Updated: Jun 5, 2020

By Chris Victoria (Pen Name)

I am reflecting back on a road trip I took a short while ago. It was a pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama- by the time I got there it would be nighttime, the storefronts outside of the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge hauntingly quiet. My mind wandered to other times during that trip...

The road to Selma was long, unlighted, pure country. I had no music on. Yet, the thick electric silence carried the same stifling quality of the lingering chords filling the spaces between Nina Simone's rasping cries in "Strange Fruit."

Southern trees... bear a strange fruit...

Blood on the leaves... and blood at the root...

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze...

Strange fruit hangin’… from the poplar trees—

I glimpsed a yellow moon looming overhead, and a violent thought flickered in my mind- I had seen a squirrel's yellowed eyes bulging out of its head once, quickly asphyxiated from the crunch of a tire.

Is that what Their eyes looked like?

Protruding almost cartoonishly, eyes forever locked on a crowd of white people in pressed Sunday suits and glistening periwinkle blue pumps, mothers clutching babes to their breasts,

remarking how hot a day it was; giggling sons perched high on the shoulders of their daddies, pointing with the same curiosity of children at the state fair?

Do ghosts haunt the trees? The soil?

My mind flickers back to a tour through historic Charleston I recall taking with my grandfather and uncle one South Carolina summer. The tour guide sang negro spirituals to us, offkey, as we

stopped at several sites rich with Gullah and Geechee culture. We made one brief stop, with the guide offering little explanation of the history behind the place. 

One of the most beautiful oak trees I had ever seen towered before me like a mountain. My sister gripped my sweaty palm and we ran gleefully towards the oak, and began to climb and swing from its majestic low-bearing branches. I was a Lord of the Rings hobbit, this tree was an Ent, this gnarled old man would come alive and speak in a grumbling voice that might shake the whole town at any moment. We chased one another around the tree, posed for pictures, hopped over knotty roots. Only when we got back on the bus, flushed and panting from our joyous playtime, did we learn that this grand 1,400-year-old oak tree was called the Angel Oak Tree, and carried a grim story. It had routinely been used for lynching.

I remember feeling blank, and then panicked, then guilty. I stared hard at my hands as if I expected to see bloodstains beneath the smudges of dirt and bark chips.

Where did the audience stand to pose for their pictures under Angel Oak? Beneath the mutilated black bodies dangling like an ornament above their heads? I looked at the picture we had taken and almost expected to see an apparition above my own head.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh Then the sudden smell of burning flesh—

I never looked at such trees the same again. The question would always linger somewhere in the back of my mind...

We would years later visit Montgomery's Legacy Museum, which had an exhibit that left me breathless. There was a wall of jars filled with soil from lynching sites, and each jar had the name of the black person who had been hung at that site.