My real story

The course epigraph “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body” from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon offers an outline for what I interpret Beth McCoy’s intentions were for this semester to follow. McCoy has instilled in us that thinkING is an ongoing process, and what we have thought in the past, is not always true or recognizable in the future. By focusing on the epigraph coupled with my own story of the semester, and how McCoy has aided this process, I hope to shed light on how my thinkING has evolved with time. Morrison’s concentration on harm and care, and how that can be related to Harry Frankfurt’s definitions of bullshit and lying come together to form my semester story. 

In the first essay I wrote in this class I described my thoughts on the epigraph by saying, “My understanding of the quote is that all the choices you make in life lead you to becoming the person you are presently, and who you will become in the future. I equate this quote to not forgetting where you came from in hopes that it will make you a better person. Remembering your past experiences, and the people in your past is an invaluable part of becoming a better version of yourself.” Although this remains true today, reading these words now, I’m not sure who wrote the words before me. When reading back the words I have previously written, I understand, and still believe them to be true, but I don’t think I would articulate my thoughts in the same way now. I think the course epigraph means not forgetting about yourself when you’re trying to achieve your goals. Meaning, sometimes I can forget that I need to take care of myself on my way to trying to be a successful student and person, and I find myself trying to leave my body in these efforts, but as explained by the epigraph, “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body”, that is not possible.

Another key component to understanding the epigraph fully is to take into consideration that Morrison was discussing African American livelihoods when she wrote Song of Solomon, which contains the epigraph. She uses imaginative language to help the reader picture what is happening throughout the novel. With that, there are several examples of flight in the novel, and it sets the tone for the rest of the text with Morrison’s decision to begin the book with a depiction of flight. In the beginning of the novel, she sets a scene of a man trying to fly off of a building, which is mirrored by the events that take place at the end of the novel, as well. Milkman leaps off of a cliff at the end of the novel, representing his own journey into flight. Morrison remains ambiguous about this ending, leaving the reader to decide Milkman’s fate. For me, Milkman needed to be set free from his life and the worries that came along with it, and therefore he found a way to fly away and find peace. This is related to From Here to Equality when William Darity and Kirsten Mullen write, “America’s story is built on the idea of opportunity. If you work and persist, you will get ahead. For Black people living in the mid-nineteenth century, however, there was at least one additional required condition: emancipation from slavery” (Darity and Mullen page 123). Understanding that Morrison, and Darity and Mullen center their thoughts around African Americans is important to knowing the process of flight for the characters in the novel, and how it impacts real life African Americans. African Americans were forced into slavery, so the defintion of flight for them would be freedom, which means “the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved”, as defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary. Flying away from their inexplicably horrible situation is a matter of life and death, which is how it is portrayed in Morrison’s novel as well. The severity of flight can be a burden that might increase the pain and suffering African Americans continue to receive. 

Although this is my first year at Geneseo, I am a junior in college. I am a transfer student from a community college, but I finished that in just one year, so I am younger than most juniors. My unconventional start to college, and Geneseo, has affected the way I have made friends, think about myself, and deal with my daily struggles. I feel like this is my first year of college as when I attended the community college, it was all online, and I only stepped foot on campus for my graduation ceremony. This, coupled with the fact that I have been dealing with some health concerns has made my first semester at Geneseo very interesting. I have one course that is predominantly filled with freshmen, and I quickly gravitated towards them as I could relate to what they were going through. I made friends with a few peers, which has really helped me to embrace having a life outside of academics. However, because I have some health issues that cause me to be in tremendous pain most hours of the day, I am faced with other challenges, and not just how I came to make friends. Not only does the pain I go through cripple me every day, the medications I am testing generally make me exhausted, and in need of extra hours of sleep. Balancing my schedule around how I feel physically is tough, and has taken a toll on my mental health. I am an avid student, and I thrive off of completing assignments ahead of time, studying extra hours, and speaking with professors to make sure I understand concepts fully. Due to this unknown illness, I have had to put my health before my academics at times, which makes me feel unproductive and anxious. Every day I am learning the fine line between harming, and caring for myself, and I hope to get a better hold of this cycle for next semester. 

