Trayvon Martin and the Bitter Legacy of “Strange Fruit”

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.

The Lynching of William Brown, Omaha, 1919

 

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:

http://youtu.be/Z9Cz3iaQgKw

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.

4 comments to Trayvon Martin and the Bitter Legacy of “Strange Fruit”

  • Randall Chet  says:

    Andrew – I too Have Hungarian blood, although I am one generation removed from your upbringing. I can imagine my father having similar experiences as you, but by the time I came around, more and more kids were just “American.” I grew up in the blue-collar town of Lorain, Ohio, which billed itself as the “International City.” For my generation, we ceased to be Hungarian-German-Polish-Irish-etc. There still were ethnic neighborhoods on the east side of town, but those pretty much disappeared in the 80’s. And all through my grade school years, I went to school with and counted blacks and Latinos among my friends. What was sad to see, and I noted it at the time, late in my high-school years in the mid 80’s there seemed to be a “resegregation” in my hometown. By that time the good blue-collar jobs were fleeing Lorain, and those of us who were fortunate enough pursued a higher education. Even Serbs and Croats can flee their ethnic differences; it is much harder to flee your skin color.

  • Jim C  says:

    Andrew,

    Thanks for an interesting and insightful recounting of 150+ difficult years of American history. Some of it is gruesome, some of it is hopeful, but it’s all human.

    On the issue of “inexorable progress,” I am not as optimistic as you. The impact of racism may have declined in America over the past 60 years, but if I take a broader look at racism, classism, and cultural conflicts, I see mixed trends, both in America and in the rest of the world.

    We have heard a lot lately about the economic decline of the middle and working classes in the US over the last 40 years, even while the better off (the notorious 1%) have greatly increased their share of the pie. What should we call this? It’s not the same as lynching, but the impact on several hundred millions of people’s lives is quite substantial.

    Meanwhile, looking beyond America, there are groups in the world that have an ingrained racism, or a belligerent attitude that “my culture is vastly superior to yours”, which has increased, not decreased, in its vehemence over the last sixty years. Contact between different peoples and cultures does not necessarily build tolerance and respect. It can also create tension and conflict.

    While working in Abuja, the capitol of Nigeria, last year, I attended church one Sunday. It was the only time in my life that I had to go through a security screening to get into a church. The Nigerian police are quite careful to protect churches in Abuja since Muslim gangs in the North of Nigeria have taken up the habit of attacking & blowing up churches on Sundays & Christian holidays. They want to drive Christians (local Nigerian Christians) out of the North of the country. Christians & Muslims have lived side by side in Nigeria for three or four generations, but in recent years the conflict and violence across this cultural boundary has increased, not decreased.

    In other areas of the world I’ve encountered open expressions of contempt for other cultures that are more extreme than anything I’ve heard in the US in a long time. Several years ago, one of my Saudi Arabian clients spent several hours over dinner sharing with me his contempt for Western culture, Western social attitudes and the romantic/sexual behavior of Western adolescents. He then gave me a book which he said would explain much of Islamic culture to me. One of the things the author discussed in the book was “why he hated the West.”

    My Saudi client was part of the majority population in his country, and he was part of the elite of that country. But it is not just majorities and elites who express contempt for others. If we look worldwide, some minorities refuse to assimilate with the majorities around them because they view their minority culture as superior, or they simply prefer the culture that they and their parents grew up with to the foreign (to them) majority culture around them. When tolerance and respect prevail on both sides, different groups can live side by side in peace. But this doesn’t always happen.

    When a minority group in a country has little or no respect for the majority’s laws & practices, difficult conflicts can result. Cultural conflicts between Muslim minorities in Western Europe and the Secular majorities there are partly driven by this dynamic. In France, where I spend four to six months each year, young Muslim women are sometimes burned to death by their male peers because they are adopting Western dress or are otherwise seen as becoming too Western, too French. Often the perpetrators are not caught because the community is silent. In the UK, the law enforcement community and the medical profession have wondering what to do about the practice of female genital mutilation (surgical removal of the clitoris when a girl reaches puberty). Female genital mutilation is common in some Muslim communities but wholly illegal in the West (and deeply offensive to many Westerners). Western majorities may find this practice offensive, but when the minority community, or part of it, quietly continues doing what they have been doing for generations, the majority community may have little leverage to influence change.

    I could cite other examples, but this is a comment, not a whole article, so I will stop here.

    So are we making progress in learning how to get along with each other? Maybe in some areas, but our progress looks uneven. I hope we can do better in the future.

    If any reader wants to pursue the issue of “progress in American history” further, a good book to start with is “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” by James W. Loewen. The author documents the fact that one of the core myths taught in High School American History classes is that the history of America is a story of continual progress. According to the myth, everything always gets better & better. The author demonstrates that has definitely not always been the case. It makes for an interesting read.

    May we all do better.

    Jim C

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Randall, I recall much the same “resegregation” taking place a decade earlier when I went to college and was surprised to see blacks and whites strictly separated when eating in the cafeteria, with virtually no mixing there or in various social activities. Near as I can tell, there’s more free-flowing interchange on college campuses now, and it’s not just on the sports fields. I’ve seen it in my daughter’s middle and high schools, too, with substantial evidence that in many ways, class rather than race is becoming the bigger dividing line in American life. (Anyone care to help me address that issue here?)

    Jim, I’m glad you brought this half-full/half-empty conundrum up. Yes, the world is a still a highly distressing place, anecdotally and statistically, and one can examine the same data and come to radically different conclusions about it. I tend to look at this issue more from a basic human rights lens, with what looks to me to be both political and economic empowerment in the steady rise from serfdom and rigid classism, castes, etc. of the past. Bad as things still are in many places, the rise of formerly disenfranchised classes—racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, etc.—has been quite a remarkable and consistent story.

    And even though I couldn’t agree more that progress is as “uneven” as you say, with every step forward meeting resistance and even occasional retrenchment, I think the tide of history ultimately finds its workaround. How hard the racists fought against the civil rights movement!

    We see the same thing in radical Islam now, with its desperate clinging to oppression of women. Won’t work, is my guess, though it may take a while yet. Ditto for (eventual) married and women priests among Catholics, despite the church’s determined retrenchment in recent years after the liberalization of Vatican II. Two steps forward, one back…

    You’re probably aware of the Steven Pinker book—”The Better Angels of Our Nature”—in which he uses gobs of historical crime and other data to suggest human life is getting better and more livable all the time. Lots of remarkable statistics to refute the headline-driven portents of calamity that come with our breakfast every morning. And aside from that, one doesn’t have to read too deeply into “daily life in the 14th century” reports to surmise, “Oh, I don’t think I’d wanted to have lived in that world.”

    I love the contradiction of your Saudi client doing business with you while expressing his contempt for your culture. The fact that he’s honoring agreements, valuing your service and paying you money are all little flickers of light within the dark conversation, I’d say! My hope, perhaps naive, but history will tell, is that his kids, all Twittered and You Tubed and even more deeply intertwined with international business connections than their father, will see the wider and flatter world and your culture (and every culture) in a different and more expansive light.

  • natasha ilys  says:

    Great reflection Drew. While there may not be lynchings like there used to be, racism is alive in the USA, and not just in the south. It is easy for us with white privilege to be blind to it, so it’s important for us to have this conversation not just with other white people, but with people of color, to hear their experiences.
    http://www.upworthy.com/2-women-just-proved-why-talking-about-race-is-one-of-the-most-important-things-you-can-do

    http://interruptmag.com/?p=996

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