Final Reflection Essay

MOVE 1 – Percival Everett’s The Trees

I will be analyzing Percival Everett’s novel, The Trees, to explore what I have learned this semester and how it has impacted my thoughts and ideas on both life and literature. Throughout this piece, I will connect course concepts to the themes established in Everett’s novel. One of the main course concepts that I will circle back to is the idea of literal and figurative repetition. The literal repetition found in The Trees would be the repetition of the method behind each of the murders described in the novel. The murders consisted of barbed wire wrapped tightly around the neck, brutal beating of the body, mutilation of the testicles, a gun shot to the head, and a dead Black man accompanying each murder scene. Each murder was gone about in an almost identical way to bring attention to the greater atrocities that went unnoticed in America for decades. Everett’s mysterious character, Mamma Z, tracked every lynching in the United States since she was born in 1913, totaling up to an inconceivable 7,006 lynchings of 7,006 individual Black Americans. This horrific redundancy of 7,006 unjust lynchings exposes America for its rooted history of violence and racism, which brings about the figurative repetition that I mentioned before. 

An integral concept revisited throughout the semester is the idea of straddling the line between what is right and wrong. In Everett’s novel, detectives Ed, Jim, and Herberta straddle the line of morality as they investigate and uncover the truth about the killings in Money, Mississippi. The detectives have a duty to the government to arrest those who disobey the law. In The Trees’ case, the detectives have an obligation to put away those involved in the killings of White Americans. However, the detectives also have an internal responsibility as Black Americans to defend their fellow Black Americans. In the novel, Jim found out that Gertrude was involved in the killings of racist White men in Mississippi whose ancestors were involved in lynchings. Although Jim had an obligation to his job to arrest Gertrude, he instead brought her back to Mamma Z’s house to continue to uncover the mysteries of the unsolved murders. These moral, internal conflicts and outlooks on justice serve as the causes of many difficult decisions that Ed, Jim, and Herberta had to make throughout the novel. 

MOVE 2 – Lucille Clifton’s surely I am able to write poems

I have chosen to analyze and explore the following epigraph in relation to my reading of The Trees, by Percival Everett:

“surely i am able to write poems 

celebrating grass and how the blue

in the sky can flow green or red

and the waters lean against the

chesapeake shore like a familiar

poems about nature and landscape

surely        but whenever I begin

“the trees wave their knotted branches 

and…”      why

is there under that poem always

an other poem?” 

-Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton’s poem, surely I am able to write poems, interested me because Clifton’s attention is brutally interrupted as if she is too distracted by something to finish a line, a thought, or an idea. For example, “and the waters lean against the / chesapeake shore like a familiar / poems about nature and landscape” (lines 4-6). In the first two lines, Clifton is about to compare the waters of the Chesapeake shore to something similar until she is suddenly transfixed on other poems about nature. Clifton’s train of thought is interrupted in another instance where she writes, “surely        but whenever I begin” (line 7). This white space signifies to me that Clifton is unable to maintain focus on her thoughts because she appears to be too busy thinking about “an other poem” (line 11). I wonder if Clifton is working to emphasize how many poems sound the same or have the same idea hidden within them. This reminds me of the brutal, discouraging fact that although every lynching is different because it involves distinct individuals with unique lives, passions, and backgrounds, each murder is blended together with another within the word “lynching”. Although the word “lynch” has a distinct meaning (an extrajudicial killing by a group), there are a multitude of different aspects to consider when distinguishing one lynching from another. One has to take into consideration who is performing the lynching, who is being lynched, who is affected by the lynching, how the lynching is performed, and a myriad of additional aspects. I believe Clifton is emphasizing the sad reality that although poems can be written by authors in their own way, they will forever be grouped together with other poems coinciding with the same theme, idea, or memory, no matter how unique the author attempts to create it. 

A strong message ingrained in The Trees is the power of names. Damon Thruff, an intellectual writer, is tasked with going through all 7,006 lynchings that Mamma Z has recorded, and writes a book with a new perspective: outrage. When Mamma Z and Damon Thruff first met, Mamma Z was surprised that Damon was able to “construct three hundred and seven pages on such a topic [racial violence] without an ounce of outrage” (Everett, page 152). From the start, Mamma Z challenged Damon to write about racial violence in a meaningful and passionate way. Mamma Z taught Damon how the unknown names are more of a name than those who were able to be named because, “a little more than life was taken from them” (Everett, page 215). This powerful message of the novel emphasizes the fact that life was not the only thing taken from the lynched men and women. To be unnamed means to be forgotten, and Mamma Z and Damon are trying their very best to remember the men and women so wrongfully and brutally expelled from life. By the end of the novel, Damon became captivated in his new devotion as he worked on his book with complete focus on avenging all of the Black Americans who were unjustly lynched in America. 

