Skip to content

Strange Fruit

Every day I receive email alerts when the word “lynching” is used somewhere on the web. Since starting this alert in last August, I’ve been astounded at the number of times and places it shows up. I expected notices to be few, mostly concerned with early 20th-century U.S. history and on the websites of university presses or scholarly journals. But reports come from around the world. There are media lynchings, social lynchings, and political lynchings, as well as what comes to most of our minds when we hear the word: a victim killed by mob violence. In only the last seven days, “lynching” has triggered 125 alerts in news articles, websites, and blogs.

Until recently, lynching meant something very specific and very horrible. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) compiled a list of more than 3,200 incidents in their Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918, first published in 1919. The murders they recorded took place primarily — but not exclusively — in the South. The victims were primarily — again, not exclusively — African American men.

People cringe when they hear the word. But unless they have a reason to know, most white people have learned very little about the history of lynching. And those who flippantly use the word to garner attention about political pressure, social shunning, or media firestorms must have no real sense of its horror and terror, or they wouldn’t be saying it simply for its shock value.

These are the words to “Strange Fruit,” written by Lewis Allen for jazz great Billie Holiday:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves, 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 magnolia sweet and fresh
Then 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 the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

 And here’s a video of Billie Holiday singing it.

Lynching is ugly. It is horrific. It is stomach-turning. The generations of white Americans born after the demise of Jim Crow must be taught about lynching’s thousands of victims and the terror that such a threat produced. They must know that racist whites flaunted basic human decency, and that lynchings still take place, in this country and elsewhere. But the blasé use of “lynching” to mean some public figure doesn’t like being criticized by someone else is not the way to do it.


© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.



Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *