Final Reflective Essay

“Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men”- Victor Lavalle.

I remember when I first scanned over the syllabus the week of classes beginning in January, I saw that we were required to write ten blog posts and I was a tad intimated. I had always thought about writing a blog but had always found the actual act of doing so, time consuming and sometimes frustrating. I doubted that I would be able to find connections and topics that I could post about (without sounding totally incompetent), but thanks to Dr. McCoy and her constant encouragement to “unpack” I found that there was so much I wanted to discuss, and I found the blog to be a place where I could be “heard” as I do not like to speak out in class.

Continuing along the lines of doubt, I went back to my first blog post which was focused around the Big Machine quote, “doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men” (Victor Lavalle). At the beginning of the semester I thought that the uncertainty and doubt I was feeling about graduate school applications and finding my first ‘adult’ job after graduation, compared to the feelings of doubt and uncertainty that Ricky first felt when he received that mysterious envelope one day while working as, “a janitor at Union Station in Utica, New York” (Lavalle, 3). As I read about Ricky holding the envelope and being weary about opening it, I could not help but compare it to my own life when I got the phone call from my mother about a letter in the mail from University at Buffalo. Although I was not there to physically hold the envelope, I was suddenly engulfed with this feeling of panic and doubt. Wanting to know so badly what the letter said, I found myself thinking back to the line, “you know that old saying about curiosity: curiosity is a bastard” (Lavalle, 6). The doubt does not stop there.
Another place that doubt is a constant in my life, is the voices of those people that learn I am studying English saying, “what are you going to do with that?” If someone had asked me that question at the beginning of the semester my answer would have been, “I want to teach.” Now here we are, a few short months (and a possible quarter life crisis) later, and my answer has completely shifted to, “I want to be an academic advisor.” I want to be the person that students can come to and feel that they are being heard; English is simply a stepping stone. Although the anxious moments over the years have been intense, I truly believe that all of those moments have led me to find the path that is the best for me. That is how I relate to Ricky in Big Machine. I seem to recall him having many moments throughout the novel where he did not know how he would make it, or if going to the Washburn Library was ever the right choice at all, but alas I cannot find the textual evidence to support this claim. Despite the doubt that Ricky faces, he manages to accomplish so much after arriving at the Washburn Library.

With encouragement from Dr.McCoy I began to look at other texts throughout the course where doubt was one of the central ideas/themes. I thought back to how Big Machine and “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler were connected and realized that there was also the shared feeling of doubt between both protagonists. Although the doubt is shown in different ways, one could say that the doubt Ricky and Gan face is centralized around one thing; the capability to follow through with a task. When Ricky arrives at the Washburn Library, he (among all the other unlikely scholars) is doubtful that he is meant to be there, “I leafed through each paper, looking for some mention of the Washburn Library… But not a damn thing stood out. I knew there must be some reason I’d been given these papers, but I didn’t understand the motive. I felt lost” (Lavalle, 49). Although it is never clearly stated throughout the novel, I would say that it is safe to assume Ricky clearly did not think he was cut out for the job. And this is where “Bloodchild” comes into play. “I had never killed one at all, had never slaughtered any animal. I had spent most of my time with T’Gatoi while my brother and sisters were learning the family business. T”Gatoi had been right. I should have been the one to go to the call box. At least I could do that” (Bloodchild, 11-12). The reader sees Gan struggle as he is told to go out and kill an animal and bring it back, he wrestles with this idea, and we see him doubt that he is capable of doing so. I too have felt incapable of completing tasks, or milestones in both my academic and personal journey. From wondering how I will do with beginning graduate school in the fall, to making sure I am being a good role model for my younger sister.

Often times people will laugh when someone says they truly related to a character in one way or another. Instead of simply laughing it off, maybe we should all start “unpacking” how we relate to that “person”, we could even learn something about ourselves along the way. Personally, I did not know that this much doubt consumed me until I read Big Machine and dived deep into Ricky’s character.