MOVE 3 – Classroom Ideas and Concepts

Dr. McCoy emphasized the importance of “attending to how things are framed and packaged” (class notes, 2/28) in writing pieces. Therefore I will unpack how The Trees was framed by Percival Everett. Firstly, the novel’s main setting was in Money, Mississippi where Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old Black boy who was kidnapped, tortured, and lynched by White men who accused Emmett of offending a White woman. This White woman, Carolyn Bryant, is depicted in The Trees as Granny C, an old lady who “always looked a little sad” (Everett, page 6). We find out later that she feels this way because she is constantly reflecting on the horror she set in motion in 1955: accusing Emmett Till of offending her. In the novel, Granny C died from the shock of looking at the disfigured, lifeless body of a Black man that was fixed in her room. From her perspective, a quick glimpse of this dead Black man instantly reminded her of Emmett Till, and she too became lifeless. In fact, the entire town, including the detectives, was afraid that the ghost of Emmett Till was taking his revenge on the racists that ended his life. 

Throughout the semester, the class has been returning to the theme of sustainability. Firstly, we examined this concept literally by exploring a heating plant and studying the triad of ways to maintain sustainability: social, environmental, and economic. Secondly, in a small group discussion, my classmate pondered the idea of the sustainability and unsustainability of race depicted in Everett’s novel. It is apparent that Everett is portraying the visceral need for White Americans to sustain their race by eliminating that of the Black race by any means possible. It can also be argued that Black Americans are working to sustain their race by defending themselves against the racists that poison America. This battle of the sustainability of race is deeply fixed in America’s history and Everett illustrates this battle by creating a fictional, yet realistic world of “what if’s”. 

MOVE 4 – Perspectives Gained

One key takeaway from this class and especially from Everett’s novel is that a reader must always respect an author’s artistic vision. My peers and I questioned the frequent use of the n-word in Everett’s novel, as we felt that it was thrown around with an empty meaning throughout the novel. We learned that Everett is working to characterize the many racist White characters in his novel. It is hard for us students in Geneseo, New York to believe that there are so many people who continually use the n-word in their dialect, especially in 2022. However, the fact is that Everett is emphasizing that not only is the problem of racism and violence still present in 2022 America, but in some places it is expanding inexplicably. 

My peers and I also questioned Everett’s endgame with his novel. Was it Everett’s artistic choice to create the novel in such a confusing and overwhelming way? What is the purpose of Everett ending the novel in the way that he did? In the end, America has mobs of vengeful Black and Asian Americans storming the streets and attacking racist White Americans. I believe this ending makes readers think about the “what if?”. What if all of those unjustly treated rise up? What if all of those misrepresented rise up? What if all of those discriminated against rise up? What if all of those who lost family members to racism rise up? The amount of people who would rise up would be immense, and America may not be able to redeem itself for the horrors of its history. Another possible purpose of Everett’s novel’s ending would be Damon Thruff. Damon is still typing profusely by the end of the novel and does not even notice the detectives who have walked into Mamma Z’s house. Perhaps the reason Damon is continually typing is to signify that the killings may never stop and for that reason, Damon will never stop typing the names of those lost.

MOVE 5 – So What?

From both Lucille Clifton’s poem, surely I am able to write poems, and Percival Everett’s novel, The Trees, I am learning to apply these lessons in real life. A concept that I am battling with after taking Dr. McCoy’s class and after reading The Trees is the distinction between good faith and bad faith. Good faith relies on persuasion to convince someone to agree with you whereas bad faith relies on intimidation or coercion to convince someone to agree with you. Throughout the book, the reader is faced with the question “is murder justice?”. It is difficult to answer this question as a White American because I have never experienced discrimination because of my race. Therefore, when I try to step into Gertrude’s shoes and determine if the killing of racist White men is justice or not, I find myself going back and forth between thinking this murder is right and wrong. On one hand, the brutal mutilation and murder of these men is a gruesome way to ultimately rid the world of inherently bad people. However, on the other hand, it is always wrong to kill another human being, no matter how horrible of a person they are. In terms of good faith and bad faith, it is difficult to understand if Gertrude recruited Damon Thruff to write about and publish the 7,006 lynchings because of respect or revenge. It is also important to recognize ​​that many of the overarching problems discussed in The Trees remain unsolved today, just as many of the mysteries in the novel remain unsolved for the reader. The reader gets a taste of how frustrating it is to read through a whole book and only have some questions answered. For many Black and Asian Americans, they have to go through an entire lifetime of frustration because their country refuses to accept the problem at hand and work to solve it or take responsibility for it. Overall, I learned a lot about perspective, injustice, and the distinction between right and wrong from my time with Dr. McCoy and Everett’s novel The Trees.

The Blend of Aesthetics in “Call and Response”

After reading and reviewing “Call and Response” over the past couple of weeks, I have found that this anthology does not fit one single aesthetic. In my opinion, “Call and Response” falls into three main aesthetic categories: extensive, historical and dynamic. The extensive aesthetic behind this anthology goes to show the visible elements behind the text that work together to form an in-depth book in both the physical and substantial sense. The historical aesthetic supporting this anthology works to emphasize the sequence of time that the book covers. Including works from as long ago as the 1600s, “Call and Response” is able to display the evolution of African American culture as well as the maintenance of traditions and culture. I found that one of the main underlying principles of this anthology is its dynamic aesthetic due to its active nature in offering new ideas and perspectives to a wide range of readers. 

