Final Reflective Essay

“Oh, no. No, no, no. There’s too much to learn from examining that tension between the power and the impact of the art and realizing where that art comes from and what the impetus behind that art is. The best way to engage with twisted or otherwise problematic art, in my opinion, is to first off acknowledge that that art has an impact, hurts people, and understand that engaging with it could perpetuate some of the harm that that art is capable of doing, but flag it, warn it, put it off to the side where people can engage with it at their leisure, at their choice or at a point where they’re strong enough or capable of doing so, but then engage with it. There’s a line between respecting the work and honoring the person. You can respect the craft. You don’t have to put that person on a pedestal. Artists are human beings and that means you need to examine them in all their facets. You have to recognize that these are people and that the things that make them sometimes horrible people are sometimes the things that make them good writers or good artists and that’s what you want to engage with”.–, “N.K. Jemisin on H.P. Lovecraft”

To call my semester good would be a lie but to say that I learned nothing would also be incorrect. I am struggling immensely with the contradictions I see in my past semester. A student who loves class but never goes. Someone who loves to read but won’t pick up a book. A perfectionist who refuses to start until the last minute, leaving himself with no time to achieve anything. I would love to write on this page that through the process of learning and growing this semester that all of these problems have been solved, but saying that would not be in good faith and the process of good faith is perhaps my biggest takeaway from any class with Professor McCoy. Still, thoughtful reflection is a good thing and perfection is impossible. If N.K. Jemisin can support the reading of H.P. Lovecraft, a vile racists, because “Artists are human beings. You have to recognize that these are people and that the things that make them sometimes horrible people are sometimes the things that make them good writers or good artists”, then I can look back at this past semester and separate the failings I see from the growth I know to be there. The quote above is one that I originally thought had a shallower meaning at the beginning of the semester. To me it meant that you can set aside “the bad” and engage with a book or work of art as you see fit. Leave the bad things out and look only at the positive. I now recognize that interpretation to be wrong. In her quote Jemisin calls on the reader to engage with the problematic art, not to ignore it. If I were to apply the concept of “ignoring” to everyday life there would be no growth in my life. Instead, “engaging”, even if its problematic, is the only way to improve and grow. For literature the same must be true. It is definitely easy to simply ignore the parts of a novel that make me uncomfortable but engaging with them will almost always give me a better understanding of the work as a whole. 

This semester we read Percival Everett’s The Trees. The story mainly follows two detectives as they try to solve a complicated series of murders in Money, Mississippi. At each of the crime scenes there is a body of a black man resembling Emmett Till that everyone sees to be dead but the body is quickly lost after each crime scene is closed. Money is the town in which Emmett Till was murdered and the men who were murdered were descendants of Emmett Till’s murderers. At first the town thinks the body must be the ghost of Emmett Till come to seek revenge on his murderers descendants. Even the local police are not entirely convinced that this isn’t the work of some supernatural force. 

Our main characters Ed Morgan and Jim Davis are two black men working for the MBI (Mississippi Bureau of Investigation). They have the air of fatigued experience and dry humor that’s to be expected out of middle aged detectives. They are soon joined by Agent Herberta “Herbie” Hind of the FBI and together follow the breadcrumbs of the murders. 

It is hard to talk about Percival Everett’s The Trees without worrying that I am misinterpreting or making a blunder. The course of this semester has done its best to teach me that mistakes are inevitable and there is no shame in any interpretation made in good faith but The Trees is a book that I find to leave me unsure on how I am feeling about characters actions. The satire and deadpan comedy encouraged the reader in me that wants to laugh while the seriousness of the story and the nuanced political and moral commentary grabbed the reader in me that wants to contemplate the deeper things in life. While the book is certainly funny, and in my opinion downright hilarious at certain points, the comedy does not undercut the core idea of the novel which is that black deaths matter and their names need to be heard. The story is complicated and I am certain I will be pondering it for some time after I have finished this essay. Even the title has multiple interpretations. The Trees refers to where the victims of lynchings were hung and refers to the family trees that connect the past atrocities to the present.  The book takes place mostly in Money, Mississippi. A town crawling with racists which also happens to be where the murder of Emmett Till took place. Everett does not hold back when writing about the people of Money, Mississippi. Our two main characters Ed Morgan and Jim Davis describe Money as “chock-full of know-nothing peckerwoods stuck in the prewar nineteenth century and living proof that inbreeding does not lead to extinction.”. They are not wrong. Money’s population consists of many, many, racists and in several cases I had to remind myself that this book takes place in the present day. From the language used by its people to the dinner with Elvis pictures on the walls, Money seems to be frozen in the past. Most white characters in this book are guilty. Whether they’re frequent users of the N-word, unabashed racists, or members of a pathetically stupid chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, I cannot recall a white person that I related to. I would claim that rejection of the idea than any of these characters have some sort of saving grace that excuses them of fierce judgment and condemnation is intentionally done by Everett to add to the moral ambiguity of their murders. Yes murder is wrong but killing a racist who shouts their racism with pride is much more preferable to say lynching a young man for the crime of being born with a skin color that is different from yours.
The Trees is a complicated novel. Satirical and dark, this revenge fantasy left me uneasy about how someone like me would fit into this world. However, engaging with the uneasiness leads to a greater understanding of what Everett is writing about. He wants readers to understand that the deaths of Black people matter. Their names matter.

