Tag Archives: lynching

The Trees by Percival Everett

To understand the title, The Trees, think of the song Strange Fruit, sung by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. 

Southern trees
Bearing strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
And blood at the roots 
Black bodies
Swinging in the southern breeze [lyrics by Abel Meeropol, 1939]

To understand the novel it helps to have an idea of the story of Emmett Till. Another song always moves me: Emmylou Harris singing My Name is Emmett Till. She reminds us of the lynching in the summer of 1955 of the Black 14-year-old, who came from Chicago’s South Side to visit family in Money, Mississippi. He was accused by a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, of improper behaviour. Her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother WJ Milam found the boy and beat him up and shot him and dumped him in the Tallahatchie River. Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral when her son’s body was returned to her in Chicago, so that people could see what had been done to her son.

Funeral photo via Wiki Commons: Emmett Till’s parents at his funeral by David Jackson September 15 1955

The toxic mixture of violent racism in the time of Jim Crow, fears of emasculation and lynching are the background to the novel The Trees, but you may also have heard that it is funny, a pastiche and has paranormal aspects too, a Black comedy.

The Trees

The action begins in in the present time in Money, Mississippi 

Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds. Named in the persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away. (11)

This is the opening paragraph: sardonic, knowing, arcane (what is this word *nescience? – see note below), amusing, showing familiarity with the Southern states. These are characteristics of tone and style of this novel. It unfolds as a detective novel. 

Two detectives are sent from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. They are sent to Money because two bodies have been found: a White man – Wheat Bryant – and an unknown decomposing body of a Black man clutching Bryant’s testicles. Then the Black corpse disappears, and another murder takes place, with a similar disappearing Black corpse. Jim and Ed from the MBI are not welcomed. It came to me in a jolt that they are Black. Their wisecracking, world-weary attitude is inherited from the golden age of American ‘tec fiction. 

The connection with the lynching of Emmett Till is soon noted by the MBI agents, although they are shocked that a murder from nearly 70 years ago is being referenced. The story takes off from there, as a Black and female FBI agent is also involved. A 103-year-old woman, Mama Z, seems to hold some clues, and it emerges that she has records of the thousands of lynchings that took place in the Jim Crow era.

A whole chapter records the list of names that a Black scholar from Chicago makes from her records. The list takes up 10 pages of the novel. Emmett Till’s name appears about two thirds of the way through. Several lynching victims are recorded as ‘unknown male’, or are bundled together (16 adult men), some women are recorded in the list along with many Chinese names. 

“When I write the names they become real, not just statistics. When I write the names they become real again. It’s almost like they get a few seconds more here. Do you know what I mean? I would never be able to make up this many names. The names have to be real. They have to be real, don’t they?”
Mama Z put her hand against the side of Damon face.
“Why pencil?”
“When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free.”
“Carry on child,” the old woman said. (211)

Mama Z tells Damon that she has compiled 7,006 dossiers of murdered people. She tells him that fewer than 1% of those responsible were convicted of these murders. 

More lynching-related murders are committed, each with its testicle-clutching Black corpse in attendance. The law enforcement officers gradually put together how the murders have been committed, where the bodies are from and the stories behind these new victims. The killings continue to accelerate and spread throughout the country. It becomes obvious that the original perpetrators have lost control of their original plot. And we are in the dark territory of racism and backlash in the US, historically and in the present day. 

The pastiche of the detection continues to the end – there is even a locked-in-a-fridge scene. Some jokes are corny (the three detectives who introduce themselves as Ho, Chi, and Minh, for example). But the juxtaposition of the features of the ordinary plot with the carnage echoes the way in which White history has failed to explore the history of Black murder and simply got on with writing about the White American dream.

I have a few scruples. The present-day victims from Wheat Bryant to the victims of the hordes that are eventually activated, while gross and racist, were the children of the murderers of the ‘50s. The issue of culpability is tricky, for no doubt they have benefited from the racism that fuelled the appalling death rate during the period of the lynchings, and the murders of all those enslaved peoples before that, but they did not commit them themselves. I guess Percival Everett want to make the point that all White people are implicated – then and now.