Throughout the course, there has always been the underlying conversation of consent. We have talked endlessly about how “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler and Big Machine by Victor Lavalle are connected by the lack of consent given by the protagonist in the texts. As I was flipping through Call and Response thinking of how I could address the issue of consent without being redundant, I came across Harriet A. Jacobs’ slave narrative and began to skim through the text again, as I did this I began to realize that this narrative also deals with the issue of lack of consent.
In Big Machine the lack of consent arises in a way that I think none of us saw coming. Ricky has been impregnated, “the tiny little wound looked like a needle mark, honestly I certainly recognized those. Had I been stabbed, or injected?” (145). In this moment Ricky does not know that he has indeed been impregnated with the last angel on Earth. All he knows is that he has been “impaled” in some way by a creature in the sewers. Although the issue of consent is prevalent in both texts, they are represented in very different ways.
For Harriet Jacobs, the lack of consent appears in the “normal” way one would (unfortunately) expect it to. While reading the editorial introduction to her narrative the editor discloses that, “at fifteen, Harriet quickly discovered the disadvantages of being an attractive black female and a slave. Dr. James Norcom…made repeated sexual advances to Jacobs” (433). This is where the difference comes into play. “He built a house for Jacobs in 1835, a short distance from his own home, and expected her to reside there, take in sewing, and provide sexual favors for him” (433). It is saddening to look back on a text such as this and see that a problem that is (unfortunately) still prevalent today, began all those years ago. It is also enlightening though to see that consent can play a part in areas other than sexually.

Religion in Big Machine

Please let me preface this by saying that I want this post to be broad, so that my fellow peers may have their own interpretations of what I have chosen to focus on.

Throughout our reading of the novel, religion has been at the forefront of our conversation, and it is an aspect of the novel that intrigues me. Being raised in the Baptist church and being a part of a youth program that required me to memorize Bible verses (for prizes of course), I found myself comparing passages or events in the reading from the past week to those that are in the Bible.
When I first began to notice the Biblical aspects of the novel was when Ricky is talking about the Washerwomen, “Christianity filtered through the wisdom of three women, three sisters from Jacksonville, Florida” (104). At first, when I was reading about the Washerwomen it sounded very odd to me (aside from the fact that they were a cult), but there was also as part of me that equates them as the ‘modern’ version of Jesus’ twelve disciples.
Another example was, “The Whisper created suns and planets, insects and beasts, right before the Heurequeque’s eyes. A single breath from the Whisper’s lips, and deer appeared in the world. Venus was created with a hum” (264). I saw this to be very clearly mimicking Genesis, the first book in the Bible, specifically chapter one, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth…And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters…And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day” (Genesis 1:1,2,31). It is shocking to me that this novel revolves so much around religion given the traumatic experiences Ricky has with the washerwomen.
I am hoping that with the ending of the novel there is finally answers as to how Ricky was able to cope with the events that happened in the staircase, and how he is able to trust religion after. Or, maybe because of the tragic events Ricky is needing to rely on God more than ever?

The Epigraph.

Similarly to what Courtney stated in her post, I personally walked away from Friday’s class with more questions about the novel than answers. After I read her post, I wanted to dive into one of the “unnoticed” parts of the novel myself; the epigraph.

When I was flipping through the novel at the beginning of the semester I had noticed the epigraph but thought nothing of it. Now, as we are two-thirds of the way through the reading I find myself looking for answers to questions I never thought would arise. That is when I remembered the epigraph, “Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired” -from John Carpenter’s The Thing.
As I thought about this I realized how many times in the section from Friday we see just how must distrust Ricky truly has for the people around him, and we learn some reasons as to why he could be this way. Personally I think it all started with the Washerwomen and his parents, “It sounds insane, I know, but we refused to accept that they’d pull the triggers. Until they did…I never doubted that our parents could do this to us” (214-215). Ricky realized in this moment that there was truly no one he could trust. The people he had been told to follow his entire life were now criminals who just “committed mass murder” (216), and his parents were the reason he was in this situation, and “then Rose’s gun touched Daphne’s temple…It’s true that Rose squeezed the trigger, but I sacrificed my sister to save myself” (216). If there had been anyone left that he would trust it would have been Daphne, but now even she was gone, and Ricky is truly left with noone.

The mistrust Ricky learned at a young age has affected how he is in the present day of the novel, “Who was I kidding? That lady was gone. How could I have believed that nonsense about calling the Dean? She wasn’t off to deal with Claude. She abandoned me” (220). I read this as Ricky realizing that when he has needed someone in the past they have done the complete opposite of what he needs, and leave, whether that be by death, or imprisonment. Now that Ricky is in the hospital unsure as to what is wrong, his mind has been conditioned to only think one way, that Adele Henry is going to leave him there, “We passed through the waiting room quickly, less than five seconds, and I made one last sweep for the Gray Lady, but she wasn’t to be seen. That’s when I felt the deepest fear. That I was truly alone, penniless, had no one to stand with me” (221). Ricky (and myself honestly) were shocked when Adele Henry announced, “Ricky Rice! I’m back!” (221). All Ricky has known is people leaving him and I had my doubts that Adele would stay and be with him.

