Pensively Collaborating

I have come to realize that I don’t hate group assignments, but rather, I have this recurring fear of either doing too much work or too little work. Every time a group assignment is announced, I can feel my heart sink to my stomach because yet again I am placed in this predicament of working with other people. I think it stems from people not working in good faith, or maybe it is the stigma that a vast majority of students share. One thing I would like to point out is that in Professor McCoy’s classes, regardless of it being the Toni Morrison class or the Black Apocalyptic Fiction one, she never (at least I don’t think so) refers to our group essays as that. She has constructed the term collaborative essays, which doesn’t have the negative connotations associated with group essays. 

Speaking of the two classes I have taken with Professor McCoy, it is important to note that before I can get to thinking about collaborations, I must first express that collaboration looks different depending on the people in your group. The collaboration I practiced in McCoy’s Black Apocalyptic Fiction course during the fall of 2022 focused heavily on the people in my small grouping typing the ideas as the rest of us formulated sentences. While we had split up into groups to work on the different moves, nobody could take credit for writing a specific paragraph because all of our voices were interconnected and threaded through the assignment, even though there was one person typing everything up. In that Welles classroom, collaborative writing took on a more bridged tone, but even then, there was the fear of not doing enough in the back of my mind, especially when I thought I wasn’t contributing enough ideas to the typer. McCoy’s collaborations took on a different form when I entered her Toni Morrison course this semester. Though we were still working together in small groups, it felt more independent. We found ourselves breaking off into groups based on the moves we wanted to work on, and even in those groups, I found that we all worked on portions of the move separately, then came together to make sure everything flowed. It felt like I was working on an independent project. As someone who enjoys putting headphones in and just typing away, I thoroughly enjoyed this form of collaboration. Even though it may seem as if we were working on different parts of a team, the collaborative efforts were still visible when we brainstormed at the beginning of the assignment, when we came together to write the last move (the conclusion), and when we revised the entirety of the paper––taking things out and fixing sentence structures––before submission. In this class, the collaboration felt both independent and linked to each of us in the group, alleviating any fears that arose about my work ethic.

Within our efforts to interpret Toni Morrison’s work, the practice of collaboration is evident through her characters. In Beloved, Paul D is imprisoned in Alfred, Georgia. He is chained to the other Black men that are also imprisoned there and they face inhumane treatment throughout their sentence. When a storm hits, they are locked back in their underground boxes and left there, but after several days, the rain and mud loosen their confinements, making escape possible. Since they are still chain-linked, each man must rely on one another, working collaboratively to escape. By pulling on their chains to let each other know where they are going, everyone is able to follow Hi Man’s lead. Morrison uses this representation of teamwork to demonstrate how those men escaped their unfortunate confinement and found their way toward freedom. When they finally break out of the prison, they continue on their way together and eventually run into Native Americans who help them break the restraints. Even then, the men don’t separate right away. Some stay longer than others but they do remain in each other’s presence for a little bit before moving on. One can interpret this form of good-faith collaboration to have had an effect on those men’s lives, allowing them to make it out of the storm. They put their trust in each other and do their part so that escape is effective and successful. From this, I have learned that when members of a collaborative effort trust one another and put their faith in each other, the end result can be liberating. 

As mentioned before, collaboration doesn’t have a clear format, rather, it takes on many different formations. In Morrison’s Paradise, readers are introduced to another form of collaboration. The older generation of men in Ruby and KD come together, congregating around the Oven to discuss the women in the Convent. They go around, putting in their ideologies and beliefs about the women that live there and the women’s role in the events taking place in Ruby. Collectively, these men decide that they have to stage a coup because if they don’t the Convent women’s influence will continue to affect Ruby poorly. As a group, they carry guns to the Convent and attack the women there. In my opinion, this was a form of bad-faith collaboration. While they did come together and talk over their actions before proceeding, they didn’t really listen to the voices of other people in the town prior to that meeting. They ignored the younger generations’ pleas and actions toward autonomy and self-reliance. They ignored Reverend Misner pushing them for reform in Ruby. They even ignore the friendship between Connie and Soane, and all of the good Connie has done for the town. They listen to their twisted words and decide that killing these women would be more conducive to the survival of Ruby than anything else they may have come up with. For all of these reasons, though they took their own opinions and ideas into account, they refused to see the other side of things, making this collaboration rash and futile. 

