None of us, save for George Zimmerman, will ever know exactly what happened the night he shot and killed Trayvon Martin at close range with a bullet from his 9 millimeter semi-automatic handgun. Reactions to the killing and Zimmerman’s eventual acquittal fell along the usual and predictable faultlines of American life: African-Americans and white liberals decrying the verdict as racially tinged, with most other whites and conservatives pointing to inconclusive evidence in supporting the acquittal. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted early this week and cited by NPR, “86 percent of African-Americans expressed dissatisfaction with the verdict, compared with just 30 percent of whites.”
Determining Zimmerman’s legal culpability was a matter for the jurors to decide, and the jurors have spoken. It is not for me to speculate on any underlying racism that may have infected their decision; I don’t know any of them personally, was not in the jury room, and could not, with any shred of integrity, presume to judge their particular motivations for acquittal in this particular case.
I spent enough days in courtrooms as a journalist to know how rarefied the air feels, how solemn the responsibility of jurors is, and how stringent the specter of “beyond a reasonable doubt” can be. Whether the jurors—five whites and one Hispanic, all female—were steeped in a lingering racism that determined their verdict or were as unbiased as it is possible to be, I simply do not know.
But the tragedy of this case begs for reflection on the faultlines alluded to above, the lens through which African-Americans experienced this latest acquittal of a white person killing a black person, and the history that underlies what would appear to be their prevailing response: Same ol’ same ol’, nothing new here, we have seen it all before…
Nearly 150 years after the end of the war that marked the first legal step on the agonizing road to recognizing African-Americans as full human beings, the question of race continues to haunt American life. The “healing” that was supposed to commence then was of such a deep and grievous wound as to require salve after salve, one bloodied bandage giving way to the next.
It is this festering wound and the history that has continued to unfold from it that gave us one of the great culture-quaking art works of the modern era, a 91-word, barely 3-minute song that rivals Pablo Picasso’s Guernica painting in its cutting-to-the-bone of human atrocity.
Strange Fruit was given to the world in 1939 by the unlikely team of Abel Meeropol, a white Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx who moonlighted as a songwriter under the pen name “Lewis Allan,” and Billie Holiday, the fiercely gifted singer whose ability to inhabit songs of suffering and woe was an unfortunate (for her) legacy of her own deeply troubled life.
Via stark and haunting poetic allusion, Meeropol described the practice of lynching that so terrified African-Americans from its debut during Reconstruction all the way through the 1940s. The lyrics are a marvel of compact power, made all the more so by the plaintive, impeccably controlled wail of Holiday. I’ll provide a link to the full written lyrics below, but if you are unfamiliar with the song, this would be an opportune moment to experience just some of its unique impact, raw and unfiltered in the following You Tube clip.
From the conservative side of the cultural divide, one often hears that racism is a thing of the past, that any further legislation or policies designed to redress historical inequities simply perpetuates the race-based thinking that is at the heart of racism itself. Time to move on; we even have a black president now, goes this line of thought. To which liberals point at the Zimmerman verdict as merely the latest iteration of a still fundamental racial imbalance in the scales of guilt vs. innocence, asking,
If it was a black teenager invoking “Stand Your Ground” laws in defense of killing a white person, how likely would a verdict of innocence have been?
In fact, we need not go back 50 and more years to see how deep and intractable the most vile strains of racism still are in the United States. A mere 15 years takes us to Jasper, Texas, where three white men picked up African-American James Byrd on the pretext of giving him a ride home, drove to a secluded location, and proceeded to tie him to the back of their pickup truck, dragging him three miles along the asphalt until his head and arm were severed from his body. Whereupon they scattered what remained of him in front of an African-American cemetery and from there went to enjoy a barbeque.
Or we can go to exactly a week ago, in this comment posted to a You Tube version of Nina Simone singing Strange Fruit, punctuation left intact:
i feel bad for the decent black folk that do something with their lives,all these fuckin niggers are ruining everything for them.
One can see literally thousands of these types of comments every minute of every day, new ones added all the time, and no, not by the same last few racists still left in the country. Virtually every news story regarding President Obama unleashes very similar invective; to tour Yahoo News comments is to take a strange bath in the underbelly of mostly anonymous racism still very much alive in 21st century America. (The fact that most people hide behind anonymity in these posts perhaps represents some peculiar measure of progress, inasmuch as it reveals the poster’s anticipation of social disapproval.)
Yet to think racism is a particularly American malady is to miss the key point: that fear of the “other” is deeply rooted in our genetic and historical disposition as human beings. Erasing what essentially began in our early history as survival-based prejudices to protect the tribe from invaders is now a long-running project that advances inexorably but ever so slowly along the educational, economic, and spiritual spheres.
How deep does this reflexive fear and revulsion of the “other” run? My now departed parents were both Hungarian-born but of different ethnic roots. When my father wanted to get my mother’s goat over some disagreement or other, he’d make some half-jocular reference to those differences. On one such occasion, my father dismissed something my mother said with: “Ach, what does your mom know—she’s a Serb.”
Abrupt as a thunderclap, my mom, otherwise the gentlest and even meekest of souls, exploded with: “Serb? I’m not a Serb! I’m a Croat! We hate the Serbs!”
I also knew, with the same immediacy as that thunderclap, that I had just witnessed something profound, and profoundly troubling, about the human psyche’s fierce and unthinking clinging to ancient tribal prejudices.
