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.

Losing speed, waste of space, feeling lonely: change my face

In the course epigraph, “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body” Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon offers an important message to be understood in order to continue thinkING over the course of the semester. The idea of emphasizing the end of thinkING is a concept that Beth McCoy stresses to encourage students to analyze information as a continuous process, rather than having one definitive thought about a subject. Combining discussions held in class, readings, and personal experiences and opinions, and keeping the course epigraph in mind, I hope to frame this piece of writing as an outline to achieve the two contradictory goals I have for this course: to be a memorable student while also being easily forgotten.

Before I begin unpacking what “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body” from Song of Solomon means, I have to first understand its definition is fluid, and subject to change when the basis of my knowledge shifts. At this point in the novel, I have only read four chapters, and I am only three weeks into this course. Therefore, the meaning of the quote, and where it will lead in the future is an important distinction to make. 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.

Borrowing from some information I wrote in class on relating the term palimpsest to Song of Solomon, I can relate Macon Jr. and Pilate back to the meaning in our course epigraph. Based on the definition of palimpsest from Oxford Languages, it is defined as something or someone reused or altered but still bearing traces from its original form. This is represented in Song of Solomon with Macon Jr. and Pilate. Macon Jr. hides beneath her window because he wants to be close to his sister, but he is embarrassed and ashamed of her, even though they came from the same place. No matter how hard you try, starting over with absolutely no ties to your past is nearly impossible to do. Referring back to the information from that earlier assignment, I came to realize that the characters cannot escape their histories because everything that has happened in or around their lives is the reasoning behind why they are who they are presently. Changing through time, but still giving credit to where they have been, is why understanding the term palimpsest is crucial to the understanding of the individual calamities the characters of Song of Solomon face, and how each event makes them grow closer together.

When I first began thinkING about what the course epigraph meant, I immediately looked for ways to explain it in Song Of Solomon, and then related the information I gathered there to current events and news to thoroughly understand the point of the epigraph. This was made possible once I had read chapter two of From Here to Equality, which poses the question, “If blacks are not drowning, they ask, why throw them a special lifeline?” At first, I struggled with what that meant, and why Darity and Mullen chose to ask this question to the reader. Then, I remembered the recent controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, and how some people thought it would be more appropriate to say All Lives Matter. At the height of this argument, I had a difficult time understanding why people were getting upset with others who wanted to say All Lives Matter. The Parable of the Lost Sheep from Matthew 18 in the Bible, made me come to terms with what the message behind the Black Lives Matter movement is. In this parable, Matthew described a shepherd who leaves his flock of ninety nine sheep, to try and find one sheep that was led astray. This explains how one person is not more important than another and within this message there is a cry for people to understand their value and worth. This is important to mention in my goal setting essay, because I know that I am destined for greatness, like all of my peers, but I just have to put in the time and effort, along with valuable thinkING to get me there.

Discussing the epigraph and what it means has made me set two contradicting goals for myself, the first one being: to leave a memorable impression on those around me. This goal came to fruition when Beth told the class that one of her personal goals for the semester was to be forgotten by the time she was done teaching us the lessons she thought were necessary and important for our growth as students and individuals. When she said this I was confused, I wondered why a professor would want her students to forget her when she was only starting to make her mark on us. I decided I wanted the opposite of her goal, and I want to be remembered. One of my goals for this course is to have new and exciting ways of thinkING about certain topics, and have those ideas be remembered. I think it would fulfill my hopes if I was able to shed light onto a topic that someone might not know exists, or they were choosing to ignore.

The other half of my goal for this course is to be forgotten, much like Beth’s thought that inspired my goal to be remembered. This contradictory goal is deceiving, because as I started thinkING about why Beth would want her students to forget her, it made me realize that I could make the assumption that she hopes we find what she has taught us to be much more important than the vessel it was delivered by. This assumption is what led me to reflect Beth’s idea in my second goal: to be forgotten. Similarly to why I want to be remembered, I want to be forgotten because I don’t think my name has any impact on my thoughts. I don’t need people to remember my name, but I hope people will remember my ideas.

These contradictory goals I have set for myself are mirrored in Song of Solomon, as Toni Morrison creates a novel that defines memory and forgetting as terms that are so different, that they begin to warp until the reader sees the similarities between them. In the second chapter of Song of Solomon the narrator describes Macon Jr., “His voice sounded different to Milkman. Less hard, and his speech was different. More southern and comfortable and soft” (Morrison, page 52). Memory is capable of softening and changing Macon Jr. into something that he is not currently, because money has made him hard. Similarly, Ruth’s memory was triggered by a different sense, described by the narrator, “The house smelled fruity and she remembered how the peach had nauseated her the last time she was there…” (Morrison, page 135). Morrison shows how memories can be shifted and warped to fit what one wants to remember, which is often heightened by the senses.

The meaning behind the course epigraph, stated by Toni Morrison, “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body” is forever changing as my thinkING process develops. In the future, the meaning I originally thought these words held could seem like a faraway notion, some thought I cannot grasp anymore. Although I can prepare myself for the changes that lie ahead in the course with new information stemming from Song of Solomon, From Here to Equality, and Beth, there is no way to know what the future holds. This is exciting, and unnerving to think about because there are so many possibilities, but I know that I will never lose sight of where I came from, even if I feel myself slowing down, going unnoticed or feeling alone, I will remain true to myself, and not Change My Face.