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There’s no good way to speak about lynching. In writing last week about Ida B. Wells, I approached it through the heroic struggle of the journalist who cast light into this the darkest corner of white supremacy. This week I examine Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of Strange Fruit, named in 1999 the “song of the century” by Time magazine.
It began as a poem titled “Bitter Fruit” by Lewis Allan, aka Abel Meeropol. This soft-hearted singer-song writer who adopted the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for being Soviet spies, championed causes of the oppressed. The poem helped him process his revulsion over a photo of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.
Can one ever really process the grotesque horror of lynching, often sadistic public displays of torture? Probably not, particularly people of color. For how many Blacks is Holiday’s mournful ode to the “strange fruit” that swing in the southern breeze traumatic? What right do I have to reawaken the wound by suggesting this song?
This is why I struggle over including in this blog photos of lynchings. Is it ethical to post the photo of Shipp and Smith that haunted Meeropol and led him to write about it? Or would that appropriate and misuse memories of the two young victims? Does it being of “public record” make it acceptable when the “public” attended lynchings, often advertised in local papers, with morbid, gleeful curiosity? Often the crowds, including children, were “rewarded” with souvenirs, from pieces of the noose or burned body parts. The “bulging eyes and twisted mouths” of victims do not adequately portray the horror of it all.
I will not post such photos, at least not today. But I ask you to listen to the song, and more than once. It’s a song some say began the modern civil rights movement. When Holiday sung it in the first integrated nightclub in New York, Café Society in Greenwich Village, she did so in honor of her father despite the racist retaliation it could have sparked. But she separated it from the rest of her act. She closed the evening with it – no encore – waiters were asked to stop serving. As the song was introduced, Holiday stood, eyes closed, as if in prayer. The prayer continues today as we struggle to talk about this ugly reality.
Lesson #50: There’s no good way to talk about, or stay silent about, lynching.
Lesson #51: Music, as with much art, can convey effectively what we struggle to discuss.
Lesson #52: Singing Strange Fruit put Billie Holiday’s life in danger because sometimes it’s dangerous to speak the truth.
Lesson #53: Oppression of different groups creates interesting relationships, such as that between politically radical Meeropol and anti-lynching efforts.
Lesson #54: Many whites treated lynchings like fun family outings – even postcards were made of some lynchings.
Lesson #55: Some see today’s overly punitive, racially biased criminal justice system as a legal continuation of the oppression enforced through lynching.