Southern Trees Bear Strange FruitApr 07, 2022
Note from the Editor, Sabrina Whittaker
April 7th, 2022
The following content was originally written as part of a discussion on Black placemaking for a course at the University of North Florida. It has been reposted here in honor of Billie Holiday’s birthday and the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the supreme court. Additionally, with Ashanti being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I felt encouraged to share more of my work. I hope you join me in celebrating the accomplishments of these women and find value in this piece.
- Gwendolyn Brooks - A Primer for Blacks
- Emma Lazarus - The South
- Billie Holiday - "Strange Fruit" Live 1959
What does the poem at the end of the Black Placemaking article mean to you? Explain it in your own words.
"A Primer for Blacks" by Gwendolyn Brooks is a condensed exploration of the complexity of blackness and the role of black people within the United States. By asserting that blackness is a title, preoccupation, and commitment, we’re introduced to the concept of linked fate and provided a glimpse of black culture’s morality.
As a principal, moral agents operating within black culture prioritize the group’s holistic wellness. This behavior is as much to ensure the safety of others as it is an act of self-preservation. Few people are concerned when black people express discontent, report mistreatment, or display frustration because harmful narratives created to justify slavery and defame black people have painted them as savages. Such thinking has permeated the American legal system to ensure the economic value of white culture. For this reason, black people feel a duty to protect each other.
An example of harmful narratives with lasting consequences includes race integrity laws such as the one-drop rule to preserve the purity of whiteness and the condition that the mother decides a child’s race. The latter was instituted in 1662 and allowed white men to rape black women to produce more enslaved people while simultaneously denying white women the same privilege. Instead, white women were charged with maintaining racial purity, which secured white culture’s economic power and positioned black men as a threat. Perhaps the most well-known modern example is Emmett Till’s death and Carolyn Bryant Donham’s admission of his innocence half a century later. Yet, even with false testimony and no evidence, the fear of culturally diverse white people born to white mothers, who might argue against unjust, racially charged laws, persists.
These paranoid attempts to prevent black people from treating white people like they’re black reenforces Brooks’s note about blackness as a title. The concept of blackness isn’t limited to black people because it’s a social construct developed independently of the people it refers to. I imagine the preoccupation with blackness is the duty to reclaim blackness as a proud title. The commitment would then be a pledge to “perceive your glory,” thus changing the narrative of American history and black placemaking.
Black Americans understand linked fate and what the country stands to gain from uniting as Americans because we’ve seen the positive effects of uniting within a community. Today, a popular phrase used by black people is the charge to “understand the assignment.” Although the phrase is often used alongside a lighthearted tone, paired with “perceive your glory,” it reminds me of the concept of fixing another black woman’s crown. When you understand that we’re all black, rich or poor, you learn that our unique place in American history is a curse and a blessing. We are a creative, innovative, community-driven people determined to create beauty and meaning where there is none, which is what attracts bodies to black culture. It “pulls everybody in.” Much like media isn’t valuable without the eyes of viewers, places aren’t valuable without the bodies that inhabit them. Value produced by black bodies provide a unique addition to the places they occupy and experience, an example of geographic power.
Finally, black people existing wherever they may be is an acknowledgement of their humanity and an observation of black people’s connectedness beyond gender, class, or physical location through traditions, tragedies, and triumph.
- Explain the similarities and between the two Souths (Emma Lazarus’ South and Billie Holidays’ South).
- What elements of placemaking do you see in both?
- How did the south as a place in “Strange Fruit” influence Black placemaking? In other words, how did Black people respond to being strange fruit?
Emma Lazarus was a poet and proud Jewish-American woman. The writer of Strange Fruit was also Jewish, a male teacher and writer named Abel Meeropol. The piece is famous thanks to the work and performances of Billie Holiday, a northern Black woman that traveled the south during her singing career. Abel wrote the song in reaction to a photograph of a lynching. In the photo, two Black men hang on trees while a thick White crowd surrounds their tattered, beaten bodies. Perhaps the most striking element of the photo is the lack of concern or remorse on any of the White attendees faces.
Both poems take place in the south and represent the writers opinion on it’s quality. Since the experiences of bodies validate the reputation of a place, these poems offer important insights into the South’s pros and cons as a space.
Strange Fruits commentary of the south as a place is harsh and begs the listener to question the humanity of the bodies that were not disturbed by the hanging black bodies above them. Instead of feeling embarrassed of their mistake or remorseful for their actions, they appear to be enjoying a social event. When the poem says” the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth” eventually followed by “here is a fruit for the crows to pluck…for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop”, it emphasizes how the bodies are left for the family to find or rot. It asks listeners to consider how and why Black people would remain in a place that normalized their lynching, leaving them on trees to rot. How does place retain it’s value in the midst of such tragedy.
The answer may lie in Emma Lazarus’ poem, The South. Emma praises the south and paints it as a beautiful, passionate, and voluptuous woman sleepily lounging with her heavy eyes and folded hands. Both poems mention scent, Strange Fruit describes the south as smelling like magnolia and burning flesh. The South, however, describes the smell as a summer musk and incenses. Although today the term Creole usually refers to black or racially mixed, French-speaking bodies, when Emma Lazarus wrote The South, it likely meant French or Spanish White bodies with no mixing. When she write “a creole with still-burning, languid eyes” she means that the south displays fatigue or illness, but still has a glimmer of hope. Later when she writes “how beautiful she is!.. young, weary, passionate, and sad as death” it appears to be a love letter to a child that has made a painful mistake. Emma seems to understand, forgive, and want to revive the south to restore her to her former beauty. The primary difference for the discrepancy in their response is their exposure to negative experiences while moving within the south.
Strange Fruits questions the humanity of southern bodies using a heartbreaking description of a lynching to illustrate elements of black placemaking. Black Placemaking is a framework that helps us understand how place provides meaning and humanity to black life. It also helps us put the disadvantages Black Americans face into perspective for a deeper understanding of America’s government and history. Black bodies are not the only minority culture that must deal with hostility from a major culture in the place they reside, but the ability of black bodies to find meaning in places whether they’re enjoyable or hostile helps listeners understand the effects of disproportionately White cultural values within a diverse population with varying values and beliefs.
In summation, The South by Emma Lazarus painted a portrait of a recovering, yet beloved place. Emma’s experiences as a White body helped her develop an affection for the south. The unfortunate reality depicted by Strange Fruit is that the black bodies place is hanging from a tree as part of a social event for White bodies.