Can anyone write a whip-funny story about Blacks extracting revenge of hate crimes committed by White Supremacists?

The answer is a yes because Percival Everett has written it, and how.

Percival’s writing style has always been loud, sound, and in the face. In his first breakthrough novel, Erasure, he questions – how much black should an African-American novel be. His monologue reads –

 I have dark brown skin, curly hair, a broad nose, some of my ancestors were slaves and I have been detained by pasty white policemen in New Hampshire, Arizona, and Georgia and so the society in which I live tells me I am black; that is my race.   

With The Trees, Everett has delivered a page-turner with grisly murders and racial horrors set in Mississippi. The dialogues are filled with regional cusses and curses (pickaninny, being one of them), and the humour makes the book glow in a different light. We laugh at the characters and their funny exchanges, fully aware of the dark past that’s preface to the novel – the lynchings in Mississippi. “History is a motherfucker,” the author writes.

History in fiction

The lynching of Emmett Till has put Money, Mississippi on the map as his final resting place. There are even shiny memorials to his name now. The novel begins with an old Carolyn Bryant regretting her decision to lie about Till, which had prompted her husband and brother-in-law to ruthlessly murder the 14-year-old boy. They eventually walked out of the court as free men. The year was 1955.

But now, each member of Carolyn’s family is targeted and murdered in a similar fashion. When they come for her, they don’t have to do anything. She dies in shock, staring into the eyes of the ghost of Emmett Till. Due to the serial fashion of the crimes, two officers are called in from the State Police to investigate the matter, and what makes this investigation enjoyable is that Ed and Jim are coloured. The town of Money hates them, and they hate Money back even more. They report that Money is “chock-full of know-nothing peckerwoods stuck in the prewar nineteenth century and living proof that inbreeding does not lead to extinction.”

Humour has often served as a successful ploy for many writers. It playfully reels the readers into harsh realities – we don’t feel cheated, instead the severity of the situation just hits home harder. Everett does the same.

“Before he could say Lawdy, before he could say Jesssssssussss, before he could say nigger, a length of barbed wire was wrapped twice around his thick, froglike neck.”  

The chapters are short and crisp. Even though the book has an air of lightness, it does not betray the gravity of Till’s murder and racial injustices. The ghosts of the victims are lurking in the pages – you can feel it.

The slang as well as the conversations in The Tress takes the reader right into the heart of Money, Mississippi. The Whites are upset about the crimes and fear being harmed by the Blacks. In the Klu Klux Klan meetings, the Southerners revote the President and call it a day. When one of the police officers reveals that his father is Black, the hatred on his wife’s face is profound, she is hurt, and thinks her lineage is in danger.

An eye for an eye

As the number of killings in Money increase and Ed and Jim find themselves racing against time. As part of the investigation, they have to question retired and existing members of the Ku Klux Klan, starting right from the Money Police Department. They make their way through the town uncovering a history of hate crimes while thinking that the victims deserved what they got. They meet Mama Z, a 105-year-old woman who has been recording all the lynching cases in the country since she was born. She keeps a file for every lynched person. They ask her why she thinks the Whites kill coloured people.

“You think Whites are just afraid of Black men?”
“I think it’s sport.” Mama Z replies.   

Both the officers suspect Mama Z, but she is old and can’t possibly strangle four people. Then in a series of events, similar murders start happening all over the country. The crimes are too big for the local police and the FBI is brought in. The local police hate this and are uncooperative. When there is a murder in the White House (“where the Clown lives”), Ed and Jim return to Mama Z for answers. She is turning her lynching records into a book. She doesn’t want them forgotten or left uncared for. The names of the victims written over the next five pages interrupt the exhilarating crime chase – the list is nothing less than a punch to your heart.

“Everybody talks about genocides around the world, but when the killing is slow and spread over a hundred years, no one notices. Where there are no mass graves, no one notices. American outrage is always for show. It has a shelf life.”

Without your realising it, Everett has drawn you into a war that’s greater than the book and the plot. “Your book is very interesting,’ Mama Z tells an American author who writes about racism, “because you were able to construct three hundred and seven pages on such a topic without an ounce of outrage.”

In the end, you are not chasing answers for the disappearing bodies. You believe in ghosts and it’s only right that they are coming back for their murderers now and wringing them by the neck. It’s incredible how much someone reading The Trees in a completely different part of the world can relate to Mississippi and the story of Emmett Till. India, like Mississippi, with its own bloody history of violence and riots between different communities, hasn’t quite come out of the past either.

While some live in the past, others don’t even acknowledge it – and thus we remain stuck in status quo. But those who hold on to them and maintain records of them, remember. Mama Z remembers. Every police shooting is an act of lynching, of racial violence. She demands accountability. She demands justice. No matter the cost. After all, this how the world goes around – an eye for an eye.

The Trees, Percival Everett, Graywolf Press.