African American Literature: Do You Understand?

Dr. Beth McCoy’s English course, African American Literature, is built on the foundation of five distinct course epigraphs. The class has circled back to these epigraphs throughout the semester and continuously found connections to their messages to our various course concepts, conversations, and assigned readings. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines an epigraph as “a quotation set at the beginning of a literary work or one of its divisions to suggest its theme.” The use of this literary device serves the purpose of not only providing us as students with a constant reminder of the objectives of the course but further immediately exposes us to quotes by experienced and well-revered Black authors and poets like Lucille Clifton and Audre Lorde. Using our fifth course epigraph by Toni Morrison and Percival Everett’s novel The Trees, I will be reflecting on how this epigraph has overall impacted my experience and learning in this course and the reading of our final novel. 

The epigraph I will be informing my writing around is a quote from the late renowned African American author and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. In a 1989 interview with journalist and author Bonnie Angelo on her novel Beloved, Morrison states, “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” In response to Angelo’s question of how to improve America’s racial climate of the late 1980s, Morrison brings up how our educational system institutionalizes racism and explains this in the profound quote about Black literature. As expressed by Morrison in the quote, although Black literature is much more than a study of social problems, it is underestimated and even disregarded by many when it is an exhaustive and thorough craft in all actuality. Using this bold statement exposing the failure of American education, I will connect Percival Everett’s creativity in The Trees and what else I have learned in this course to concur with and further prove Morrison’s statement. 

To begin with, The Trees is an unorthodox thriller about America’s legacy of lynching. Defined by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as the “public killing of an individual who has not received any due process…often carried out by lawless mobs, though police officers did participate,” lynching is just one side effect of the brutal epidemic of racism in the United States. The NAACP reports that 4,743 lynchings occurred in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968. There has been a resurgence of lynchings of Black men, women, and children by police officers alongside hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans in recent years. Percival Everett connects these past atrocities to recent ones with the listing of names like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin on the book’s cover. Notably, the plot of the murder mystery, beginning in Money, Mississippi, is reminiscent of the infamous murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. After visiting his uncle for the summer in Money, young Till was lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman at a convenience store. Photos of his dehumanized body were displayed all over the country, and it was one of America’s most vicious lynchings. In The Trees, the ancestors of Emmett Till’s murderers were the first to be killed in the act of revenge, which spirals into a series of killings of white people all over the country. 

Although, as an African American man, Everett’s topic of lynching and revenge may seem predictable or even simple for him to write, The Trees is much more complex and creative than that. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Everett recognizes this perception and states, “It would be very easy to write a dark, dense novel about lynching that no one will read; there has to be an element of seduction…The absurdity of the inattention to the subject was the driving force of the comedy, but the novel lives as much in turning around stereotypes as it does in revealing the truth of lynching.” As our epigraph describes, Everett’s literature is more than just a history lesson about lynching in America but additionally is a work of art and comedy. Understanding his intended audience, Everett crafted a story that would make people laugh and further grapple with the ongoing fight against racism and the complexities of justice. One example of Everett’s both creativity and seriousness can be seen in this conversation between the characters Sheriff Red Jetty and his wife as they look at a picture found in their basement: “‘Who’s this one of?’ She pointed…‘Is that your father?’ Jetty said nothing. ‘Red? Is that a n***** beside him? He’s light but I can tell.’ ‘No, that n****** is my father’” (pp. 225). In this short snippet of dialogue, Everett uses irony to discuss racism. Using the n-word and the building of suspense in this scene with the series of questions asked by the wife, Everett transports us into what could be a real-life, modern conversation. Everett does this effortlessly throughout the novel, thus making it such a page-turner.

Additionally, The Trees connects to various overarching class concepts. The first one that stood out to me while reading is framing: placing a piece of literature in a particular perspective or lens that impacts how you interpret or understand what you are reading. This occurs in Everett’s novel by mentioning Emmett Till and the corresponding setting of Money, Mississippi, where he died. When an unknown body of a Black man keeps showing up at bloody crime scenes in the novel, characters even suggest that it is the ghost of Emmett Till. By mentioning this historic lynching, Everett intentionally causes readers to consider the past and its correlation to our present – by juxtaposing Till and characters like Donald Trump. Another course concept present in The Trees is that of repetition and recursion. Throughout the novel, similar gruesome crime scenes were reoccurring in different parts of the country, all including the killing of white men by Black and Asian individuals. This deliberate repetition helps readers come to terms with the reality of how often lynchings occur in America. While their cases are not all the same as in the novel, they do similarly affect Black and Asian communities and keep our country in a place of fear and hostility. Lastly, Everett’s novel relates to our class concept of social sustainability: the maintenance and development of structures to benefit people – including the promotion of health, social justice, and education. Throughout the novel, white characters become afraid of an impending race war because of the recent mysterious murders. On the other hand, these murders of retribution by Black and Asian communities are a response to every single lynching since 1913 – 7,006. I understood this as competing motivations for social sustainability – just like the white characters scared of their race being erased, minorities in the novel and real life are afraid that theirs are already endangered. As all these concepts are evident in the novel, Everett’s writing is undoubtedly a work of rigorous and deliberate art. 

Looking beyond The Trees for a moment, I have seen this epigraph in use throughout the course. For example, in reading and discussing Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild, the class had trouble thinking unconventionally about the short story’s more profound meaning. Like my previous point about writing a novel about lynching, Black writers are often unfairly minimized to the assumption that their stories are about slavery. Minimizing Bloodchild – a science fiction including aliens, pregnant men, and an unconventional love story – to an allegory of slavery is precisely what Toni Morrison said in her interview. While Black writers do not have control over how their writing is interpreted and analyzed, their autonomy and innovativeness should be appreciated and acknowledged for its craftsmanship. 

Our Toni Morrison epigraph and reading of The Trees has caused me to contemplate the perseverance of not only Black writers but African Americans in general. The novel shows that African Americans have been threatened for centuries by the cruel realities of racism that still haunt our systems and daily lives. For Black writers like Percival Everett, they have yet to break free from the confinements of white perspectives and expectations when trying to express themselves creatively and freely. As they continue to push on despite these structural and undeniable obstacles that come with being Black in America, African Americans and all people of color must keep finding joy in breaking the status quo. Like Mama Z asks the detectives at the end of the novel, “Shall I stop him?” (pp. 308). Shall we stop Black writers from determining the meaning of their own writing after once not being able to write at all? Shall we stop Black people from taking justice into their own hands when justice was once not a part of their vocabulary? Shall we stop Black people from sustaining their culture when they are constantly wrestling to persevere it? My answer is now and forever no, and I appreciate Everett and this class for helping me see that.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.