And I always find extra-judicial killings hard to accept, although it is clear that justice under Jim Crow laws was completely inadequate. And unlike most detective stories, the motives and methods of the murderers are not neatly explained in the final chapter. Indeed, the paranormal appears to have taken over, with the hordes chant Rise! Rise! We are left with a sweet love story and Armageddon. 

Perhaps that’s how it will be. 

Percival Everett

Born in 1956 and working as a professor of literature at the University of South California, Percival Everett is a prolific writer: of poetry, short stories and 23 novels. His work embraces many different traditions in English literature, and he claims the influence of Mark Twain. In the Guardian review of The Trees, he was described as a ‘seriously playful’ writer, which seems about right. 

The Trees was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022.

The blog review which alerted me to this book can be found on Jacquiwine’s Journal, in September 2022.

*Note: Nescience is the state of not knowing.

The Trees by Percival Everett was published in 2021 by Influx Press 334pp

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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor

I was teaching in a school in north London in the 1980s and it seemed that every student in Y8 was reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It is easy to see why. There is a very engaging main character, Cassie, telling the story, a family suffering injustice and violence and a caring set of adults who explain the world and make it as safe as possible. But to be black in Mississippi in the Great Depression was to live in a violent and unsafe world.

We have reached the 1970s and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor was published in 1976. This is the eighth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature. 

The original cover, by Jerry Pinkney

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Cassie lives with her family on a small piece of land in Mississippi in the Great Depression. It is unusual for such a family to own land, even a small parcel of land, because they are black. Her father works away, as does her uncle, because the income from the cotton crop does not make enough to sustain the family. Cassie has three brothers, her grandmother and her mother who together make up her loving family. 

Cassie first notices racial segregation when she and her brothers have to walk through the mud to their school, while the white school children have a bus and go to their own school. What’s more, for sport, the bus driver frequently runs them off the road into the muddy ditches. The boys in her family plot to teach the bus driver a lesson. They succeed in breaking the school bus axle, and are not caught, although at about the same time there is trouble for some black families. This is a time of lynchings, burnings and violent racism.

Cassie’s family try to operate a boycott of the plantation shop, to use economic pressure to stop the exploitation of black families. But as they are the only black family with land they cannot muster enough support. Tensions rise. Cassie falls out with a rude young girl in a neighbouring white family, and is forced to apologise for standing up to the girl’s superior behaviour. Her father has his leg broken in a skirmish with some white men.

Finally, their friend TJ gets himself involved with some badass white kids. The three of them break into the local store, and the manager and his wife are badly injured. TJ is blamed and the white men come for him. He flees to Cassie’s family and then tries to get home. He is brought out of the house and his parents and siblings are violently manhandled. A friendly white lawyer tries to intervene, and only when a fire threatens the cotton crop does the community avoid violence and come together to save their common livelihood.

In the process of these events Cassie learns a thing or two about growing up and taking responsibility. There is a fair amount of sermonising and wise guidance by the adults. She must learn when to speak up, when to disobey, when to take action.

The readers in the 1980s would have been aware that the threat of violence was real, and that racial segregation and injustice was ubiquitous in the southern states. Cassie takes the role of the innocence who must have the behaviour and the injustices explained. Cassie asks the reader’s own questions. The threat of violence grows throughout the novel and culminates in a thunderstorm. We learn that despite great strength and size of each of the three black men, Papa David, Uncle Hammer and Mr Morrison, they choose the path of peaceful resistance.

Mildred D Taylor in the Author’s note that precedes the novel suggests that from her father

I learned a history not then written in books but one passed from generation to generation on the steps of moonlit porches and beside dying fires in one-room houses, a history of great-grandparents and slavery and of the days following slavery: of those who lived still not free, yet who would not let their spirits be enslaved … (7)

The first page suggests that the novel is based on the author’s own experiences.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cryby Mildred D Taylor, first published in the USA in 1976. I used the Puffin Books edition from 1980. 220 pp. My copy has the London school and English department stamp inside the cover. It’s on an extended loan. 

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1980-89. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

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