African American Literature: Repetition and Good Faith

English 337: African American Literature was a course I took this semester with Dr. Beth McCoy. While I’ve taken classes on similar subjects before, this course’s journey into concepts and writing old and new strongly impacted how I view this topic. What made this class as useful in expanding my viewpoint was some recurring topics we discussed throughout, such as the ideas of good vs. bad faith, and the concept of recursion. 

On the first day of class, we were introduced to five epigraphs for the course. From the very beginning, one resonated with me as being very potent, especially for me as a writer. It was by Audre Lorde, taken from the fourth stanza of her poem, “To the Poet Who Happens to be Black and the Black Poet Who Happens to be a Woman.” It reads as follows:

“I cannot recall the words of my first poem

but I remember a promise 

I made my pen

never to leave it


in somebody else’s blood” (Lorde).

    I relate this right back to the concept of good and bad faith. As we explained it in the course, good faith is acting and speaking with truthfulness and respecting others to the best of your ability, while bad faith is the inverse of this. What Lorde is saying relates to that as well. To leave one’s pen in blood is to write with bad faith; drawing blood by not realizing the power of your words and that what you write has meaning. Words and writing carry power, and they can provide provide both so much pain and so much relief. The conscious effort to watch where you lie your pen is to constantly try and write in good faith, and is the cause I hoped to apply myself to throughout this semester. 

    I present the concept of good faith as well as Lorde’s poem when I do is because it’s inherently tied in with repetition in Black history. When we first introduced this concept in class, we were shown an excerpt from 1995 sketch comedy Mr. Show, “The Story of Everest.” The aforementioned skit shows a man coming home to his family to tell his story of climbing Mount Everest, but very quickly, his fall into the shelf holding thimbles behind him quickly becomes the focus of his friends and family. This was my introduction to the concept of repetition, and it still holds as a strong metaphor. An event occurs, and people act and react to it differently, because of the previous iterations of the event. At first, the man’s family helped him out. After the third time, they were annoyed. After the seventh, they simply ignored the problem. It was something we discussed in class at the time, but this same concept of repetition carried through to our understanding of Black history. Linking back to good faith, our class saw this when investigating Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography. In class, Dr. Beth McCoy told how in the past, when fugitive slave narratives were being produced, white people in both the north and south doubted enslaved people’s ability to tell the truth in self written narratives. Thus, many were prefaced by white abolitionists, Douglass’s autobiography being no different. The two men who wrote the preface, William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, claimed that Douglass simply told the facts of slavery, and they were the ones who provided interpretation. Considering this as the first iteration, we can see how this impacted the present by inspecting Call and Response, a near 2000 page anthology dedicated to African American Literature containing the work of many Black authors, edited by Patricia Liggins Hill, Bernard W. Bell, Trudier Harris, William J. Harris, R. Baxter Miller, Sondra A. O’Neale, and Horace A. Porter. In regards to Douglass, this shows why good faith and repetition are, or at least should be, linked. The editors of call in response nixed this existing preface, replacing it with an approximately 3 page narrative on his life and impact of his writing. The editors chose to act in good faith, and “right the wrongs of history,” so to speak, and its an example of what the precedent should be in these repetitive situations. Each new event, each new wrongdoing, is treated differently because of the context of the previous, and nothing provides a better example of this than the last book we read this semester: The Trees. 

    Percival Everett’s The Trees is a thriller mystery novel which covers the story of the Mississippi police departments after a string of similar killings grow progressively more common and expand beyond the small town of Money, Mississippi. The nature of the killings is repetitive. One or more white men killed, and their testicles found in the hands of a previously dead Black corpse. Additionally, the people targeted all have a link with racism. Most are racist themselves, and many have roots with racist ancestors as well. With each killing, the situation gets more and more tense, and new details unravel, eventually leading to mobs of disheveled Black men killing white racists in the streets, a murder in the white house, and a long, ever unfurling list of victims. At first, although gruesome, detectives aren’t terribly alarmed. One character, Sheriff Red Jetty, states, “I don’t give a shit about the blood. It’s the goddamn paperwork,” (Everett, 3). The police weren’t alarmed at the first killing; it was just another day on the job. There was little precaution, it was simply a gruesome, one off crime. It was only after the disappearance of the Black body and its reappearance at a different crime scene that special detectives were called in. Later, after the FBI gets involved and the killings spread outside of Mississippi, the agents on the case show they’ve become almost hopeless to an extent. Rather than providing possibly helpful context, the FBI agent, Herberta Hind, states “…Detective Ho, know that body will resurface. You will see your body again,” (Everett 68). Because of the already existing killings, not only were detectives aware of what would happen next, but the attitude surrounding the killings changed as well. In Everett’s writing, he explains this concept of repetition through the thoughts of Damon Thruff, an academic brought in by the people who are eventually revealed to be behind the initial killings. Everett writes, “They were like zebras, he thought- not one had stripes just like any other, but who could tell one zebra from another?” (Everett, 60). These thoughts, however, aren’t about the murders; they’re about lynchings.

