The Both/And of Collaboration Through the Eyes of Toni Morrison

The practice of collaboration is one that far exceeds the classroom setting. Whether it is coming together to solve a workplace problem or simply sharing the load of a particularly difficult task, collaboration is a technique that will be with us far past the Bailey classroom that holds English 431. In class, collaboration focuses around the in-class essays that groups would equally work on, consulting one another and contributing ideas. In a perfect world, the share of the work would be equally distributed. Toni Morrison’s trilogy, BelovedJazz, and Paradise, were the primary focus of each essay. With such a heavy focus on Morrison’s work, it makes sense to look towards the wise author for an analysis on the both/and of collaboration. 

            It is important to first look at the collaboration process itself and the expectations surrounding working on a reflective essay in a group before dissecting how such a collaboration could be seen in a both/and context. In the guide, Reflective Writing, authors Kate Williams, Mary Woolliams, and Jane Spiro discuss the importance of finding your voice in reflective writing; they state: “since the focus of reflective writing is you, your thoughts and development, your readers want to hear your ‘voice’” (Williams, Woolliams, and Spiro, 27). I originally believed that working in a collaborative environment would make it difficult for me to share my voice and ideas to the extent that I wanted to. I believed my voice would be hidden in an essay with six to seven other writers. I am the type of writer that likes to sit down and allow all my words to flow out, sometimes in one big rush, and other times in slow spurts here and there. Since elementary school, I was taught that writing was individual. I became comfortable writing alone, sometimes consulting a professor for edits, but besides that, only trusting myself in finding what I wanted to say. In my mind, if there were multiple voices, my voice would be nonexistent. However, I was shocked by how once we reached the third collaborative essay, our voices began to flow and I felt heard and empowered by my group members. We discovered that it worked better to divide up paragraphs. We remained in discussion with each other in the process, making sure one paragraph would flow into the next. I felt heard and in sync with my peers. However, this is not exempt from the both/and way of looking at this process. While I felt heard, and believed that my other peers were working in good faith, the workload did not feel equally distributed among everyone. Members frequently missed group meetings and while I was nervous about hearing my voice in the paper, they did not seem to attempt to share their voice. I did not want to feel as if my voice was being pushed to the side and ignored, but I also did not want to only hear my voice in discussion with two or three peers. In a collaborative essay, all of our voices should have come together in harmony, at equal volumes, to create a work of art instead of being too concentrated by some. While this was frustrating, the majority of my group members contributed so many wonderful ideas and paragraphs, that we created an essay that was a product of multiple voices distributed evenly among those who wished to contribute. There is no right way or wrong way of collaboration. There is no good and bad. These ideas are evident in Toni Morrison’s work which highlights that not everything can be black or white, that there is no correct way to do one thing, and that minds are meant to be changed.

Each of Morrison’s works in her trilogy work to reveal that no one incident can be seen as truly good or truly bad and that sometimes the acts that we view as inherently evil, may not result in the justice we see fit. There is no one correct way that justice can be enacted either, as everyone has a different definition of what justice is. Toni Morrison’s stance of the idea of both/and is truly highlighted in her The New York Times discussion of her novel, Beloved, in which she states that Sethe’s murder of her infant daughter “‘was absolutely the right thing to do,… but she had no right to do it’” (Rothstein). While Sethe performed a heinous act, as a mother, she believed it was the only way to protect her child from a bleak, painful future that Sethe herself had. A murder as an act of selfless love on paper sounds like a contradiction, but Morrison shapes the character of Sethe without judgment, and traces this one act, and its consequences, across the entirety of Beloved. This act can both be terrible, cruel, and incomprehensible, and at the same time, be an act of love that puts Beloved’s life into consideration. In Sethe’s own words, speaking on the act of killing Beloved, Sethe reflects: “She had to be safe and I put her where she would be. But my love was tough and she back now” (Morrison 236). In Sethe’s mind, there was only one way to keep Beloved safe, and while it is an act that is traditionally unforgivable, it did not stem from aggression or violence. Sethe had experienced years of trauma inflicted by Schoolteacher and was put through pain and torture. In her mind, the death of Beloved was an act of love in order to protect her child from the torture she herself had to endure. Sethe’s actions cannot be judged out of context. She is not simply a mother who killed her baby girl. Sethe performed what she believed was a selfless act out of love. This scenario is Toni Morrison’s most significant case of both/and. Yes, Sethe is a murderer, but she is also a protector. She killed and she saved. Sethe is not a good mother or a bad mother, she is simply a mother.

Death seems to act as a quiet throughline through Morrison’s trilogy. In Jazz, a focal point of the novel is the murder of a young girl, Dorcas, by her older lover. At first glance, it is easy to assume that the lover, Joe, is deserving of a justice that entails imprisonment, suffering, any sort of pain that could equate to the loss of a young life and the effects of that act on her family. Somehow though, at the end of the novel, Joe living a happy life with his wife, Violet, seems deserved. Morrison artfully crafts Joe to also be seen as the victim of his love affair that had such an unfortunate, painful end. In the first few lines introducing Joe, Morrison explains how Dorcas’ aunt “found out that the man who killed her niece cried all day and for him and for Violet that is as bad as jail” (Morrison 4). Dorcas’ aunt is able to consider Joe’s suffering as punishment enough for the death of her niece. While Joe was the one who inflicted the pain upon Dorcas’ family, he was also caused to suffer. Joe’s impulse to kill Dorcas was rooted in his own pain, his own jealousy that Dorcas was no longer interested in him. Morrison does not make excuses for Joe, but she does give enough explanation of his background and his feelings to make the reader second guess their initial hatred and judgment towards the character. While it is easy to hate Joe for his actions, it becomes easier to also understand his motives and sympathize with his pain as well. Joe is not evil, but he is also not innocent. Morrison allows these two claims to live in harmony as she constructs Joe, not as a good man, but not as a bad one either. Through artfully crafting the character of Joe, as she did Sethe in Beloved, Morrison continues to show readers that not everything is black and white.

Collaboration is another practice that leaves no place for quick assumptions or judgment, as it offers an environment that allows for open discussion and the practice of good faith efforts. This analysis of the both/and of the collaboration process can be transferable to collaboration in the future in life outside of Geneseo. Working with others is unavoidable, but also allows for personal growth and is something that should be embraced, not shied away from. Collaboration was the overarching theme of this class and guided the workings of forming some of the most important thoughts of the Morrison novels. It was in discussion with peers that I was able to form a deeper understanding of the novels and foster my own ideas and opinions on the writing. As I now approach graduation, my work in this class has equipped me with the tools of working with others and has shown me the wonders of group work. When I look back at my years in college, I do not know if I will remember the words of Dante or the exact scenes crafted by Morrion, but I will remember coming together with my classmates in English 431, working together to create something beautiful that I could be proud of. 

