If anything is blatantly obvious in the post-Katrina era, it is that the foul stench of racism still permeates American society. This spring showed that in spades as the Imus debacle was absurdly twisted into a frontal assault on hip-hop culture. In some ways, though, Imus was only a warning shot. This hot summer has also seen thousands of Katrina survivors denied their right to return. The Supreme Court decided “separate but equal” was an okay deal after all in our schools. And a spate of “southern justice” has poked its head out across the country that would make Bull Connor proud.
The message coming from Jena, Louisiana–that Blacks are expendable while white bigots get protection–has not been lost on the hard racists of this country. White supremacists have posted addresses and phone numbers belonging to family members of the Jena Six, calling for “justice.” The first week of classes at the University of Maryland were marred by someone hanging a noose similar to those in Jena in front of the Black cultural center. Several other campuses have reported an increase in race crimes. And this week, Black students at Borough of Manhattan Community College were beaten by a group of six white men outside of a bar in NYC while calling them “niggers” and shouting “this is what slavery feels like.” The initial reaction of the NYPD? Arrest the victim, Marquis Scott, a member of the BMCC basketball team.
Nooses and posse violence can’t help but conjure up images of Jim Crow lynch mobs, where whites were allowed to dole out their brutal form of summary justice without fear of repercussion–police would be a part of the mobs just as often as turn a blind eye. And, of course, the “strange fruit” left swinging from the trees would come to symbolize one of the darkest sides to American history.
Now seems as good a time as any to talk about this song. It is said that history goes in circles until it learns to correct itself. If so, then the memory of “Strange Fruit” continues to be important today.
It is truly amazing how heart-rending this song remains. Almost seventy years later it still sends chills up the spine and sticks hair on end. It’s author, a radical teacher from Harlem named Abel Meeropol, wrote the words for his union magazine in the mid-30s. After setting it to music it became a popular protest song around New York City. Yet of all the jazz musicians who would come to embrace the spirit of resistance in their music, none would do so quite as effectively as Billie Holiday in her version.
Hers is a sparse and haunting song. Its piano is limited to well-spaced chords and the occasional fluorish. Twice in the song a lone trumpet belts out a solo that is as mournful as it is defiant. Those two emotions, sadness and outrage, sway back and forth in a kind of forbidden dance throughout the song. As the trumpet clears the way for Holiday, her smoky voice conveys that same frustration. She is surprisingly calm as she recounts the lynching and burning of a southern Black man with vivid imagery:
Southern trees bare strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Think about this: the equation of a man with fruit. It is a horrifying concept that a human may be so easily regarded as a thing to be picked and tossed around. As she sings, there is almost a tinge of sarcasm in Holiday’s voice. The south, long celebrated for its tobacco, its cotton and Georgia peaches, was now, according to Meeropol and Holiday, known for growing a much more sinister commodity. They’re not commodities, though, as Holiday states in the graphic second verse:
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Brash honesty mixed with stirring instrumentation proved to be a powerful mix. “The first time I sang it, I thought it was a mistake,” she later said. “There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping and cheering.” Holiday herself admitted to breaking down in tears after performing “Strange Fruit.”
Lady Day’s performance expressed perfectly the absolute horror of living in a country under the shadow of Jim Crow. There was no question that the chord she struck with both Black and white “Strange Fruit” was not just a song bemoaning the sorrows of racism, though. It’s heart-felt and darkly poetic honesty was itself a protest. As the song ends, Holiday sings “this is a strange and bitter crop,” with the final word being on an uncharacteristically high, sustained note. In a way that final note was a bit of resistance against the degradation she so movingly sang about.
Holiday’s version soon crossed from being a mere protest song into the anthem of the anti-lynching movement in the 30s, and established Lady Day as the legend she is today. It was a tragedy that she died in 1959. The same movement that she helped inspire was starting to exert real power to break the chains of segregation.
That may be the real lesson of “Strange Fruit” today; that while the horrors of bigotry still loom over this country, it is indeed possible to resist. The nooses swinging in Jena have already been met with protests that dwarf the small town’s population. The noose at the University of Maryland was met with a speak out of thousands where speakers made direct connections back to Jena. Already several high profile leaders have called for a new Civil Rights movement. And despite the images of hip-hop as depraved thug music being fed to us, some of the most visibly conscious MCs of our time have taken a vocal stand against the injustice in Louisiana; Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique, Common, all have long lent their voices to growing chorus of discontent with modern Jim Crow. And Thursday’s release of Mychal Bell already shows the effect such a chorus can have.
It took nothing less than a movement to crush the strange and bitter crop. As the new seeds are planted today, we should all let Lady Day’s note of defiance ring in our heads until the chains are finally broken once and for all.