    It would be unfair to discuss the murders in The Trees without discussing the historical context around it, as well as the initial epigraph from Lorde. At several points, Everett brings up the lynchings of the past; one of the characters in the novel, referred to as Granny C, is the woman who accused Emmett Till. Simply using this concept for something like shock value would be bad faith; instead of offering the subject the respect it deserves, using it just to attract to an unrelated novel would be in bad taste. Everett doesn’t do this, however. Moving back to Thruff’s idea of zebra stripes, Everett describes the killings as repetitive and hard to distinguish not to dismiss them. Rather, the description of them blending together is meant to be distressing. The point he is making here is that their similarity and number is exactly the issue with them. Just beyond that quote, Everett describes that this repetition is causing the victims to morph into one singular “being” of sorts, their distinct names and cases forgotten. Everett’s remedy to this is the several page list of names written by Thruff in the middle of the book (Everett, 64). In class, we went through and googled several of the names and read their cases. All of the names, and their attached cases, were real. This shows how much research Everett put in, as well as the level of care and attention to the issue. By taking his proper precautions and giving respect to those who have passed, providing powerful historical background and writing in a way that honors those victims, Everett has made this same promise as Lorde. He’s not letting his pen lie in blood, he’s writing in good faith by showing his respect towards the topic.

    In my writing and understanding for this course, I had kept both the idea of recursion and good or bad faith in mind. In plotting out what I was going to say for this reflection initially, I considered simply discussing the epigraph to discuss good faith, and Everett’s novel to talk about recursion. Only in writing this did I see their link, and why we should be so concerned about the idea of recursion, and why it requires good faith actions. Preventing something bad that’s already happened from happening again, or at the very least atoning for the previous iterations, is acting in good faith. The fact that in African American history, we see a pattern of racism and violence towards Black people shows that this good faith is still not held by much of the white population. My journey through this course was defined by these concepts, the ideas of repetition and good faith, and I feel The Trees, a very strong novel in its own right, served to help unpack these concepts and summarize what I had learned. The killings in Everett’s novel wouldn’t have been prevented if the detectives acted in their best faith. Rather, its because of the events of the past, and the victim’s perpetuation of the cycle that causes these killings. Thus, its so very important to leave one’s pen not lying in blood, as Lorde says, because pens and worse have drawn enough already.

Call & Response: Folk Aesthetic and Repetition

    The anthology of “Call & Response,” written by various authors, is a massive 1,000 page collection of various essays and stories, placed into the format of just what the title states: a call and a response. Although contributed to by dozens of different authors, the anthology expresses some clear cut ideas on cultural “aesthetics” through the content contained within, as well as the structure of the anthology itself. 

    One of the biggest ideas of culture this anthology reinforces is the idea of this casual, or personal culture. The idea that culture is found in simple places, and isn’t exclusively something high or artful. The simplest way this was shown to me was in the first call of the book: the call for deliverance. This section was entirely made up of various oral works, such as the idea of the shout (31). The format of the shout was that the “leader” would sing a single stanza twice (the walk), before the chorus would sing the shout. This and other examples authors brought up provided a clear and simple image of what people wanted; what “the call really meant.” I think this was why this anthology was arranged this way; immediately show the reader what is meant by the idea of the call, and in a sense “show off” one of the most important aesthetics in the anthology. By placing this much simpler form of culture, one thats much more personal to a group and already familiar to a reader, it gave me a good entrance point to the book. It also provided some necessary cultural background for me. While the readings as a whole helped, the section descriptions of slavery and oppression provided at the start of the call provided some insight for the basis of what was to come in later sections. Particularly, the line “the weak must assert themselves against the strong…” on page 18 put the whole section into frame for me. The idea that the culture from Africa was not dead, the idea that “power” could be reobtained, and that enslaved persons knew this gave everything I read in this section proper meaning.

    The story of “Everyday Use” that we explored in class also reinforced some of these ideas of a “folk” aesthetic; that culture comes from the everyday person. Right off the bat, we know our narrator isn’t some highly educated “high society” type of person. She admits to not having an education, her house is described as being smaller, and the story is riddled with small clues that tell you the kind of background this person comes from (1721). However, she and her family still exemplify a facet of culture in a way; the passing down of ideas. In particular, a quilt is passed down from the narrator’s mother, however, it still shows the concepts of culture. It was also a link we made in class, however, I wanted to point out the concept of repetition also being important to culture as a whole. As discussed earlier and in the section also mentioned earlier, much of African folklore could be seen in the culture of enslaved persons, and this is sort of a repetition as well. I would argue this concept also ties in with the concept of cultural nationalism. As defined by Wilson Center Digital Lab, cultural nationalism is the concept of using culture to cement a place in society. This is in a way breaking up that repetition, but also using it to one’s advantage as well. As discussed in classed, when things repeat in culture, it morphs slightly, or is seen in a different context due to the previous cycles. In Everyday Use, the quilt being passed down will have a different meaning for each of its owners, just as culture will have a different meaning in each time period for the people who are a part of it.

    The format of the book was also something I wanted to discuss. I think it’s a highly effective way to organize the writing. At a surface level, it separates the anthology into “eras” of sorts, which makes it easy to approach and for the reader to relate to their knowledge of existing history. But again, I relate it back to this idea of repetition, and I think the organizers (possibly unintentionally, although I won’t doubt their competence) structured it in a way so that we could see this sort of cycle. The book starts out with a call, and that call has a response. At first, the call is the oral traditions and their     meanings, and the response to that becomes the call for independence. This call and response loop of a problem arising, and the response being the sort of “acting” on that call, that problem. The fact that there is always this new call, and always the need for a response, is a good way of exemplifying the struggles this book details. 

    All in all, I think Call & Response presents a very humble sort of idea of culture, and uses it to support the ideas and concepts of cultural nationalism. The concept of repetition was also very important to the anthology, and helped exemplified the necessity for these responses.