surely i am able to write poems celebrating grass and how the blue in the sky can flow green or red and the waters lean against the chesapeake shore like a familiar poems about nature and landscape surely but whenever I begin “the trees wave their knotted branches and…” why is there under that poem always an other poem? - Lucille Clifton
When I first read this prompt, I began by looking back on the course epigraphs and discovered something I hadn’t thought of before. After reading Percival Everett’s The Trees, I automatically connected to the Audre Lorde’s poem about promising her pen that she wouldn’t leave it sitting in someone else’s blood. This connection was an obvious one because of the aspect of blood and hurting other people, but then I started thinking more about the novel’s structure and how the plot and characterization layers slowly pull away to reveal more of the story. All of this being said, I have decided to take an alternate route to this paper than I was originally planning after thinkING deeper about the novel and the true meaning of the course epigraphs. I was able to make strong connections between the novel and Lucille Clifton’s poem and see it through a new lens through The Trees.
Clifton’s poem really stood out to me after reading The Trees for a multitude of different reasons. The poem starts out with a definitive, slightly defensive tone as if someone was questioning her ability to write poetry, but the tone switches throughout until the narrator realizes that there are more components to poetry than meets the eye. This is very powerful when seen through Percival Everett’s novel, especially while what seems to be the same event is happening all over the country. White people are being delivered a death sentence for crimes the rest of the world was blind to (whether unintentional or intentional), and it causes the truth to finally emerge after many years of hiding in the shadows. Throughout the novel, higher level detectives from varying places are brought to Mississippi to try their hand at solving this string of brutal murders that continue happening all across the state. Sheriff Jetty of Money, Mississippi and his team are joined early on by Supervisory Special Agents Ed and Jim of the MBI in Hattiesburg. The team later expands to include FBI Agent Herberta Hind along with other officers representing surrounding counties that are mentioned a the end of the novel. All of these individuals come into the case with preconceived biases based on their background and this allows them to see the details of the case differently from each other. Lucille Clifton’s poem connects to this idea of each person can be given a poem or a case file of sorts and form their own opinions and notions based on what they see. Lucille also mentions “familiar poems about nature and landscape” which can be tied to the different perspectives that can be present in any given situation (Clifton lines 5-6).
On the basis of characterization throughout the novel, Special Agents Ed and Jim meet Gertrude, a more complex character than readers might initially think. She works as a waitress at The Dinah, and on her uniform she wears a name tag that reads: Dixie. Upon meeting, Ed and Jim call Gertrude the name on her name tag and she corrects them by saying that her real name is Gertrude because “Dixies get better tips than Gertrudes” (Everett 39). At the end of the novel when Jim is informally interrogating Gertrude, he concludes that her real name isn’t Dixie or even Gertrude Penstock, but Gertrude Harvey and that she isn’t really Mama Z’s great-granddaughter as they aren’t even blood relatives (Everett 291). This concept of Gertrude’s real name circles back to the concept of perspective and how many layers they can be to one seemingly simple aspect. Gertrude is a character with many layers, constantly evolving under the readers’ nose, but still it shocks us in the end that she isn’t the person that we were told she was in the beginning. Lucille Clifton’s poem concludes with the line, “why / is there under that poem always / an other poem?” (Clifton lines 9-11). There is always more to something or someone than what we observe at face value. We can observe and question many different aspects of this thing, but in reality it is very likely that we will never truly know it. This mindset pertains to more than just Gertrude’s character in The Trees, looking more broadly at the conflict this novel seeks to explain.
The whole of Everett’s novel has readers immersed in a very real conflict that we see in our societies today. The novel is set in the midst of a developing race war between Whites and what they see as minority groups of Asian and Black people among many others. Mama Z has a collection of files of lynchings that happened all over the world, one of the first being the death of her father. In an effort to avenge the deaths of this multitude of people that died at the hands of White people that assumed they were the ones to blame when terrible things happened to their people, Mama Z, Gertrude and others murdered three men in the town of Money, Mississippi not realizing that they would start a trend across the state. Junior Junior, Wheat Bryant and Carolyn Bryant (Granny C) were all killed because they were either directly or indirectly (through lineage) responsible for the false accusations against Emmett Till who was kidnapped from his home and lynched in August 1955. The reason that was used to excuse this lynching was that Emmett allegedly flirted or whistled at Carolyn Bryant at the store, which violated the unwritten code of behavior for a black male interacting with a white female in the Jim Crow era in the South. This accusation led to Emmett Till’s death and consequently the death of these characters toward the beginning of Everett’s novel which was written based on true events. On page 161 of the novel, Everett writes notes on the discovery of Julius Lynch’s body (Mama Z’s biological father) that say “The body of Julius Lynch was claimed by his brother, John Lynch. The body was picked up by the Pierce Funeral Parlor. No one was interviewed. No suspects were identified. No one was arrested. No one was charged. No one cared” (Everett 161). There are so many perspectives to these cases and the background that follows them, reminding us that what we observe or hear and believe to be the truth is not necessarily everyone’s truth, but is something we will never understand in its entirety.
The phrases that Everett uses in the final pages of his novel are very intense and hold more mean as readers acknowledge their reading journey is coming to a close. I wanted to take the time to highlight some of these quotes that really resonate with me even after finishing the novel in its entirety, connecting them back to the poem by Lucille Clifton found among out course epigraphs. When describing the group of Black people that killed her father, Laurel Winslow tells reporters, “They wasn’t human” (Everett 260). When the governor of South Carolina is discussing the deaths of six White males that morning he says, “…all of these killers are Black men who have no regard for human life…we are encouraging the good White people of South Carolina to be wary of any Black individuals, especially those unknown to them” immediately following the statement, “We understand, all of us, that the actions of a few members are not and should not be an indictment of an entire group” (Everett 261). All of these phrases quoted above are terrifyingly relevant to event that have occurred both in history and present day.
These statements made by government officials, local and federal, are at the heart of this issue and in turn infects the mindset of the common people, making it more difficult to stop the spread of hate and negativity. Disregarding people as human beings just because of a difference in skin color or appearance after having just said that one person’s wrongdoings should not affect someone’s outlook on the remainder of that group is appalling. Reading this novel and connecting it to my reading of Lucille Clifton’s poem has left me sad for the state of the world we are inhabitants of, but hopeful that someday we can all come together and realize just how wrong we were about others who think differently, believe differently, look differently, and act differently than we do. I hope that I can be part of the change that gets us to a better, more accepting and understanding place.