The Haunted Oak

Gossie H. Hudson: On "The Haunted Oak"

Accounts printed in the daily press show that 1,665 blacks were lynched in the decade ending 1900. James Weldon Johnson wrote that "numbers of them were lynched with a savagery that was ... nothing short of torture, mutilation and burning alive at the stake." Indiana and Mississippi mobs had alike been lynching innocent blacks. Such horrible occurrences gave Paul Laurence Dunbar a theme for a strong poem of hostility, "The Haunted Oak."

The ballad is the wail of an oak tree on which an innocent victim has been hanged by a mob. Mayor Brand Whitlock, a white "Progressive" and patron from Toledo, Ohio, criticized the poet's usage of the word "innocence" in the verse:

From those who ride fast on our heels

With mind to do him wrong:

They have no care for his innocence,

And the rope they bear is long.

Dunbar defended his choice of nouns, indicating that had "innocence been left out, . . . it would have destroyed our element of dramatic powers ... our feeling at a crime committed against a criminal is never so deep as that of one injustice done to any innocent man."

Even uglier than lynching is the fact that in a number of instances the black victim was hanged merely because of the color of his skin. In a collection of short stories by Dunbar, a story entitled "The Lynching of Jube Benson" indicated the murder of an innocent black. In the story, after the lynching of Jube the mob left. This gave the protagonist not only the opportunity of trying to resuscitate Jube, but also time to inspect the body of the rape victim: "Carefully, carefully, I searched underneath her broken finger nails. There was skin there. I took it out, the little curled pieces. . . . It was the skin of a white man, and in it were embedded strands of short, brown hair or beard." A "white ruffian" had committed the crime and had smeared his face with dirt "to imitate a Negro's."

From "The Crowded Years: Paul Laurence Dunbar in History" in A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Jay Martin. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Jay Martin.

Peter Revell: On "The Haunted Oak"

Perhaps the subtlest poem in its use of literary device, and the nearest to a poem of protest and outrage, is the comparatively late "The Haunted Oak." Dunbar again employs a traditional form borrowed from English literature. The simple stanzas, sparse rhyming, and stark and baleful language of the Border ballad, which frequently involves the description of primitive and cruel acts of murder, are well adapted to the contemporary

theme of lynching. The violent action of the Border ballad is also frequently motivated by the spell or the curse of evil influences. In Dunbar's poem the device of the tree's lamenting its unwilling part in the lynching and of the withering of the bough which had borne the victim is exactly in character with the traditional mode of the ballad.

And ever the man he rides me hard,

And never a night stays he;

For I feel his curse as a haunted bough,

On the trunk of a haunted tree.

According to Edward F. Arnold, Dunbar wrote the poem quickly after hearing the story from an old ex-slave who lived in the "Camp" on the grounds of Howard University. There can be no question that the choice of the Border ballad form, with its tone of terror and curse, was a brilliant stratagem on Dunbar's part as a means of rendering the story with the utmost power. Again, Jean Wagner asserts that Dunbar does not protest enough, but the poem works by other means than overt protest. Its invocation of supernatural powers and its tone of lamentation, rather than protest, produce an effect that stays in the mind of the reader far more potently and lastingly than a specific note of protest would be likely to do. Furthermore, Dunbar does identify the guilty parties in the lynching, the local judge, doctor, and pastor:

Oh, the judge he wore a mask of black,

And the doctor one of white,

And the minister, with his oldest son,

Was curiously bedight.

As Jean Wagner concedes, "At the time, this required a certain courage."

From Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. Copyright © 1979 by G.K. Hall & Co.

James A. Emanuel: On "The Haunted Oak"

"The Haunted Oak," written and publsihed in 1900, could have been based on one of the 105 lynchings that occurred that year, but it was inspired in Washington, D.C., by a story that Dunbar heard an old black man relate concerning his nephew in Alabama who bad been hanged on an oak tree by a mob of whites after having been falsely accused of "a grave crime." According to the story, shortly afterwards the leaves on the limb used for the lynching yellowed and fell off; and, unlike the rest of the normal tree, the offending bough shriveled and died. Townspeople began to call the tree "the haunted oak." Dunbar, using the ballad form to enhance the superstition, personifies the tree and makes it the most sensitive and remorseful participant in the crime.

Perhaps the narrative style and the limitation of feeling and thought to that tolerable in the personification prohibit strong individual expression on the author's part. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to miss the sharpness of the satire in the following crucial stanza describing the nightriders:

Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black,

And the doctor one of white,

And the minister, with his oldest son,

Was curiously bedight.

Within the racial context, what more economical, low-tension attack could have been launched against the lie of white justice, the lie of white solicitude for the sick, and the lie of white godliness?

From "Racial Fire in the Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar" in A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Jay Martin. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Jay Martin.

Jean Wagner: On "The Haunted Oak"

Even less overt is the one poem that attacks lynching, "The Haunted Oak," in which the poet allows the oak to speak. The content is a story told to Dunbar by an old Negro of Howard Town whose nephew had been falsely accused of rape:

They'd charged him with the old, old crime.

The bloodthirsty Alabama mob had dragged him out of prison and hanged him from the branch of an oak tree. The branch had withered instantly, while the others continued to flourish. Dunbar's poem is well contrived, and, though the forcefulness of the protest is somewhat mitigated by the legendary trappings, the poet in any event succeeded in imbuing the story with the mysterious atmosphere that envelops the punitive raids of the Ku Klux Klan. And he actually named, as the guilty parties, the local judge, doctor, and pastor:

Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black,

And the doctor one of white,

And the minister, with his oldest son,

Was curiously bedight.

At the time, this required a certain courage.

From Black Poets of the United States, from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.