Mental Scaling in Studies of Literature

The multitude of stories contained within my experience with this semester can hardly be reduced to the scope of a singular blog post. From the conceptual seed shapes planted at the beginning of the semester to their seemingly endless strings of iterations and reiterations, the full sprawl of insight I have gained throughout my time in this course can be overwhelming to mentally parse. Taking stock of all I have learned, it makes me wonder how much a survey course such as this one can truly give an accurate and complete picture of the literary tradition which it covers. I had never even heard of the majority of the authors and works we discussed and was largely unfamiliar with many of the core concepts, which seems to me now to be a failure of my education up to this point, but I recognize that these can still only portray one slice of the entire body of African American literature.

Unsure of where to take this strand of thought, I turned to the initial groundwork upon which we built our studies in this course. We started the semester by examining Ron Eglash’s African Fractals, which gives a mathematical overview of the principles of fractal geometry that lay at the core of traditional African design. Eglash goes over a few central mathematical concepts evident in various areas of African design, and connects them to the cultural ties related to these concepts: most significantly, the fractal principles of recursion, numeric systems, scaling, complexity, and infinity. The one of these that I feel is most pertinent to my experience with this  course is scaling, for a variety of reasons that I hope to make clear. 

Eglash identifies scaling geometry quite broadly as “mathematical practices in thinking about similarity at different sizes” (71). It may also be described as “irregular geometric structures whose shape seems to be self-similar regardless of the level of magnification at which it is viewed” (Fractal-Scaling Properties as Aesthetic Primitives in Vision and Touch | Global Philosophy). In my understanding of the term, I take scaling to mean the process of applying identical ideas at varying magnitudes, sometimes to a dramatic extent. Scaling in the mathematical sense has many practical applications, as shown by Eglash in the “cost-benefit analysis” of African wind-screens using scaling techniques (73), but the more abstract concept of scaling can be seen represented in storytelling models, and will serve as a framework for my own analysis of my time in this course. 

For example, scaling is used as a primary thematic mode in Percival Everett’s The Water Cure. Graywolf Press, the novel’s publisher, describes the story as confronting “the dark legacy of the Bush years and the state of America today,” yet the narration almost never engages directly with the former president or his administration. Rather than undertake a face-value indictment of the Bush administration’s response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, Everett scales down the atrocities to a conflict between a few individuals, rather than between entire nations of people. In place of the terrorist attacks, Everett substitutes the brutal assault and murder of the narrator’s daughter, and the subsequent kidnapping and torturing of a man, who may or may not be the assailant, by the narrator. The narrator, identifying himself as Ishmael Kidder, enacts a sort of vigilante justice as retribution for his daughter’s unthinkable fate with little concern for whether or not his captive was the actual perpetrator of the violence. This clearly maps onto the much larger-scale vigilante attitude adopted by the United States government, which saw the deployment of troops and terrorization of masses of people overseas who were uninvolved in the attacks. The parallel is seen perhaps most clearly in the title of the book, referencing a torture tactic used by Kidder against his captive and by members of the United States military in places such as the infamous Abu Graib. 

Just as fractal scaling has cost-benefit advantages in African design, Everett’s use of thematic scaling delivers an especially strong impact. The central purpose of scaling is to adjust a design to the conditions of what is required of it, as in how the repeating spiral structure of some animals’ horns is scaled outward to fit the animal’s growing head. The aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks is a period in the nation’s history that feels almost impossible to grapple with, due to the unfathomable scale of the destruction surrounding it. No matter how information on the subject is conveyed, it seems that plain discussion of it can never get us close to coming to terms with it in meaningful ways. Scaling the situation down to interpersonal violence is much more suited for gaining a deeper understanding of the moral and ethical questions surrounding it, doing two main things: first, by revealing how ridiculous the country’s response to the attacks looks in hindsight, taking the grief over one atrocity out on those possibly not even involved in it with a more prolonged campaign of violence; and second, by making room for more understanding of what the those in power to that decision, highlighting the broad range of human emotions that can be heightened in the wake of horrendously inhuman acts. Everett’s microcosm of what would end up being decades of conflict between nations serves to bring the real-world events closer to the hearts of readers than regular descriptions tend to. The scaled-down portrayal takes its scaled-down form to adjust to how most readers experience the world surrounded by such massively scaled violence. 

Even if it is not conscious, people engage in scaling practices all the time to simplify their understanding of the world, and this can have more negative consequences than the mathematical and literary implications of scaling. As I have reexamined my time in this course, I have identified some scaling of my own that I have unconsciously exercised. Given that this course has essentially been a survey course in a literary tradition that I had previously had relatively little exposure to, I am acutely aware of a pitfall of scaling out a few pieces of literature as being wholly representative of an entire body of literature. Black art has a history of being systematically pushed to the margins of academia and of dominant American culture, and I want to play an active role in dismantling my own ingrained notions of black literature by seeking out more of it. However, amidst the noise of everything that the human brain must take in day by day, I believe there is a tendency to try to make it easier to understand the work by substituting large groups of subjects with mentally constructed overarching scalings of individual subjects. It would then be possible to take the experiences I have had in this course and the analysis of the works we have read and treat it as having fully immersed myself in the world of African American literature, and that the work of deconstructing my personal biases is already done. This is a substitution that I need to be wary of, as I know that my journey in educating myself is still towards its beginning, and that the ways of thinking that we practiced in this course must be habitually continued as an ongoing process.

Beyond my basic awareness of this concept, several of the pieces of writing we read and their surrounding context clearly displayed the consequences of this kind of substitutive scaling. For most of the history of the United States, the hegemonic cultural focus has been inundated with works created by and for white people. This partially arises from and feeds back into the systems of white supremacy that the country operates under, which only functions with the construction of dually whiteness and non-whiteness, where whiteness is viewed as the normal condition and non-whiteness is a deviation from the normal. Therefore, members of the “in-group” may often use things that they see from the “out-group” to make generalizations about them. Black American artists have thus been forced to create their work under the watchful eye of American whiteness, feeling the pressure of their individual works having the potential to be scaled out as representative of all black art for some audiences. 

This is seen in the “Fugitive Slave Narrative” genre, where writers were pressured by white abolitionists to abandon the artistry of their storytelling and just focus on the plain facts of their enslavement, as their experiences would be taken by white readers as a picture of the whole of slavery, since reading these narratives was simpler than directly engaging with the reality of slavery.

Another example of this could be seen in our discussions surrounding Angles of Ascent, an anthology of modern African American poetry. Like all anthologies, it includes only what the publishers and editors feel should be included, giving the publisher a difficult task of deciding which poems and poets should act as the representatives of black poetry. This can cause conflict when there are differing views on what this material should be, as evidenced by the public disagreement between Amiri Baraka and anthology editor Charles Henry Rowell (A Post-Racial Anthology? by Amiri Baraka | Poetry Magazine). Such issues become more prominent because black creators are placed under more scrutiny and have their lives, works, and public interactions scaled to a magnitude different from their white counterparts.

Recognizing similar unconscious scalings and substitutions in my mind has been and will continue to be a central part of my work with this course. I have begun to notice times when I scale certain things down to a more digestible frame of reference to make myself feel more comfortable with things that are difficult to grapple with. Especially when confronting historic and current injustices against people of color worldwide, it can be tempting to avoid direct engagement as it is, but this only perpetuates and upholds such injustices. Scaling can be helpful in gaining a clearer understanding of moral ambiguities at a human level, but it also runs the risk of downplaying the gravity of a given situation. If I were to imagine the gruesome killing of a loved one, and imagine a scenario in which I respond by killing dozens of people uninvolved with the initial violence, this would not give an accurate picture of the all-too-real implications of when such conflicts play out on a scale of thousands. It is a long process to learn to see uncomfortable truths as they are, but I at least feel that this course has provided a strong groundwork for the process.

Core Essay

Reader’s thinking continues to change as they read through each book of a trilogy. The first book, The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin gives readers the beginnings of this dystopian world. The first books in trilogies always make readers want more in order to get the full story, this also changes their thinking. When I wrote my Lithosphere Essay, I had only read the first book of the Fifth Season trilogy. During this, I had many unanswered questions that I knew I would find out as I read through the rest of the trilogy. Since the Lithosphere Essay was based on racialization in The Fifth Season, I wondered why orogenes were treated with disrespect and where this stigma came from. This also made me think that the author possibly wrote racialization into the book in order to bring awareness of problems that happen in the real world. As I continued through the books, I soon realized that things were much darker than I could have ever expected. 