Working with others in most respects is collaboration, but as one can see through Morrison’s writing, not all collaborative efforts are in good faith. From reading Morrison’s trilogy––Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise––to working in our small groups, I have come to understand the importance of collaboration. One thing I would like to point out is that without collaboration, my ideas would never have been flushed out. I enjoyed taking the first day of collaborations to brainstorm different ideas and pick out quotes from the materials we were using. I remember that for the Purgatorio/Jazz collaboration, I didn’t have a lot to say, especially since we were discussing the structure of Manhattan during the Harlem Renaissance and its connection to Dante’s layout of Purgatory. However, as we continued to bounce ideas off of one another, Genesis brought us back to the idea that during the day, Black people in this novel (and during the Harlem Renaissance) would make their way down Manhattan to work for White people and then back up at night; she also said that the White people would make their way up toward Harlem for entertainment. This spurred our group to think about how mobility both within the City and to the City was possible for the characters in Jazz, which differed from the people in Dante’s Divine Comedy, who weren’t able to enter purgatory from hell and begin repentance through upward mobility. Collaborating with one another also made it possible to organize ideas. I think that when writing without an outline, it can sometimes be difficult for me because I am not sure what to include and what not to include. However, working in the different groups pertaining to each move, I was able to discuss with the other two people what our portion should focus on. It also gave me the chance to fact-check any ideas before writing them down. I remember turning to Izzy during the second collaboration and asking her a series of questions about where Joe and Violet had lived before coming to the City because I didn’t want anything to be imprecise. Izzy then referred back to the book and gave me specific page numbers to use, which was extremely helpful. Working with the same people for three collaborative essays allowed me to get comfortable with expressing my opinions and made the process of writing our last essay much easier since we had perfected our process through the other two collaborations.

Moving away from the topic of collaboration in this class, I think that as I continue on my journey here at Geneseo, I have to take all of the good-faith practices learned with me into my final year here while leaving behind this fear of group work. It is easy to fall into the habit of working alone, but as I am involved in many aspects of campus life, I find that working with others isn’t only prevalent in the classroom, but also outside of it. I have a job apart of Student Life, where I work with two other Student Involvement Mentors (SIMs) to ensure that organizations and clubs at Geneseo can function properly. This position demands a lot of collaboration, with my fellow co-workers, with our supervisor, and with the e-boards of these organizations. In doing so, I have to be able to communicate concisely and clearly. I have to be understanding of other people’s perspectives. And I have to make space and take space while in staff meetings. If I did not have good practice collaborative skills, working in this job wouldn’t be possible because my co-workers and I work closely together, answering emails, registering clubs, and petitioning for pictures to be placed in the Union. We have discovered a great balance in letting each other know when our part is done, while also not stepping on anyone’s toes. We are also very specific about letting each other know when we need something done and what we need.  

By working on this dynamic team, I am preparing for my future career goal. While school psychology may seem like an independent field, especially since most schools only have one, it is my job to speak with parents, teachers, and other faculty members at schools so that students are accessing all of the educational opportunities allotted to them. As I continue to pursue my dreams in this field, I hope to keep everything I have learned from this class, Morrison, and Professor McCoy circulating in the back of my mind so that I can maintain the good-faith practice of collaboration; contribute to the larger community of people in this field––and supporting fields––to better serve the population I choose to work with in the future.