The moment was both funny and disarming. It was as real, immediate, honest and unfiltered of a response as one can hope for from anyone in this life, and though I laughed in a kind of amazement and surprise at my mother’s vehemence, I also knew, with the same immediacy as that thunderclap, that I had just witnessed something profound, and profoundly troubling, about the human psyche’s fierce and unthinking clinging to ancient tribal prejudices. I doubt very much whether my mom ever even knew a Serb, but she, along with her “people” the Croats—of whom she likely knew not a one either—“hated” them nevertheless.
Years earlier, in my adolescence, we were watching a news segment of Martin Luther King addressing the March on Washington. “Communista…” my parents muttered in turn, using the Hungarian term. Intrigued, I asked my mother, “Is he really a Communist?”
“Well, he’s ‘pink,’” she replied, invoking the “soft on Communism” trope then favored by conservatives opposed to civil rights legislation. Even at my tender age, this seemed suspect to me, given King’s laser-like focus on simple freedom and justice for his people rather than installation of a totalitarian form of government. Communism had by then been severely discredited and disavowed even by the liberal intelligentsia who had been unaccountably blind to the genocidal depredations of Stalinism through the 1940s and 50s.
But like everyone—you, me, George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin—my parents were subject to the various stews their lives had steeped in, and prominent among those had been a Europe rent asunder by decades of war and unrest, along with a mother country that had been overrun for centuries by Turks, Mongols, Germans and Russians.
Finally sailing into New York Harbor in 1952 after seven years as “displaced persons” in postwar Germany, they wanted nothing more than order and the freedom to set down roots in the new land for their three (eventually growing to six) children. Watching on television as riots began to plague American cities a decade later, they were fearful of the “otherness” represented by African-Americans, with their demands for change and their withering critique of the inequities in a country to which my parents had waited and struggled so mightily to arrive.
In his book Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, David Margolick writes:
…growing up in the South, there was always the feeling among blacks that were they ever to step out of line, to look the wrong way at a white woman or be perceived to have done so, they could wind up on the wrong end of a rope.
For African-Americans, it is an easy edit to make this passage all too applicable to Trayvon Martin:
There is always the feeling that if our son is wearing a hoodie and walking in a gated community, he could end up on the wrong end of a gun.
I have heard more than one person say that Trayvon “didn’t belong there.” In George Zimmerman’s world, of course he didn’t. Trayvon was a Mongol, a Turk, a Communist, come to make mayhem.
The same year (1998) that James Byrd was dragged to his death through the streets of Jasper, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was tied to a fence post in a field outside Laramie and left to die. His skull had been crushed horribly by two young men who regarded Shepard’s homosexuality as a reason to torture and kill him after pretending to be gay themselves and reportedly offering him a ride home from a bar.
Although some African-Americans object to their struggle becoming enmeshed with gay rights, it is not inconsequential that there has always been an “other” in human life, whether black, brown, yellow, female, gay, disabled, or disfigured. Always a “wrong” color, country, gender, sexual orientation, height, weight, appearance. Always someone to revile, ridicule, isolate, discriminate against, and perhaps even kill.
Margolick’s book notes a man named Marc Huestis, who in the 1970s altered the Strange Fruit lyrics to become strange fruits, in the service of a stage show that reflected the oppression of “non-comformists and outcasts within the gay community, particularly more effeminate men and drag queens.”
So there you have it: Even within the historically oppressed gay community, there are those who further oppress their own members, who cast them as the “other,” the stranger, at odds with what they define as “normal”—despite their own experience of being oppressed and often regarded as “abnormal” by the larger straight community. The irony and pathos of this is a surpassingly strange fruit of humanity’s halting and lurching quest toward equality for all.
On the other side of this pathos is the fact that fear and its helpmates—poverty, lack of education, and that perennial of human life: simple greed—appear to be fighting a rear-guard action that is destined to be progressively overcome as one mind after another, one law after another, is changed. If history is any indication, the change is inexorable.
Despite the fates suffered by thousands of lynching victims, by Trayvon Martin and James Byrd and Matthew Shepard (indeed, perhaps at least partially because of their sufferings), it is not nearly as dangerous to be black or gay or female or even navigating in a wheelchair today as it was even 15 years ago.
Still dangerous at times, at certain places, with certain people, yes. But immeasurably better, in most every way. Progress happens—albeit mostly grudgingly, often at great sacrifice to those caught or purposely placing themselves in the vortex of history. But it happens, has happened.
Both my parents came to acknowledge Martin Luther King as a man of stature and integrity before they died. Their eyes were opened, their ears unplugged, the ancient fears subsided. They were not, by a long shot, alone in that evolution.
For the full lyrics of Strange Fruit: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/billieholiday/strangefruit.html
An excellent, hour-long PBS program on the song and its impact:
Grateful acknowledgement as always to the photographers whose work graces this page:
Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Photo of gulls by Ilya Boyandin from Fribourg, Switzerland, under Creative Commons License, for more of his work see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ibananti/
Bare trees and flower photos by Col Ford and Natasha de Vere from Wales, UK, under Creative Commons License, for more of their work see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/col_and_tasha/
Finally, I pondered long on whether to show the horrid photo of the lynching of William Brown in the Omaha riots of 1919, which is on permanent file at the Western Heritage Museum in Omaha. Ultimately, it felt important to represent the reality as it was. Brown was seized by a mob after a protracted, hours-long struggle that, let it be said, included a fierce and ultimately unsuccessful protective effort of him by Omaha law enforcement and the white mayor who was barely saved from being lynched himself. Though lynching is most often associated with the South, it occurred across a vast swath of the U.S., including the western territories where it included many Hispanic, Asian and even disenfranchised white victims.