The Eagle Has Landed: The Arrival of Justice in Ruby

Cheyanne Carney, Rachel Cohen, Mia Donaldson, Kyra Drannbauer, Mar Leeman, Kathleen McCarey, Marie Naudus, Aubrey Ouderkirk, Owen Vincent

Toni Morrison’s novel, Paradise, is the third and final novel of her trilogy. Similar to how she built Beloved and Jazz to parallel the works of Dante, Paradise can be set against Paradiso to create a conversation between the two works. In Dante’s Canto XIX the Eagle of Divine Justice appears to Dante the Pilgrim to discuss the true meaning of justice. They conclude that just because you cannot perceive it in your human body, it does not mean that justice is not there. The Eagle says that Divine Justice is not comprehensible to mortals (Canto XIX, 99). It says that rulers who claim to be Christian are not actually Christians because they do not follow the word of God. The portrait of the Eagle shows its eye represented by David while each star of its eyebrow is representative of a different man who relates to the Bible: two Christians, two Jewish people, and two Pagans. Each one has a different perspective on religion. It is interesting to look at something 2000 plus years old and the different views on it. This can be helpful to understand how people today have different interpretations on modern day issues. Morrison pulls from this idea to show how people have different interpretations of the Oven in her novel. David founded the Judaean dynasty which will eventually diverge into Christianity. Constantine worked at the council of Nicea to decide what books belong in the Bible and in what order based on what is important to the image Christianity is trying to put forward. People can take passages from the Bible to back up their arguments while twisting them for their own use. The second Christian, William II of Sicily, led a Crusade and died for his faith. Hezekiah was granted a longer life by God after he prayed to remind Him of his Jewish faith. Trajan, one of the Pagans, being a Roman Emperor, granted a widow compensation for the death of her son and wrote to Pliny the Younger wanting to know how to handle Christians in his empire. He had wondered if he should execute young Christians and sacrifice them to an idol was enough to control them. The final man represented in the eyebrow is Rhipeus, a pagan as well. Rhipeus was a Trojan war hero who Dante claims was given a vision of Jesus before Christ’s coming. He died defending his city from the Greeks. Rhipheus is also a character in Virgil’s famous work, The Aeneid;  “uniquely the most just of all the Trojans, the most faithful preserver of equity; but the gods decided otherwise” (Aeneid II, 426–8). These men followed Christian teachings and practices without always being Christian, leading them to become part of the Eagle of Divine Justice. 

The Oven in the center of Ruby holds a special significance for all members of the town. Originally built by the residents of Haven, another Black town founded before Ruby that forced the founding families of Ruby away due to their comparatively dark skin, the Oven was taken apart and moved to Ruby piece by piece when the fifteen families moved out of Haven to found their own town. After being moved to Ruby, the Oven was rebuilt incompletely; the plaque on its  lip is now incomplete, and the residents of Ruby cannot agree on what the original writing read. The plaque reads “Furrow of His Brow”; older residents claim that the original text read “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” while younger residents prefer to interpret the leftover text as “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” When it was built in Haven, the Oven was a vital resource to the town; all the families used it for their daily cooking, and eventually it became an important gathering place for the entire community used for weddings, meetings, and baptisms (111). The Oven shifts its purpose after the rebuilding, a symbolic gesture of the origins of the Convent, yet the rebuilding of the Oven signifies something much larger than a simple plaque with the motto of the community: the Oven represents the separation of the men and women within Ruby, both physically and metaphorically. The only community members to move and reassemble the Oven were men, while the women resented the decisions to prioritize the Oven over the resources they needed for the community. The act of rebuilding it allows for an idolization of this symbol, a sign of devotion that only the men who participate could wear, and an opportunity for a power dynamic of the separated. Seneca describes the change represented by the Oven as the following: “A good thing, she thought, as far as it went, but it went too far. A utility became a shrine (cautioned against not only in scary Deuteronomy but in lovely Corinthians II as well) and, like anything that offended Him, destroyed his own self” (103-103). What once stood for a symbol of a unified community now separates it.

The Oven has become a focal point for the town of Ruby, a place for residents to meet and gather, and has offered them guidance through the inscription written on the lip. The inscription, which has faded over time, has become a source of debate between the young and old generations of the town. In the meeting of the town at the oven, Richard Misner speaks to the   crowd, telling them their main priority was “‘clarifying the motto’” (Morrison 86). As this is a source of great tension, Reverend Pulliam finds offense in the term “motto,” declaring the inscription is a “command,” stating matter of factly that the inscription is “‘not a suggestion; [it’s] an order’” (Morrison 86).  The specificity of the language used around the inscription of the Oven highlights the intensity surrounding the debate on what exactly is written on the Oven. While the older generation is adamant that the inscription is “Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” the younger generation interprets it as “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” The older generation is outraged by the suggestion that instead of Beware, it reads Be The. Upon hearing the younger generation’s interpretation, Nathan Dupres declares: “‘You can’t be God’” (Morrison 87). The older generation is afraid of the power the younger generation is giving themselves in their idea of what is written on the Oven. The older generation believes that if the younger generation thinks the Oven is telling them to “Be the Furrow,” that they will play God and begin to question the power of the older leaders of Ruby as well. To refute this idea, Destry, a representative for the younger generation, calmly states: “‘but we are obeying Him. If we follow His commandments, we’ll be His voice, be His retribution” (Morrison 87). Over time, as the inscription faded, the hold the Oven has on the people of Ruby has lessened in the younger generations. The younger generation of Ruby has a looser interpretation of the inscription, symbolizing their break from the harsher standards that the older generation has put in place. Later in the novel, the story of Zechariah and the inception of the Oven is revealed, including its original inscription of “Beware the Furrow of His Brow.” Zechariah created this command that was “more than a rule. A conundrum” that had “multiple meanings: to appear stern, urging obedience to God, but slyly not identifying the understood proper noun or specifying what the Furrow might cause to happen or to whom” (Morrison 195). The inscription was meant to instill fear and pressure an allegiance to God, forcing the younger generation to follow in the lead of the older generation disguised as a devotion to God. While both interpretations are practically the same, the perspectives that the two generations hold present the main conflict. The older generation maintains a strong devotion to God and fears that if the younger generation begins to question the wrath of God and their allegiance to him, they will also question the older generation. The older generation uses fear to remain in power and quotes the inscription as evidence for their laws and beliefs. The debate over what is written on the Oven is not so much about the actual words, but what the two interpretations would mean in terms of power dynamic in Ruby. 

The relatively minor differences in how the characters of Paradise understand the oven’s engraving speak to the constraints of language itself; these syntactical disagreements are relatively minor—amounting to no more than a few words different—but speak to much larger social differences between them. Language is tangled up in everything that we do: we use language within every sphere of human understanding, from maintaining interpersonal relations to seeking justice. Our dependence on this limited medium not only lends itself to pitfalls, but also to a necessity for collaboration in order to reach a synthesized understanding. In the case of Paradise, the Oven’s readers undergo an extended form of collaboration in order to reconcile an ongoing, intergenerational disagreement about what exactly is written on the oven. The process of rebuilding the Oven involves disagreement, disillusion and, ultimately, distrust, as a consequence of generations worth of language-based misunderstanding. In an argument with Delia, Patricia beckons: “Did [the older women] make you welcome right away, or did they all wait for the Oven to be reassembled or, the following year, when the stream came back, baptize you just to they could speak to you directly, look you in the eyes” (Morrison 200)? Conversations about the Oven are tied not only to the object itself, but also to intergenerational dramas; characters’ feelings about the object cannot be separated from the complicated feelings they harbor toward both those who built and rebuilt it. 

