This is another post from my old blog. I was reminded of it recently when I read this excellent post at Sociological Images. Lately my mind has been on all things NOLA. (Our Colts’ loss to the wonderful and well-deserving Saints is only part of the reason.) So this post caught my eye. In particular, this slant makes me ponder my old post in a new way:
For someone who was harmed by a hurricane, using the imagery is a way of reclaiming the hurt they suffered, even appropriating the strength of the force that hurt them. But, for others to use it, it is trivializing that same hurt, re-imagining the destruction they suffered. It is not funny, from this perspective, to imagine that New Orleans could be hit again.
I was reminded while reading that of some of my (Black) family and friends using “slave” in an in-group, joking kind of way. I’m OK with that, but bristle when I hear others use it. For example, at a recent swim meet, one of the other parents (a White woman) said something about not doing “X” because we would get yelled at by the person in charge of the meet. She said, “We’re liable to get lynched behind that.” All of my crew sitting there—me, my husband, and my father—were taken aback. My father said, “Oh, you probably don’t want to say that.” The woman totally didn’t get it: She thought he was talking about not saying that the person would be angry with us. He kept at it: “No. I mean, you shouldn’t be saying that—to us [motioning to him, my husband, and me].” The woman, light dawning, turned all shades of red.
The in-group/out-group dimension was not something I considered when I first wrote this piece years ago. But I’m thinking of it today. And today I am (still) wondering: What’s in a song? What’s in a phrase?
I. Some Background
The summer before I left home for college I raided my parents’ music collection, choosing dozens of albums (yes, albums: black vinyl, 12 inches, 33-and-a-third rotations per minute: LPs) that I wanted to “borrow” and take to Boston with me on my great adventure in adulthood.
One of those albums I chose from that raided collection was by Billie Holiday. One of the songs on that album from that raided collection was “Strange Fruit.”
That song is something I could not ignore. At the time, I was not too enamored of Lady Day’s voice: It seemed a little scratchy to me, and wispy…without the force, range and rhythm of female jazz vocalists like Ella and Sarah and Dinah and others who I was getting into at the time. (It didn’t help, I guess, that my image of Billie Holliday and what her voice must have sounded like was colored by my having first seen and heard her in the guise of Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues.”)
But that song, “Strange Fruit,” I had to listen to.
Since that time I have come to appreciate Billie Holiday. And I have continued to be fascinated by that song. I have recordings of it by at least three different artists. And a recent search of the song on iTunes revealed more than a dozen different versions, by a very strange and eclectic mix of artists. There is even a group, The Strange Fruit Project, hailing from Waco, Texas.
In addition, I am glad to see that there is a scholarly interest in the song as well as the phenomenon “Strange Fruit” so eerily bore witness to: the widespread lynching campaigns of African American men, women, and children in this country. (See resources below.)
II. But, What Does (Can) It Mean?
I have to admit, I am not sure what all these artists intend when they invoke these images:
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies 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 magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
What is it about these words that makes the song relevant for an artist—of any background—living today? What does the history of the lynching of Black Americans mean to a 50-something White European rocker, or a 20-something Black American rapper?
Is it even about “lynching” at all?
III. Lynching as Metaphor
Whatever you think of Clarence Thomas, his was–hands-down–the most brilliant use of lynching as a metaphor ever. In one swoop he galvanized a deep memory in African Americans and scared off White Americans who saw themselves as exactly opposite of those Whites of days gone by who were the perpetrators of lynchings with ropes, guns, fire, and tree branches.
Hard to believe that almost 15 years have passed since Thomas’s confirmation hearings. A little memory-refresher from the 10/11/91 hearing session (Note the words I emphasize in bold):
Mr. Chairman, I am a victim of this process and my name has been harmed, my integrity has been harmed, my character has been harmed, my family has been harmed, my friends have been harmed. There is nothing this committee, this body or this country can do to give me my good name back, nothing.
I will not provide the rope for my own lynching or for further humiliation. I am not going to engage in discussions, nor will I submit to roving questions of what goes on in the most intimate parts of my private live or the sanctity of my bedroom. These are the most intimate parts of my privacy, and they will remain just that, private.
In that evening’s hearing session he evoked this metaphor again in his now (in)famous and classic “high-tech lynching” statement:
There was an FBI investigation. This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kow-tow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.
One book specifically takes on the idea of the use of “lynching” in metaphorical contexts, “Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory” by Jonathan Markovitz
...Examines the evolution of lynching as a symbol of racial hatred and a metaphor for race relations in popular culture, art, literature, and political speech. Markovitz credits the efforts of the antilynching movement with helping to ensure that lynching would be understood not as a method of punishment for black rapists but as a terrorist practice that provided stark evidence of the brutality of Southern racism and as America’s most vivid symbol of racial oppression. Cinematic representations of lynching, from “Birth of a Nation” to “Do the Right Thing,” he contends, further transform the ways that American audiences remember and understand lynching, as have disturbing recent cases in which alleged or actual acts of racial violence reconfigured stereotypes of black criminality. Markovitz’s original and brilliant reinterpretations of the media spectacles surrounding Bernhard Goetz, Susan Smith, and Tawana Brawley provide subtle and compelling examples of the continuing stakes of political battles waged over imagery of race and gender nearly a century ago. Markovitz further reveals how lynching imagery has been politicized in contemporary society with the example of Clarence Thomas, who condemned the Senate’s investigation into allegations of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings as a “high-tech lynching.” (Source)
If you do a little window shopping in the blogosphere and other media you’ll find Thomas’s “high tech lynching” metaphor/accusation invoked all over in all sorts of situations, by both those on the political left and those on the political right. In no case are any of these uses about actual people being burned, their genitals cut from their bodies, their necks broken from being snapped by a rope looped over a tree branch. In these cases, like that of Justice Thomas, the appeal is to the perception that “mobs” of media folks or government officials or university professors or other elite others in positions of power are using sophisticated tools and tactics to unfairly attack the ideas and integrity of some “victim.”
Whatever you may think of the individual cases, is this deployment of “lynching” as a means of description an appropriate use of history? Not: “effective” use–appropriate…
I am all for the use of metaphor in rhetoric. But in most of these cases this particular use of lynching as metaphor sickens me. Comparing a “good name” or a well-paying job to skin, genitals and a beating heart is definitely a case of evaluating apples in terms of oranges.
Very strange fruit, indeed.
- This PBS site and this California Newsreel site about the film on the history and background of “Strange Fruit”
- “Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights” by David Margolick; this aalbc.com review of the book
- “Southern Horrors and Other Writings; The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900” by Jacqueline Jones Royster
- “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” by James Allen and others
- “At the Hands of Persons Unknown : The Lynching of Black America” by Philip Dray
- And this book, providing a Minnesota connection and proof that lynchings were not just a “Southern” phenomenon: “The Lynchings in Duluth” by Michael W. Fedo