Like many of my classmates, I vividly remember the first time I heard “Strange Fruit.” I was in seventh grade, and it was at a school assembly in which students reenacted pivotal moments from the Civil Rights Movement (my school at the time was primarily black and went all the way up to twelfth grade). The lights in the auditorium had gone dark, and a beautiful, rich voice rang out with the first line of the song: Southern trees bear a strange fruit. As the song went on, images of lynchings slid across a screen at the back of the stage. I was stunned by the beautiful song’s powerful, horrific imagery, and the knot in the pit of my stomach I experienced returns every time I hear the song. I have been surprised, though, to observe that “Strange Fruit” and its subject matter have a less forceful legacy among today’s society than I might have imagined. Specifically, there have been several somewhat recent examples in the news of white people displaying a lack of cultural competency when it comes to the jazz standard. Annie Lennox, for example, covered it on her album Nostalgia, released late last year. When asked about what the song meant to her and “what she hears” in the lyrics, she failed to mention lynching at all, simply focusing instead on hatred in our society. She received a great deal of criticism for this oversight. However, for me, the most jarring aspect of her rendition was that there was only one black face among all the musicians in her music video. It’s an odd experience to watch a room full of white people perform a song specifically about the black experience in America.
Similarly, two companies within the past year have demonstrated a lack of cultural competency when it comes to this subject. An Austin, TX-based PR firm named itself Strange Fruit PR because they thought it “could stand for someone who stood out in a crowd, a talent that was different and remarkable.” The two women who started the firm had googled the phrase, but had not assumed that a song from 1939 would still have cultural resonance.
Similarly, the Florida photo editing software company Seasalt & Co. just released an advertisement for the impending release of their Photoshop collection called The Hanging Tree, replete with eerie lynching imagery. It’s possible the name was also chosen in connection with the Hunger Games, but either way, the company stubbornly denies that using lynching imagery has racial significance. Both companies were blasted on Twitter for their insensitivities.
Why do you think the legacy of this song has been lost to many white people today? And what is the best way to respond to such cultural incompetence?