Since the Lithosphere Essay focused on the racialization of orogenes, it made me wonder why they were treated with discrimination. In the first book, there were numerous examples of orogenes being racialized which I constantly thought was unfair. Since orogenes showed their powers and what they are capable of, I also thought that they might have used their powers in the past to harm others. As I read the last book of the trilogy, The Stone Sky, my thoughts changed once I learned the real reason behind their stigma, “How did it begin? You must understand that fear is at the root of such things. Niespeople looked different, behaved differently, were different – but every group is different from others. Differences alone are never enough to cause problems. Syl Anagist’s assimilation of the world had been over for a century before I was ever made; all cities were Syl Anagist.” (Page 210). Orogenes are the descendants of the Niespeople, who were the first to hold their supernatural powers. Syl Anagist was the main civilization that had people without these powers. Since there was a difference between these two groups of people, the Sylanagistines were afraid of the power the Niespeople held. This is what started the fear that continues in the world of the first book, The Fifth Season. After learning that orogenes stigma came from fear, my thinking was completely changed. Orogenes did not use their power to harm people in an evil way, Sylanagistines were only afraid of what they could do. The Sylanagistines believed in bad faith towards the Niespeople, they did not trust that the Niespeople could use their power for good. This fear started the discrimination that will continue to rot this dystopian world.

The main topic of the Lithosphere Essay was racialization which made me wonder if N.K. Jemisin wanted to show readers how discrimination affects people. I thought since Jemisin is a black woman, she wanted to show readers that haven’t experienced racism the unfairness. As I read through The Stone Sky, there was an example that supported my thinking, “The Sylanagistines took their land. The Niess fought, but then responded like any living thing under threat – with diaspora, sending whatever was left of themselves flying forth to take root and perhaps survive where it could.” (Page 209). When the Sylanagistines tried to take over the Niespeople’s land, their powers were shown which is where their fear came from. The problem was that the Sylanagistines wanted to take their land in order to expand their civilization. In addition, this quote proves that the orogenes ancestors did not use their powers for no reason. The Niespeople were trying to protect themselves but were more powerful than the Sylanagistines. Anyone would have used what they had to protect their land and their people but the Niess were cursed with an extraordinary power. This history kept my thinking the same since it reminded me of indigenous people. Indigenous people were also taken from their land and then were forced to forget their language and culture. Their kind was soon forgotten which is what happened to the Niespeople because their colonizers tried to erase them from history. Another example from The Stone Sky that showed a similarity to indigenous people is, “They maintained some of their old ways, too – like splitting their tongues with salt acid, for reasons known only to them. And while they lost much of their distinctive look that came of isolation within their small land, many retained enough of it that to this day, ice white eyes and ashblow hair carry a certain stigma.” (Page 209). The Niespeople possessed certain traits that the citizens of Syl Anagist did not obtain. This made the Niespeople look different from others which caused them to face discrimination for not looking like the rest of civilization. The Sylanagistines wanted the Niespeople to be like everyone else although they tried to keep their culture, but soon the readers learned that it was all erased from history. 

Since the Lithosphere Essay was based on what we learned in The Fifth Season, the readers did not know the true horrors against the orogenes ancestors. The readers got a taste of the horrors when we learned about the nodes. I believed that the orogenes must have done something wrong in the past but it turned out to be the Sylanagistines that were evil. An example of this which changed my thinking was, “They are still alive, I know at once. Though the sprawl motionless amid the thicket of vines (lying atop the vines, twisted among them, wrapped up in them, speared by them where the vines grow through flesh), it is impossible not to sess the delicate threads of silver darting between the cells of this one’s hand, or dancing along the hairs of that one’s back. Some of them we can see breathing, though the motion is so very slow.” (Page 262). The Sylanagistines used the Niess to power their civilization with their magic forcefully. The vines that contained the power were the bodies of the Niespeople and in order to take their magic, they needed to be alive. This is discovered by Hoa and made him want to take revenge since he was created to be similar to the Niess. This evil and tortious act is what caused the moon to be sent out of orbit and started the seasons. Learning this changed my thinking entirely since I believed an evil act was done by the orogenes ancestors. The people of the current world in this book also believed that the orogenes committed evil acts since that’s what their history told them. I never expected to learn something extremely horrific but it now makes sense of how the nodes were described in the first book. This act was done for the selfish reason to power the Syl Anagist’s city which they believed was for good reasons. 

The reader’s thinking is constantly being changed when new information is revealed in each book of a trilogy. The first book, The Fifth Season, gave readers like myself things to think about when first learning about this dystopian world. When readers think while reading, it makes them want to read more to understand the full story. When a reader’s thinking changes, it matters since they are learning the answers to the questions they created. N.K. Jemisin continued to explain the mysteries as readers went through each book of the trilogy. 

Core Essay

Throughout this course, my thinking has shifted in different ways. Coming into this course, I was not sure what to expect. I originally thought it was going to be like any other English course, doing regular reading and writing. When we wrote the “Lithosphere Essay”, I thought we would be focusing more on the trilogy and the issues that emerged throughout reading each book. As we progressed through the course, I realized that it was more about our personal development and understanding not only what we think, but also understanding why we think the way we do. Reading through The Broken Earth Trilogy not only made it easier for me to grasp issues like racialization and problems in social structures that people experience every day, but it also allowed me to put myself in the shoes of some of the characters from the book and almost be able to share the emotions of what they were feeling. This course has also enabled me to achieve a deeper understanding of how every individual thinks differently in their own way about whatever the topic or issue may be.

Reading the first book of the trilogy, The Fifth Season, I was exposed to the “use-caste” system as it is referred to in the Stillness. The Stillness is a supercontinent much like what we assume Pangea to be like. The population living on the Stillness keeps their order within this hierarchical caste system where a part of the population; individuals called Orogenes are at the very bottom. Although Orogenes are the most powerful group of individuals on the Stillness; having the ability to control seismic energy and cause catastrophic seismic events all around the world, they have the least amount of freedom, being treated as non-human. From birth, Orogenes are mistreated, being physically and emotionally abused, even by their own families. Several characters in this trilogy experience life-changing events that cause deep personal changes in ways that change how they think and act toward others and even themselves. Most of these events stem from the racialization and manipulation of these Orogenes to use their powers in bad faith. One character in particular named Essun; who is also one of the main characters of this trilogy, experiences several life-altering events. At a very young age, her parents discover she is an Orogene. This causes them to banish her from the family, making her live in a barn isolated from everyone until she is assigned a Guardian named Shaffa and taken away. In the first book, Shaffa says to Essun (who is named Damaya at the time) ” sometimes…the parents of an orogene will try to hide the child. To keep her, untrained and without a Guardian. That always goes badly.” (The Fifth Season, Chapter 2). This quote gives a great example of how Orogenes and non-Orogenes were manipulated into believing that Orogenes have a power that is not safe to the rest of the world and needs to be restricted and controlled by others to keep everyone else safe. This part of the book made me think about how certain groups of individuals experience similar oppression in the real world, where things like social media and news can manipulate people into believing something that isn’t true, causing things like stereotypes and polarization that create a label for certain groups causing issues similar to what takes place throughout the trilogy. Furthermore, one thing I think that has changed about my thinking is that in the book, I understand now that this may have been originally done in good faith to protect the population and the land from a fifth season, but it was taken to extreme levels and not executed properly, creating a stereotype of Orogenes as being dangerous, causing other individuals not to trust or accept them as humans; putting them at the very bottom of their hierarchical social structure, which can be related to events that have happened to oppressed groups throughout history. In the second book of the trilogy, The Obelisk Gate, Nassun who is the daughter of Essun is taken by her father after he kills his son Uche when he discovers that is he an Orogene. While traveling through the Antarctics, Nassums father says to her “They can cure you Nassun. That’s what the stories say.” (The Obelisk Gate, Chapter 7). I believe that this quote shows how everyone including Orogenes like Nassun has been manipulated so much into believing that there is something wrong with them and that they are not able to be normal unless they are “cured”. This quote shows how oppression and racialization can have a massive impact on different groups of people where they truly believe that they are different from what is “normal”. This causes several issues that we experience in the real world where individuals can be once again manipulated into believing things about themselves and others that are not always true.

