Final Reflection: The “Tree” Killings

The word epigraph has gradually increased in usage over the years but really started to take off in the more recent years 2019-2022. The term epigraph is used in all walks of life whether you are an English major in college, mathematician, scientist, political science creditor, religious follower, etc. The dictionary defines an epigraph to be one of two things. “a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme” and “an inscription on a building, statue, or coin.” In my case, the first definition will be discussed in more detail as I talk about the hidden meaning behind the usage of the word “trees” in an epigraph written by Lucille Clifton about writing poems about flowers and the sky. As well as the novel The Trees, written by Percival Everett about detectives and FBI agents investigating the murders occurring in Money Mississippi that strangely take after the Emmet Till case. Although it may seem that these two authors are writing about entirely different ideas, they are actually articulating their ideas about the tragedy that is the history of lynching in the United States.

In my own opinion, I have come to the realization that both meanings of the word “trees” used in the epigraph and the novel have a deeper meaning. That deeper meaning is that the term “trees” used in both instances are actually talking about lynchings. One major detail from the novel that suggests the title “Trees” was no mistake was when Everett writes about two white officers getting hanged. In chapter 88 he writes “hanging in the trees were the bodies of Digby and Brady, their legs crazy with blood, their pants down to their ankles, their boots stopping the clothes from falling off” (Everett 256). A pretty gruesome scene to read yes? As it has it, this is one of the only times that Everett mentions trees in the novel other than the title. I have to question this decision by Everett to make this scene the only other time to mention trees in the novel. It is because of this scene that I think the hidden meaning behind the title of this novel is about lynching and murders. There was no mistake that in this scene it was two white police officers strung up on a tree, their lifeless bodies dangling. The reason I say that it was no mistake is that in the late 19th-century lynching took the form of many things, one of the most common was hanging Black men, women, and children for crimes they may or may not have committed. Why is it important to note this? Two reasons, one is that Everett made sure the people who were lynched in this novel were white because he wanted to show how when white people become the hunted, they became a cause of concern by law enforcement. But when Black people have the same thing start happening to them, people seem to turn the other cheek. As a result of this novel being published in 2021 and set in modern-day, I believe that Everett had the same thought that I do. That thought is, whether we want to address it or not, lynchings are still happening today. It may not look the same as it did back in the 19th century, but they do still happen.

I believe that Lucille Clifton is also talking about the lynchings that happened in the late 19th century and are still occurring today. I think this is the case because the epigraph by Clifton states “whenever I begin ‘the trees wave their knotted branches and…’  why is there under that poem always an other poem?” That last question in the epigraph carries a heavy message. I say this because as I have stated I believe that Clifton and Everett are in cahoots about how the usage of the word “trees” carries a much deeper meaning than what it may seem. What Clifton is trying to allude to her readers is that trees hold the history of lynchings among their branches and it is up to the authors to remind their readers about the grotesque murders that occurred within the overhangs of the trees. Clifton wants her readers to remember that lynchings did happen and we need to recognize this. Even if authors have to step around directly stating this fact, they can use their words to convey a secret message that has to be unraveled before people can understand the true meaning of what they meant.

I will reiterate here that what I have just written is all my own opinion. I also have to mention that as students in the classroom, we are asked to interpret the texts we are given and then create arguments with examples for why we think the way we do which is what I just did. I stated that I believed the usage of the term “trees” in both Percival Everett’s novel and Lucille Clifton’s epigraph have the same meaning about lynchings that need to be talked about as it is a part of history. As students, it is important to acknowledge that the topic of lynchings is an uncomfortable topic to talk about. With the topic of lynching comes perhaps embarrassment and shame that someone would ever think to do such a horrific act. But we still recognize it in the classroom as a part of history in order to better our futures as scholars and as community members. We must recognize lynchings and have these difficult conversations not because we want to but so that we don’t repeat the worst parts of history. If it isn’t this generation, it will be the next to continue to have these discussions about the bad parts of history. So that in due time we will all be able to live harmoniously amongst one another. 

Will everyone agree with my opinion? Of course not. But could this shift how one perceives the epigraph and novel? Maybe. It is important to acknowledge that everyone will read and interpret the novel and epigraph differently. It is also important to acknowledge that everyone will read and interpret this essay in different ways. The point being driven home in this essay are two things. The first part was my own opinion on the meaning of the word “trees” in Lucille Clifton’s epigraph and Percival Everett’s novel “Trees”. Both of which I considered to mean the lynchings that have taken place over the years. The other thing that was the backbone of this essay was the idea that we as a community need to acknowledge the history of how we have treated people is unsettling. We need to acknowledge everyone’s thoughts and have an open discussion on subjects such as lynchings. We also need to recognize that this type of mass hysteria is still happening and we need to find ways to keep it from being detrimental to our future. Or is it already too late?

