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The Expression of African American Culture as a Fractal

In any culture, there are deeply embedded traditions that display a sense of meaning in the history of distinctive groups of people. These cultural representations are constantly adjusting according to modern times, yet still remain a reflection of their origin; This idea mirrors a seed shape fractal, which, as paraphrased from author Ron Eglash of African Fractals, is a structure composed of a repeated pattern. Accordingly, one of the most important seed shapes is the expression of African American culture. The adaptability of traditions, such as quilting and song, two large themes instituted in the culture, is representative of the concept of this fractal because the expression of culture is continually built upon. It is not merely as a remembrance of a complex history, but as an important component of modern being.

African American culture, like any, is rich with complexities. There are many approaches to incorporating history into modern lifestyles and, while there are some buried aspects of culture, there are recognizable customs. One example of this is the practice of quilting. Quilting is both a literal tradition passed through generations, as well as a representation of African American culture as a fractal, in a less literal sense. As taught by Professor Elsa Barkley Brown, a historian who wrote an article on African American Women’s quilting, there is a specific methodology passed down from teacher to student when one learns to quilt; there is a lack of symmetry and an increase in intricate patterns. “… the symmetry in [African American] quilts does not come from uniformity as it does in Euro-American quilts; rather, the symmetry comes through the diversity.” (Brown, 924) There is a distinctness in the activity of quilting. Its descendance through generations signifies a central theme of seed shaped fractals because, not only do quilts often carry the physical components of fractals, but they also tell a tale of history that has been adapted to current generations. In other words, it has been recreated in a contemporary way.

Author Alice Walker wrote “Everyday Use”, a short story that symbolizes the importance of African American culture and quilting, and how the two concepts are interwoven. In the story, it follows three women: a mother and her two daughters. The oldest arrives with a newfound appreciation of her history and desires a quilt that has been passed down through her family. The mother and daughter’s dispute over which sister should obtain ownership leads to the debate over whether an artifact of prior generations, such as the quilt, should remain seen but untouched, or used and recreated if need be. Walker wrote, “’Your heritage,’ [Dee] said. And then she turned to Maggie, kissed her, and said, ‘You ought to try to make something of yourself too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it.’” (Walker, 1801) It is clear that there are significant traits that embody culture in this family’s life and it is being adapted to fit into their present lifestyles by the way Dee encourages her younger sister to take her past and make a life from it. The two different approaches to life within this family displays both stagnancy and growth at the same time, similar to the way historical culture is embedded today. This incorporation of history into their current lives allows for stories told by representative objects to impact many generations to come; history remains part of the past, but the pieces that are held onto are both recreated and cherished. Again, stagnancy and growth, together. Ultimately, the seed shape of culture has its origin, then its continual adapted reconstruction. It is built upon and becomes an integral part of modern culture. When applying the concept of quilting to other themes, there may be a production of understanding how themes unrelated to quilting in African American culture all circle back to a main concept in the way a fractal does.

Another large element of African American culture is song. Throughout history, it has been a call for freedom, the creation of community, and a mode to tell stories. There are many songs that have been passed through generations without modification, or with very little change, and it is the core for many religious and social communions. There are modern poems and songs created more recently that represent both historical struggles and current ones. This is the display of the fractal: the original concept of the music being adapted into modern culture and added onto. Songs are a way to share experiences and tell narratives meaningfully. Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a renowned singer, recognized largely in the black community, discussed in an interview the importance of song in African American culture throughout time and contemplated the relationship modern society has with it. There are many who remember the classic freedom songs and, as implied by the concept of fractals, many who cherish those classics and create something new, yet reflective. Reagon’s interview covered her musical group’s, Sweet Honey in the Rock, devotion to sharing black music and existence. Reagon educated her audience on music’s connection to identity, and how it brings people together, now and during a turbulent past. Songs, as subsystem of African American culture, is an important idea concerning fractals because it is such a large part of history. Its ability to tell stories and bring people together in both the past and present creates that sense of a loop or cycle. There is a repetition each time a song is remembered or created because they are all connected in the complex way that the seed shape is.

African American culture is one of the most important representations of the seed shape because it is a central idea for many less general ideas. That is, culture is a big picture idea that supports many more specific integrations of fractals. Many concepts discussed throughout the course carry themes of traditions passed along through generations and they may be related to the importance of history in modern culture. By connecting future work back to the idea of repetition regarding the expression of African American culture, there may be an evident reflection of modern activity that tells of its origins. Therefore, there may be a better understanding of a multitude of concepts regarding both African American culture and literature.

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