There are still so many questions that I have about Ricky, the library, and this crazy adventure Adele and him are on. But maybe now that I have done some unpacking with the epigraph I begin to notice the unnoticeable.

Suzan-Lori Parks

As I began to look over the reading that we did together in class on Friday, there were several parts I found myself drawn to that either related to something else we have done thus far in the course or in my own personal life and experiences. The first quote that I really paid attention to was, “the last thing American theatre needs is another lame play” (Parks, 7). Reading this made me think back to my high school English classes and the emphasis that they put on plays and theatre. I remember reading an array of “outside the norm” novels throughout, but when it came to the theater portion, we did the stereotypical thing and read a Shakespeare play for every year of high school.
The quote from Parks also made me think about the course epigraph, “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.”–Toni Morrison, from a 1989 interview with Bonnie Angelo. Just as Morrison sees that black literature is (possibly) just another chapter that the sociology professors feel they have to get through, that is how theater felt for me throughout high school. Shakespeare was just another unit that we had to get through so that we could take the standardized test and move on with our lives. So personally, I think that the very thing American theatre needs is more lame plays. Maybe it will stop teachers from teaching the same play year after year and will bring some enthusiasm back into the classroom.
Another section of the text that stood out to me this week was on page fifteen of Suzan-Lori Park’s book, “dance If you’re one who writes sitting down, once before you die try dancing around as you write. It’s the old world way of getting to the deep shit” (Parks, 15). As I was writing a research paper for a class I am taking with Professor Gillin, I had this running through the back of my mind. I was not tempted to get up and start dancing around the floor lounge or my dorm room, but I did find that when I hit a “wall” that when I moved to a different part of the floor that I was more focused and I suddenly was able to write.
The last piece that stood out to me was again from page fifteen, “laughter is very powerful– it’s not a way of escaping anything but a way of arriving on the scene” (Parks, 15). There were many things that happened in my life this week, where I felt as though the only response (other than crying) was to just bust out laughing. I found that when I did this it kind of was like “oh my God this is really happening”. It made me realize that maybe the people that are laughing all the time are not always happy but are indeed masking the pain, such as smiling while running as Sean pointed out in class.

The Unlikely Scholars

While we were touring the heating plant on the Monday after break, I feel as though the general consensus was confusion. What are we doing here? What does this have to do with African-American Literature? This reminded me of Victor Lavalle’s novel Big Machine and the unlikely scholars. On page forty-nine of the novel, Victor writes, “Here was my first real job as an Unlikely Scholar and I had no idea what to do… But not a damn thing stood out. I knew there must be some reason I’d been given these papers, but I didn’t understand the motive. I felt lost” (Lavalle, 49). Until Ricky and the fellow unlikely scholars all dived into work and focused on what the task at hand could be, they were still in that preliminary state of confusion, just as my group was. “Now me and the other six Scholars floundered and gasped… The others were as committed. The others were as confused” (Lavalle, 49). It was not until we were all working on the collaborative blog post this past week, that we realized there could be connections between the heating plant tour, the nature poems, Invisible Man, and Farming While Black. The fact that all these texts were connected somehow was mind-boggling to me.

How could a heating plant, a chapter about someone working in a paint plant, and some chapters about caring for the Earth all be connected? As my group worked together and we realized that there were indeed connections, I almost felt like Violet in Big Machine, “A single green folder sat on the left side of her desk, with a two-inch stack of papers inside it. Violet opened the folder for us and took out the contents. There were typed notes and handwritten memos, faded receipts for meals and travel, and a series of Polaroids” (pg.50). With today’s advanced technology, I feel as though the Google Docs document that was started as a place for us to write our thoughts in a way kind of serves as that green folder where Violet stored all the pieces from the newspaper clippings.

A topic of discussion that came up in my collaborative blog group, and has come up in other classes in past semesters is the debate between print books or e-books (Kindle, Nook, or any other e-reader). After our discussion, I began to think about the unlikely scholars and how much easier their job would have been with technologies such as these instead of “a big gray computer sat on the desk, but it wasn’t new. I saw little white tags on the side of the monitor and the hard drive. Both read REFURBISHED” (Lavalle, 48). Could it be argued that their job was more rewarding because they did not have these technologies? Having to dive into the stacks of newspapers every day and having to make connections on their own instead of just typing something into the Google search bar, may have made the “high” of the connections forming much better for the unlikely scholars.

