The Hanging Tree, Part 2

However, it was the elephant in the room, wasn’t it? Furthermore, Henry’s admission had given birth to another elephant in the room: Henry Cooper, a White man, was in love with Alice Harper, a Black woman. As she gazed at her dark brown skin in the mirror later that night, that particular fact loomed larger than anything else. Where did this love come from? In all her thirty three years, could she have ever imagined that a declaration of love would come from a man who wasn’t Black?

The questions remained there, unanswered, swirling about the gray heads of all the elephants that now occupied the room.

That weekend, as she drove down the winding, tree-lined pathway that led to her parents’ home, Alice busied her jumbled mind with envisioning her late father as a young boy skipping down the same road. By 1970, Alice’s paternal grandfather had purchased the plot of land where the Harper family home now stood, having completed installment payments made over a number of years. He had finally become a landowner. Her father could freely skip and play on a plot of land that belonged to his family. But Alice knew that her forebears had maintained a wary eye on their surroundings, and certainly on that energetic fourteen year-old boy, regardless of the land they held. The times were no less conflicted as Black landowners.

As she pulled into the circular driveway in front of the house, Alice banished the other thoughts that aimed to flood her mind. Soon, she stood inside the airy, light-filled foyer. “Mama?” she called.

“Upstairs, Alice,” Rebecca Harper replied.  

Bounding up the stairs, Alice entered the master bedroom and found her mother sorting through an endless pile of clothes on her bed. “What’s going on here?” she asked before nearly racing into her mother’s open arms. Closing her eyes and inhaling her mother’s perfume, she momentarily forgot the stresses of the past week and other related topics.

“That silly cruise, remember?” her mother replied, hugging her tightly.

“Oh, I forgot: the Greek Isles with Ms. Edna.”  

“She wants to us to look like we’re rich and available.”  

“Sounds like Ms. Edna.” With that, Alice flopped down onto the bed, eventually burrowing herself into one of her mother’s mink coats.

Rebecca sat down on the bed and gently rubbed Alice’s back. “What’s wrong, baby?”

Having not yet informed her mother of her plans to take her students to the tree, Alice sat up and told her everything. She started from the beginning, when she had initially thought of the idea, to the heated meeting with the school board a few days ago. “Less than 50 years ago, Jim Crow laws were alive and well right here in Myron,” Alice said. “And these people want to pretend like those things never happened. Taking the kids to the tree is just my small attempt to help them memorialize the past.”

Her mother nodded slowly. “I see that,” she said softly.  

“What do you think, Mama?” she asked. “Am I crazy or what?”  

Her mother studied her, a slight smile on her lips. “I think your father would be proud of you. He was just as idealistic as you are and just as stubborn. One time, the editor of the Myron Sun begged me to convince him to stop writing so many letters of complaint to the paper.”

The two laughed quietly before a heavy silence entered between them, the memories of  Alice’s beloved father playing out in their minds.  

“It’s not my opinion that the past should be swept under the rug as if it never happened,” Rebecca then said. “And I agree that some of these teenagers should see what things were like for some of their own ancestors, especially right here in Myron, even if the tree is more a symbol now.” Rebecca paused. “The whole thing is very serious, Alice. Is it worth losing your job over?”

“I honestly don’t care if I lose my job, Mama.” With those words, the image of Henry Cooper bizarrely infiltrated her mind’s eye, breaking through the barrier she had set up for that particular line of thinking. With some effort, Alice mentally pushed him away. “Maybe Myron isn’t enough for me,” she continued. “This could be a sign that I need something new and different.”

“Well, whatever you decide, I’ll support it. Supporting you is more important to me than anything.”

So far, Alice mused, she had two supporters in her corner: her mother and the one person she didn’t really want to think about.


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