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.