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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.