Abandon All Previous Conceptions Ye Who Reads Morrison’s Books

Before the start of this class, before I looked upon the threshold, before my eyes glazed over any words of Dante, I had attempted to read Toni Morrison. I was a high school student, trying to walk through that doorway of adulthood, and I found that the only way to truly understand what it meant to be an adult was to read the stories and authors that everyone else was reading. The first Toni Morrison book I purchased was God Help The Child, and I read about half of the book then I decided that I wasn’t the right audience to enjoy the content, so when I was recommended to read Beloved I jumped at my chance to finally enjoy a Toni Morrison book. I wanted to read it simply because it was seen as a classic, not the sort of classics that we were taught in those days––not the canon––but a classic in its own right. It was a book to read if you truly wanted to be a reader. A book that would open you up to ideas and content you never bothered to read or think about. I was ready for that––or at least I thought I had been. Looking back, I realize that I never cared to read Morrison’s work because of her genius, rather, I wanted to complete it. I wanted to tell everyone that I had read a Morrison book (and Beloved nonetheless). 

I also thought that seeing what the works of a successful Black author were like would help me become the writer that I wanted to be. But I couldn’t make it through the book. I found myself at the threshold, a few pages into Beloved, excited to continue reading, but still not having the mindset or the energy to pick it up and continue. To learn about Sethe or Denver or Sweet Home. To find out if Beloved was the “crawling-already?” baby. To study Morrison’s writing and enjoy her books. I never made it past the third or maybe the fourth chapter (or maybe it was the fourth page), and the book became buried in the crates and bins with all of my other books. Long forgotten until I fished it out in response to taking this class. I was very thrilled to be reading Toni Morrison again, but I found a creeping feeling there that I would get to that initial point in Beloved where I could no longer continue for the sake of enjoyment and it would become a task simply for this class. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to walk through that doorway, that I would be stuck at the threshold. 

However, as we finish up Beloved, I find myself excited to read ahead. I find that first intrigue bubbling back up and encouraging me to read until I have reached the last page. I look back at my initial try and I think it was because I didn’t have peers to contemplate the contents of the book with that stopped me short of enjoying it fully. In the last class, we discussed what circle of betrayers would Sethe, Paul D., Denver, and Beloved fall into. From this discussion, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the main character’s motives and desires. Since Caina is the part of Cocytus dedicated to people who betrayed their relatives, we originally deemed Sethe as a member of this group since she killed her child, and attempted to kill the others––betraying the trust and love of their mother. However, when you take into account her reasoning for performing infanticide––helping her children escape slavery and the life that she had run away from––things become a bit less black and white. With that being said, can one fault her for this? As Toni Morrison said, “[Sethe did] the right thing…but she had no right to do it.” While morally, she had betrayed her children, her husband, and even Baby Suggs, how could she not have had that right when white people during this time period had the right to lynch black people? What is the difference? Where is the law? Taking all of this into consideration, I believe that Sethe may have fallen into this particular place in Cocytus, however, I also believe that Denver could be seen as a betrayer of her relatives––specifically Sethe. Denver has an inkling of who Beloved might be, but she keeps it to herself. She even goes as far as to say that “the choice between Sethe and Beloved was without conflicting,” insinuating that she would choose a stranger over her mother. That she would watch Beloved choke her mother on Baby Suggs’s rock if it meant having company and companionship because Denver refuses to go back to the overwhelming loneliness she felt before the arrival of this stranger. Could Sethe not also find herself in Tolomea––the part of Cocytus dedicated to those who betray their guests? While she doesn’t betray Paul D. or Beloved outright, can’t a withholding of information be indicative of a betrayal? She knew why all of her neighbors and the Black people in the town avoided her and Denver, but she never uttered anything of the unfortunate events surrounding her child’s death to Paul D. She allowed him to remain ignorant in his knowledge of everything and is that not a betrayal? 

