"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.