Percival Everett’s The Trees within this Semester’s Story

“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

When beginning this course, this was one of the epigraphs that struck me most. Out of all the epigraphs written, it was the one that made me stumble and second guess what it truly meant. I hesitated over Lorde’s words… how could one leave their pen “lying / in somebody else’s blood”? I considered different interpretations and consulted others in the class, but it was only as the work in this course progressed, and my growth in the class escalated as I slowed down, that I began to understand what this epigraph meant, and why it was included as an epigraph in this course alongside the others – why its presence was so important. This course revolves around concepts such as sustainability, possession, recursion and repetition, freedom, accountability, and several others, which promote student growth, understanding, and accepted accountability for things we have done within “other people’s homes”, so to speak. We, as students, speak on these matters in class, but how do we respectfully do so, and with care and accountability? It is through this journey in the semester that this specific epigraph has been defined to me – when one is to write on a victim of historical horror or mistreatment, or on a matter as important as Black rights, it must never be done in vain, and the writing must never be left without justice or honor attached to it. Those who write on these matters should be doing so with grace, care, and diligence. The author who wrote this epigraph, Audre Lorde, was one who dedicated her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices such as  racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia – she was one who fought for justice and never wrote on topics that she did not strive to grant justice and honor to, such as African American rights and Black individuals who were wronged in the years before and during the time she began to write. She was not one to leave her pen “lying / in somebody else’s blood” – she was one to grant that “somebody else” the justice they deserved and the honor they had been deprived of. In that pen she holds, there is power and the ability to change the narrative. This epigraph has remained prominent throughout our reading in this African American Literature course, but the one text which has cemented this epigraph within its pages is Percival Everett’s The Trees.

The Trees is a novel about resurrection, repetition and recursion, and accountability – all course concepts from our African American literature class thus far. Everett grants justice in his novel by taking a real life victim of lynching and racism, Emmett Till, and presenting a fictional continuation in which individuals seek revenge and justice by murdering not only those related to those who murdered Till, but also other racist individuals across the country, which evolves into a revoluation and revolt against racism and the murder of innocent Black individuals. The epigraph mentioned above, “I cannot recall the words of my first poem / but I / remember a promise / I made my pen /never to leave it / lying / in somebody else’s blood” by Audre Lorde is one that reemerged in my mind as I sat and read The Trees. I considered Lorde’s words in correlation with this novel of revolt, revenge, and revolution … how Everett took one young Black man’s tragic end and crafted a world in which he, in a way, was avenged. Everett did not allow his work to remain “lying / in somebody else’s blood” – that somebody being Emmett Till – and instead wrote a dedicated piece to him, of sorts – granting him the justice that today’s modern world so deeply seeks on equality and justice, and planting his case in the center of it. In this world Everett has made, the name of Emmett Till was not forgotten, and instead served as the base of this revolution that arises in his honor in The Trees. 

Emmett Till was not the only person that Everett granted this justice to. In the novel, the character of Damon Thruff is written to write down a list of names which fills up almost nine and a half pages – the names of victims of lynching. Thruff informs Mama Z, “When I write their names they become real, not just statistics. When I write the names they become real again. It’s almost like they get a few more seconds 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. Don’t they?” (Everett 190). By having Thruff write all of these names down – and also, Everett cementing these names in his novel for all to read – it grants justice and freedom to these victims. Everett refuses to leave his pen “lying / in somebody else’s blood” and instead, has the character Thruff erase them. He states “When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free”, essentially granting these victims the freedom they had been deprived of due to their names and stories being forgotten over time. This is one of the core elements of The Trees being brought forth over and over again (repetition and recursion, one may say). Everett followed the words of Lorde’s epigraph through his novel’s revolution and fight for justice for those that some never even notice. The character of Gertrude reiterates this idea once she is discovered as one of the individuals responsible for the original three killings of Wheat Bryant, Junior Junior Milam, and “the Milam in Chicago” (Everett 292), stating “Everybody talks about genocides around the world, but when the killing is slow and spread out over a hundred years, no one notices. Where there are no mass graves, no one notices” (291). One of Evertt’s key purposes in this novel is to make people notice. To present the names of victims and some of their stories (primarily Emmett Till) and grant them closure – grant them justice. Though it is fictional justice, Everett does what the real world has not yet to the extent that he writes, stating things such as “In New York City, a fat police officer shot a young Black man in Central Park, only to find dirt-encrusted Black men waiting for him at his patrol car.” (Everett 294). Despite current, real movements of justice for those wrongly killed or attacked, Everett presents one that is far more intense, far greater than what has been present in modern times. In this world he has crafted, he does not leave anyone “lying in somebody else’s blood” – he takes that pain and the story of those wronged and writes them a new story… a continuation where instead of forgetting his crimes, that police officer who wrongly shot a young Black man in Central Park is faced with his crimes and confronted with the pain and hurt he has caused. A revolution is crafted with the story of Emmett Till and the ‘blood’ he has left in history. This is perhaps why Everett chooses to end the novel in a way that could be interpreted as both hopeful and confusing. He writes: “‘Shall I stop him?’ Outside in the distance, through the night air, the muffled cry came through, Rise. Rise. ‘Shall I stop him?’” (Everett 308). This ending – so powerful and illuminating – can be interpreted as Everett being Damon Thruff (the writer of all the victims’ names in this scene of the novel) and the readers being Mama Z. In this scene, we, as Mama Z, ask those who do not seek justice for those wronged, if we should stop Everett from doing just that. We ask, as the modern day mistreatment of Black individuals continues through things such as police brutality, should we really stop what Everett is doing, that being, granting justice and freedom to individuals such as Emmett Till … Bill Gilmer … Dorothy Malcom … W.W. Watt … Bartley James … Stella Young … and so many others? As the people wronged are able to rise, shall we stop them as others would like them to? Or shall we continue to seek justice? Continue to learn, to grow, to do whatever it is we can to ensure equality and making sure no other pen is left “lying / in somebody else’s blood”?

This course epigraph, as well as Everett’s The Trees, in a way, allows me to interpret my own semester’s story in this class. Admittedly, when I entered African American Literature, I had never taken a class dealing with the same or similar subject, and I knew I was going to be put on a learning journey. I knew I would not know everything, nor would I be able to try and know everything, for I was and am a ‘guest in someone else’s home’, as our instructor puts it. I was going to stumble, to be surprised by things I had never learned before, and I would have the privilege of writing on author’s and their works as well as be involved in discussions on author’s and their works where I could learn alongside my peers in the classroom. Now, as I sit and type this final essay, I look back on my first day in the class and compare it to the present, and I feel grateful to learn what I have learned, and had the opportunity to write on and speak on things that taught me more than I would have imagined. I felt as though my understanding of the works we have covered in class resembles the journey, that in some ways, resembles Jim and Ed’s unraveling and understanding of the case in The Trees – they begin with facts and ideas, and end with an understanding of what justice truly means, and the importance of letting others rise. I end my time in this class with similar ideas… and I will promise myself that I will never leave my own pen “lying / in somebody else’s blood”. This being said, I undertake this reflection, something does happen to my understanding of literature – that there are some things that are vital to understand, even if the answers must be searched for over a long period of time (perhaps even a semester’s worth). I learned to never assume, to always seek answers and learn in any way possible. To understand. To grow. More importantly, to treat my misunderstandings with grace and the determination to do better. Going forward, it is vital to take the knowledge learned on concepts such as sustainability, possession, recursion and repetition, freedom, accountability, and others, slow down, and use them as stepping stones to understand the literature we study and the lives we live.

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