A character that I can relate to my personal growth and how my thinking has changed is Essun. She went through several different challenges in the trilogy, from being banished from her family and home at a very young age to having her son murdered by her husband. These hard times and challenges are what ultimately shaped her into the individual she was at the end of the trilogy, being more grounded and patient, compared to how she was at the beginning of the trilogy; being fiery and wanting to get things done without caring as much for the repercussions of her actions. I can relate this to my personal experiences. At the beginning of this semester, I was expecting to be able to stay focused on what I needed to do to complete all of my classes and improve on how well I did in the previous semester. I soon realized that it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought it would be, taking classes that were more challenging than I expected. It took me a little time before I understood that I needed to change my approach to get the results that I intended. Just as Essun was faced with hard and seemingly impossible challenges when she was young, I feel as if the beginning of this semester was similar for me. I did not expect my workload to be as intense as it was and I became very stressed, while also experiencing personal issues on top of having a difficult semester. At first, I felt almost hopeless and that nothing that could help me. Throughout this course, I began to notice that I just needed to focus on what was the task at hand and not manipulate myself into thinking that I wouldn’t be able to do what I needed to. Nearing the end of this semester, I feel that even though I still have a heavy workload, I have been able to stay patient and manage my time much better, allowing myself to do better in all my courses.

This course has helped my personal development, giving me a deeper understanding of all things around me. Once I realized that we were developing ourselves in class and not just reading books, writing, and doing assignments on them, I realized the importance of our thinking and how much of a role it plays in our daily lives, and how it can also have an impact on others around us.

Work Cited

“The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate” by N.K. Jemisin“The Stone Sky” by N.K. Jemisin

Balance Starts with Forgiveness

At the start of the Broken Earth trilogy, it was easy to see the relevance between the story, and its progression, and the concept of racialization that we were informed by. As I began to move through the content and text further and further, I found myself often returning to Geraldine Heng’s statement in The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages on the theory of and processes in a racialized world. Heng’s words influenced my opening analysis of The Fifth Season while it reassured a viewpoint I developed in past critical writing courses on race, as suggested it has stayed important in every aspect of our living. Race has been and is one of the constructs that demonstrates the “tendency” we have shown to sort through people other than ourselves, then including ourselves, so that those who present “differently” become the “other” (Heng 27). Namely, I discussed in my essay, “Bad Faith in a Racialized World,” the system or systems of essentialism we as a people take part in, “whether innocently or not,” to say that no one is exempt from involvement in it. Since every one of us has some place in the process, we should be urged to look at how it affects our consideration of anyone and everyone. When we declare that a selected quality of a person accounts for a person’s humanity, we make an unsound and incomplete judgment of who they truly are. Here, we note the danger found in the essentialist’s definition of race insisting it is a content or quality, either present or lacking, which then was intended to articulate difference as a reason for differing power positions (Heng 27). I engaged a great deal with this idea in my essay to unravel the social script and structure of Jemisin’s world as I was introduced to it. Before her, I thought of racialization as a strategic process that resulted in mostly socioeconomic and political consequences for select groups of people despite its lack of grounding in any reality. Completely immersed in her world, I’ve seen how bad faith may extend its influence on relationships intensely. 

In conversation with Dr. McCoy’s other ENGL 337: African American Literature course as we’ve come back to the April 12th class notes for its question of, “what is the proper response to atrocity?,” I see that a right way to respond or deal with atrocity and its effects does not exist. Such a convoluted question pushed me to wonder whether a correct response could exist in a world that produces varying degrees of social and interpersonal atrocity according to “qualities” such as race. Then I traced my thoughts back to our second week in this trilogy informed course as we discussed earthquakes and volcanic events including the “Ashfall Preparedness Guidelines” that suggest there are some proper precautions at least if not reactions to destruction. In the provided chapter by Nur and Burgess, “How Earthquakes Happen,” Professor Ralph Solecki of Columbia University who excavated the Shanidar Cave in Northern Iraq wrote in an excerpt of his book on his findings, “And then I suddenly realized the unusual nature of the disturbance” (Nur and Burgess, 36). I include this statement as the chapter began to acknowledge how natural events had coexisted with humans since the beginning, however there came a point when humans realized and turned toward the importance of understanding earthquakes specifically compared to the information they had on them from antiquity. The authors claim, “had we not known that an earthquake killed these people, our entire view of their society might be skewed” (Nur and Burgess 39). All of this sounds familiar in retrospect after having read Jemisin and her consistent inclusion of community and love in the face of destruction on the Stillness, the character’s home that despite its name is always unpredictably changing. Through the novels to their endings and these concerns I’ve slowly arrived at, I see the need in a racialized world for understanding. 

Reading Jemisin’s work, we were introduced to the concept of orogeny as a handful of changes that affect the seismic changes deep below the land. Orogenes, those who can instinctively control these movements, are turned to for survival of the harshly changing seasons as they can access and work with the energy of the Earth. Though orogenes hold a valuable and precious ability to manage the events, they experience a loss of “attributed power,” as I stated before. The characters present a quality that the cultures of the Stillness deem as selectively important or as Heng would say, essential to understanding them as human beings. Rather, in a world that often seems to be falling apart based on sudden conflicts, the orogenes are used as a means to an end. 

In time, it becomes more and more pressing how the characters interact with their orogeny and that of others, which corresponds to states of instability and balance alternating. Informed by their pasts, but notably the development and attitude toward those skills, Essun’s loss of Conundrum represents larger ethical questions and later on her relationship with Nassun gives us broader context. A lasting thread found in these examples appears to be how families are affected by racialization as it provokes vulnerability and emotional investment. Every character in the trilogy has their own reality that brings light to their motives and the actions they take. For us to understand why the characters act and feel as they do—just as we do people—we cannot isolate anyone from their socialized experiences for the two are intimately connected.

Understanding the protagonist herself, who undergoes three phases of identity, we see in all of those how one may act when in a most vulnerable state. For the orogenes, even with their energetic powers, they were left in positions where they were unsafe or dealt with in bad faith. Early on, we see the spontaneous destruction that came from Syenite’s erratic feelings. Such destruction, however, cannot be understood if not for the structure that evokes emotion. Prior to our knowledge that Syenite is Essun, we see how Syenite sacrifices her own child Conundrum by smothering him so that he could not be taken to the Fulcrum and Essun mourns over this immense loss. In this way, Jemisin seems to rewrite Toni Morrison’s Beloved, whose protagonist Sethe escaped slavery on a plantation called Sweet Home until slave catchers are about to capture Sethe and her three children, one of which is her daughter Beloved who dies at her mother’s hand as her mother. Sethe has been analyzed in a contemporary reading of the novel in all of her complexity that must be understood in the context of the atrocities of slavery that only Sethe had endured. Sethe truly believed if she hadn’t killed her daughter she would have died and Sethe wouldn’t be able to bear that death in terms of her body through the inhuman abuse, but also the spiritual hopelessness to happen to her (Morrison 236). As for how justice falls into the hands of a mother when in front of violence and harm expected in a child’s future, Syenite resonates with Sethe’s decision and Beloved’s fate for her son. In The Fifth Season, she’s desperate to save him from being taken from the guardians knowing what he’d endure in the future, Syenite uses the obelisk to destroy Meov after she realizes her rare ability to connect with obelisks. There’s a moment just before Corundum dies between his parents Syenite and Alabaster, who were purposefully paired by the Fulcrum to have the child for greater influence, where Alabaster asks for a deeper trust for the future of their child, “‘Promise me you won’t let them take Coru. No matter what’” and repeated soon after, “‘Promise, you know what they’ll do to him, Syen. A child that strong, my child, raised outside the Fulcrum? You know’” (Jemisin 320-321). Love begs for understanding among people as well as intuitive decisions for what “could be the proper way to respond” to frequent and unstoppable disasters that give someone or yourself the best chance. At the start of the novel, we see Essun as a mother of Nassun and Uche with their father Jija who killed Uche, however it is only after the first book that we acknowledge her grief over the murder of both her sons as well as the distance from Nassun as Jija takes her with him as he fled. Essun is told by the beginning in a vulnerable state alone, “The world has already ended within her, and neither ending is for the first time…What she thinks then, and thereafter, is: But he was free. And it is her bitter, weary self that answers this almost-question every time her bewildered, shocked self manages to produce it: He wasn’t. Not really. But now he will be” (Jemisin 7). Then Essun narrates to preface us by saying in order for us to understand, we must listen to the context, which I’ve become more aware of through Jemisin as there is such a thing as good faith actions within a system that practices bad faith repeatedly. In connection with good faith and honest vulnerability here comes later in an interaction between Essun and Lerna, a doctor of Tirimo, Essun’s hometown, who takes care of Essun after her son’s death. Lerna is there for Essun, showing her a compassion that she hadn’t felt before, which gave her reason to accept she needed someone else’s presence if not for family or death just once. We’re revealed to a universal human condition, which is what we all ask of one another and what we all live for, “maybe with human arms around you and a human voice murmuring, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Essun,” in your ear, maybe you can feel like that. Maybe you are human, just for a little while” (Jemisin 250). A recognition of another that doesn’t dismiss the depth of their feeling, but rather embraces it forgivingly and with more love. 