Call and Response: The First Call

In the first section of Call and Response that we had to read as a class (pages 1-68), it was said that this would be the first “call” in the book. I am here to argue that there are actually two calls and one response within these pages. The first call happens between pages 1-18. This first “call” was meant to be a call of information. It was meant to inform people about where African culture is found in Euro-America and how it got there. Here, the authors talk about the origins of the oral African tradition. This includes sections on “African proverbs,  Folk Cries, Work Songs, Spirituals, and Folktales” (Hill 1-18). The main idea that the authors discuss in this section is how there are “African proverbs and slave proverbs” (Hill 11-12). These proverbs are two very different things as African proverbs grew their roots only though African culture and slave proverbs grew their roots in Euro-American culture. Although, slave proverbs have been proven to have African origins as well as Euro-American origins. In fact, J. Mason Brewer did a comparative study that showed that “black people brought at least 122 proverbs directly from Africa” (Brewer 11-12). What this means is that African Americans combined African tradition with the hardships that they had to face from enslavement in the Americas to create their own culture in “the New World” (Hill 12). This section goes on to explain how these proverbs have been found in work songs, spirituals, and folktales told by African Americans. It is within these songs that African culture can be found. Predominantly in the way that the words to these songs are spoken, and the emotion that begs for the need of freedom within those words that are said. Therefore the first call was about information on African oral tradition and was meant to set up the first response of the book.

The first response in this section occurs between pages 19-27. Here, we find some answers about African literacy and how writers incorporated ideas from oral tradition in their writing. Specifically, this is a response to the call of freedom that was found in all of the African American work songs and spirituals found on pages 1-18. In this response, we can find examples of African American scholars who “articulated the theme of freedom in a variety of ways” (Hill 19). These scholars took the traditional African oral stories and wrote them in a way for people to have an understanding of African culture as well as the enslavement way of life. The freedom aspect found in many of these scholars’ writings was found in the way they wrote about enslavement. These writers not only wrote about the need for freedom from slavery, they also wrote about the need for freedom from Euro-American views on life. This response to the first call is monumental in the understanding of how African tradition has not faded away due to Euro-American ideologies. It is important to note that even African American writers who were “free”, as well as enslaved writers during their time all, agreed that African culture needed to be brought to life in their writing. Whether it be personal accounts that they had to embark on or stories that they had heard from fellow African Americans, the response stayed the same. The need to keep African culture alive through their writing was of utmost importance to them.

            These writers influenced the last call in this section. This call is a more detailed version of the original call that occurred on pages 1-18. This call takes place from pages 28-68. This section goes into further detail about the proverbs in the songs, what they mean and how they first came about. It is in this section that you can find song examples from every category mentioned earlier. These songs get broken down to show what type of spiritual or folk cry it is and how they differ from one another. In this section, the “call” is meant to be a call of understanding. To help people understand the different types of songs that were sung by African Americans as well as the meanings behind those songs. This is done so that people who aren’t familiar with this genre of music are able to educate themselves on what these songs are and the meaning behind them. This last call starts off by comparing slave proverbs to African proverbs and how although they look significantly different, the meaning doesn’t change. For example, the slave proverb “distant stovewood is good stovewood” and the African proverb “distant firewood is good firewood” have the same meaning that “things look better from a distance” (Hill 29). This is just one example to show the differences between the two proverbs. This section goes on to show the songs and how there are calls and responses within the songs that African Americans sang as work songs, spirituals, and cries. The calls in the songs are the leader of the song singing the first verse and then the response is the chorus singing in an echo back. So, the idea of call and response being found in African American tradition is not so uncommon as seen in their singing. For example, on page 33 of Call and Response, the work song “An Old Boat Song” is sung like this:

“(Lead Singer) We are going down to Georgia boys, (Chorus) Aye, Aye. (Lead Singer) To see the pretty girls, boys. (Chorus) Yoe, Yoe.”

This song shows how African American songs and phrasing often act as a call and response to the experiences they have had. Going on in this section of the final call, more examples are found of how work songs, spirituals, and cries have this type of leader and chorus methodology about them. The examples found in the final call for this section create an understanding of how African oral tradition has become a part of songs and folktales. It is through songs and folktales that we are able to understand and respect a culture that has survived many hardships throughout the decades.