Is it possible for the citizens of Ruby to truly move beyond their own worldviews towards a community that advocates for all? It is clear that every perspective the reader perceives within the novel itself is limited by the character’s internal biases and opinions. For example, the older generation, particularly the men, are unable to accept that the younger generation have different perspectives on the future of their community. This is exhibited through the inability to come to a possible compromise on the inscription upon the Oven’s lip. It is not merely about placing oneself in a position of power, but rather what it represents to each generation. One of the older members of the town notes, “That was the deal Zechariah had made during his humming prayer. It wasn’t God’s brow to be feared. It was his own, their own. Is that why ‘Be the Furrow of His Brow’ drove them crazy?” (Morrison 217). In this way, the founding generation and their subsequent children cannot truly be so different. They both seek to protect their sanctuary of Ruby from malevolent forces of whiteness and colorism. However, once the town is finally established and safe, “a town which has ninety miles between it and any other” (Morrison 3). Moving past their earlier ideas of being the fearful furrow of their own brow, the older generation is completely confused as to why the younger generations will attempt to bring this back. To the older generation, the Beware is a symbol of their defiance against a society that oppressed them. Dovey thinks to herself at one point, “[the] ‘Furrow of His Brow’ alone was enough for any age or generation. Specifying it, particularizing it, nailing the meaning down, was futile. The only nailing needing to be done had already taken place” (Morrison 93). The younger generation has a similar view, in a way. They believe in a more active form of protest and justice than the elders of the town, who believe that they will remain safe if separated mostly from the outside world. In addition, the town as a whole cannot comprehend the thoughts and actions of the women who seek out the Convent. The Convent is practicing worship in a way incomprehensible to the townsfolk, in collaboration and harmony with one another. Whether it reads ‘Be’ or ‘Beware’, the men of Ruby still live by the Oven’s words when they set out to systematically hunt and kill the women of the Convent. The citizens of Ruby crave the power and justice associated with the Eagle, but ignore his condemnations of those who claim to be Godly men and use this power for evil deeds. 

Upon reflection, however, it is difficult to imagine a truly just and satisfying end to any of the works within Morrison’s trilogy itself. Justice is a powerful ideal, exhibited by the Eagle, but is it possible in any of these circumstances? Toni Morrison artfully crafts her works in the trilogy consisting of Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise, in a way that highlights that justice is not always the outcome. The definition of justice is complex as it is, though Morrison adds layers to an already difficult interpretation. Throughlines of justice connect the three novels. In Beloved, the reader is left questioning how they can support a character like Sethe, a woman who killed her daughter out of mercy. Morrison creates Sethe in a way that leaves the reader in turmoil, knowing why Sethe did what she did but not sure if they can support the act itself. Jazz revolves heavily around justice with the novel focusing on the murder of an innocent girl by her older, married lover. In the novels, the actions of the characters are morally wrong and should be unforgivable, but the way in which Morrison writes her characters makes the reader question their own morals and definitions of justice. She is able to build empathy within Paradise through the ostracization of the women in the Convent, offering realistic characters with complex backgrounds such as Mavis, a mother who leaves her children in the car while she grocery shops and returns to find them dead. Although Mavis committed this horrible act, readers can empathize with her because Morrison shows her as more than just her crime; she is a real person with real emotions. Morrison handcrafts these characters that speak to the readers, creating authentic storylines that force the audience to self-reflect on the decisions they would make if they were in the character’s shoes. This examination of love and justice being statements that must coexist is impactful for readers who might see them as inherently contradictory.

It is surprising to us that our interpretation of the trilogy has changed in such a drastic way. As a group we came to the conclusion during our last group endeavor that love was the main theme and throughline throughout Morrison’s trilogy. Now, it is clear that Morrison’s works center on an idea of justice that might be impossible to attain, and certainly is for her characters.  Are we then as readers to simply accept the Dantean explanation, “And so the vision granted to your world/can no more fathom Justice Everlasting/than eyes can see down to the ocean floor” (XIX, 58-60)? The simplest explanation may be that we cannot fathom what the characters within the trilogy are experiencing. We may catch brief glimpses into their thoughts, see their hopes, fears, and shame. But we will never experience being in these impossible scenarios as Black men and women in situations where justice must be served but would abuse them even more. Morrison’s unique perspective and incisive exploration of the ideal of Justice in contrast to real-world implications is particularly impactful in forcing readers to reexamine our concept of justice.

Love in All Its Terrible Forms: 

Throughlines in Toni Morrison’s Trilogy and Dante’s Divine Commedia

Aubrey Ouderkirk, Mar Leeman, Kathleen McCarey, Kyra Drannbauer, Cheyanne Carney, Mia Donaldson, Owen Vincent, Rachel Cohen, Marie Naudus

In Dante’s Purgatorio, once Dante the Pilgrim has escaped from Hell with Virgil, he enters the Island of Purgatory. The island is broken up into three sections, consisting of seven total terraces of purgation. These three sections of Purgatory Proper revolve around three variations of love: Misdirected Love, Deficient Love, and Excessive Love. Movement in Purgatory is only permitted upward, and shades climbing up the mountain of Purgatory to ultimately reach Paradise. Once a soul enters the Gate of Purgatory, they enter into the zone of Misdirected Love, which consists of three of the seven terraces. These three terraces, in order, are The Proud, The Envious, and The Wrathful. Continuing the climb, Deficient Love holds only one terrace, The Slothful. The third section, containing the final three terraces, is Excessive Love, holding The Avaricious and Prodigal, The Gluttonous, and The Lustful. A soul cannot move upwards through Purgatory without purgation; repenting for their sins in life until they are free of sin and ready to enter Paradise. This upward movement through purgation is similar to the movements of Joe Trace through Manhattan and his own forms of purgation in Toni Morrison’s Jazz

The map of Manhattan can be compared to the Island of Purgatory; notably, the shape of Mount Purgatory mirrors the map of Manhattan quite well. The borough of Manhattan is broken into various neighborhoods, and in our class discussions it was noted how many maps of Manhattan left out Harlem and East Harlem, which sit above the Upper West and Upper East Sides respectively. Harlem and East Harlem were frequently left off traditional maps due to their high populations of Black residents. Throughout the novel, Joe moves from these predominantly Black neighborhoods in uptown Manhattan, down through the borough, and back home to uptown. The way that Joe has to move down through the boroughs mimics the pattern of movement through Purgatory. In order to move up Mount Purgatory, shades can only move during the day and can only move up the mountain faster if loved ones pray for them, much like how Joe receives forgiveness and support in various forms from his loved ones in order to move up his own Mount Purgatory. As Joe moves throughout Manhattan, mapping Purgatory onto the city and drawing parallels between Jazz and Purgatorio helps the reader understand how Joe’s movements emphasize his growth as a character and his movement towards Paradise at the end of the novel. Joe moves through intense stages of love, jealousy, and repentance in order to receive the forgiveness he needs from himself and Violet to move forward in his life, in love, and in the search for his Paradise.