The significance of understanding, particularly that of a family and mother’s love, persists with Essun’s bond with Nassun as for considering the agency, or lack thereof, Essun has to protect her daughter. In The Stone Sky Essun drops everything to find her final hope of a child of hers living, though as readers we know that each of her names adds a broader meaning to the phases of her disrupted families she’s once had that left her at a loss. In light of her damaging history that told Essun what motherhood is—a constant sacrifice of the present in hopes of a better future for one’s child, “but that’s no different from what mothers have had to do since the dawn of time…You’ll see to it” (Jemisin 390). When Essun sees her daughter is one in the same as her and Nassun holds resentment towards her because of the hardships and coldness found in the private, Nassun realizes and reflects the same relationship to orogeny as her mother. This  thread between the two of them makes us wonder if perhaps one must experience, feel, and fault themselves just as their parents’ to understand why they did. The redemption of Schaffa, who was essentially a parent of Damaya and therefore Syenite and Essun as her actual parents rejected her, landed on Nassun too. For the guardian who was involved in the oppression and power imbalance Essun endured, confesses to his past recruit’s daughter, “‘You are all the children I should have loved and protected, even from myself. And if it will bring you peace…Then I shall be your Guardian till the world burns, my little one’” (Jemisin 504). Family is a pressure unlike any other in a racialized world that both acts as tension and support, but in the end, there’s an affection between children and their caretakers that share with us a hope for the future. 

Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy has taken me to the very core of what racialized consequences mean, not merely from afar or intellectually as a statement of acknowledging difference indifferently, but holding onto the need for kindness and forgiveness for anyone and everyone. A forgiveness that need not rationalize or involve us in its complicity and harm, but provides a course of action for a better world. I’ll remember the last conversation that encourages us as readers to move past patience and move into that course, “’Don’t be patient. Don’t ever be. This is the way a new world begins.
‘Neither am I,’ I say. ‘So let’s get to it.'” (Jemisin 462). The same movement I’ve undertaken in seeing how a world so relentlessly imbalanced matters as that thought of a possible future existing in-between acceptance and resistance could never leave me. I know no one is exempt from change and fulfilling endings when we decide to understand difference for the sake of unity, rather than isolation and power. I know that embracing the humanity of another is a conscious decision, that we must everyday meet ourselves with.

Works Cited

Jemisin, N. K. The Fifth Season. Orbit, 2016.Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Print.

Jemisin, N. K.. The Obelisk Gate. First Edition. New York, NY, Orbit, 2016.

Jemisin, N. K. The Stone Sky. Orbit, 2017.

Iterations Final Reflection

As I’ve worked with the literature and concepts provided to me this semester, I’ve come to reflect on how I view them as I also grow alongside my thoughts. Seed shape was one of the concepts I constantly found myself reflecting on. I constantly asked myself if I had really understood what it meant or if I had just developed a surface level understanding of the term. In February I had only simply understood that a seed shape was the beginning of something. In my seed shape essay I had written, “That beginning can be thought to be either when a person is born or the life a person leads before beginning a new life.” Now after returning the book African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design by Ron Eglash I think I’ve developed a deeper understanding. In Englash’s book I think seed shape is best defined as, “He began with a triangular shape made of four line ^, the “seed.” He then replaced each of the lines with a reduced version of the original seed shape.” Similarly to the understanding I’ve gained from returning to Eglash’s work I’ve gained a deeper understanding of my own thoughts and values through working with the book The Water Cure by Percival Everett. The Water Cure had me looking into why I hold the values and thoughts I do and how distorted they can become through the lens of tragedy and grief. Literature plays such a large and important part in my academic career and through this semester I’ve learned a lot about the importance of handling literature with care, and allowing it to help you grow, whether that be through your own personal knowledge or self growth.

My growth in personal knowledge and self was never more evident to me then when I reflected back on my very first essay this semester, my seed shape essay. When reflecting on my writing I could easily see the lack of care I took into truly understanding what seed shape was. I took my first understanding of the words Eglash and carefully written and didn’t attempt to dig any deeper into my understanding. When reflecting on my new understanding of the word seed shape I find regret in my failure to understand sooner as now I read my essay and have so many ideas on how I could have connected the idea of seed shape to works of literature I was handling at the time. With my new understanding I thought about how lovely it would have been to talk about how Dee from Everyday Use had replaced almost every part of her own life to create a new version of herself. To her, her beginnings may only be able to be traced back to items from her childhood and to her those items can not be used as they are the only part of her beginning that she has left. In the same regret I carry for Everyday Use, I find myself regretting the lack of attention I paid towards Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. In hindsight and I’m sure I knew it even then, I had a clear favorite between the two texts and took care to express more of my thoughts of Everyday Use and its connection to seed shape. If I could redo it now I would spend much more time on the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Looking back I think it would have been really interesting to explore how Douglass had to replace aspects of his story to meet other’s standards and how that resembles how every aspect of a seed shape is eventually replaced. Every detail of someone’s life contributes to how they’ve grown and changed as a person. Did Douglass feel like he sacrificed semblances of himself in order to get his story published, and do we see him differently because his story was changed.

Reflecting on my old work made me think a lot about my own integrity in my writing but nothing taught me more about my own values then when I was reading and writing short collaborative pieces for The Water Cure. When reading The Water Cure I often found myself frustrated with how hard it was to follow. Having read other Percival Everett works before I expected something in a similar vein but was surprised with how all over the place the narrative and writing was. As I continued to read however I slowly began to appreciate the work for what it was. The narrator, Ishmael Kidder, to me, was as close to an unreliable narrator as one could get. His mind was all over the place and yet so precise in some areas, it really felt like I was in his own thoughts. Everett didn’t need to spell out for me that Kidder might not be in his right mind, he showed it and let me come to my own conclusions. “Art is tied up down in my basement and will never again see the sun, will never smell a flower again, with never feel rain, hear the wind, touch a puppy or a child.” When reading this sentence about how Kidder had kidnapped a man and then would later go on to torture him even when he didn’t exactly know if he raped and killed his daughter had me so unsetled and I had to ask myself, could I justify doing something horrible to someone I didn’t know committed a crime against me or a loved one? My automatic answer is no of course not, but when I look more into the commentary Everett is making on real life events through The Water Cure I have to acknowledge that people are capable of justifying these things. When reading a section where Kidder essentially describes waterboarding I thought, who would do that, but then when sitting with the knowledge had to acknowledge that people had done that for what they felt were justified reasons. When people are grief stricken and angry I find they can justify many things but that does not make the actions themselves justifiable. When I return to the question of if I could ever justify these things I can not in good faith say I would never. Grief and anger are unpredictable and while I can say I think that my values and beliefs would never let me think these things are okay, I would have to be placed in a situation where I am feeling these intense emotions to confidently say I can not justify these actions. However I hope I will never be placed in such a situation where my beliefs and values are put to that test and I would like to think I would still find these actions deplorable without having to face as such. 

Now as there are a few day’s left in the semester I can really look at my past and current work and see my growth. While it’s not a new truth it’s always nice to look back and know that as I age I grow as a person and build upon the foundations of my education. If I looked back at everything I’ve written in life I could find places where I’ve focused too much on one thing and others where I’ve missed the mark in my interpretations and I can acknowledge that it’s okay. I don’t need to rewrite every work I find issue with, though I certainly could if I felt so inclined, but instead I can apply what I’ve learned to improve future works. It’s also good to let books make me think, it’s important to once in a while evaluate your own beliefs and values, ask yourself if they still align with what you want as a person. My academic journey is still one that has room for growth and now that my sophomore year is drawing to a close I’m ready to face my junior year head on.

