Strange Resistance

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees – “Strange Fruit” [1]

Abel Merropol
Abel Meeropol wrote the song “Strange Fruit” under the pseudonym “Lewis Allen” in the 1930s.

The first time I heard “Strange Fruit”, a song popularized by legendary jazz songstress Billie Holiday, I was transfixed.  Lulled by the soft piano and hauntingly beautiful voice, it took me a second listen to realize what this song was truly about: lynching.  Written first as a poem in the 1930s and then set to music by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from New York, the song was a horrified response to a photo of the lynching of two African-American men in Indiana.  [2] Popularized by Billie Holiday in 1939, many consider “Strange Fruit” the first protest song against racism and lynching.  In an era of terror where the wrong word or glance could lead to a horrific death, any form of protest or resistance was extremely risky. However, that doesn’t mean that blacks stood by passively. Although the Civil Rights Movement most visibly began in the 1950s and 60s, there were countless moments of subtle and bold resistance against racism by both black and whites throughout the Jim Crow era when lynching and racially motivated violence was at its highest.

Richard_Wright
Author Richard Wright in 1939

In Uncle Tom’s Children, Richard Wright describes getting his “Jim Crow education” while growing up in the South.  Wright paints a disturbing picture of how African Americans encountered and struggled against white racism and an obviously unbalanced power dynamic on a daily basis.  Actions, words, and gestures were scrutinized through a lens of white supremacy and often arbitrarily reacted to with vicious hate and violence. Wright claims, “Here I learned to lie, to steal, to dissemble.  I learned to play that duel role which every Negro must play if he wants to eat and live.” [3] He learns through various encounters with whites how to subvert the systemic racism in small ways to maintain his livelihood, his ambitions, and his dignity. The scene that perfectly encapsulates this is when Wright ends up in an elevator with several white men and his arms are too full to take off his hat, which is a sign of “disrespect”.  One of the white men takes off his hat for him, and Wright’s two options are to give the main a grateful subservient grin or to say “Thank you” and possibly elicit a violent reaction.  Neither option appeals to Wright, who instead pretends to drop the packages to preserve his dignity and his neck. Although this may seem minuscule compared to the seemingly insurmountable force of racism, small instances of resistance could over time begin to shift the mentality and culture towards one of outright dissent.

Conversely, Kidada Williams talks about the more outright things African Americans did to combat lynching in “Regarding the Aftermaths of Lynching”.  Not only was the crime of lynching atrocious, but it had devastating effects on the families and communities of the victims.  Despite the very real danger, many families spoke out or tried to get more information of the death of their loved ones. Williams claims that, “Although there are silences, the lynching archive is by no means mute.  African Americans told their families and friends about lynched love ones; they filed lawsuits and wrote letters to elected officials, newspaper editors, lawyers, journalists, and activists.” [4] Both these bold and outright forms of resistance as well as the small daily ones combined to help form the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement in the decades to come.

Music, legal action, and small daily acts of protest were all forms of resisting the atrocious white racism and culture of fear inspired by lynching and racially motivated violence.  However, what constitutes resistance or protest is often debated. Clearly it doesn’t always involve marches or strikes, but is transcending class lines through education a form of resistance?  Or successfully taking care of your family in a hostile environment? Are all types of resistance effectual?  How has the face of resistance changed as the cultural and racial dynamic of the United States shifted over time?

[1] Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit,” You Tube video, 2:33, November 25 2006, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

[2] Elizabeth Blair, “The Strange Story Of The Man Behind ‘Strange Fruit’,” NPR, September 5, 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/09/05/158933012/the-strange-story-of-the-man-behind-strange-fruit.

[3] Richard Wright, “The Ethics of Jim Crow” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, New York: Harper Perennial, 2004

[4] Kidada E. Williams, “Regarding the Aftermaths of Lynching,” Journal of American History 101, no. 3 (December 2014): 856-858

12 thoughts on “Strange Resistance

  1. I cannot agree more with your reaction the Billie Holiday’s version of Strange Fruit. I also remember the first time I heard it, she had such a lovely voice that I didn’t hear much else. Then my dad told me to really listen to what she was saying, and I was horrified. Now, as an adult knowing what was going on in the world at the time, I’m amazed that Holiday was brave enough to get out there and sing this song. I had never thought of it as a protest song before, but I can definitely see how it would be. It proves how music and lyrics can be so moving, uniting, and powerful in beginning to create change.