Joe undergoes some of the most dramatic and violent growth of all the characters in the novel, and movement up Mount Purgatory can be mapped onto both his actions and his physical movement through Manhattan. Joe’s connection to Purgatory is first reflected in his seven changes throughout his life before he meets Dorcas; the number seven is repeated several times in Dante’s Purgatorio. Mount Purgatory consists of seven terraces, each of which correlate to one of the seven deadly sins. Souls have seven letter P’s carved into their forehead by an angel when they enter, and a letter is removed for each sin they purge and terrace they pass. Each of Joe’s seven changes represent the purgation of a vice, and they directly follow the order of the terraces of Mount Purgatory. According to Joe: “The first time [I changed] was when I named my own self, since nobody did it for me, since nobody knew what it could or should have been” (Morrison 123). The first terrace of Purgatory purges the sin of pride, and Joe’s decision to name himself frees him from his pride. By choosing his own name and therefore his own identity, he separates himself from a sense of pride that could come from the name and from his parents, who left him as a baby with another family. The second time that Joe claims he changes is when he is taught to hunt and track as a young man. He and his adoptive brother, Victory, are selected by a very skilled local hunter as an apprentice, and this selection satisfies a need in Joe for a father figure in his life. A lack of a father figure was a significant source of envy for Joe as a child and young man, and having someone in that role purges Joe of his envy, directly mapping to the progression of the terraces of Mount Purgatory. With each of his subsequent changes, Joe moves higher up the mountain and closer to paradise. 

The seventh and final time that Joe changes is when he purges the penultimate sin of excessive love: lust. In order to free himself from his sin, and in jealousy, Joe kills Dorcas, the object of his lust. Dorcas provides another parallel between Joe and Dante the Pilgrim, since both characters meet the object of their affections at the peak of their own version of Mount Purgatory. In Canto XXXII, Dante meets Beatrice, a woman he loved in life. Dante says that “My lady, you know all my needs, and how to satisfy them perfectly” (29-30). This sentiment echoes how Joe feels about Dorcas, as he says that he is so enthralled by Dorcas that he feels like a new man: “I couldn’t talk to anyone but Dorcas, and I told her things I hadn’t even told myself. With her I was fresh, new again” (Morrison 123). While Joe ultimately purges his sin of lust by killing Dorcas, unlike Dante in Purgatorio, the parallels between Jazz and Purgatorio in movement and purgation establish Joe’s growth as a character as his movement up his own Mount Purgatory. 

Joe’s movement—both physical and emotional—also imprints onto the people around him, namely the women in his life. Many of his marital problems with Violet stem from her decision not to have children, though both she and Joe are fond of them; “They liked children. Loved them even. Especially Joe, who had a way with them” (Morrison 107). Violet herself is not a mother in the traditional sense of the word, rather caring mainly for her birds before Joe’s attack on Dorcas. After, she falls into a deep depression, losing what little lust for life she had, moving through her days mechanically instead of making herself confront her emotions. Before she leaves for Dorcas’ funeral, she lets her birds out of their cages, setting them free onto the streets of New York City. They all leave almost immediately, with the exception of her most beloved pet, the parrot. Violet doted on the animal to such an extent that Joe becomes jealous. In fact, it refuses to leave for many days before it disappears; “She tried not to look at him as she paced the rooms, but the parrot saw her and squawked a weak ‘Love you’ through the pane” (Morrison 92). Joe’s jealousy is the most dangerous emotion one could feel; it is more destructive than his lust and his manifestation of love.

Joe consistently exhibits jealousy from a young age. When confronted with his own adoption by his brother, he remarks: “‘they got to pick me out. From all of you all, they got to pick me.’” His conflicting emotions concerning Violet do not inspire jealousy, at least not in the beginning of their marriage. He meets Violet, marks her as a life partner, but he doesn’t seem to love her, not in the way he becomes enamored with the idea of Dorcas later on. He notes that he doesn’t blame Violet for loving him, but his hesitancy to become open with another person means that their relationship is inherently static. While Violet and Joe grow apart, they fall into a rhythm he quickly becomes discontent with. Dorcas is someone revolutionary to him, or at the very least the idea of her. When she rejects him, he protests to himself, arguing, “I know you didn’t mean those things you said to me. After I found you and got you to come back to our room one more time. What you said I know you didn’t mean. It hurt, though” (Morrison 132). Joe cannot accept that perhaps Dorcas doesn’t have the same stakes and goals in their relationship, so he hunts her. Why wouldn’t he, if it worked with Violet? Joe is actively pursuing the girl he loves, a goal he insists isn’t harmful. He justifies, “she might think it’s jealousy, but I’m a mild man… she’ll be all alone. She’ll turn to me. She will hold out her hand, walk toward me in ugly shoes, but her face is clean and I am proud of her” (Morrison 183). Dorcas, however, has not chosen Joe in this way, and doesn’t react how he wishes. He stalks her to a party, and becomes confused when he observes her with a boy her age. We don’t see Joe’s perspective on this scene, however, but rather Dorcas’. Dorcas, as she dies, thinks, “he’s here. Oh, look. God. He’s crying. Am I falling? Why am I falling?” (Morrison 192).

Joe’s major sacrifice is not even his own, but rather an attack on his teenage lover. He loses someone he loves, but he has no right to steal Dorcas’ life from her. In Dorcas’ case, Joe’s emotions—his jealousy, his frustration with Violet, his listlessness—and subsequent action—murder—have fatal consequences. Dorcas acts explicitly as a guide for Joe, but at the expense of her own agency and, ultimately, her physical form; where Joe can repent because he remains alive, Dorcas’ capacity for repentance is stripped from her as a consequence of Joe’s emotional disarray. This is another significant way in which Dorcas can be seen as analogous to Virgil in Purgatorio; both Virgil and Dorcas served as guides for repenting characters, yet neither of them receive the ability to live or repent themselves, providing more throughlines between Jazz and Purgatorio. When Joe reflects on his relationship with Dorcas, he acknowledges the betrayal he enacted against Violet, and that he viewed Dorcas as an object that incited significant and necessary change in his life:  “I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it. I saw you and made up my mind. My mind. And I made up my mind to follow you too… I talk about being new seven times before I met you” (Morrison 135). This connection is, in Joe’s estimation, remarkable and physical, to such an extent that he sees it as a form of religion: 

“‘I looked at your knees but I didn’t touch. I told you again that you were the reason Adam ate the apple and its core. That when he left Eden, he left a rich man. Not only did he have Eve, but he had the taste of the first apple in the world in his mouth for the rest of his life… You looked at me then like you knew me, and I thought it really was Eden, and I couldn’t take your eyes in because I was loving the hoof marks on your cheeks” (Morrison 133).

