Invisible Man. This company is seen not practicing sustainability or good faith practices, which ultimately leads to the explosion of their plant. The concept of sustainability was also heavily discussed within Penniman’s text, Farming While Black. Penniman dives into environmental sustainability by taking care of the soil and making sure it’s still usable.  This is possible through soil tests, which Penniman details the importance of in chapter five of his work. His work also reminds readers of the connection between sustainability and literature by providing us with the proper information to successfully create a sustainable future. Similar to the Heating Plant, Penniman’s text also considers the significance of the three pillars by alluding to the social pillar of sustainability in his third chapter titled “Honoring the spirits of the land.” This chapter discusses social sustainability in terms of respecting the land, acknowledging the culture of the land, and exploring how good faith plays a role in sustainability.

The whole Geneseo community, as well as others, should care about the topic of sustainability. Specifically, because it is stated within Geneseo’s values that “Sustainability: Building a culture of well-being that integrates and applies principles of environmental, social, and economic stewardship informed by an understanding of the past and our obligations to the future” (Geneseo, 2022). Geneseo as a school is “guided by our beliefs and commitments” to this value. When it comes to our work in this class, sustainability and Black literature are key to helping us understand our past actions (whether they are ours or a long time ago in history) in order to better ourselves in the future. In other words, learning from our mistakes. This is what we believe this course, as well as Geneseo, are trying to teach us. We saw an example of all three pillars of sustainability being demonstrated to us when our class visited the Heating Plant, “the Heating Plant unit is charged with the responsibility of providing service utilities in an economic, efficient, safe and timely manner” (Geneseo Campus Utilities-Heating Plant). We learned through this visit that the staff is dedicated to ensuring that all the students and staff are comfortable in their dorms, classrooms and extracurriculars. We also learned that the Heating Plant will be turned off on a specific day in order to save energy. The Heating Plant staff informed us that they only use steam rather than gas because of technological advancements as well as providing a safer environment for all. If we go back to the beginning of the semester to our discussion on the text, On Repetition in Black Culture Dr. McCoy restated a paragraph we were discussing by saying “everything that’s new is a revision of something that has already existed” (McCoy 2/7). This quote relates to our understanding of sustainability because like the Heating Plant, there will always be advancements made whether it’s technological, social, economical, or environmentally. When exploring sustainability and Black literature we are making informed decisions that allow us to shape our future actions and thoughts which will hopefully result in a sustainable environment.

Written by Ben Timmons, Jordie Slobodow, Jeremy McCarthy, Amanda Neri, Haylee Evertsen, Emily McIntosh

The Emphasis on Embracing One’s Heritage Through Call & Response

The novel Call and Response by Patricia Liggins Hill (the general editor) is an extensive anthology of influential pieces of African American literature. These works of literature strictly emphasize the significance of African American history by implementing cultural aesthetics that were frequently seen throughout the experience of slavery in America. The literature itself includes a variety of diverse formats, such as poetry, essays, speeches, sermons, journals, and spiritual song lyrics. The structure or governing aesthetic of Call and Response relies heavily on the meaning and importance of heritage. In addition, the structure of various works throughout Hill’s novel also displays an extraordinary amount of symbolism, representing both pride and struggle. 

One of the most influential works displayed in Call and Response is “Everyday Use” written by Alice Walker. The work starts off with Mama anxiously awaiting her daughter Dee’s arrival alongside her other daughter Maggie. Unlike Mama and Maggie, Dee was able to escape her impoverished life and instead go to school in Augusta. When Dee returns, she looks completely different, talks differently, and even goes by a new name, Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo to protest being named after the people who have oppressed her. However, Dee comes home with a secret agenda, which is that she wishes to obtain the family quilts kept by her mother. The quilts were made by Dee’s mother, grandmother, and aunt. They not only have great historical value but cultural significance as well. Dee argues with her mother and claims the quilts would be better kept in her care since Maggie won’t appreciate their unique value and isn’t intelligent enough to properly preserve them. Overall, this work connects to the powerful aesthetic Call and Response attempts to display to its readers, which is the importance of heritage. The audience begins to understand the significance of an individual’s heritage once Dee enters the story. After becoming distraught after concluding that her family’s history deals with the concept of oppression rather than perseverance. Due to this oppression, Dee has made it clear that she desires to reject her own heritage, and instead take on a new one, failing to see the importance her current culture holds. For instance, Dee stated “‘She’s dead,’ Wangero said. ‘I couldn’ bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.’”  (Walker, page 1722) From this excerpt Dee makes the reader pose the question to themselves, can the concept of heritage be considered alive or dead? Can it live on for eternity or is it someday forgotten? Specifically, Dee views her African heritage as dead, or a thing of the past and instead of embracing it rejects it for one seen as more favorable. Furthermore, this poem specifically privileges not “high” culture but the cultural production of normal, everyday people. Walker does this by writing a short story about an extremely relatable family, where sibling rivalry is made to seem common and the celebration of African African culture is valued.

