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7 Racial Nightmares and “The Man in the Tree” South­ ern trees bear strange fruit. —Abel Meeropol, “Strange Fruit,” recorded by Billie Holliday in 1936 The only direct account of racial violence in any of Katherine Anne Porter’s published fiction comes in “The Witness,” where Uncle Jimbilly recounts the abuse inflicted by white masters during slavery: “Dey used to take ’em out and tie ’em down and whup ’em,” he muttered, “wid gret big leather strops inch thick long as yo’ ahm, wid round holes bored in ’em so’s evey time dey hit ’em de hide and de meat done come off dey bones in little round chunks. And wen dey had whupped ’em wid de strop till dey backs was all raw and bloody, dey spread dry cawnshucks on dey backs and set ’em afiire and pahched ’em, and den dey poured vinega all ovah ’em . . . Yassuh. And den, the ve’y next day dey’d got to git back to work in the fiels or dey’d do the same thing right ovah agin. Yassuh. Dat was it. If dey didn’t git back to work dey got it all right ovah agin.” (CS 341) It is a hair-­raising account for readers but apparently less so for the three children to whom he speaks. They feel “faint tinglings of embarrassment” and “wriggle” a little with “guilt,” and Paul wishes to change the subject. But Miranda characteristically “want[s] to know the worst.” “Did they act like that to you, Uncle Jimbilly?” His answer seems intended as testimony that Miss Sophia Jane, the children’s grandmother, was too good a mistress for that, or it may simply demonstrate that Jimbilly knows not to go too far. Now it is Paul who pushes the question: “Didn’t they ever die, Uncle Jimbilly?” “Cose dey died,’ said Uncle Jimbilly, ‘cose dey died—dey died . . . by de thousands and tens upon thousands ’” (CS 341–42). But the children are intent on another kind of death, that Racial Nightmares / 119 of a jackrabbit they are planning to bury, and they redirect him toward his whittling of a wooden headstone. As usual, he “gets right back to work”—perhaps like the beaten slaves who knew they had better “git back to work” at once? While he whittles, though, he pursues purposes of his own—the tale of white cruelty. Indeed, whatever the work he was engaged in, Uncle Jimbilly “dwelt much on the horrors of slave times” (341). In “The Journey,” another of the “Old Order” stories, it appears that the three children easily shrug off the horrors Uncle Jimbilly dwells on. But in an unpublished manuscript usually referred to as “The Man in the Tree” Porter raises the possibility that a child who sees or perhaps only hears of such atrocities is likely to carry the trauma for life. Porter herself was an example. Brought up in Texas at a time when lynching was practiced frequently and with increasing cruelty, she remained torn between guilt and her own entrenched prejudices. In letters and other scattered jottings we see a deep inner conflict between awareness of racial injustice and claims that it was deserved, anxiety about the threat of racial equality or mixing and fear of the violent natures of white men who carried out lynchings. Joined with distress over racial injustice and fear of other whites who could find it in themselves to inflict such cruelty, in “The Man in the Tree,” is a sense that a small-­town lynching is a kind of violence in the family—perhaps, given the realities of interracial sex in the South, literally so. It is one of Ameri­ can history’s great ironies that white people, especially but not solely South­erners, developed such an unreasoning conviction that black men were always lusting after white women and girls. The far more usual practice was the other way around. Racial mixing was an inseparable part of slavery. Many white masters (Thomas Jefferson, for instance) had concubines in the slave cabins or commandeered female slaves for sex on impulse. Maria, the narrative center of the “Man in the Tree” fragment, reveals the shadow of a long tradition, then, in her anxiety about violence that occurs practically in the family. At some points in the rambling manuscript we find indications, in fact, that this story, like “Old Mortality,” “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” and “The Old Order,” may have begun its life as part of Porter’s...


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