When looking at the roots of the definitions of harm and care, it can be seen that they are closely linked to one another. At first glance, they may seem like opposites, but as seen in Song of Solomon, when a character feels they are caring for another, they might be causing harm. For instance, when Guitar’s father had passed away, his mother was trying to care for her children by buying them candy, but Guitar saw the act as harmful. Using the words the narrator uses to describe this moment, “And he remembered anew how his mother smiled when the white man handed her the four ten-dollar bills. More than gratitude was showing in her eyes. More than that. Not love, but a willingness to love. Her husband was sliced in half and boxed backwards… Even so, his mother had smiled and shown that willingness to love the man who was responsible for dividing his father up throughout eternity” (Morrison page 224). When reading the quote, it is obvious that Guitar is harmed by his mother’s actions, and doesn’t see candy as a proper condolence for his father’s tragic death. This begs the question, is there a difference between harm and care, when the intention is good? Guitar’s thoughts and feelings are justified, but can someone blame his mom for trying to care for him, but providing him with harm instead? This thought is similar to Harry Frankfurt’s thoughts on lying and bullshitting. Frankfurt says “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth”, and with this logic applied to harm and care, it could be said that it is impossible to harm, unless that is the outright intention of the opposing person. When someone intends to care, or to tell the truth, and they believe they are doing so, can they be held accountable for the harm they provide, or the bullishit they spew? 

Although it is obvious that Guitar is harmed by his mother’s actions after his father’s death, it is not for the reader to judge, as her intentions were to care. This is an important, and difficult lesson to learn because it is easier to judge someone than accept them when one feels they have done something wrong. This was a topic of discussion in a Sociological Research class, when my professor taught Harry Frankfurt’s thoughts on bullshit. This class didn’t answer the questions written above, but the class provided a framework of thought that helps one not to judge blindly. It provokes a deeper understanding, and tries to encourage students to think critically about something before implementing their own biases onto the situation or topic. This way of thinking helped me to process my judgemental thoughts about Song of Solomon, in regards to Guitar, and Milkman, specifically. The ideas of harm and care can get warped, especially when you are dealing with a young and impressionable mind. 

Thinking in a way I am not accustomed to is something I struggle with because I do not like to be wrong. Though I would argue that no one likes to be wrong, I think the way it infiltrates my everyday life can be problematic at times. Although I understand this, it is hard to step away from the way I go about my daily life because it got me to the successful point at where I am today. This is hard to abandon because it has worked for me, and provided me with tangible success, like good grades. The pressures I feel to do well academically are internalized pressures, and have nothing to do with my parents. Although my parents wish me success, and enjoy when I perform well in school, they would accept me with any grades. The way I am used to thinking is harmful, even though I am trying to care for myself. This lesson of understanding when something is harmful, when the intention is care, is something that will be at the core of my thoughts now. This idea relates to the course epigraph “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body” as one is not able to leave their body behind at any inconvenience. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way, and one has to deal with the challenges they are faced head on. 

Song of Solomon, From Here to Equality, and the teachings from Harry Frankfurt have encouraged me to adjust my way of thinking in order to care for myself. Especially when feeling like a freshman, when a junior, and dealing with health problems, I think the way I think can be harmful. I have come to realize that in order to be happy, and truly understand “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body” I may need to adjust the way I treat myself. I know that striving for perfection will lead to gaining anything but perfection, and I think understanding that is a step in the right direction. However, it is hard to adjust how I think when I know the way I think has led me to so much success. Taking some time to clear my thoughts and try to find peace within my mind will hopefully help my physical health. Improving my mental health by incorporating aspects of meditation into my daily schedule may help improve the harmony within my body. This, and knowing that I am an important part of a wider body of meaning, being a Geneseo student, will help push me towards success without damaging myself. Learning that it is okay to look forward to events in the future, but focusing on the present will allow me to better my thoughts.

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