Final Iterations Essay

Throughout this semester in African American literature, we’ve discussed many different concepts and ideas that are often present in Black literature. We’ve also made connections from these discussions to the mathematical patterns in fractal structures by studying Ron Englash’s book African Fractals. Our final class reading for this semester was The Water Cure by Percival Everett, which brought many of the concepts we’ve been talking about together into one place. In particular, the seed shape concept has been represented a lot in this book, and in many different ways. 

The Water Cure describes how Ishmael Kidder, the narrator, copes with the tragic loss of his eleven-year-old daughter, who was kidnapped and murdered. Kidder is separated from his daughter’s mother and is grieving her death on his own, with the occasional visits from his book agent. During the time after her death, Kidder may or may not be holding the person who may or may not have murdered his daughter in his basement and he may or may not be torturing said person. Everything described in this book may or may not have happened, but readers will never know the true events because of Kidder’s unreliable and chaotic narration. 

A lot of the material we’ve read and analyzed have been quite challenging for me to decipher because I had never encountered these texts or authors in any previous English class. As James Snead mentions in his essay “On Repetition in Black Culture,” traditionally European/Western culture sees culture as something linear and growing. While Black culture typically views culture as a circle, not aiming for growth but for an equilibrium. The schooling system in the United States, for a majority of the time, follows European cultural trends, so it’s not surprising that the content included in this course is very unfamiliar to me. In some ways, this book was very unsatisfying to read because it didn’t follow the structure that we’re used to reading. The plot of this novel follows a more circular path and there is also no defining end to the story (similar to how seed shapes have no defining end). Towards the end of the book, Everett repeats some fragments that were written in the beginning of the book, making it conclude in a familiar way to how it started. 

In my high school English classes, the curriculum was split up into different units; each one was separate and unrelated to the other, and we would typically read one book per unit. In this course, I enjoyed that we would always loop back to previous texts and concepts to identify how they connect to whatever we would be discussing in class. Relating old information and ideas to the new ones helped me to have a better understanding of both the old and new concepts. While working through The Water Cure, it was easier to follow along with how all over the place it was when it was reminiscent of something we’ve already read. 

According to African Fractals, fractal structures are built with a mathematical algorithm. Fractals undergo recursions, which is the output for a first iteration is the input for the next iteration, and so on. Fractal shapes and patterns are commonly found in a wide variety of things—in nature and in culture.

Earlier this semester, we discussed seed shapes in African fractals and how they are represented in Black literature. In my seed shape essay, I examined the importance of the concept context as a seed shape in literature and how it can benefit your understanding of a text. Knowing the context that something was written provides readers with a more direct understanding of the author’s purpose. In The Water Cure, knowing the context in which Percival Everette was writing this book is so very valuable to think of when reflecting on this novel. 

Before I began reading this book, I read the reviews on the back of the book and the description in the sleeve of the book. In the description, Everett provides readers with some context when he poses the question: “What are we to think in today’s America, when society seems to be rewriting all the rules?” While reading The Water Cure, I found it helpful to try to keep thinking about Everett’s question. What is the comparison between this book and modern American society? What is the comparison between this book and modern American politics?

Trying to come up with ideas of what this story could be symbolic of or in reference to helped me catch how frequently the phrase “The American Way” appeared throughout the book. This phrase occurred in places where Kidder was questioning what the correct way was to handle a problem, and “The American Way” was usually the option that included violence and guns. In a conversation with the Sheriff about some people growing marijuana have been coming onto his property, the Sheriff suggests, “I don’t see why you don’t just park yourself up there and shoot them when they come…It’s the American way.” (Everett 118) Of course, breaking the law and trespassing should have consequences, but being shot at is a bit extreme. “The American Way” is the idea that if someone hurts you, you have to get them back by hurting them even more. This is also reminiscent of how the United States responds to others in war.  

Another concept that is represented as a seed shape is identity. It is apparent throughout this book that with the grieving of his daughter, our narrator is experiencing somewhat of an identity crisis. Being a father to Lane is an important part to Kidder’s identity. In the book he questions if he can continue to call himself a father, “To say that I’m a father entails a necessary conjunction with a child, but given the negation of that child, am I to understand a negation of my fatherhood?” (Everett 85) Not only is Kidder coping with losing someone he loves and cares for in an extremely traumatic way, but he has also lost someone who his life partly revolves around, and he doesn’t know how to continue living without that person. 

Kidder also includes two self-portraits in this book, he is giving readers a visual example of how he views himself. Both portraits are very abstract and don’t really resemble a human face or body. The only human feature in the first drawing (page 30) is a pair of eyes among the squiggly shapes. On page 94, Everett writes, “Here I am again,” before another abstract self-portrait that doesn’t resemble anything close to a human face. This change shows how Kidder is drifting farther and farther from knowing himself. 

Identity has also been a very frequent concept in many of our previous course texts. Specifically, the concept of “two-ness” in one’s identity. For example, in Frederick Douglas’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas: An American Slave Written by Himself, he describes how a physical altercation with Mr. Covey, his slave master changed how he felt: “It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.” (Call & Response 302) He describes the differentia between his two selves—one who was free and one who was not. 

The Water Cure partly acted as a summary for this course because it touched on so many of the topics we have learned about and many of the readings from this semester. Through class discussions and personal reflections on the book, I’ve learned how creating connections to something you already know about makes learning and understanding a lot easier and more interesting. 

Iterations Final Reflection Essay

My progression from the beginning of the semester to now reflects the key aspects of our course outcomes as well as my personal aspirations as a student. The myriad concepts and points that have been discussed throughout the semester have enhanced and illuminated the works which we have read and given me a deeper understanding of the multifaceted world of both literature and African-American studies. Looking back on my “Seed Shape” essay that I wrote at the start of the year, I feel that I have greatly improved my knowledge of African-American studies as well as its importance in the larger perspective. In this essay I discussed my story throughout the course thus far, however, when I look at the end, I realize that I have entirely shifted perspectives on what factors and “seed shapes” really are. Most significantly, the works “African Fractals” written by Ron Eglash, and “The Water Cure” written by Percival Everett have provided me the insight to recognize and interpret the features of recursion, and infinity within our daily lives. Therefore, one major concept from “African Fractals”  that I find to be of significance is the concept of fractal recursivity and how it emphasizes the repetition of similar geometric motifs or patterns within larger designs, reflecting a fundamental aspect of the procedure of retaining and deeply understanding underlying concepts within this course. Fully conceptualizing the idea of progression while simultaneously using repetition and reflection has led me to connect various course concepts to my personal perceptions of what it means to be reflective and progressive within my academic work and individual growth.

Perhaps the first feature of this course that we immediately jumped right into was African fractals. Although at first I thought it was odd that we were discussing geometry in a literature class, it turned out to be an influential and significant aspect of my overall comprehension of the works we read. Referring back to fractal recursivity, I now understand how an infinite pattern or structure can be seen and interpreted within progression and growth within academic scholarship. Eglash describes African fractals as repetitive and infinitive fragments that make up an African settlement, but rather than just simply being an architectural design, I learned that they can also represent the cultural beliefs and various meanings behind traditions within African culture. Similarly, within our course structure, each fragment of the course itself reflects the multifaceted, overall meanings of the course materials we have been asked to read and interpret. Furthermore, the encouragement and emphasis on returning to past course materials and concepts alludes to the way African fractals are reflective of much more than a design, but a vast array of intertwined, cultural and intellectual knowledge. Continuously returning back to past works provided me with the opportunity to progress academically within the class and enhanced my abilities to connect various points and interpretations to one another. I often found myself returning back to works that we had covered that I believed held importance to a specific topic we were discussing. Most commonly, I thought of  “On Repetition in Black Culture” by James Snead which discusses how post European-Enlightenment culture forcefully attempted to transition repetition into accumulation and rapid growth, rather than insightfully returning to certain aspects that can foster a deeper knowledge and appreciation of intellectual concepts. Diving into this piece has helped me understand exactly how this way of Eurocentric thinking is limiting in my work as a scholar. Conceptualizing and retaining specific pieces of significantly influential works of literature is a key factor in obtaining the ability to connect complex topics to concrete evidential support embedded in texts. I now see how revisiting previously learned materials and concepts offers greater opportunity for personal and intellectual growth.

