As an artist at times I feel the urge to take on tough issues, the kinds of subject matter that can be disturbing, haunting and some say better left un- explored. But African American history is one of my first loves and something that touches me deeply. I feel the story of our people in a very personal way. This doesn’t makes me special, I just want you to understand what I do and what inspires me.
Strange Fruit, is a song recorded by the legendary blues singer Billy Holiday in 1939. Abel Meeropi originally wrote the song as a poem exposing the violent racist spectacle known as lynching. Although mainly a Southern phenomenon, lynchings at the time were still taking place all over the United States. Meeropi eventually set the song to music and along with his wife and the singer Laura Duncan, performed it as a protest song all over New York City, even at Madison Square Garden.
Over the years Strange Fruit has been covered several times, inspired a number of other poems, novels and creative works of all types. The Billy Holiday recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
My own relationship with the song began in the mid 1970’s when I was around 12 years old. I don’t recall exactly what year, but at some point Ebony Magazine, a staple of enlightened African American coffee tables, put out a special issue on racism in America. One of the images in this magazine was a fairly well known photo showing the lynching of two black boys surrounded by smiling white witnesses. I was always struck by how proud and happy those white faces were. One of them even pointed at the boys’ lifeless bodies as they hung from the tree.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
The boys had committed no crime other than being black in the wrong era of time:
Eighty years ago, two young African-American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were lynched in the town center of Marion, Indiana. . . . Local photographer Lawrence Beitler took what would become the most iconic photograph of lynching in America. The photograph shows two bodies hanging from a tree surrounded by a crowd of ordinary citizens, including women and children. Thousands of copies were made and sold. The photograph helped inspire the poem and song Strange Fruit written by Abel Meeropol—and performed around the world by Billie Holiday.
But there was a third person, 16-year-old James Cameron, who narrowly survived the lynching….these are his words:
“After 15 or 20 minutes of having their pictures taken and everything, they came back to get me. . . And I looked over to the faces of the people as they were beating me along the way to the tree. I was pleading for some kind of mercy, looking for a kind face. But I could find none. . . . And that’s when I prayed to God. I said, ‘Lord have mercy, forgive me my sins.’ I was ready to die.” NPR NPR Transcript
That special issue of Ebony is one of the things that sparked my curiosity about Black History and culture. I simply had to know more, so I began reading books like; Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Lerone Bennett Jr.’s The World And Africa and W.E.B. Dubious’ The Souls of Black Folk.
It wasn’t until a few years later when I heard Strange Fruit playing in the background as images of lynchings flashed on my TV screen did I begin to get a full understanding of the horror of what African Americans endured not so long ago. I had heard stories and even off hand comments about lynchings from my late grandfather, a man born in 1905. I remember reading in a history book about a very famous lynching that took place not far from the same small community my grandmother was born in, the town of Cecil, Georgia.
This story hits close to home literally. From http://maryturnergbr.blogspot.com/ we have this account:
VICTIM #8. Mary Turner, LYNCHED, on Saturday, CAPTURED, on Sunday afternoon and taken to Folsom’s Bridge over the Little River, just outside of Barney on the Brooks-Lowndes County border. At this location Mary Turner and her unborn child were killed in an especially barbaric and brutal manner. The MOB TIED HER ANKLES TOGETHER AND HANGED HER TO A TREE HEAD DOWN AND GASOLINE FROM AUTOMOBILES WAS POURED OVER HER. TURNER’S CLOTHING WAS BURNED OFF OF HER BODY. A member of the mob produced a sharp knife and her stomach was laid open; her unborn child fell to the ground. HUNDREDS OF BULLETS WERE THEN FIRED INTO TURNER UNTIL SHE WAS BARELY RECOGNIZABLE AS A HUMAN BEING. Both Turner and her child were buried about ten feet from the tree, the grave marked by a whiskey bottle with a cigar placed in the neck—but this episode stands out as being particularly gruesome. It is an indication that the mob would spare no person in exacting its revenge, even if it meant killing an unborn child.
This is one of the most barbaric things I have ever heard of, rivaling the Manson Gang’s murder of a very pregnant Sharon Tate. In fact the two killings served the same devilish purpose, to spread fear and terror among a local population. In the case of Mary Turner the specific purpose was to remind local blacks just how little their lives mattered compared to the wants, fears and desires of white people.
This reasoning also applies to the murder of Mississippi teenager Emmit Till. It seems the jury in the trial of the white men involved had no trouble being convinced of their guilt, but at the end felt the life of a black teen was not worth sending three white men away from their families. The black community once again would just have to “get over it” and move on.
This brings me to the murder of young Trayvon Martin, another kid whose only crime was being a young black male. By now I’m sure you’re familiar with the story; a young black kid walking to his father’s apartment in a strange neighborhood is fatally shot during an altercation with a local wanna be cop, who didn’t even identify himself as neighborhood watch. His family is not notified for hours, even though the authorities have his wallet. The killer, after answering a few questions is set free to continue with his life. Later, after intense media scrutiny and widespread protest, the murderer is finally arrested and charged.
Due to possibly incompetent prosecution and state laws which greatly favor the defendant, the killer is set free. Once again a young black male is targeted for violent retribution for the crime of being who and what he is. The excuses are plentiful; high black crime rate, intimidating appearance or mannerisms, a “confrontational” attitude. Only in America can a man start a fight with a total stranger, see that he is losing the fight, fatally shoot his opponent and be justified as “standing his ground” or defending himself.
Pieta, Oil on wood panel, Work in Progress
The above unfinished image is dedicated to all of the African American mothers who have had to bury their own sons due to racial violence. It’s based on the Pieta tradition of Christian art. The Pieta is the depiction of the Virgin Mary cradling the lifeless body of Jesus Christ. This piece is meant to be confrontational examination of what America does; it kills black people. This is the plain, unvarnished truth. Above all else that is my goal as a political/social artist to speak the truth, no matter what.
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