 Joe needs a Virgil-esque guide to show him the way up and out of Purgatory, but he romanticizes Dorcas into a twisted form of a guide to the point of objectifying her. Since he can no longer see Dorcas as a guide to follow up and out of Purgatory, he finally sees her as the thing pulling him down, and decides to kill her. In conversation with Dante, both Dorcas and Violet parallel the figure of Beatrice; Joe abandons Dorcas and continues living, but he also betrays her in life through infidelity, much like Joe and Violet. And, like Dante, Joe is initially listless without his source of guidance: “Strange as it was, people finally got used to him, wiping his face and nose with an engineer’s red handkerchief while he sat month after month by the window without view or on the stoop, first in the snow and later in the sun” (Morrison 118); “We found ourselves without Virgil… All the delights around me, which were lost / by our first mother, could not keep my cheeks, / once washed with dew, from being stained with tears” (XXX: 49-54). While Joe undergoes guidance and, eventually, repentance through his highly physical relationship with Dorcas (as a misguided response to his wife’s plight), this trajectory relies on his stealing Dorcas’ life and body: ““Somewhere in Springfield only the teeth were left. Maybe the skull, maybe not… No lips to share with the woman she had shared them with. No fingers to lift her hips as he had lifted others. Just the teeth exposed now, nothing like the smile that had made her say, ‘Choose.’ And he did” (Morrison 86). In Beatrice’s words: “‘Still, so that you may truly feel the shame / of all your sins—so that, another time, / you will be stronger when the Sirens sing— / master your feelings, listen to my words, / and you shall learn just how my buried flesh was meant to guide you in another way’” (XXXI: 43-48). When Joe chooses to uphold his relationship with Dorcas, seeing it as a source of physical and spiritual guidance, he also chooses to neglect his relationship with Violet and, ultimately, chooses to deprive his guide of her own body. This action is the ultimate form of love-driven betrayal, and thus requires a great deal of repentance: “‘penitence poured forth in guilty tears’” (XXX: 145). The purgation of lust-driven violence fulfills the requirements of the final terrace of Purgatory, allowing Joe to move out of Purgatory and into Paradise. 

Joe’s emotions, specifically within his intimate relationships, can be related to Dante’s three different types of love—misguided, deficient, and excessive. Morrison uses love as a throughline in both Beloved and Jazz to show how each can affect relationships for the better or for worse. Jazz opens with neighbors talking about Joe’s actions, driven by misguided love. Joe and Dorcas’ relationship falls into Dante’s misguided love, particularly the all consuming nature of Joe’s adoration and lust. This also ties into the idea of excessive love, where Joe simultaneously makes consistently poor decisions and justifies them to himself. Dante perhaps expresses this best when he writes, “now you understand / how much my love for you burns deep in me, / when I forget about our emptiness / and deal with shadows as with solid things.” (XXI: 133-136). Joe’s relationship with Dorcas inherently harms his marriage, with his love for Dorcas being that which eclipses much of his emotions for Violet. His affair that takes place within the shadows feels much more tangible to him than the life he’s actively worked to build. He thinks to Dorcas; “Just for you. Anything just for you. To bite down hard, chew up the core and have the taste of red apple skin to carry around for the rest of my life” (Morrison 134). Therefore, the most logical conclusion for his character is either to fully repent or exit the story altogether. He chooses the former, although it is unclear if this is for his own sake or for Violet’s. Much like Dante chooses to embark on his journey through Mount Purgatory, so too does Joe decide to repair his relationship with his wife. He’s certainly not perfect by any means, but “the will to rise, alone, proves purity:/once freed, it takes possession of the soul/and wills the soul to change its company” (XXI, 61-63). Joe Trace must choose his own path of love to follow. 

As Dante enters the level of Deficient Love, Cacciaguida, Dante’s great-great-great grandfather, explains the extent of loss Dante will encounter on his journey through exile:  “You shall leave everything you love most dearly: / this is the arrow that the bow of exile shoots first. / You are to know the bitter taste of each others’ bread, how salty it is, and know/how hard a path it is for one who goes/descending and ascending others’ stairs” (XVII: 55-60). Dante must first experience extreme loss before he gets to experience Excessive Love, the third level of love within Purgatory. Much like Dante, Joe Trace has to understand the gravity of his choice of “descending and ascending others’ stairs” (XVII: 60). As Dante moves through the three levels of love, Joe does as well; ascending and descending the staircase of all the relationships he feeds into: falling in love with Dorcas and then murdering her, marrying Violet and then cheating on her, causing Violet to fight for him in his relationship and in turn, the “bitter taste” of making her turn into “Violent”. The parallel between Joe Trace and Sethe within Beloved lies within Sethe’s relationship with Denver; Denver longs for love she will never receive from Sethe, as she is too focused on putting all of her love into Beloved. Denver and Violet both long for love from someone unwilling to give it to them, instead having Joe Trace and Sethe “descend and ascend” other staircases that benefit their own needs. Sethe is continuously “descending and ascending” the staircase within 124, experiencing the different levels of love through her relationships with Paul D, Denver, and Beloved: Paul D represents Misguided Love with his longing for a child of his own, Sethe represents Deficient Love in her relationship with Denver by neglecting her needs in order to give her attention to Beloved, and Beloved receiving the unrequited love from Sethe represents Excessive Love.

Love itself serves as the throughline throughout Morrison’s trilogy. Sethe, from Beloved, shows all three types of love with the people around her. Her relationship with Paul D is misguided, as they are involved for the wrong reasons. They channel all of their energy into reflecting on the past and Sweet Home, building a bond based on trauma. Eventually, Paul D wants to have a child with Sethe to fulfill his need to have some kind of ownership over her. His intentions are selfish and eventually Morrison will show that misguided love is not sustainable as their relationship comes crashing down. Sethe’s love encompassing Beloved can be seen as excessive; it drains her. Sethe is quite literally obsessed with Beloved and starts to neglect her day to day life and her motherly obligation to Denver. Similar to Dante’s deficient love, this then forces Denver to begin fending for herself. Much like Joe and Violet, Sethe ignores the love she already has in pursuit of another, less satisfying relationship, one that inevitably ends in tragedy.

By drawing connections between Jazz, Purgatorio and ultimately, Beloved and Inferno, we are learning how to “join the conversation,” as noted in the course syllabus. As most of us don’t have any experience with Dante, and often more limited experience with Morrison’s work, it can feel incredibly daunting to make bold assertions across cherished and respected texts. Embarking upon complicated analysis as budding scholars requires boldness, but also discussion; working with texts in conversation with one another also necessitates that we converse with one another. This sharpens skills not only in textual analysis, but with synthesizing varying ideas within a large group. We found ourselves presented with a huge number of ideas—after all, each reader will glean something slightly different from a given text. 

A Guide For ThinkING in English 431

Kathleen McCarey

Dr. Beth McCoy

February 9, 2023

Thresholds Essay

431 was enticing. English 431: Toni Morrison’s Trilogy, that is. Standing at the threshold of graduation, I already completed all of my requirements for the English major, but alas, I could not imagine a semester where I did not have an English class. We’ve already discussed in the few weeks of this class the idea of a life perseverer, something to grasp onto for dear life in times of uncertainty or when you seem to have lost your way. For me, my English classes here at Geneseo have been that life perseverer. When I become overwhelmed with school or athletics, I have always been able to ground myself in an English reading or think back to a particular lesson in class to distract me from an outside stressor. Having previously taken a class with Dr. McCoy, I knew English 431 was a class where I would be pushed to truly be thinkING in my studies. I relished in the idea of returning to a classroom where I could be stimulated in intellectual discussions, where myself and my peers were held to high standards that helped us to achieve the kind of conversations that resulted in leaving class feeling accomplished and having further enhanced our understanding of the text. This is the level of thinkING that I crave. Already in these first few weeks of class, this course has started me in the act of thinkING about Toni Morrison’s Beloved as a stand alone novel as well as its relation to Dante’s Inferno.