  2. After reading Langston Hughes’ “The Ways of White Folk” I realized how much blacks in the South knew of the dangers of showing signs of protest. When Roy Williams returns from Berlin, he has to remember to be very careful not to “step out of line” because he can bring on the white’s hatred and wrath towards him. I think the fact that he did not have this experience in Europe, at least to this degree really indicates how strong the hatred towards blacks were at this time in America. The statement, “For the first time in half a dozen years he felt his color. He was home.” This statement speaks to me on such a powerful level. It depicts just how much blacks had to deal with living in America. His experiences and feelings of protest to playing for whites, getting an education, and having a gift of playing his violin and the struggles his mother underwent in order to give him this opportunity to learn how to develop his musical talents abroad is indicated by how he felt playing at the church for the white people. He realizes the ways that the white people were treating him is not what he experienced oversees. Although racism is a problem everywhere this chapter strongly depicts the racial violence blacks faced in the South at this time. Slaves and African Americans continued to protest and resist the institution of slavery, Jim Crow era, and the racism they continued to face after slavery was abolished. Their strength and courage gives me hope that we can make change if we continue to speak out against the injustices towards minorities in America. We must seek to learn about the issues, educate others, and create opportunities to have open and honest dialogue about these issues. We must fight to end injustices against any group of people who are being oppressed for racial, socioeconomic, religious, or any other cause.

  3. I keep thinking about what it must have been like for Billie Holiday to stand up in a nightclub in 1939, in front of a white audience, and sing a song about lynching. To me, that is an incredible act of courage and resistance. Any act of resistance, no matter how small, has an effect, whether it’s pretending to fumble with a package, filing a lawsuit, or singing a song.

  4. This blog post is a great recognition of the bravery and boldness of African-Americans during such a frightening and dangerous time. I agree wholeheartedly with Emily that any small act of resistance is admirable, considering that making a living, raising a family, and even staying alive was a daily struggle.

  5. Tori, you ask some very thought provoking questions at the end of your blog that don’t have easy answers. I think that in a hostile, racist environment, surviving is the only form of resistance some African Americans could safely manage without giving up their lives. Falicia touches on this idea in her comment, noting that in Hughes’ story the protagonist realizes the fine line he must walk in society in order to survive. This theme is even more prominent in “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” by Richard Wright.

  6. I remember the first time I listened to Strange Fruit in a history class and how haunting and chilling it was. It was so brave of Billie Holiday to resist in her own way in such a difficult and dangerous time. I think that all of those examples at the end of your post are forms of resistance – people had to resist in whatever way they could under the circumstances, and do what they could to change the environment around them. Great post – I really enjoyed it.

  7. I never heard Strange Fruit before this week. Definitely a powerful song. I might be one of the few but did anyone feel that this song somewhat influenced Hanging Tree from the Hunger Games. Both have influence of oppression. The only difference is the Hanging Tree was influenced by capitalism/movie.

    Either, I find Strange Fruit strong. It must be terrifying to do so. However, we still see these forms of protest in other scenarios of our society. For example with gay marriage, I recently read an article of two men from Texas who had to sue for the right to marry. http://www.advocate.com/politics/marriage-equality/2015/02/23/love-texas?page=0,2 The second and third page shows the quotes of their fear and realizing if they wanted to get married, they needed to sue.

  8. Tori, you so eloquently put into prose what I think every time I listen to Strange Fruit. As a child I would beg my father to play Billie Holiday not realizing that the song that I loved so dearly was a protest against the injustices brought against African Americans during the Jim Crow era.

    I also liked the questions you posed at the end of your post. These are questions we still ask with protests for equality continuing to this day.

  9. When we read about lynchings in history books, it’s easy to be horrified from a safe distance. Reading “Home” and “Uncle Tom’s Children” brings the reality of violence home in a way that is real and visceral. It is impossible to deny or ignore racialized violence when we are told about it through the viewpoints and emotions of a real person (or a fictional character). “Strange Fruit” presents the topic with the same starkness. I think part of the enthralling horror of the song is that the words are beautiful and the music is beautiful, but the meaning is anything but. Art is often at its most effective when it is both beautiful and ugly at the same time.

  10. Tori, and others who have commented, y’all are so right. Any act of resistance, even one that is small or not readily apparent in its time, is still a powerful act that can send a strong message. For every Rosa Parks moment or famous protest, there undoubtedly dozens, maybe more, of the small moments that allow a resistance movement to form. I think as future museum professionals we need to go out of our way to find those moments and figure out effective ways to share them with the world.

  11. I agree, I love the song “Strange Fruit” and the message behind it is powerful still to this day. Every time I hear the song, it makes me think of Kanye West and his song “Blood on the Leaves.” Kanye is very vocal about his thoughts and “Blood on the Leaves” isn’t the first time that Kanye has referred to Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit.” This time, the reference comes through sampling Nina Simone’s re-iteration of the song, not only in this intro but throughout the entirety of this track.

  12. Tori, you ask if all types of resistance are effectual and I have to say that I believe they are. Although not all forms of resistance lead to a tangible result, I think they are still effective if they make the resistor feel empowered. Taking out library books under a white man’s name, for example, might not change the feelings of racism in America, but it serves as a glimmer of hope for a repressed people.

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