Nearing the conclusion of this course, I feel that reading “The Water Cure”, by Percival Everett, was a catalyst for helping me shift my perspective. If we perhaps interpret the structure of this course as a form of “art”, whether it be appreciating an infinite pattern of shapes, poetry or books, or even keeping a hostage in the basement, like Kidder, we can further dive in to the overall meanings of why and how we’re observing what we are. It’s clear that Everett wove his creativity into his writing, while his fictional narrator, Ishmael Kidder, wove his artistic“abilities” into torturing the murderer of his child, Lane. Throughout the book we see how Evertt incorporates various randomized poems, drawings, and gibberish that add to the seemingly disorganized, but ingenious, form of the piece itself. In relation to this course, I believe that this book reflects the emphasis on progression, but also retention and repetition. Everett frequently reflects on the past experiences of Kidder, yet continues to tell a story and continues to add onto that same drawing little by little. Another concept of Everett’s work that was discussed in our first mini collaboration was the question of whether Everett’s work with “The Water Cure” was restrained or not. Focusing on these questions allowed for deep, intellectual conversation among my group to be shared and carefully considered. And after long contemplation, we came to the conclusion that it varied between whose work was actually restrained, Ishmael or Everett. While Everett’s work seemed to be creative, though sort of unhinged,  Kidder’s thoughts were heavily restrained. We can visibly see in the diction Ishmael uses that separates himself from his alter ego, so much so that they seem like two entirely different people altogether in his mind, which reflects the difficulty in balancing the author’s, the narrator’s, and the narrator’s alter ego’s thoughts. If we think about it, taking away one’s own personal identity denies a critical aspect of a relationship between the artist and their art, which can tie right back into why reading this piece lastly was so important. Comprehending my own “restraint” within the course helped me understand what I have gotten out of the course, and if I have allowed myself to fully conceptualize and incorporate the major course themes beyond the classroom, in my academic pursuits overall. 

Through rigorous engagement with these texts and with the course’s assigned scholarly sources, I feel that I have bettered my understanding of African American literature, as well as the benefits of reflective self-grading and peer discussion. The course structure itself was shaped around continuously referring back to past concepts and sources, which I believe portrayed the overall course outcomes and concepts in a physical and metaphorical way. First observing fractal shapes and what they entailed, and then understanding fractal recursivity, a main concept from “African Fractals” by Ron Eglash, set the foundation for the course and provided me and my peers with the opportunity to dive further into the ways in which something as simple as shapes and reflective pieces of art can tell us about ourselves. The feedback that I received on my works was also a way of reflecting back to how I have progressed throughout the semester and what I can do as a scholar moving forward in my academic career. After reading “The Water Cure” by Percival Everett,  I was able to see an interpretive glimpse into the world of African American literature that I had not seen before. Everett’s language itself portrays the complex emotions he felt and how he turned it into a masterful piece of work. Something that I had found most influential was discussing this novel with my peers. Interestingly, we all had entirely different perceptions of it which lead to a wonderful discussion about all of our perceptions. At the end of this, I noticed specific details about the literature that I had not recognized previously, which gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation for the chaos embedded in the text. It was a work about much more than just an unstable father who is seeking justice, but a form of expressive art from the author. It reflects on the ways in which inanimate objects such as a novel, or a fractal pattern, can be representative of humanistic values of growth and expression.

In concluding this course, I have been able to reflect on my personal progression through the semester from various standpoints. Looking back on some of our first discussions of African fractals, there is a clear connection between the themes within Eglash’s work and Everett’s novel. Perhaps beginning and ending with these two works alludes to a sort of infinity within the course, and the significance that there is no real end to anything, only growth and progression from where you started. This course has encouraged my personal growth; it has taught me to slow down and to return back to previous concepts and themes in order to connect them to current discussions of literature before moving forward. Specifically, fractal recursivity, as Eglash describes, can stand as a metaphor for our course structure and the way it mirrors a fractal shape, or an interpretive seed shape as I’ve discussed in my previous essay. Its pattern-like nature and emphasis on recursion and reflection shows the ways in which I can use my resources to foster an environment where I can retain and appreciate what I learn for long term growth and understanding.

Artistic Control 

A Koch curve is predictable but repetitive in a way that creates new designs in which the initial concept is often lost. Finding a seed shape is often explanatory of the larger image, but not intuitive. In the spiraling mishmash of a text that is Percival Everett’s The Water Cure, The search for a seed shape and the trace back outward reveals Kidder’s grief after losing his daughter Lane to a rapist and his subsequent increased desire for control. However, analysis of the work alongside course material and discussion also reveals the broader importance of contradiction and the care with which it is created, as well as reconciliation with limitations/bounds inherent one’s control over art.

My initial impression of The Water Cure was of its complexity. At the time, most of Kidder’s tangents, drawings, and jumbled words seemed meaningless, a drawn out indication of a man spiraling out of control after a tragic loss. Further reading and class discussion made me able to identify the reasoning behind what had felt useless days earlier. Even if I personally do not consider all elements of the novel necessary, I am now able to identify how these elements are purposeful. Herein lies the predictable expansion of a Koch curve. Kidder is preoccupied with possession and control born from his grief. His anecdotes and even chunks of seemingly random and nearly incomprehensible thought are purposeful and, to some end, predictable. 

Class discussions were integral in my understanding of The Water Cure, as I found it easy to get lost in. In a small group, unpacking the role restraint plays in the water cure, my classmates and I talked at length about containers. The desire to control, to contain, runs through the novel, and with it comes the entrapment of beetles, men, and art. The possible meaning of Kidder’s anecdote about Lane securing a beetle in a box with tape sparked discussion. Through containment, she hopes that he, the beetle, might “mean something” (Everett 91). We spoke of Schrodinger’s cat – the creature in the box, the cat, beetle, man – which adopts a simultaneously ambiguous and unambiguous role, that of the maybe dead, maybe alive, but ultimately neither until the box is opened. Here the beetle sits in the nebulous space of significance as William sits in the basement of Kidder’s mountain home as the maybe culprit, the maybe not culprit, and therefore both. Kidder gives William a series of titles one of which is Art. A name itself is constraining and puts boundaries and/or assumptions on identity (James is a boy, Jasmine is a girl). The name Art has implications of a change in physicality, framing the man as a project to “work on…everyday, nudging clay here, tempering hue there, chipping at a corner, changing tense, altering key” (141). Art also brings to mind physical possessions, paintings kept in museums. In renaming the man in the basement Kidder expresses control over Art. The fact that this switch is made quickly, “Just like that” (110) emphasizes Art’s complete loss of autonomy in Kidder’s hands. 

While Kidder as a character exercises control over his a(A)rt with tape, a burlap sack, and manipulation, curators and authors like Charles Henry Rowell and the many contributors to Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, as well as the course itself use containers of their own – epitaphs, forwards, introductions, afterwords – in efforts to frame works. They attempt to control interpretation, guide the conversation, or leave breadcrumbs for connection. Charles Henry Rowell, for instance, uses the introduction to Angles of Ascent, a collection of contemporary African American Poetry, to express his opinion that poets are and should continue to move  away from the Black Arts Movement, thus framing the collection as one counter to the movement. In Rowell’s mind, abandoning the movement would mean abandoning the “fetters of narrow political and social demands that have nothing to do with the production of artistic texts” (xli). As a testament to an artist’s lack of control over the reception of their work, Amiri Baraka criticizes this framing in his essay “A Post-Racial Anthology?” The structure of this course reflects the same desire to steer the conversation through pictures and epitaphs. Each time a student accesses resources from Module 4, for example, they encounter an image of a tree, which serves as a reminder of the Lucille Clifton poem beneath it that asks “why//is there under that poem always//an other poem?” This prompts the student to consider context and deeper meaning in the module’s readings and discussions. Interestingly, following the poem is a H.L. Mencken’s poem which expresses a need for critical thinking that avoids the “neat, plausible, and wrong” interpretation of any given text. Containers as a means to control, whether forcefully or gently, are found throughout the course. 