            Prior to starting Beloved, I had no knowledge of what the book was about. When I discovered that it would be used in conversation with Dante’s Inferno, I could not even begin to guess how these two seemingly unrelated works could share anything in common. However, I trusted that although I did not see the connection now, I would be guided and led caringly to see how intricate Morrison’s work was to include elements of Dante’s Inferno. This sense of having a guide would come to act as one of the life preservers of the two authors’ coupling of ideas.

            The elements of guides are heavily present in Dante’s Inferno and Morrison’s Beloved and was one of the initial connections that got me thinkING of the texts together in relation. At the threshold of Dante the Pilgrim’s journey in “Canto I”, he is unsure of the path to take and lost in the woods of hell, is met with beasts. Virgil speaks calmly to the lost pilgrim, stating: “I think it best you follow me/for your own good, and I shall be your guide/and lead you out through an eternal place” (Dante 112-114). Lost in hell, Dante the Pilgrim relies on Virgil as he guides him through the inferno. The element of guides is present throughout Morrison’s own work. While the setting may not be an obvious hellscape as the one depicted in Inferno, the characters in Beloved need assistance in navigating their own personal levels of hell.

            In connection to Dante, the first obvious character who Morrison provides with a guide is Sethe. Having first been guided to the river by a runaway whitegirl by the name of Amy, the sick and frightened Sethe and her newborn baby are found by Stamp Paid. Like Dante the Pilgrim alone in the woods of hell relying on the help of Virgil to save him, Sethe has no choice but to place her trust in Stamp Paid. He takes her to Ohio and “he helped her up the steep bank, while the boy without a jacket carried the baby who wore it. The man led her to a brush-covered hutch with a beaten floor” and says to her “‘Wait here. Somebody be here directly. Don’t move. They’ll find you” (Morrison 107). From Amy to Stamp Paid, Sethe and her baby are entrusted in the care of Ella. Sethe is able to escape the hell that is Sweet Home and rejoin her children and mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. The beasts that Dante had to face are no match for the horrors inflicted upon Sethe by Schoolteacher and the other white men at Sweet Home. However, Dante the Pilgrim’s remark of hell as “a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer./But if I could show the good that came of it/I must talk about things other than good” resembles how Sethe struggles with returning to the memories of the torture she endured at Sweet Home and instead focuses on her happy memories when she reconnects with Paul D (Dante 7-9). Sethe recounts how Sweet Home had a “shameless beauty” and how “it never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too” (Morrison 7). Morrison’s artfully crafted work demonstrates the true meaning of hell on Earth. While Dante the Pilgrim is forced to navigate the depths of hell, Sethe must live her life in conditions comparable to hell. Both Dante and Sethe are led out of their suffering by guides who show them the way and lighten the load they are burdened with carrying. 

            While Paul D acts as a guide steering Sethe towards happiness in the opening of the novel, he also relies on a guide in his escape from enslavement, his own hell. While enslaved in Georgia, Paul D is chained to forty-five other men, all forced to work under hellish conditions. The men look to one enslaved man to guide them, Hi Man. Paul D recounts how he “believed to this day that the ‘Hiiii!’ at dawn and the ‘Hoooo!’ when evening came were the responsibility Hi Man assumed because he alone knew what was enough, what was too much, when things were over, when the time had come” (Morrison 127-128). Paul D and the other men look to this man to guide them when they themselves must endure the cruelest of punishments. It is Hi Man who ultimately leads them to their freedom as well. Paul D explains how “someone yanked the chain – once – hard enough to cross his legs and throw him into the mud” and how “one by one, from Hi Man back on down the line, they dove. Down through the mud under the bars, blind, groping” (Morrison 130). The men follow their guide blindly, believing that he shall lead them out through hell and into freedom. Paul D says how he and the other men “trusted the rain and the dark, yes, but mostly Hi Man and each other” (Morrison 130). Similar to how Sethe’s three guides led her out of enslavement and into the welcoming arms of her children and mother-in-law, Hi Man led the men who were chained to him, enduring the same hell on Earth he was, out of the depths of hell and into the light of freedom. 

            Just as how Morrison and Dante provide their characters with guides to lead them into freedom, the life preservers in the class that Dr. McCoy provides, enhances the understanding of the text, and offers a light at the end of the tunnel. When Morrison or Dante can seem difficult to comprehend, returning to themes such as love and justice, which were discussed in the first few class periods, as well as themes of guides and thresholds, provide a sense of understanding. As Paul D had blind faith that Hi Man would lead him out of their own personal hell, I feel as though I can place my trust in the good faith practices of this class to be guided to understandings of the connection between Dante and Morrison that I may not fully understand this early in the semester. 

Garden Eggs or Apocalyptic Easter Eggs?

Savannah Burley, Hallie Edic, Iris Kahris, Kathleen McCarey, Marie Naudus

Nnedi Okorafor’s novel, Lagoon, takes place in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. Okorafor blends many Nigerian traditions into her work and makes the setting a key focal point in the narrative. In the novel, garden eggs are mentioned frequently and come to be an integral piece of the conclusion. Garden eggs are a type of eggplant popular in African countries. Additionally, “garden egg is used as a less expensive meat substitute because its spongy texture allows it to absorb other flavors, similar to meat” (Mangan). The garden egg is significant to many African cultures, it is often shared at special events and given as gifts as they represent fertility, friendship, respect and are a sign of a welcoming community. When Adaora is trying to make her new extraterrestrial friend, Ayodele, feel welcomed in her home, she discovers that her new companion enjoys garden eggs specifically. Adaora notes how “Ayodele had eaten every scrap of food Adaora placed before her… commenting the entire time how enjoyable it all was” (38). When Adaora questions Ayodele about if the food was satisfactory, Ayodele specifically notes her pleasure in consuming the garden eggs. In later scenes, Ayodele can be found enjoying the vegetable. In mid conversation, Adaora describes how Ayodele was “happily munching on a garden egg” (42). Ayodele is new to culture in Lagos, but already is attached to the local cuisine. The garden eggs in the novel first operate as a way for Ayodele and Adaora to grow their friendship and later are used as a way to show how the novel operates under the terms of apocalyptic fiction.

Our Black Apocalyptic Fiction class is centered around novels that connect to apocalyptic ideas. When examining how Lagoon fits into this category, it is important to first define apocalypse. Commonly, apocalypses are defined as, “an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale.” However, in relation to this course, our class has defined an apocalypse as the complete, final destruction of the world. In the novel, multiple characters discuss the events that are happening around Ayodele as the apocalypse. When Fisayo witnesses the video of Ayodele addressing the Lagos community, she thinks: “this is the rapture, the apocalypse, the end” (129). Fisayo cannot wrap her mind around what is happening and assumes that it is the sign that the world is coming to an end. However, Agu has a differing way of comprehending the event. When his cousin questions him about whether he thinks “‘this is the end of days,’” Agu responds with a hard “‘no’” (151). Despite whether or not the characters view the events as apocalyptic, the clear destruction of the city, alien invasion, riots, and monsters coming to the surface, it is clear that this novel falls under the genre of apocalyptic fiction.

