Strange Fruit and the Black Freighter

The lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith

The lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith

There is a very famous and highly disturbing photograph made by Lawrence Beitler of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith from August of 1930. In that image, the two dead men hang from a tree while a large crowd of white onlookers smile into the camera, or point at the deceased - one couple appear to be holding hands as though they were there on a date - as if this moment of horror were a kind of amusement to be enjoyed and shared.

The horror of this image - not only its depiction of cruel, racist violence against two black men, but also the apparent happiness and ease with which the white perpetrators are engaging with each other in the presence of violent murder - inspired Abel Meeropol to write the poem 'Bitter Fruit' in 1937. By the end of the 1930s that poem would become a known and powerful protest song, first recorded by Billie Holiday but first performed by Meeropol's wife, Laura Duncan, at Carnegie Hall under the title 'Strange Fruit'.

Nina Simone at Morlaix, France, 1982. Photo from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nina_Simone

Nina Simone at Morlaix, France, 1982. Photo from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nina_Simone

For me, the quintessential recording of 'Strange Fruit' was made by Nina Simone in 1965 on her album Pastel Blues. It seems to touch a depth of passion, hurt, and anger that I do not hear in the recordings made by Billie Holiday. But part of that power was in my experience affected by the compilation in which it was included. I did not first hear Simone sing the song on Pastel Blue but on a greatest hits album which also included her performance of Bertolt Brecht's and Marc Biltzstein's (who wrote the English lyrics) 'Pirate Jenny' written for Brecht's 1928 play, The Threepenny Opera. 'Pirate Jenny' is not a protest song in the strictest sense of the word. It tells of the anger of an oppressed hotel maid and her dreams of vengeance upon the local townsfolk for their contemptuous behaviour toward her. But when it is heard close to the power, hurt, and anger at persistent and unrelenting racial hatred and violence as expressed in 'Strange Fruit' it becomes something much more than a cabaret melody. It becomes a vision and expression of the imprecations of an oppressed people. 'Strange Fruit' and 'Pirate Jenny,' when sung by the haunting and passionate voice of Nina Simone, combine to become an aural one-two punch against all who would prefer to forget the individual impact of violence, oppression, hatred and racism upon a community.

Gil Scott-Heron. Image courtesy Michael Brown, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nworbleahcim/5766893660

Gil Scott-Heron. Image courtesy Michael Brown, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nworbleahcim/5766893660

There is a third song, written much later, which I find similarly affecting. That is Gil Scott-Heron's 1970 'Whitey On the Moon.' Lightened marginally by humour, Scott-Heron's song is nevertheless an indictment against the inequality and economic imbalance between the Black and White Americas of his time. It asks the very reasonable question of how it is possible that a black family can't afford to go to the doctor and must live in inadequate, rat-infested housing, when there is enough money to put a group of white men on the moon. Scott-Heron delivers the piece in a way which does not have the raw passion of Nina Simone, but rather communicates a bitterness and resentment. 'Whitey On The Moon' is less protest against the acts of racism, and more against the possibility that 40 years after the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, and after the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the tremendous efforts of the Civil Rights Movement, that after all this, so little has changed. Scott-Heron does not sound angry, but indignant, frustrated, and certain that this inequality will continue.

As a highly educated, socially well-placed, tall, thin, non-disabled white man, I had allowed myself to hear those songs as markers of the past. A horrific and evil past, to be sure, but I had believed that it was mostly done. I am not a racist (so far as I can tell). My friends are not racists (as far as I know), and therefore racism is over. I was wrong beyond imagining.

The late Philando Castile and his partner.

The late Philando Castile and his partner.

The late Alton Sterling.

The late Alton Sterling.

It is now 86 years since Lawrence Beitler made his photograph of Shipp and Smith, and new images are coming out all the time, new pictures of dead black men and boys, new pictures of white indifference and amnesia, new pictures of horror which tell the story that not only is racism not over, but its evil is manifestly on the move. I am writing now having seen the images of Alton Sterling apparently being executed by white police officers, and images of Philando Castile murdered by police as he reached for his identification.