Final Self Reflective Essay: What I have Noticed

Quentin Wall

We began the semester by noticing as much as we could through a variety of lenses; science, medicine, law, racism, fiction writing, poetry, and scholarly essays made up the works that we as a class engaged with. While we worked through the semester the course epigraph and its meaning when applied to our studies became more clear. The course epigraph is this: “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice”. I feel strongly that this epigraph can be applied to any piece of art. It is the artist’s job to interpret the world they see and present it to us so we can understand. When applying the epigraph to the work we have done this semester, my interpretation of it would be that writers notice the world around them and trust that the readers of their work will notice how the world within the writing interacts with the real world. All of the works we’ve read this semester have engaged with racism and gender in some shape or form. Since I am in the position of the reader, it is my job to notice how the author relates the world of their story to the real world. Through my own personal reading and reflecting on the literature as well as the knowledge I gleaned from conversations with my peers I would say my understanding of race and gender has improved, yes, but my ability to perceive both is where I have seen the most growth. With that in mind, my personal growth this semester can be phrased rather simply; without good faith engagement with the course and its materials I would not be able to notice the things I now notice.

The 2021 fall semester has been one rife with new and unforeseen challenges. Coming back from a global pandemic into a semester saturated with uncertainty posed unique challenges to me as a student. Because of these challenges however, the growth I’ve made in and because of this course has been meaningful. Zulus by Percival Everett for example, is a book I would have had considerable trouble understanding on my own. The course’s requirement for active thinking and engagement with my peers and their thoughts on the book led me to a whole new level of understanding. In Zulus, while Alice and company are making their journey away from the city they come across a great scar in the land caused by the war. Upon first reading this my understanding was that this landmark represented the damage war can cause on the earth and its inhabitants. While this interpretation is not necessarily wrong and I was not wrong to make it, it is still a shallow understanding of what Percival Everett was attempting to convey. It was only through our in class discussions that I was able to peel back the layers of symbolism and reach a new understanding. The gash in the land was the result of war, yes, but the deeper and more applicable understanding of the red mud gorge was in fact about the female body and its autonomy. To simply state that I would not have noticed that on my own would not give due credit to the level of thinking and collaboration involved in reaching that conclusion. It was only through working with Professor McCoy and my peers that this understanding was reached. Zulus is just one example in a semester full of new ideas and concepts that were originally foreign to me. 

In this course there was a great deal of attention given to the idea of “good faith”. In the first few weeks of the semester this seemed to be a simple concept to me, essentially translating to “do the work and do it well”. I would not say that my original interpretation of good faith is wrong. Rather, I would contend that it was not a deep enough reflection of what was being asked of me. If my job is “to notice.. And to notice that others can notice” then simply doing to work is not enough. It took time, but good faith slowly became more and more important to me as I contributed throughout the semester. My understanding now is not as shallow as it once was. Good faith does not mean doing the work, it does not mean completing what is expected of me. Good faith is putting forth the best effort I can muster. Some days that means going to class and gushing about all the cool things I found in the reading. Some days it means listening thoughtfully to my classmates and letting my own thoughts take the backseat. On days where I cannot seem to find any motivation or any reason to contribute, good faith means coming to class and doing my utmost to find the motivation.

Whether it be from my classmates, Professor McCoy, or myself. Nowhere along the path of this semester was I working solely with my own ideas. I was guided through by my peers. The work I’ve done would not have been what it was without them. If my job in this course has been to notice, and to notice that others can notice, then there is no more appropriate example of this than the group work we have done this semester. Working in a group is not an easy thing. Anyone who says otherwise most likely has not worked in groups enough. It is a tough and complicated process. I cannot count the times I’ve wanted to break away and just write what I want to write in our collaborative essays. Regardless of how I felt at the time, doing so would have been a mistake. I myself for instance am not someone with a comprehensive background in medicine or science, yet those are two lenses that we examined the literature frequently. But, I was able to listen, learn, and make good faith contributions to our class because of what my peers noticed and taught me. The action of noticing my peers and their insights led me to a rich understanding of the literature. An understanding that would have been impossible on my own. Through them I learn, and it is my hope that they would say the same of me.