Monday, June 7, 2010

Strange Fruit

An article on the front page of today's Duluth News Tribune featured a story about a young man who "lent a hand, and his face" to a memorial that was constructed here in Duluth ten years ago. Le Don Grant, now a 26 year old actor in Boston, took an interest in the project in order to learn more about his home town. He was utlimately recruited to portray Isaac McGhie, one of three blacks lynched in a shameful incident here in 1920 Duluth.

The article brought to mind for me one of my blog entries from two years back which I wrote in response to Ken Burns' documentary, Jazz. This is a part of American history that we're not comfortable with.

A few months ago it was suggested that I reprint this blog entry, especially in light of the fact that it was written before we elected our 44th president. It is only against this backdrop that we can begin to understand the power of this groundbreaking event, and the hope which it generated.

Reprint from June 30, 2008

For the past couple weeks I've been watching and listening to Ken Burns' ten part film series called Jazz. This is a remarkable piece of work. I have enjoyed jazz since introduced to various artists through friends in college, from John Coltrane to Chick Corea, and Miles Davis to Charles Mingus and Pharaoh Sanders. More recently I listened to an eight part lecture series on the history of jazz, which was insightful and informative. But Burns' live footage from the earliest days of twentieth century jazz to the present is an amazing retrospective of the contribution of blacks to Americana.

From the raucous Twenties to the depression era Thirties, jazz was evolving, and reflecting all facets of the culture. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman... all of their stories are here.

Purportedly a film series about music, this is really a series about race relations. Some amazing footage of musicians, dancers, and singers has been captured here including the remarkable Billie Holiday. Every once in a while a song cuts through you though, and tears something in your heart. That's what happened to me when Burns gave us raw footage of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit. What a daring song for 1939. What heart wrenching lyrics by Lewis Allen.

Strange Fruit
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.

The tragedy is not simply that a man lost his life unjustly. The tragedy is the signal such events would send to every black man in this cultural situation... that he dare not challenge "the Man," dare not himself be a man, raise his head and look into a white man's eyes with defiance, raise the fist. It is difficult to impossible to understand the black power movement of the late Sixties, early Seventies, without understanding the context of Strange Fruit.

The photo at the top of this entry is from a memorial here in Duluth, MN, a photo I took this evening in our City by the Lake. Most people associate racial violence as a Southern phenomenon. The memorial here is a remembrance that it can, and did, happen here. In 1920, three black circus workers were lynched downtown by an irate, irrational mob. Hepped up by hearsay, they broke into the jail and brought these men's lives to a sudden end. Historians believe they were almost certainly innocent, but the tragic affair demonstrated that "it can happen here."

Race relations in America are a complicated affair and, like Lewis Allen's evocative lament, so very sad.

May we never forget.

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