A colleague of mine, Esau MacCaulley has written a piece in response in particular to the death of Alton Sterling - a kind of 'Strange Fruit' expressing the rightful and righteous anger of a community of people who have been oppressed and tormented for generations, for whom the colour of their skin immediately puts them at greater risk of violence and death at the hands of the state that is meant to hold as self-evident the idea that all people are created equal.

Dallas, Texas. Image courtesy CTV News. http://www.ctvnews.ca/world/suspect-in-dallas-shooting-warned-about-shooting-up-churches-schools-1.2421865

Dallas, Texas. Image courtesy CTV News. http://www.ctvnews.ca/world/suspect-in-dallas-shooting-warned-about-shooting-up-churches-schools-1.2421865

But since Esau wrote his piece, someone else has taken the theme of 'Pirate Jenny,' the idea of the 'black freighter' to heart, and has sought violent revenge. At a rally and protest against the consistent violence against black men and women in America, five police officers were murdered and another seven wounded in Dallas, Texas by what appears now to be a group of snipers. There can be no condoning these murders any more than the murders of Sterling and Castile. There can be no accepting these acts as just or good. There is, though, a context in which this seems to have been inevitable. How many pieces of strange fruit can fall to the ground until someone decides that it must end, regardless of the methods, and regardless of the cost? How much pushing down can a people receive until, in desperation for freedom and release, someone takes aim at the most visible symbol of their fear and oppression? How many times can Whitey go to the moon while Sister Nell can't even go to the doctor until the 'black freighter' gets called in?

I am a Christian, and an ordained priest in the Church. I am sworn to seek and build a community of worship, peace, forgiveness and redemption. This is the work and calling of my life. How do I do this in the shadow of Dallas? How do I do this in the shadow of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the countless others stretching back through Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith for hundreds of years? When the images of the fallen, strange fruit of a society determined to oppress, determined to deny their own foundation of faith and equality continue to fly through the air, what does it mean to build a community of peace, forgiveness and redemption? How do we be Church in that shadow?

I simply don't know.

What I do know is that it cannot mean forgetting. It cannot mean amnesia. It cannot mean finding excuses, shifting blame, scapegoating. It will be far more difficult, far more painful than that.

Jesus Christ is the quintessential innocent victim. His passion and death are visible in all those who suffer and die unjustly. At minimum, the Church of Jesus Christ, his body in the world, needs to rise up, stand up and shout with all the holy rage and righteous indignation it can muster and insist at every level of society that there is no room in God's creation for oppression, violence and racism. And when the rage subsides, and the indignation eases, we will need to sit at the tables of power, and the park benches of society, and make the Kingdom of God visible and His Church an effective part of our worlds systems and structures. We will need to find a politics of the kingdom that goes beyond candle-light vigils and sad sermons. We will need to find a kingdom-focused, kingdom-rooted and kingdom-inspired politics that can transform nations and peoples. We will need to build communities and, remembering the injustices of the past, declaring a future of redemption, and proclaiming resurrection in the present, become a people that will allow no more innocent victims.

And in Canada, my home, much of this is equally true for our First Peoples.

When is it right to make images of suffering?

I was pointed to this article on The Guardian recently: http://www.theguardian.com/…/sky-news-somalia-fgm-alleged-f…

First, if you are sensitive to the imaginative ways in which humans hurt each other, then consider whether or not you'd want to read this article, but I hope that you do. Female Genital Mutilation is a form of abuse that is getting more airplay in the press (as this article implies), but has been relatively unspoken of in the Church. This article should be read and the issues considered for the seriousness of FGM and the horror it is to women in many cultures around the world. This article should be read for that reason first.

What I want to comment on, however is a point of very much secondary importance raised here. In this article is a hint at a long and nuanced discussion of the place of footage or photography of suffering and violence. This is an area of research for me, and something I've spent a tremendous amount of time thinking and writing about. I thought I might say one or two things about that here.

The anti-FGM advocates discussed in this article are challenging not only the airing but also the creation of mediated images of a little girl undergoing FGM. Their argument is that the event was an immoral act of child-abuse (and it was) and anyone who stood by and did nothing was complicit in that abuse. For them, that would include the journalists and camera operators who filmed and photographed the event.

