Dunbar's "The Haunted Oak" suggests a shared responsibility for the murder of the innocent victim. What evidence in the poem is there to support this view?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Dunbar's poem serves to criticize the social condition of lynching that was so much a part of American culture and African- American reality.  For Dunbar, there is a shared responsibility for the lynching that takes place.  The theory of correspondence used in the poem helps to convey this.  The oak is perceived to be "haunted" because the branch used for the lynching undergoes discoloration and withers away.  In this, Dunbar suggests that the natural world is conveying that something is wrong in the world of human beings, helping to identify that someone else needs to take blame for the lynching that happened.

Dunbar does argue that responsibility needs to be shared  Consider Dunbar's rather pointed lines to this point:

 Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black, 
        And the doctor one of white, 
    And the minister, with his oldest son, 
        Was curiously bedight.

For Dunbar, these individuals, the ones who stand and watch an innocent man lynched, are to blame.  The desire for shared responsibility must rest with individuals who demand justice.  In doing so, one will find that the real perpetrators of the crime are the ones who advocated the lynchings.  It is here in which Dunbar's poem suggests that the act of lynching, itself, is a crime in which shared responsibility must be embraced in order to stop its continuation.

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