Aside from the talks of the Cocytus, I am starting to understand the vast parallels between Beloved and Dante’s Inferno. When we look at the characters who mirror Virgil, acting as a guide for other characters, many people stand out. In Sethe’s life, Amy acted as a Virgil on the night surrounding Denver’s birth, guiding Sethe through the fields toward the house they spent the night in, and even further on toward the boat. Amy protects Sethe from impending death, soothing her swollen feet and beaten back, and making a makeshift sling for Denver. I also thought Amy had characteristics of Charon since she ferried her through the terrain toward the water for freedom, however, looking back now, I think someone who encompasses Charon more would be Stamp Paid. His entire job centers around carrying runaways by boat to Ella and John in hopes of helping them find freedom. He is just as much of a guide (a Virgil), but his job is done when they get across the river, which makes him more akin to the mythological character than to Dante’s companion during his trip through hell and purgatory. I have also come to think of Beloved herself as a guide for Denver. There are things that Denver never bothered to learn about her mother’s time at Sweet Home, but now she finds herself eager to know simply because Beloved wants to know. She also looks to Beloved for everything, including friendship. When Beloved disappears in the shed for a split second, Denver has a fit, not wanting this to be the end of what they have because if Beloved left––truly went back to wherever she walked out of––then Denver would find herself alone yet again and with no one’s company to enjoy. In a sense Beloved is guiding Denver’s loneliness, helping her feel like she belongs not only at 124, but also in others’ company. 

We’ve talked quite a bit about contrapasso’s which, according to Dante, is the idea that the punishment fits the crime equally. In this idea of the contrapasso, Dante the pilgrim believes that those who are in hell deserve to be there due to the makings of their own choices. This idea is brought up in Beloved when Amy is talking to Sethe and she says, “You must of did something,” which is in response to the tree on Sethe’s back. This line alludes to the idea that Sethe’s lashings were a fitting punishment for whatever crime she must have committed to deserve such a thing. This opens one’s eyes to the overall idea of slavery: that enslaved people have committed some crime to have been enslaved, which we know not to be true, but reasons well with Dante’s idea of contrapasso. We can see Dante’s inability to accept other people’s crimes and set them apart from their punishments when he goes through Cocytus. Dante relentlessly asks the suffering souls why they are there––what act they had committed––and then proceeds to pull their hair or threaten them until they tell him. He is neither sympathetic nor caring, not believing that they deserve his pity because whatever life they led is represented by the space they occupy in hell. 

All of this thinking and interpreting brings me to the forefront of this class: how are Dante’s Divine Comedy and Morrison’s Beloved (and Jazz and Paradise) coincide with one another? Is it in the form of the characters themselves? Do Morrison’s characters represent one specific character in Dante’s Divine Comedy or are there just bits and pieces of their characteristics sprinkled throughout Morrison’s trilogy? As we continue to delve into this subject and the course material, I find myself making my connections, not only to the works presented to us but also to the things I have learned in other classes. The scene when Beloved leaves the water reminds me of what happened in Lagoon when the Ayodele walks out of the water for the first time and the two witnesses watch her. While it isn’t the same thing, this can be seen as an alien (Ayodele)––or a spirit(Beloved)––taking root in not only the lives of the characters, but also in the place where everything is happening. As I stand on the threshold of this class, continuing to delve deeper into Morrison’s other works, I hope I can discard my initial thoughts of reading her books just to say I have read her/to say I am a reader of classics. I hope to find further connections between Morrison’s works and Dante’s works, and connect them back to many of the other things I have discussed, interpreted, or come across while here at Geneseo.