 By the end of Lagoon, it is clear that garden eggs become a crucial part of the plot and can connect directly to how the novel operates under the genre of apocalyptic fiction. Our class discussion, which defines apocalypse as the destruction of a world, can fit into the novel by the way in which Ayodele’s death brings about a vast change in the civilians of Lagos, destroying their notions of the original world and creating something new. When Ayodele is dying in Adaora’s arms, the alien musters the strength to speak to her friend: “‘You people need help on the outside but also within… I will go within… Adaora… let go of me’” (268). Ayodele enacts change in the world that Adaora knows. She relates how they will “‘all be a bit… alien’” before she slowly dies, using her final breath to state simply: “‘Garden eggs. Nothing better’” (268). Ayodele dies thinking of a happy moment: eating garden eggs. Garden eggs have made a great impact on her and connect her to her friend, Adaora, who shared the vegetable with her originally. After Ayodele’s death, Adaora notes “a faint tomatoey scent of… garden eggs” and was “overcome with a craving for garden eggs” (269). Ayodele’s spirit enters into all the people of Lagos, forever becoming a part of them. In this sense, Ayodele can be seen at the katechon for the apocalypse. The katechon withholds the apocalypse and has positive connotations. In the Andrew Santana Kaplan article, “Notes Towards (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought,” Kaplan defines the katechon as “the restrainer [that] holds back the end of the world” (80). It is Ayodele’s mission to stop the destruction she sees happening in Lagos. Lagos needs change due to the people and government destroying themselves. With this understanding, the thing that is destroying the world is not the aliens like would be commonly thought, but the Lagos government and people themselves. Ayodele sees the way in which the people of Lagos are destroying themselves, and in order to put a stop to this destruction, she places a piece of her soul into each individual in the city. Adaora credits Ayodele and her people “‘being catalysts of change. Wherever they go, they bring change’” (158). Adaora views Ayodele as the positive force she claims to be. By entering into the people of Lagos, Ayodele is using her last efforts to help, as she says, on the outside and within. 

The events that took place in Lagoon connect to the idea of apocalyptic fiction and strengthens our understanding of what it means to be in a class called Black Apocalyptic Fiction. Lagoon shares many common themes with the previous books we have read thus far in the class. Similar to Wild Seed and the characters of Anyanwu and Doro, the characters in Lagoon also share god-like powers. Anthony, Agu, and Adaora all possess powers that differentiate them from common people, which is the reason Ayodele chooses them as the three people who are swallowed by the sea. In this sense, while Ayodele deems herself the ambassador, Anthony, Agu, and Adaora become almost prophets. These three are chosen to announce the upcoming apocalypse, whether or not they view the matter as apocalyptic or not. Ayodele’s ability to transform into other people and animals are also shared with Wild Seed’s Anyanwu. Connecting the novel to other novels we have seen in this class helps to strengthen the understanding of how Lagoon can be read through the lens of an apocalyptic work of fiction.

Works Cited

Mangan, Author(s): Frank. “Garden Egg.” WorldCrops, 27 Jan. 2017,  

Okorafor, Nnedi. Lagoon. Saga Press, 2016

Santana Kaplan, Andrew. “Notes Towards (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought.” The Comparist, vol. 43, Oct. 2019

Sule, Fati. “The Bittersweet Wonders Of The Nigerian Garden Eggs!”

Tsalal: A Beacon of Hope?

Written by: Sage Kearney, Kathleen McCarey, Marie Naudus, Kya Primm, Isaac Schiller, and Owen Vincent

Merriam-Webster defines denotation as “a direct specific meaning as distinct from an implied or associated idea.” Conversely, Merriam-Webster defines connotation as “something suggested by a word or thing or the suggesting of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it explicitly names or describes.” To better understand the difference between denotation and connotation, we can think of the common phrase, “that is just how the cookie crumbles.” Should the phrase be interpreted based on its denotation, one might expect for the ways in which a cookie falls apart to be explained. However, when interpreting this based on its connotation, the speaker is referring to an unfortunate event that there is no foreseeable solution to. To give a clear example, if you miss the RTS bus here at Geneseo, a common response by a defeated, yet resigned, student could be to say “well, that’s just how the cookie crumbles.”

The tensions between connotation and denotation in Mat Johnson’s novel, Pym, reach their climax as the reader is introduced to Thomas Karvel’s “paradise.” As Chris stumbles upon Thomas Karvel overlooking the interior of his world, Chris inquires about how Karvel views change and how he has come to create his own sanctuary. Karvel replies, “No. There is only one look. There is only one vision. Perfection isn’t about change, diversity. It’s about getting closer to that one vision” (251). The connotation revolving around this statement is that Karvel wishes to extinguish all diversity and keep his world white. He values whiteness over all else and has his world mirror this belief. If only analyzing the denotation, the reader could interpret this as an innocent if not singularly focused display of artistic vision. Karvel says. “No, what I’m still creating is the land itself” (251). In doing so, he claims that he is only designing a room to manifest his artistic vision, but, he is actually creating a world  in which there is only whiteness and, by extension of whiteness, perfection. However, an analysis of the connotations at play reveal a discriminatory message as it highlights his obsession with whiteness. This “one vision” belongs to him; he believes that all of the best things on Earth are in his dome and happen to be white. His vision, at first glance, is jumbled. However, Karvel clarifies his intentions when he states that he’ll “never leave the U.S. of A” (236). Karvel is striving to create an ideal America, while removing any non-white context from these “components.” While Karvel and Chris are defending the 3.2 Ultra BioDome, the arctic snow monkeys are rapidly approaching but Karvel doesn’t notice them: “‘I don’t see anybody. Are you sure somebody is there?’” to which Chris responds, frustrated, “‘There, right there, in front of your face’…not even aware of my tone” (263). The denotation of this is that Karvel could not distinguish a white figure against a white canvas in Antarctica. The connotation however, would be that Karvel cannot comprehend whiteness as anything impure or as a threat. The culmination of all these events cause Chris to become wary of the motives of white individuals, humans and arctic monkeys alike. 

Chris’ physical and ontological assaults from an all white world propel him to an all Black world, Tsalal. Once he discovers what he believes to be Tsalal, Chris explains the image he sees as a man “shaking his hand in the air, waving it, and we, relieved, waved ours back” (322). The novel ends with Chris stating how “on the shore all I could discern was a collection of brown people, and this, of course, is a planet on which such are the majority” (322). Chris is able to see Tsalal as a symbol of hope due to his prior experiences. In the opening scene, Chris recounts how he was fired due to his refusal to join the diversity committee and was denied tenure. Chris explains to his replacement: “‘The diversity committee has one primary purpose: so that the school can say it has a diversity committee. They need that for when students get upset about race issues or general ethnic stuff… People find that very relaxing’” (18). Chris views his role at the university as being a token, used only for his race. These experiences are not isolated in America, but can be seen in his experiences in Antarctica as well. Upon interacting with Mrs. Karvel, Chris acknowledges: “I often forget to some I actually look ‘black,’ not just ethnically but along the ‘one drop’ line…in that sense, Mrs. Karvel’s discomfort with my presence as a Negro was more comforting to me than the trepidation I often feel not knowing how I will be perceived” (239). Chris vocalizes to the reader how he is constantly in a sense of discomfort over how his race will be interpreted by others. This discomfort comes to a head when Chris realizes Thomas Karvel’s unhidden trepidation: “it was just that, clearly, the six of us were more startling to him presently than the one unfortunate Tekelian who was no doubt that moment ravaging Karvel’s stores of frozen pastry products” (273). Chris notices that Karvel is more comfortable with the presence of a seven foot snowman than he was with the other black human’s in the room, further highlighting his desire and favoritism for whiteness. All of these accumate to Chris’ worldview being one of skepticism regarding white intentions. 

