Literature and The Reality of Powerful Language


I cannot recall the words of my first poem 

but I remember a promise 

I made my pen 

never to leave it 


in somebody else’s blood. 

–Audre Lorde 

Audre Lorde’s poem, IV, and the use of strong imagery creates a stark meaning in the minds of her readers. While poetry is typically up for interpretation, I find this poem to teeter almost into the literal, in the sense of sacrifice and authority. As the author, Lorde possesses a kind of responsibility for the reality she creates and the reality she writes of. Her vow to never sacrifice another for the sake of her truth and her writing is an obligation which may differ from the authors before or surrounding her. In her mind, while truth is imperative, so is the absence of spilled blood.  

An unfortunate fact of the history of the United States that remains true to this day is: This country was founded on blood and violence. Shying away from that fact is a dangerous falsity that has its own consequences. The often used saying that comes to mind is, “history is doomed to repeat itself.” Throughout the entirety of Percival Everett’s novel, The Trees, violence and death seem to make itself front and center. I believe this was a deliberate choice on the author’s part, to call to attention this fact. As Audre Lorde- the renowned poet, a feature in our course epigraphs- put it in one of her famous rallying cries, “Your silence will not protect you.” By using language, these two writers (among many others) make it difficult to remain in complacency with history. 

Words hold power. Despite the idea that I have heard countless times- typically from those trying to excuse their own actions- that words only hold the power you give them, language is one of the most compelling forces that human beings have to offer. I believe it is the main reason humans have come so far as a species in the first place. Literature is but a vessel for this power and there are those that wield this power in a purposeful manner. 

Everett’s novel, though full of humor and can be seen as somewhat fantastical, is a serious look on the horrors perpetuated by people in this country- not only of the past, but currently, as well. Emmett Till’s (among hundreds and hundreds of others) death is a marker of a not-so-distant history that unfortunately seems to remain intact. While I am somewhat familiar with the trial, taught in my high school history course, I feel that the murder of Emmett Till has gone largely underdiscussed. It was a highly publicized case at the time, in 1955 and subsequent years, with his mother calling for justice for her 14-year-old child. Unfortunately, justice was not served, and the perpetrators lived their lives in freedom and without due consequence. As Percival Everett’s novel deals directly with the case and even using the actual names of the individuals that incited the violence against this child, it was clear to me that he understands the power he holds with language. 

Everett’s ability to bring humor in to juxtapose the darkness he is speaking of is a way of keeping readers engaged, despite the heaviness of the subject matter. The reality of this is that it can be severely depressing, and I imagine that people would avoid this book if it were any less entertaining and any more serious. In recent years, with the constant onslaught of horrible injustices being thrown onto the internet where millions of people can access it with a click or even come across it involuntarily, escapism is ever more prevalent. Speaking from experience, I tend to rely on comedy and “comfort shows” about nothing to relieve myself of daily stressors. I think this is a common practice among my generation and the younger generations as well (though I cannot speak to those before me). Everett being able to use comic relief without shying away from the tragedy in the book is insightful and crafty, and I believe it mirrors “real life” slightly more realistically.  

To use one example that showcases this spectacularly, in chapter 42, beginning on page 126, readers join the Doctor Reverend Cad Fondle and his wife Fancel, for dinner. The entire scene renders very comically, with their southern vernacular and straight hypocrisy in their actions and words. However, not one full page in, and their hypocrisy turns frightening, with Fancel asking her husband how a cross burning went as if it were just another day at work, or a simple outing with friends. His response, “It’s called a lightin’, a cross lightin’. It ain’t right to burn a symbol of our Lawd Jesus H. Christ. I would think you knowed that by now” (126). Fondles’ correcting of his wife and slight change in the words he used was an attempt to change the meaning of his actions, but what he did remains the same. He burned a cross to insight fear and weaponized his religion in the process. The deceit in his language is one that I believe Everett deliberately showcased to call to attention the way people use language to their advantage, whether in good or, in this case, extremely bad faith.  

Another interesting facet of the language yielded by Everett is his choice of names. As mentioned previously, some of the names were true to the original case from 1955. Carolyn Bryant, the woman who lied about Emmitt Till and was ultimately responsible for his death, remained, as well as J.W. and Roy, the perpetrators of the boy’s murder. In the sense of staying true to history, and not shying away for the sake of fiction, I can appreciate the fact he kept the right names. The names of the invented characters, like Jim and Ed, were somewhat simple, so two that stuck out to me, specifically, are Gertrude and Damon. I don’t think that these names were notable on accident. The name Gertrude has its roots in Germanic words that mean spear, or strength. Given that Gertrude helped to orchestrate murders and other violent crimes to send a message to the world, her name is fitting. Despite not knowing the depth of exactly what she got into, she exhibited strength and cunning as we see her elude the police while being with them multiple times throughout the investigation. Damon is brought in as a tool for their cause. The Greek origin of his name means to tame, but it is also associated with loyalty. However, in English and Scottish definition of the name, it also means to kill. While Damon himself does not commit murder, he is tasked with writing the names of the lynching victims of America; and though the end of the book may seem fantastical, he seems to summon the dead from their graves with the help of Mama Z. Mama Z herself is also a fascinating use of language. A self-proclaimed witch with a message to get across and justice to serve is certainly a dangerous woman to behold. The Germanic and Hebrew definitions of her true name, Adelaide, means noble. Her surname, Lynch, is a tad more obvious in the context of the novel. The conflicting feelings that may be brought on by her actions may not be necessarily considered noble, though Everett may or may not disagree. Adelaide Lynch is the true orchestrator of the murders and placing of the Emmett Till look-a-likes from the beginning, and her name demonstrates the meaning behind it. The chosen names at the hand of the author seem to deliberately speak on the roles of each of the characters. 

Throughout this novel, it is clear that Everett has a deep understanding of language and what power it holds. The Trees is a very bloody book in terms of the deaths of characters and the violent actions that are showcased throughout. To connect to the course epigraph, with Lorde’s sentiment on sacrificing people and leaving her pen in someone else’s blood, it leads me to wonder if she would appreciate or despise this novel. Would the use of Emmett Till’s body (later proven to be not his, but in fact multiple others), be considered insensitive? Too violent? Writing the names of lynching victims was an important part of the book to be sure, the reality of the matter is, a reader may not fully comprehend the prevalence of lynching and police brutality throughout the country. However, like Lorde, could some see issue with the way Everett presents the conflict? I think that Everett may have metaphorically left his pen in someone’s blood, but perhaps that was necessary to convey his message. That may be up for debate, though I believe The Trees succeeds in its attempt to call to attention America’s past, as denying the past dooms the future. 

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