From Apokalupsis to Apocalypse

Pre-class thoughts

When I scrolled through the course catalog trying to find a 300-level literature class to take, Black Apocalyptic Fiction immediately caught my eye. Maybe it was the fiction part of the course title that made me stop short in my search and click on the class. Or maybe it was the science-fiction and dystopian implications, I associate with the apocalypse. Or it could even just be the word Black. As a student of color, I find myself looking for representation and diversity within the classes I take. I prefer to read more relatable material––either in the sense of the authors or the characters. Material that I can truly immerse myself into because there is representation of my culture or cultures I have grown up around. So regardless of what initially caught my attention about Black Apocalyptic Fiction, I found myself immediately signing up for the class. The anticipation to get into the classroom, fueled by discussions, was palpable. I vaguely remember having a conversation with a friend about this class and one of the first things they asked was, “what is Black apocalyptic fiction?” I was taken aback by that question since I never contemplated what it might mean or entail. I just knew it was a class I had to take. Even after looking at the syllabus and acquiring all of the books, I still had a very small idea of what to expect that first day. And after attending the first period, I found that the answer to my friend’s question––that quickly became my own question––wouldn’t be answered in the first period or the second; it wouldn’t even be answered in the weeks to come because to understand the connection between apocalypse and this course, I must first understand the term apocalypse.

Apocalypse: The start and the continuation of…

I can’t possibly tell you where apocalypse comes from; when it was first used; what its origin is, but I can tell you its associations. In Biblical terms, the apocalypse is the destruction of the world. It is the end. But I am not a very Biblical person, so this wasn’t my first encounter with apocalypse/apocalypticism. I have always been rooted in media––television shows, movies, and books. When I think of apocalypse within the media, I naturally turn to zombies or a dystopian world. I think about how zombies are bringing about the end of the world for humans, but at the same time, I think about how a dystopian society is built through the near-apocalyptic circumstances of the world before. But with all of these terms and examples of an apocalypse, I still couldn’t fathom its meaning within the course. Would the books be about the end of a world? Would they point to a character/characters needing to escape from the destruction of everything? I don’t think I got a true grasp on the concept of apocalypse until after reading (and discussing) Andrew Santana Kaplan’s “Notes Toward (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought.” In this article, Kaplan defines the apocalypse as a revelation of why “the World needs to end [since] it is cast in error.” In other words, with the destruction of the world comes an understanding of how fallacious the world has become. How important it is that this world ends to make room for what one may consider a better world––or an improved way of living. But as we––the class––continued to discuss Kaplan’s ideas of apocalypse, it became clear that even that definition could be tweaked some more––especially when applying it to the course material. 

I have come to realize that apocalypse––for the most part in this class––has a fluid definition; an ever-changing definition. One that is more abstract than concrete and can always be improved upon––can always be added to. Apocalypse might be an uncovering of something, but it isn’t just the end of the world because that implies that there is only one world––but who can say, especially when looking at the context of fictional reads, that there is only one world; that everything the characters know is all there is to know. So for all intents and purposes, an apocalypse has become the end of a world. Whether that is on a large scale or a more personal level, whether that be the actual destruction of life, or whether that be just the end of a way of living, I cannot say. That is what I am figuring out now, how the many definitions––the many differences––of apocalypse apply to the course materials we have read and the materials we have yet to even start.

Wild Seed’s Apocalypse?

When I first started Olivia Butler’s Wild Seed, I imagined that the characters would be on the verge of the end. That the world would be in chaos and dismay. That there would be shut down stores, people scavenging for survival, and panic thick in the air. But after reading the first few pages, I could tell that that wasn’t the case. I guess it was just easier to float toward this view of an apocalypse since it was the common depiction of apocalypses in media. Even after finishing Wild Seed, I spent a lot of time, trying to connect it to both Kaplan’s ideology of apocalypse and the multi–definition of apocalypse discussed in the class, and that is when I realized why an apocalypse can be the end of something even if it isn’t the end of the world. There are many small moments that take place in Wild Seed that can either be the build-up to the destruction of something or the actual destruction of something––but I find myself still trying to decipher between the two. 