Commodification and Gentrification

After class a few weeks ago and the many discussions that were had about power and commodification, I began to think about how these concepts could be related back to texts that were involved in the course thus far. I thought about the poems that were read and the song that we listened to, and the discussion that happened in my small group. The definition that Dr. McCoy provided us is that commodification is, “the transformation of relationships, believed to be untainted by commerce, into commercial relationships, relationships of buying and selling”. In my small group, this was related back to the idea of gentrification, defined by Merriam Webster as, “the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area (such as an urban neighborhood) accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents” and how in major cities such as New York City this is becoming more prevalent. Different communities, such as the lower class black and the upper-class white that have been known to not get along are now having even more strains put on their relationship due the upper-class coming into the neighborhoods and possibly removing the residents or making it impossible for the residents to afford living here by doing things such as raising the rent. Sarah brought up a great example of how the upper-class is coming in and buying property and opening coffee shops, yoga studios, etc. that does not take into account the needs or wants of the neighborhood.

When pondering on the example that was given during class, I went back and took a look at the poem by Jayne Cortez, ‘How Long Has Trane Been Gone’ from 1969. I found that the lines, “You takin- they givin/ You livin- they/ creatin starving dying/ trying to make a better tomorrow” truly related to the idea of gentrification. With the “you” being the white upper-class and the “they” being the black lower class. There could be much discussion as to whether or not gentrification is beneficial to the revival of suffering communities. I think it is safe to say (although I hate to make assumptions on her part) that Cortez would not be a fan of the idea. She would most likely say that the upper-class is not worrying about the needs of the lower class and that they are simply doing it for self-benefit, going back to the line “You takin- they givin”.

“All Their Stanzas Look Alike”

As I was reading through the Norton anthology, Angles of Ascent, there were several poems that stood out to me. I found Thomas Sawyer Ellis’ poem All Their Stanzas Look Alike on page 317 to be the one that captivated me the most. The title definitely intrigued me and drew me into the poem. You have the ambiguous “stanzas” which could be interpreted literally as other poets stanzas all looking the same, or figuratively and the speaker in fact not speaking about stanzas at all.  For my close reading, I chose the latter. At first glance, this poem seemed to be about someone’s life feeling mundane and the same every day. And then I realized that the “their” the speaker was talking about was an entire group of people; the white population all around them. I particularly enjoyed the lines, “All their plantations/ All their assassinations/ All their stanzas look alike”. As I read the line regarding plantations I could “see” clearly what the speaker was referencing. In films and novels (including ones written today) a plantation is normally portrayed as a large white house in the south surrounded by acres upon acres of land, and nine times out of ten that large white house will have a porch with a swing. When it comes to the assassinations, I had to ponder for a while what this could mean. I came to realize that the speaker could be alluding to the white plantation-owners murdering the black slaves. I also began to think on the past assassinations of presidents, and how although it was white men that committed the crime, there was a horribly negative stereotype placed onto the black population as a whole. Although, it was always white men committing these murders/assassinations, still in today’s society there is an idea that black men are to be feared, when in reality it should probably be the reverse.


During the beginning weeks of the new semester (my last at Geneseo) I have been doing a lot of reflecting, and thinking about what my future holds. This semester has a lot riding on it as there is no turning back when I walk across that stage in May and receive possibly the most important piece of paper in my life thus far.  While looking through the course epigraphs one, in particular, stuck out to me; “Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men.” Victor LaValle, Big Machine.

As I was reading Big Machine for class this past week I noticed myself connecting with Victor, as I have always been one that doubts my capabilities. Towards the beginning of the novel, Ricky receives a mysterious envelope with simply just his name written on the front. Wanting to be alone he locks himself in the station bathroom but alas, Cheryl finds him, “Hey! What did that letter say?… Don’t know yet… Well, I’d love to know… Me too”. One can sense a feeling of annoyance from Ricky. He simply just wants to open the letter and be by himself, but instead, he has Cheryl yelling at him about what is inside the envelope.  While reading this I couldn’t help but think back to my senior year of high school waiting for my college decisions to arrive in the mail, and when they arrived having my mom rush me into opening them.  And now again during my senior year of college waiting to hear back from Graduate Programs, hoping to hear good news, but doubting that I will. Similarly to Courtney, I am the first person in my immediate family to go to be earning their Bachelor’s degree. I find that when people ask what my major is and I say “English”. Their first question is, what are you going to do with that? It is almost like they find it hard to believe that one could do a job with a degree in English. Having to talk them through the process of my plans after Geneseo sometimes helps with my doubtfulness, but other times not so much.