Reflections on Straddling, Good Faith Scholarship, and Scorn in connecting N.K. Jemisin’s epigraph with Percival Everett’s The Trees

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, “N.K. Jemisin on H.P. Lovecraft”

In attempting to interpret my semester in African American Literature through Percival Everett’s novel The Trees, I have chosen to engage with the N.K. Jemisin epigraph above to guide my exploration. Although N. K. Jemisin is responding to the racist science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, I was drawn to this epigraph because it created meaning out of a rather complex end to an intricate novel. In the ending of The Trees, Damon Thruff is seen methodically typing page after page of names on Mama Z’s typewriter. Thruff’s act is a form of preservation so that Mama Z’s efforts to record each person taken by lynchings and police brutality will not be forgotten. The novel closes with Mama Z explaining what Thruff is doing to officers Hind, Davis, and Morgan and ends with her asking the question “Shall I stop him?”. The ending of the novel leaves readers with many remaining questions and no clear resolution is struck. In order to make meaning of this complicated novel, I found pieces of the N.K. Jemisin epigraph and revisiting our course concepts to be rather helpful.   

Within the Jemisin epigraph, it states “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.” When thinking about Thruff’s act of preservation, the ending of this epigraph was striking for a number of reasons. Firstly, the names Thruff is typing are all people. They were once living human beings that may have been good, or may have been horrible but were murdered unfairly and did not receive justice. The magnitude of the number of human beings lynched and left without justice is something that Everett wants readers to engage with. Secondly, the novel leaves readers wondering about who is responsible for the murders of white men throughout the country that take place in the novel. Although murder should never be celebrated, it can be argued that these killings were meant as a form of justice for the victims of lynchings. The people responsible for these events may not be worthy of praise, but the reasoning behind their actions is something that raises questions about justice within the legal system and how people are meant to respond to brutality and lynching.

The unanswered questions at the end of the novel are meant to be engaged with. As Jemisin states, “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.” The ending moments of Thruff’s typing can be seen as a representation that more work still needs to be done. Although one may not agree with the action of murdering white men as the correct way to achieve justice, it is effective in drawing attention to the victims of lynching and police brutality who were violently taken from this world. The violent killings incite outrage from society because people are forced to engage with a topic that has been historically set aside. One does not need to agree with the actions of those responsible for the killings, but it is necessary to engage with the meaning behind their actions and determine a way to provide justice. Thruff demonstrates that the work is far from over and should not be stopped until every name is remembered. 

The N.K. Jemisin epigraph is in conversation with more than just the ending of the novel, it can be applied to different characters to understand their role within the novel as a whole. As I read The Trees, I became specifically interested in examining the moral internal conflict that Jim Davis, Ed Morgan, and Herberta Hind face as officers of color. Within their roles as MBI Special Detectives and an FBI Agent, they are essential to upholding justice within the legal system. However, as persons of color, they have been impacted by ways in which the legal system has been unjust. Specifically in how the novel draws attention to the historical lack of justice for victims of lynching as well as police brutality. These officers have to navigate their roles as law enforcement within their racial identities. 

The course concept of straddling can be used to better understand the perspectives of Davis, Morgan, and Hind. In her essay, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” Bernice Johnson Reagon defines straddling as “One has one foot in one place and the other foot in the other place and tries to achieve, maintain, guide, propel himself/herself even on grounds that are fighting each other and there is an unevenness about her/his grounding at all times. Straddling” (115).  Johnson’s definition encapsulates the struggle that these officers experience straddling multiple identities. Herberta Hind’s straddling is demonstrated in her conversation with Mama Z. Hind states “‘There seems to be a tension here, between us. Like you perhaps don’t trust me. Do you trust me?’ Mama Z said nothing. ‘Why not?’ Hind asked. ‘You’re from the FBI.’ ‘I’m also a Black woman,’ Hind said. ‘So you see my problem’” (Everett, 175). In this scene, Hind’s multiple identities as both an FBI agent and a Black woman cause conflict for Mama Z who distrusts all folks from the FBI. Her attempt at straddling these two worlds is not effective because as Reagon asserts the two grounds she is standing on are “fighting each other.” The intersection of the officer’s multiple identities is critical to understanding their role in the novel. 

Reagon’s definition of straddling can be also applied to Jemisin’s call for audiences to separate respecting the work from honoring the person that created it. In a sense, Jemisin’s call can be seen as asking readers to straddle their interpretations when they may be torn between wanting to scorn the person who created problematic art but also engage with pieces of that art that are meaningful and important. Everett’s writing should not be compared to what Jemisin is referring to in the racist metaphors and frequent blunt racism in H.P. Lovecraft’s writing. However, throughout our course conversations, there were students that found Everett’s language within The Trees emotionally difficult to read. At the beginning of one of our class discussions, a peer asked “Why does Everett choose to use the N-word so much?” For many students, the frequent use of the N-word, especially when many characters use it synonymously with ‘Black’ or ‘Person of Color,’ can be uncomfortable and definitely unnerving to read. 

As a class, we worked through this discomfort by following Jemisin’s call which asserts that the best way to navigate this situation 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…. 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.” In this case, we acknowledged the harm associated with the use of the N-word and the impact that this word has on members of the Black community. We then focused on why Everett may have made the artistic choice of incorporating this word so pervasively throughout The Trees and we began to engage with its meaning. Professor McCoy read a quote from Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy in which Atwater states 

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N——, n——, n—–.” By 1968 you can’t say “n——”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N——, n——.”