Wild Seed presents me with many different examples of an apocalypse. Doro’s apocalypse––the end of his world––comes rather early in his life, but the reader isn’t made aware of that until towards the end of book two. While going through his transition, Doro accidentally killed his mother and father, along with most of his village. “He killed and killed and killed” until the Egyptians had “attacked the village,” but by that time, Doro had watched his uncontrollable power kill most of the people he had once loved––and even the ones he didn’t love but still considered his kinship. He had watched his world around him erupt in disorder and eventually he had watched it burn. While it wasn’t the end of everything known, it was the end of everything he had once known. It was the end of the way he had lived and the end of his family––his parents that shielded him from the whispers of the village. It was the destruction of his innocence––fueling his need to create settlements for people like him to not only come into their powers but to feel comfortable around their brethren––something he never felt. For Doro, this was an apocalypse because it concluded the life he once lived and began the next life. 

Unlike Doro, Anyanwu’s apocalypse spanned the entire book. I would say that when Doro coerces (threatens) Anywanyu into moving away from her home, her family, and the life she has known, it marks the beginning of the end for her. She is quickly taken away from the life she had built and lived in for more than three hundred years and plunged into a completely different environment. She watched as her beliefs and ideologies were twisted to fit the vision Doro had created. All of the “abominations” she had once considered beneath her she found herself bending to; she married Isaac even though she had called Doro her husband, she eventually took the form of both a white man and a white woman, and she even wore the body of a man and conceived children as such. All of these things she told Doro she would never do, she found herself doing the more she lived and the longer she was on the run from him. This is her apocalypse––the end of the way she once lived; the end of the way she once believed. Keeping in true fashion with Kaplan’s revelation during an apocalypse, Anyanwu is spurred into this ending and changes because she knows that she won’t survive in the world with Doro if she doesn’t adapt. She knows that even if she runs for the rest of her immortal life, she’d never truly be able to survive because Doro wouldn’t allow it. So in order to stay alive, she does the only thing she can, she allows the version of her from that village in Africa to die so that she can flourish in this new world.

I believe that Doro goes through another apocalypse at the end of Wild Seed because, for someone who has lived for several lifetimes, one apocalypse wouldn’t be enough. One destruction of your world, while possible, has to be improbable in some way since you’ve seen so many things die around you. In book three, Doro finds his humanity slowly returning in the love and respect that he develops for Anyanwu, so when she tells him that she plans on dying by suicide, he is left distraught. And for Doro, this is the second apocalypse. He had never cared for someone so much that he changes himself, but somehow he does for Anyanwu. As his world shatters around him, he realizes that if he wants to be a part of Anyanwu’s life, he has to change. He realizes that his breeding and killing would only lead to more loneliness––rather than the family he was striving for. He is then faced with either continuing the life he is leading or changing his mindset and his actions. Doro decides to proceed with the idea of destroying the person he once was, and becoming the person that Anyanwu expects him to be––he no longer kills his people, and while he “could ask her cooperation…he could no longer coerce her into giving it.” Doro changed again after the ruination of the world he had dreamt of. 

Wild Seed, from my interpretation, is wrought with examples of apocalypticism in different ways. While it doesn’t demonstrate apocalypse in the traditional sense, it does demonstrate the uncovering that Kaplan talks about in his article and it showcases the end of something––the end of worlds for people, even as the world continues to exist. From this, I have learned that the end isn’t interchangeable with death, though it can be synonymous in the terms of an apocalypse. With that being said, I look forward to figuring out how an apocalypse plays a role in the other books. We have started reading American Desert by Percival Everett and in that book, I have already started to notice the implications of apocalypticism, but not in the same manner as it was presented in Wild Seed. Because if there is one thing this class has taught me so far, it is that my definition and interpretation of the term apocalypse are evolving every day. It is changing in every context and with each book we read in the class. So while I can’t answer the initial question of what apocalypse has to do with this class at this very moment, I am able to understand the different indications and presentations within books. I am also beginning to understand how to interpret and connect Kaplan’s ideas with the ideas presented in the materials being read.