Although Kidder’s choices of what to share with the reader shape his narrative in our eyes, he cannot avoid his seed shape, his desire for control as a central theme. In an attempt to create a recursive mirroring of Art, he physically cannot leave himself out of the man’s view. He desires control as an artist has over their painting, a precise manipulation of every detail in a space in which he himself is not visible, emphasized in his reference to the Venus Effect when purchasing the mirrors. In kidnapping Art, Kidder desires to become the god of Art; he wants to be out of his sight, yet in complete control, “the cop and the judge and the jury and the executioner and god, and god” (196). Kidder tapes Art’s eyes and “leaves no marks” (45), only a “a vague recollection…like the face of god” (251). The desire for control over the perception of one’s art is not unique to Kidder. The individual being integral to the creative process makes full separation of art and artist nearly impossible, even as, or maybe especially as, one seeks that distance. Most noticeably through marginalization, the personal becomes political. In the eyes of creation, this can be either negative or positive. Octavia Butler clarifies in the afterword of “Bloodchild” that the story is not about slavery, and that the interpretation “amazes” her. Audiences assume that a story related to captivity written by a Black woman must be about slavery, and refuse to investigate other avenues of thought. On the other hand, as highlighted in our in-class discussion of New Critical Formalism, the idea that “works of literature are self-contained (autotelic) art ‘objects’ that exist independently of the world around them…no link…to the historical context” (handout), is flawed. Not only does the method stem from an avoidance of social and political trends, but the experiences of the author, the artist, are often integral to the text itself. Reading Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Lager Beer” without understanding the pressure from white critics and publishers on Black authors to write in the Plantation Tradition would miss the significance of the exaggeration of stereotypes and accent. The nature of an author’s interactions with their environment and how it is or is not reflected in their work has been a prevailing course concept, ultimately challenging students to consider historical context and biographical information, but to apply it thoughtfully while remaining vigilant against their own cultural script.

Artists work along tension lines of control, taking great care to create thoughtful contradiction. The constraint of structure designed by a white academic elite has long plagued the Black author. In Slave Narratives in particular, authors are only expected to share facts, and only through plain narration, the rest is to be left to white audiences. Internal and external conflict as narrative beats in freytag’s pyramid have long been part of Western literary tradition. However, Black authors are simultaneously barred from particular traditions and bound tightly to others. Pushback against texts that are complex or unexpected reveals how Black people are often not allowed the “privilege of multifacetedness.” The Water Cure takes this restrictive area, the challenge of remaining “credible” through sense, and pushes back against it. Kidder, and by extension Everett, ask “ when would form and structure not confine me, not constrain me?” (Everett 77). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, which was considered fiction for over 100 years, illustrates the choice Black writers often had to and continue to have to make: Will I tell my story, even when I am not believed? The unimaginable conditions of Jacobs’ 9 by 7 foot hideout in which she “suffered for air even more than for light…was tormented by hundreds of little red insects” (Jacobs 453) and could see her children only through a small hole, was the primary reason it was declared in the white academic world to be fiction, having not remained confined to the criteria placed on Black writers to be believable, even in telling the truth. Responses to contradictions and experimentation in writing reflect literary and analytical bias, which many artists challenge through their work. 

The Water Cure seems an unlikely course bookend – a fictional novel mostly taking place in a man’s notebook as he grieves. Within the novel, however, there emerges a discussion of the complex relationship between an author or artist and their work stemming from Kidder’s intense desire for control. Control serves as the seed shape for the novel’s recursive fractal. In recursion, the result of one round becomes the starting point for the next, and so on. Recursion used to create fractals results in a shape with a length that cannot be measured (Eglash 13), but can be quantified, reduced to an origin. In this way the necessity of complexity and the discussion revolving around control over one’s art has infinite applications, branching far beyond The Water Cure, beyond the course, especially when it brings one back to a search for the seed shape. 

Iterations Final Reflection Essay: African American Literature and Recursions

The entirety of this course on African American Literature put an emphasis on the concept of “looping back” to previous ideas. While, at a glance, that may seem redundant, I have come to value the methodology of implementing fractals within the course outline. At the beginning of the semester, I favored storytelling that thrived on formulas because I felt that there needed to be a sense of clarity of characters and plot; this was incapsulated by the method of practicing “order, disorder, order restored”. However, after visiting literature that focused on repetition, a lack of that clarity, and abrupt changes in modes of storytelling, I have a newfound appreciation for the unpredictability of prose. One piece that emulated that unpredictability was “The Water Cure” By Percival Everrett, which follows a grieving father through the aftermath of the loss of his child. The novel relies on the reader’s sense of the unknown; we are not to know the truth or reliability of the narrator’s story. Everrett’s main character, Ishmael Kidder, is written in a way that gives the reader a feeling of chaos, as though Kidder’s mind may not be considered “sound”. There are continual shifts in language, events, and even in Kidder’s personality, and though it was, at times, uncomfortable, it was fascinating. I longed for more literature that gave me that irregularity. This course’s practicing of the methodology of continuously referencing itself and prior topics emulated the concept of recursion offered in Ron Eglash’s, “African Fractals”, which was then further employed in “The Water Cure”.

“African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design” by Ron Eglash reviews the concept of geometric fractals and connects the idea of repetition to culture and anthropology. Within his work, Eglash describes recursion, specifically “self-reference” recursion: referring to one thing by saying another (Eglash, 110). Author Percival Everett features this idea of recursion within his own work; in ‘The Water Cure”, where he utilizes a fluid method of language. The entirety of the book relies upon the fact that there are no absolute answers. The author names his main character Ishmael Kidder, using the play on language as a surname as an indicator for the unreliability of the narrator’s narrative, as well as reminding us of his parenthood. Later, after a potential act of revenge, which results in the kidnapping of a perceived perpetrator of his daughter’s death, Kidder names his victim “Art”. Understanding the backstory of Everett, Kidder, and black authors, allows the nuance of Everett’s reference to the war on black art to be recognized. Percival Everett, among other black authors, have been targeted by a history of stereotyping, as popularized by Thomas Jefferson in his “Query XIV” piece (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, “Query XIV”). He believed that these writers suffered from “plain narration”, an innate simplicity due to racist bias. Jefferson’s claim that doubted the value of black art appears to be both contested and gratified by Ishamel Kidder; throughout the novel, there are pieces of art that may have been Kidder’s own work. They hold no astounding talent within the works, and as Jefferson said, were of “elementary trait” and seem to align with his theory. However, taking into account both Everett’s and Kidder’s interactions with Jefferson, there is a complexity drawn out by recursion within “The Water Cure” that rejects that bias. Kidder calling his victim “Art” reflects the intracity of his, and Everett’s relationship with art. Everett writes, “Naming functions as a device for distancing as much as a emblem of connection. Name. Naming. Named.” (Water, 44) Naming the fragments of environment around him, including his victim, portray significance in the specifics of his actions. His torture of Art as a human being reflects his torture of art as a concept, how it taunted him, hurt him, caused him pain as he struggled to find his foothold writing stories and drawing. His freeing of Art represents his freeing of art, of letting go. Kidder’s referencing of Art was also Everett’s reference of art, an example of Eglash’s process of recursion appearing in the text. It is these conversations between author and Jefferson, as well as narrator and Jefferson, that pulled me into the type of story which may lack a more popularized, or basic, storytelling formula, and had me immersed in the irregularity of the novel. “Looping back” to prior content, such as “Query XIV”, allowed for a fuller understanding and immersive experience of each piece read; the connecting of works read at vastly different times was made possible only though the process of engaging with those works in a more in-depth way and thinking with a depth otherwise untouched by another method.

The concept of “looping back” to previously covered topics creates links between works and ideas that would be otherwise left untouched. It creates a more effective learning environment as well as a better understanding of each piece. Prior to taking this class, I was not actively practicing the steps of looking back on earlier matters covered and applying them to new material. Now, however, it is routine to consciously think about how one or more subjects apply to seemingly unconnected work and linking them together. Without exercising this with “The Water Cure” by Percival Everrett, I would not have been able to fully understand the complexities nor enjoy the content. With the learning process of looping back, I now see how it could be correlated to a myriad of works, including Jefferson’s “Query XIV” and Eglash’s “African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design”, and by engaging in conversation with more than one piece at a time, I felt that I had a more thorough understanding of the intricacy presented within the book and course, overall.

Iterations Final Reflection

By Abigail Kennedy


Warmed from the early sun, the sand pleasantly warms the soles of your feet as you walk. The sea, painted hues of yellow and pink, comes lapping at your ankles. Save for the call of some early-rising birds, the silence is only interrupted by the gentle splashes. A shining spiral pattern breaks up the sandy view below your heels as you stroll along the beach. Sand falls free as you raise it to your eyes. A conch shell rests in your palm: a spiraling piece of nature curated from fractals. 