This quote demonstrates the way that the N-word has been distorted to become more palatable to audiences when used by politicians in speeches but still impacts Black communities. After discussing the political practice of using words like “tax cuts” and “state’s rights” to mean the N-word without explicitly stating it, we gained different insights into the reasons why Everett may have chosen to assert the whole word in The Trees. Everett unmasks all of the indirect forms of racism by using the N-word to demonstrate how inescapable the harm and history of that word continue to have on society today. By using Jemisin’s method of acknowledging and then engaging with a work that could be uncomfortable our class was able to find new meaning within this work.

In many ways, Jemisin’s epigraph relates back to Good Faith scholarship. As a student, it is incredibly important to do my research especially when it comes to understanding the way in which authors’ identities and beliefs impact their works. The approach in Jemisin’s epigraph provides an effective way to acknowledge when an author or their work may cause harm, as well as a means of preventing dismissiveness and scorn by creating a way to engage with the work after that acknowledgment is done. Language matters. History matters. And as Thruff demonstrates at the end of The Trees our work as good faith scholars in creating a world free from oppression and that provides justice for acts of violence, also matters and will take time before it is done. That is why Jemisin’s epigraph has helped to guide my reflection on this course, it provides a method for continuing to engage with difficult works and remain thinkING about my contribution to social change and justice within our society.

How Does One Call and Respond?

What does it mean to call and respond? I believe that answering this question will provide insight into the governing aesthetic of The Riverside Anthology of African American Literary Tradition: Call and Response. The preface to the anthology provides some context and reasoning behind the structure and title. It describes the anthology as creating African American “antiphonal patterns” which put minds in conversation with one another. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, antiphonal refers to a piece being sung or played by two groups in turn. This may resemble a cadence of back and forth where the second entity waits for the first to finish before beginning their idea. It could also present gumbo ya ya which is defined in Elsa Barkley Brown’s “African American Women’s Quilting” article as a practice where everybody talks at once (925). It could even look like a plethora of choices in presentation and form. This style could be similar to what we examined in Suzan-Lori Parks’ piece “Possession” in which speakers can experiment with different ways of presenting the format of the piece. Ultimately though, the idea of antiphony represents voices in conversation with one another. It presents a multifaceted aesthetic that encourages connections between a variety of ideas and moments. 

The structure of the anthology certainly contributes to understanding its aesthetic. Antiphony produces what the Preface describes as, “Black America’s major cultural art forms that fosters and reinforces a dynamic, artistic, and cultural relationship between the individual and the group” (xxxiii). We see this relationship demonstrated in the section titles provided in the table of contents. In Section II, the “Southern Folk Call for Resistance” is connected to “Northern Literary Response: Rights for Blacks, Rights for Women.” While the “Response” portion incorporates many individual voices such as David Walker, Sojourner Truth, and Maria W. Stewart, all of the voices are part of a group that is in conversation with the ‘Call for Resistance’. In this way, the pieces in each “call” and corresponding “response” relate to one another and capture the idea of dialogue between individual thinkers and group ideals.  

Another way to explain this concept of relationships is depicted in the documentary Bernice Johnson Reagon: The Songs are Free. In this film, Reagan invokes the same principles of individuals within group relationships while describing the importance of “I songs.” Reagan states, “in order to express community, you have to go to the first person plural. And in the black community, when you want the communal expression, everybody says “I.” So if there are five of us here and all of us say “I,” then you know that there’s a group.” As Reagan asserts, the “I song” holds individuals accountable for the promises that they make to a group. I think that recognizing this connection between individual and group is important to understanding the general aesthetic of Call and Response. Not every person presented in the anthology is a scholar or acclaimed academic, but every voice is valued for its own contribution. The variety acts like a hand-stitched quilt where individually every piece may be beautiful but together they form a work of art that makes a powerful statement. 

The quilt analogy is multifaceted because stitching all of the pieces together requires intentionality and deliberate attention to detail. The way conversations are set up is thoughtful and meant to generate a deeper level of thought. Readers are encouraged to draw connections across sections and return to earlier ideas. Elsa Barkley Brown describes this process in  “African American Women’s Quilting” when she asserts “’In jazz, for example, each musician has to listen to what the other is doing and know how to respond while each is, at the same time, intent upon her/his own improvisation” (925). The process of “call and response” requires independent thinking, active listening, and a mix of dissidence and harmony to be truly moving. It also encourages the act of recursion which Dr. McCoy has described it as “moving forward while looping back at the same time.” This recursive process builds on the act of making connections and facilitates the understanding of some more complex conversations. 

Examining the idea of  “call and response” has led me to form the opinion that the anthology privileges the cultural production of ordinary everyday people. In addition to the inclusivity of the antiphonal style, the music element of the book seemed to suggest that the editors wanted the ideas to be accessible to everyone. In the documentary Bernice Johnson Reagon: The Songs are Free, Reagon describes the way that music can act as a force to deeply move people. She states “Songs are a way to get to singing. The singing is what you’re aiming for and the singing is running this sound through your body. You cannot sing a song and not change your condition.” This quote stood out to me because I believe it is true. In my own experiences, being in an environment where everyone is singing together in one place has changed my mood and adjust the way that I am feeling. Therefore, the incorporation of music throughout the anthology might be meant to provide a similar effect. The songs get to emotions that are accessible to all readers but especially readers who have grown up singing them. In this way, the ideas and messages can be understood and interpreted by everyday, ordinary people. 

Ultimately, the anthology has a multifaceted aesthetic that uses antiphony and a “call and response” structure to make the conversations of many different voices accessible to a variety of readers.