Additionally, “Everyday Use” also brings up an intriguing question of whether or not intelligence or education plays a role in appreciating one’s heritage. Dee claims that she would get more use out of having the quilt instead of her sister since she is educated and can therefore appreciate their cultural value more. However, I strongly disagree with Dee’s point of view on the controversial subject and instead, I would argue that education has no correlation to acknowledging heritage. Personally, I have a high school education and am planning on getting my master’s in education in approximately 2 years. However, my older brother decided not to attend college and instead go straight to the workforce right out of high school. However, just because I have received more formal education than my eldest brother does not mean that I can appreciate our Russian heritage more than he is able to. Appreciating your heritage has nothing to do with your intelligence or education, but rather how you embrace the values bestowed upon you by your cultures. This includes participating in special activities or traditions that have a special meaning to you and your ancestors. Therefore, Dee does not deserve the quilt or can appreciate its value more than her sister just because she had the special privilege of receiving an education. Author Alice Walker sends this message to the reader by successfully implementing a cultural aesthetic into her work that stresses the overall significance of heritage.

Furthermore, more instances of cultural aesthetics being prominently displayed throughout Call and Response is in Nikki Giovanni’s poem titled “Ego-Tripping.” The poem is a beautiful sentiment that is intended to shed light and commemorate African American women and their heritage. Giovanni desires not only the audience to know, but African American women themselves, that their extraordinary accomplishments will not be forgotten nor go without recognition. “Ego-Tripping” takes us through the speaker’s life, starting with her birth in the congo line and going through some of her numerous accomplishments such as traveling over the Sahara Desert. Giovanni ends her poem by acknowledging African American women everywhere by saying “I am so perfect, so divine, so ethereal so surreal / I cannot be comprehended / except by permission / I mean…I…can fly / like a bird in the sky…” (Giovanni, page 1560) These empowering lines Giovanni leaves the reader with are meant to celebrate the struggles of not only the everyday woman but the struggles overcome throughout African African history. She desires to remind the reader that although you may face struggles, your heritage and strength as a black woman will guide you in persevering even the most incomprehensible of misfortunes. She reminds her readers that heritage is responsible for bringing us up and making us the strong women that we are today. Similar to “Everyday Use,” this poem specifically privileges not “high” culture but the cultural production of normal, everyday people. Giovanni does just that by making her work extremely relatable to most women and those of African African descent. I personally resonate heavily with Giovanni’s poem and strongly agree that an individual’s heritage plays a strong role in their ability to overcome and become empowered. My heritage as a Russian Jewish woman reminds me every day that I have something to be proud of and regardless of how much I celebrate my heritage, it should always be acknowledged. Therefore the work Call and Response edited by Patricia Liggins Hill does an excellent job in employing a cultural aesthetic for its readers. The major themes of empowerment and self-discovery are used to create this cultural aesthetic and persuade readers to recognize their own roots as well. Hill successfully does this by including powerful works of literature by well-known authors such as Allice Walker and Nikki Giovanni. Both Walker and Giovanni stress the importance of heritage in their work and force readers to ask themselves what role heritage plays in their individual lives. Both authors remind the audience that their roots and heritage is always something that needs to be embraced, never to be ashamed of or hidden.