Fractals are mathematical shapes that endlessly repeat, often creating an end image the longer they repeat. Fractals are made up of seed shapes, the base image, or input for the fractal. This is what makes up the fractal with each iteration. In his book African Fractals Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, Ron Eglash defines fractals by explaining that “In iteration, there is only one transformation process, but each time the process creates an output, it uses this result as the input for the next iteration, as we’ve seen in generating fractals” (110). Iterations are the repetition of seed shapes, adding on to build through inputs and outputs. Overall, each component is needed to create the fractal. Much like fractals, the course ENGL 337, African-American Literature, has its recurring themes and concepts. 

As the end of the semester approached, the class was tasked with reflecting upon our own growth and understanding of the course as a whole. From the very beginning of the semester, we looked at fractals and how they interacted, beginning with a read of African Fractals Modern Computing and Indigenous Design by Ron Eglash. Initially, I was curious to see how fractals interacted with African-American literature. I had worked briefly with fractals in my high school geometry class and had experienced them while reading Michael Criton’s novel Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park is a science fiction novel that features a cautionary tale about scientific advancements, more specifically genetic engineering. The story tells the creation and inevitable collapse of a park filled with scientifically engineered dinosaur clones. The dinosaurs escape their enclosures and chaos ensues. The book chapters are told in iterations of a fractal called the dragon curve, as shown below. Each iteration shows the park delving deeper and deeper into chaos and disrepair. 

(Photo credit: TyrannasaurTJ)

The novel’s approach to fractals inspired me to look at this course through the lens of a fractal shape. In this, I consider each module an iteration of the seed shape “thinkING, conversING, considerING, reflectING” or the course process. As each module looks at a different set of media and topics, it builds from the ones prior. The modules were all built with the process embedded into them, meaning that without the process the course likely would not work. Our instructor, Beth McCoy emphasized “thinkING, conversING, considerING, reflectING” ensuring that the class stayed on topic and properly gave every work its consideration. To properly analyze the course as a fractal design, I decided to create my own seed shape using Google Drawing and the draw line tool to develop with each module. The seed shape features four lines, each one representing one of the four processes. 


Iteration 1:  

“Course information, policies, and other important material to get started! You’ll return to this over and over throughout the semester”

As the first iteration of the course, this module establishes the seed shape and how it will be interacted with. I demonstrated the beginning of the seed shape, providing needed information on the course including, needed books, how we would be graded, and office hours. All of Beth’s policies are laid out for the class to see and access whenever applicable. The very first item is the course epigraphs and course descriptions. In this moment, the process is established, “In this particular 300-level course, we’ll place great emphasis on *process*: thinkING, conversING, considerING, reflectING as necessary preconditions for medical school, law school, activism, beING human.” In establishing this seed shape in the first iteration, students can consider the process and implement it moving forward. It is the start of a fractal-like course, showing itself in its first iteration.

Iteration 2:  

“Here is where you can read Call and Response and The Water Cure”

The second iteration focuses more on providing information in the manner of resources. The books Call and Response and The Water Cure by Percival Everett are provided in .pdf files. Professor McCoy explains that “Within the last year, both Call and Response and Percival Everett’s The Water Cure have gone out of print. This creates a both/and: You both get access to these works for free, and you have to cross-check these .pdfs” (McCoy). In explaining this, we see the transparency policy established in the last iteration is built upon. This iteration allows students to begin the process, as without the resources, thinkING, conversING, considerING, reflectING would be rather difficult to achieve. This iteration shows the fractal’s growth, as well as the course’s.

Iteration 3:  

“Key Concepts”

As the iteration that begins with the first week of classes, establishing a starting point while building off the first two iterations is key. The course structure is established here, as well as a reminder of one of the epigraphs stated in the first epigraph. This iteration builds off of the epigraphs, beginning the classwork involving African Fractals and Call and Response. Here we find the use of thinkING and considerING. The class begins to connect concepts of fractals to themes in African-American literature and repetition in the culture. However, we discuss the importance of not making immense generalizations, utilizing the reflectING part of the seed shape. Finally, we utilize conversING in the manner of class discussions. These can be as a whole, or in small groups, analyzing parts of the readings and how we interpret them. The seed shape repeats itself, adding more to the fractal shape. 

Iteration 4:  

“Noticing the Depths”

The fourth iteration features yet another course epigraph from the first iteration. Building off the last iteration, this module focuses on growth. As Professor McCoy notes, “This module enables you to apply and practice concepts from Module 3. In doing so, you may notice that things are more complicated than they may at first seem.” The focus seems to be on truly thinkING and considerING. However, a look at the notes from class on February 9th reveal another consideration of conversING. Without participation, conversations run dull and awkward. However, another consequence is the lack of true reflectING. If only one voice is heard, then the views are limited and biased. To work as a whole class is to truly interact with the process. The iteration can only show the addition of the seed shape with the proper conversation. 

Iteration 5:

“Integrative Inquiry, Sustainability, and Collaboration”

An iteration focused on three concepts develops upon the works used in the previous iterations. In this module, work was done on the Collaborative Exercise, where we were grouped together to answer the prompt on sustainability and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. We were also encouraged to include poetry regarding sustainability and think back on the visit the class made to the college’s heating plant from the last iteration. A collaborative exercise demonstrates the process as it requires students to think thoughtfully about the prompt, reflect on how it all ties together, converse with one another in order to answer the question, and consider feedback from peers and each work individually. This iteration works to build off of the work done in previous iterations to create the newest addition of the seed shape.

Iteration 6:

“Criticism, Theory, and Poetry are the works of complicated human beings”

Once again, we begin the iteration with reminders of two epigraphs from the first iteration, demonstrating the repetition seen in fractals. The module worked with comparisons and both/and exercises. We looked for similarities and differences in works, and carefully navigated through opposing essays from Joyce A. Joyce and Henry Louis Gates. Emphasis on slowing down to truly work through the process was given. In slowing down, we were able to truly apply the process to the works, giving them the time they needed to truly find the things we liked and disliked and why. While thinkING, conversING, considerING, reflectING we were able to work through these concepts as well as get through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. While working through this work, we acknowledged that it was both racist and important, as Jefferson was a complex person. This reading was set to establish the beginnings of the next iteration, sewing seeds within the seed shape.

Iteration 7:  

“Endings that aren’t endings”

This final iteration, appropriately titled “Endings that aren’t endings” begins with Percival Everett’s The Water Cure. Professor McCoy begins with the statement, “In this module, you’ll return all the way back to the very beginning of the course–including to “On Repetition in Black Culture” and to African Fractals–even as you read the semester’s final literary work: Percival Everett’s The Water Cure. We’ll talk about beginnings, middles, and endings. And you’ll liberate yourself from the class.” As the final iteration, it is imperative that considerations are made to the first one. As the class worked through the novel, encouragement was made to consider the past works, to reflect on what we thought and how interacting with the novel made us feel, to think beyond what was just on the page, and to converse with one another on our findings and interpretations. Without this process, navigating through the novel would have been a much different experience. Every experience we had before enabled us to interact with The Water Cure in a more careful and considerate method. As the course comes to a close, the seventh iteration shows the fractal we created.


As a class we discussed whether or not we thought ending the class with reading The Water Cure was appropriate. A majority argued that it was, deciding that every module before was established to prepare us for the novel. I could not agree more. Without our careful work with the process throughout this semester, navigating the novel truly would have been much different. Having the course focus on thinkING, conversING, considerING, reflectING, and using the process with every module, we were able to become comfortable with it. We could implement it without much issue. However, I must divulge a word we also worked with in conversation: apophenia. This is the habit of finding connections or patterns between unrelated or random things. Professor McCoy has worked with this word in both this course, and one I took with her prior based on Expulsion and the 2018 Housing Crisis. While I was able to find the connections between each module, and therefore apply them to the iteration concept, there is the risk that I am assigning meaning to something unintended. Regardless, I find that in my own reflection of the course the process has allowed me to find a deeper understanding of African-American literature and given me the opportunity to engage meaningfully with my peers.

Works Cited

Eglash, Ron. African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, Rutgers University Press, 1999. 

Everett, Percival. The Water Cure. Graywolf Press. 2007. Percival Everett, The Water Cure

McCoy, Beth. ENGL-337-01: African-American Literature. 2023-2024