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Roderick Cameron | Oct 21, 2023
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Website Editor | Oct 19, 2023
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An collection specializing in native Californian oaks
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A small but mature Alabama sandstone oak producing acorns © Patrick Thompson
A Critically Endangered dwarf oak 

"The Haunted Oak" by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Continuing our series of posts of poems that feature oaks: a harrowing tale of a lynching and the withering of an oak bough.

If you would like to propose a poem for inclusion in this series, please click here.

 

The Haunted Oak

Pray why are you so bare, so bare,
   Oh, bough of the old oak-tree;
And why, when I go through the shade you throw,
   Runs a shudder over me?

My leaves were green as the best, I trow,
   And sap ran free in my veins,
But I saw in the moonlight dim and weird
   A guiltless victim's pains.

I bent me down to hear his sigh;
   I shook with his gurgling moan,
And I trembled sore when they rode away,
   And left him here alone.

They'd charged him with the old, old crime,
   And set him fast in jail:
Oh, why does the dog howl all night long,
   And why does the night wind wail?

He prayed his prayer and he swore his oath,
   And he raised his hand to the sky;
But the beat of hoofs smote on his ear,
   And the steady tread drew nigh.

Who is it rides by night, by night,
   Over the moonlit road?
And what is the spur that keeps the pace,
   What is the galling goad?

And now they beat at the prison door,
   "Ho, keeper, do not stay!
We are friends of him whom you hold within,
   And we fain would take him away

"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."

They have fooled the jailer with lying words,
   They have fooled the man with lies;
The bolts unbar, the locks are drawn,
   And the great door open flies.

Now they have taken him from the jail,
   And hard and fast they ride,
And the leader laughs low down in his throat,
   As they halt my trunk beside.

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.

Oh, foolish man, why weep you now?
   'Tis but a little space,
And the time will come when these shall dread
   The mem'ry of your face.

I feel the rope against my bark,
   And the weight of him in my grain,
I feel in the throe of his final woe
   The touch of my own last pain.

And never more shall leaves come forth
   On the bough that bears the ban;
I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead,
   From the curse of a guiltless man.

And ever the judge rides by, rides by,
   And goes to hunt the deer,
And ever another rides his soul
   In the guise of a mortal fear.

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.

 

Source: The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar (Dodd Mead & Company, 1913)


 

Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar
The African-American Experience in Ohio, 1850-1920
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872, to two formerly enslaved people from Kentucky. He became one of the first influential Black poets in American literature and was internationally acclaimed for his dialect verse in collections such as Majors and Minors (Hadley & Hadley, 1895) and Lyrics of Lowly Life (Dodd, Mead and Company, 1896). The dialect poems constitute only a small portion of Dunbar’s canon, which is replete with novels, short stories, essays, and many poems. In its entirety, Dunbar’s literary body is regarded as an impressive representation of Black life in the turn-of-the-century United States.

On "The Haunted Oak"

"The Haunted Oak," written and published 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 had 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.

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