This is a very long held argument. Susan Sontag discusses in the mid 1970s her feeling that the photographer of violence is interested in the status-quo; in the continuation of the violence in order to get a 'good shot' or 'good footage'. For Sontag, the photographer is guilty of the violence they record either for not acting to prevent it, or for perpetuating it through the media. In such a case, whether intended or not, the photographer's work is one which supports and is in solidarity with the perpetrator of the violence.

This is a powerful argument. It is easy to see how this could be true, and how a photographer (or a press agency) might become so cynical about their work that there is no compassion for the victim or subject, only interest in the shot.

There is another argument, though. That is that the photographer is there as a voice for the sufferer, is there in solidarity with the victim, not the perpetrator. In this perspective, the photographer or journalist takes on the roles of advocate, companion, and public voice. Photographers like Sebastiao Salgado, or James Nachtway might be seen as ideal (though not un-criticised) examples of this understanding of the photographer of suffering.

What complicates this story is that those who know most about this kind of abuse and suffering, those who have lived what the little girl in these pictures and footage is living, these women are saying that these images do not advocate for them and are not legitimate expressions of their public voice. Rather, they are saying images like this further victimise them and perpetuate the harm and that they might diminish the good advocacy being done in other ways.

From my perspective, I believe very much in the powerful and positive role that photographs of violence or suffering can play in transforming opinions and stirring actions (just think of the images of little Alan Kurdi on that Turkish Beach and their impact, or the photograph of Kim Phuc in Vietnam running naked from a napalm attack that that images affect on American war sentiment). I believe that this kind of photography is important and necessary. BUT ONLY IF IT IS IN SOLIDARITY WITH THE VICTIM and only if it communicates the suffering in a way that does not perpetuate or extend the harm.

For what appears to be the majority of women who have been tortured in this way, it does not appear that they feel that such images are in solidarity with them. They feel that these images do vastly more harm than good. For those who have been mutilated and tortured in this way, consent was never an option. Their consent over their bodies and future sexuality was stolen. These images might be understood to be a further robbing of consent - not only through the question of whether or not the girl in the footage gave legitimate consent to have the images made, but also in the communication of an act that overrides her right to consent to what happens to her own body.

Suffering has its own authority. Suffering makes its own demands upon societies and individuals. The voice of the women calling for this footage to be removed appears to me to be the voice of that suffering. Perhaps they should be listened to. The last word should be theirs:

“They are unanimous. They want the clip to be withdrawn. For them it is about consent. Some of them are very angry. One can argue that there is a place for showing these kind of images, for training and to show the extent of damage and give an insight but this isn’t it. You have to listen to the survivors. It is their story and we have to go by how they want that story to be told.” - Dr. Comfort Momoh, London, as quoted in the article linked below and above.

 

Sky News urged to drop footage of girl undergoing FGM

Activist says film from Somalia shows young girl being held down and cut while people look on

theguardian.com|By Mary Carson

Kelpies and Fairies

Scotland holds many cultures, far more than I knew before moving here.  My understanding of Scottish life and people was more influenced by Mike Myers (So I Married an Axe Murderer) and WarnerBrothers (Scrooge MacDuck) than by anything in reality (sorry Scotland). The cultures of Scotland have been blending and re-blending for uncountable generations with the stories and traits of the Norse and Vikings, Celts, Britons, Picts, French and who knows what else coming together to create new and wonderful combinations.

Recently, I spent some time with the Kelpies and the Fairies.  Not literally, sadly (cuz how cool would that be!) but with their cultural and landscape impressions.  The Kelpies are now most visible in their sculptural form.  Two wild horses soaring out of the ground to challenge the sky. A stunning achievement.  As for the fairies, well, I spent a few days on the Isle of Skye with the family, and we got to visit the Fairy Pools - natural rock-carvings made by centuries of water rushing across the land.  But wherever you turn in this country, whether it is in the art or the landscape, you can't help but feel the ancient stories pushing their way forward, longing to be told, to be heard.

Above...the Kelpies.

The landscape of (mostly) the Isle of Skye.  The Fairy Pools are the three waterfall focused images about halfway through.

Church

Hmmmm.... I think there's something wrong with the images in the Church gallery....

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