It is clear that just by looking at “Call and Response”, the reader is able to acknowledge the book’s extensive aesthetic. The book’s epitextual elements including its physical weight, the quality of the paper, and the size of the font, all contribute to its overall sense of endlessness. Consisting of over 2,000 pages, the weighty anthology does not care for the time and effort it takes to read “Call and Response” cover to cover, as each page and each selection is important to the book’s final message. In my opinion, the thin and fragile paper living between the covers signify the fragile lives that humans of all races possess, yet risk in order to gain freedom and make meaningful change in their world. In my opinion, the small font size was made that small in order to incorporate a multitude of information from songs, letters, stories, speeches, poems, and journals into the work. Although I do not believe the authors and editors lengthened the book to emphasize the significant messages they wish to convey, I do think that the physical weight and appearance of the book help represent the important ideas mentioned throughout the piece. Paratextual elements, such as the Table of Contents, also support the extensive aesthetic that the book gives off. With a 25-page long Table of Contents, the reader is able to prepare themselves for the immense amount of information they are about to read. I believe this extensive aesthetic I have assigned to “Call and Response” is only a small piece of the larger, more dynamic aesthetic.

The anthology consists of material dating back to the 17th century, which is why I have allocated a historical aesthetic to the book. One of the earlier pieces included in the book that caught my attention was Benjamin Banneker’s Letter to Thomas Jefferson. Banneker was a very intellectual and persistent African American who lived during the 18th century. In 1791, Banneker expresses his disagreement of the statesman’s justifications for racism and slavery to the hypocritcal yet sentimental Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. Banneker writes in his letter, “he [one universal Father] hath afford us all with the same sensations… and that, however variable we may be in society or religion, however diversified in situation or in colour, we are all of the same family, and stanf in the same relation to Him” (Banneker, pg. 159). I believe that when readers read an authentic document personally written by someone who has reflected on their experiences during a crucial period of time, the reader is better able to gain a sense of understanding and respect for the writer. It is always difficult to take yourself back in time and try to understand the unthinkable challenges that people had to endure. However, with personal accounts and historical evidence of such challenges taking place, it allows the reader to obtain the smallest understanding of what another person or group of people went through. It is so unbelievably interesting yet saddening to read and compare historical works that fight for the same freedom, yet are written hundreds of years apart. Martin Luther King Jr. was a brilliant and motivated African American minister and Civil Rights activist. With the power of his voice, Dr. King led nonviolent protests against segregation and in favor of racial pride. Dr. King remarks in his infamous I Have a Dream speech, “one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination (King, pg. 1423). This statement in Dr. King’s speech took me back to Benjamin Banneker, who bravely spoke out for the same, critical freedoms and rights as Dr. King 200 years earlier. “Call and Response” radiates an immense amount of history and calls for the reader to recognize the overwhelming amount of injustice implemented across generations of human beings. 

“Call and Response” has such a dynamic aesthetic as it includes a wide range of different works written by an immense variety of different people. It is comprised of poems, songs, plays, stories, essays, speeches, pamphlets, letters, journals and more. A piece of poetry I appreciated was Sunday Morning Prophecy by Langston Hughes, an respected writer of the 20th century. Hughes recalls an older man who powerfully concluded his sermon with the importance of attending church and beliving in God through both your high and your low moments. A gospel song I valued was Take My Hand, Precious Lord by Thomas Dorsey, who wrote this song after he tragically lost his wife and child from childbirth. This song along with the poem mentioned before both emphasize the importance and reassurance of maintaining faith through hardships. I focused on a short story, Spunk, written by Zora Hurston, a prominent African American female writer of the 1900s. While Spunk tells a story of adultery and vengeance, Hurston also emphasizes Black culture and language. I believe Hurston includes words such as “thass”, “figger”, and “skeered” in place of “that’s”, “figure”, and “scared” in order to reflect her pride and comfortability with this authentic dialogue between her characters. I also reflected on Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes as I found her consistent relationship with Mrs. Lincoln, the President’s wife. I found it absorbing yet disheartening that Keckley’s very much earned and deserved literary reputation also caused her to lose central friendships and endure poor memories. Keckley wrote, “I was awakened…with the startling intelligence that the entire Cabinet has been assassinated, and Mr. Lincoln shott, but not mortally wounded. When I heard the words I felt as if the blood had been frozen in my veins, and that my lungs must collapse for the want of air” (Keckley, pg. 505). I found that these short excerpts from Keckley’s memoir provided by “Call and Response” were chosen very carefully by the authors and editors. Although the anthology is packed with different texts and materials, each historical work serves a purpose and must be respected and analyzed critically by the reader. 

To say that “Call and Response” can be attributed to only a few different aesthetics is an understatement, as I feel that one cannot limit this book into only a few categories. However, the three aesthetics that I have chosen throughout this essay are what I signify as three of the main, broader aesthetics of the anthology. It is important to examine such complicated and informative books through both a physical and literary lens. This is why I found the extensive aesthetic along with the historical and dynamic aesthetics to be an agreeable blend of aesthetics within the text. I also found it extremely useful and essential to analyze “Call and Response” with a readiness to connect major movements, ideas, and cultural traditions.