Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The source of the story’s title is a black spiritual that also served as an anthem of the Civil Rights movement. The spiritual celebrates a determination to remain firm in the way of salvation. In its secular application, it expressed a resolve to remain firm in the struggle for justice. Both aspects of the spiritual’s significance are relevant to this story.

The title’s allusion to African American folk Christianity suggests the deep spiritual roots of the community depicted in the story. These roots are linked to religion, but they are not merely religious in the narrowest sense of that word. This is what an outsider such as James cannot understand. As a white woman, Ann-Marie is also an outsider, but her life has touched that of the black community at a number of points; she does not fully understand the community, but, unlike James, she appreciates how much there is to understand.

The metaphor of the tree extends to Aunt Fe as well. It turns out that she will not be moved. From one point of view, her death on the eve of her scheduled departure is mere coincidence, but one senses that her will is involved, even if there is no conscious decision on her part. When she says that she will not leave, in a last conversation with Aunt Lou, her assertion seems to combine awareness and determination; certainly Aunt Lou is not surprised at her friend’s death.

The themes generated by the tree metaphor come together in the person and situation of Emmanuel. Although his cause is a secular one, he bears the name of the Redeemer and is moved by a sense of mission, driven by the force of the spirit. Aunt Fe has been an inspiration to him: Both her personal character and what she represents of the community’s past have led to his commitment to the community’s future. He seems to need something from Aunt Fe before he takes his leave. Perhaps, in her prayer, he hears her blessing. Having received it, he will not be moved.