These events can work to show how Chris views his arrival to Tsalal as a positive outcome. A world where he cannot see any whiteness upon his approach is a welcome change for him. This vision provides hope and the prospect of no longer having to question white intentions which have proven to stem from selfish motives. Chris views the connotations of the individuals of Tsalal waving as welcoming and can only imagine a positive outcome upon arriving to the island because it does not appear to be touched by whiteness, and thus is viewed as a place of refuge for Chris. However, there are other connotations that readers can see from this scene. The waving can come across as unwelcoming, a signal for Chris and his crew to turn around and leave. His eagerness to want to be accepted by this group can blind Chris from any danger that could actually be on the island. The individuals may not want Chris to corrupt them. We believe the waving on Tsalal and its ambiguity to be an overarching signifier to represent Western views, more specifically those that have affected Chris throughout his life in America. Chris views this final interaction as positive because he is seeing a land that has not been affected by whiteness. However, they may not accept him because of the way he has already been affected by the same system he is trying to escape. He has been so affected by American views on race that he does not recognize that there is more to acceptance in society than being judged by it.

The Apocalypse Through a New Lens

Kathleen McCarey

Beth McCoy

September 26, 2022

Essay 1

When first registering for a class called Black Apocalyptic Fiction, I was met with some hesitation. I am an anxious person, and I feared that possibly the subjects of the novels that were required in such a class would be too intense for me to handle. Having grown up in an era where my peers were obsessed with The Walking Dead or movies like Zombieland, the word “apocalyptic” always brings forth to mind images of half-dead creatures, bloody bodies, and eerie settings that work to make the audience uneasy. Of course, in my mind, anything apocalyptic had to fall into the category of horror. Despite my worry that this class was not for me, I pushed aside my hesitation and registered anyway. The course readings thus far, to my delight, are not ones that I would categorize as being in the horror genre. While American Desert does revolve around a character who is neither alive or dead, it is enough for my faint heart to handle. The works that I have completed in the class, Andrew Santana Kaplan’s “Notes Toward (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought” as well as Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, have caused me to question my own understanding of what apocalyptic fiction truly is. The Santana Kaplan article and Butler’s Wild Seed have caused me to rethink and evaluate how I view and interpret apocalyptic fiction and what can be categorized as such.

Andrew Santana Kaplan’s work, “Notes Toward (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought”, provided me with a new level of understanding of the word “apocalypse” and its relation to Afro-Pessimism, an idea I was not at first familiar with. I found this article difficult to work through and I frequently had to reread and lookup words. I struggled through this article, read it again, and struggled a bit more. Luckily, class discussion the following day provided some relief when I heard my peers shared the same experience. The Santana Kaplan article left me trying to figure out numerous elements of the idea of the apocalypse. Before enrolling in Black Apocalyptic Fiction, my understanding of the word apocalypse was merely the end of the world. Santana Kaplan notes that despite how the word apocalypse is used interchangeably with the destruction of the world, the word itself means to “uncover” and how for the apostle, Paul, “apo-kalupsis names the unveiling of the messianic event and the passing figure of this world” (81). Santana Kaplan goes on to explain how the crucial element of the apocalypse is the revelation, “which shows that the world needs to end because it is cast in error” (81). While I worked through this article, I came to understand that the Afro-Pessimistic approach to the apocalypse revolved around the idea that in order for the effects of chattel slavery to be rectified, the world would need to end. The article also presented the idea of the “katechon”, or how Dr. McCoy explained it in class, the restraining force on the antichrist. This was yet another layer that developed my understanding of what exactly a class on Black Apocalyptic Fiction would entail and what relation the apocalypse had on the texts that would be discussed in class. The Andrew Santana Kaplan article granted me with starting blocks that I could use while growing my understanding of what exactly apocalyptic fiction looks like and its relation to the Black experience.

The article, “Notes Toward (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought”, was especially helpful in examining Octavia Butler’s novel, Wild Seed, through the lens of Black Apocalyptic Fiction and its relation to the apocalypse as a whole. The setting of Wild Seed, which is not a barren wasteland or zombie infested city, does not resemble my original understanding of an apocalyptic world. I was left to figure out how Anyanwu’s seventeenth-century village in Africa, and later nineteenth century America, could be seen as an apocalyptic world. However, my understanding of the apocalypse was flawed. A world that needed ending did not have to be the physical world, it could be an individual’s personal world, their life. I was constantly rethinking how I understood the apocalypse through my reading of Wild Seed. The character of Doro, a being able to inhabit bodies, as well as Anywanu, another character possessing powers who is not exactly human, provided me with a way to work through how an apocalypse could be individual. Doro’s creation story in itself is apocalyptic, having died and then being resurrected. Butler sets the scene by writing how “he was thirteen when the full agony of transition hit him” and how “his body had died, and for the first time, he had transferred to the living human body nearest him” (189). This human body was his mother’s. Doro ultimately killed every living person in his village, destroying the world he had grown up in. His body had died, his people had died, and the world in which he was so familiar with was now destroyed. To rectify the emotional damage he caused, Doro led the rest of his life building an army, a family, of people to surround himself with and to create his own world. However, Doro created this new world through the death and misery of others. Anywanu, unhappy with the killing of innocent people, acts as the driving force against Doro’s mission. When reading Wild Seed with the ideas presented in the Santana Kaplan article, Anyanwu would act as the katechon. Anywanu, however, faces her own apocalypse when her world ends as well. In the final scene of the novel, after Anywanu has finally agreed to spend her eternity with Doro, relinquishes the final piece of her identity before Doro: her name. Butler writes how “she became Emma Anyanwu. ‘It will give people something to call me that they can pronounce’” (298). In this moment, Anywanwu finally opens up to the possibility of a new life by allowing herself to connect with others, not shielding herself from the companionship of new individuals. Anyanwu strips away her protective walls and comes to be known by a European name as a way to set up roots in America and restart her life. If I read Wild Seed without reading the Santana Kaplan article prior, I would not have been able to explain how Wild Seed could fit into the genre of apocalyptic fiction. 

After reading “Notes Toward (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought” and Wild Seed, I am left trying to figure out how the other novels in this class will shape my understanding of what apocalyptic literature can look like. These texts have already equipped me with key terms and ideas that I will be able to transfer to my critical reading of the novels that follow. At this point in the class, I am curious to see if the rest of the fiction that I read in Black Apocalyptic Fiction will depict apocalyptic moments seen in Wild Seed or if I will be reunited with my original images of how I understood the apocalypse to look like. Regardless, I know that my definition of what I see as apocalyptic fiction will continue to mold and grow, leaving me with a drastically different interpretation than the one that I entered the class with.