“I can’t breathe,” Eric Garner moaned moments before dying on a Staten Island street on July 17 of this summer. As one of millions who watched the video clip of officer Daniel Pantaleo choking Mr. Garner to death while the unarmed man lay on the pavement, I can say it was a disturbing image that won’t soon, if ever, be forgotten. Watching Garner, an unarmed Black man, slain for supposedly selling loose cigarettes, was beyond senseless. Another deadly moment when the division between race and class was clearly defined, it’s becoming harder every day to separate the lynching culture of pre-Civil Rights America from our postmodern police state.
Afterward, seating speechless in front of the computer screen, it was difficult to digest that I had literally witnessed a lynching, with officer Pantaleo’s arm as the noose that many Black men and women have tried to avoid our entire lives. “That could’ve been me,” we whisper, touching our own necks and grimacing—no matter how much folks want to claim things have changed; no matter how many White folks accuse us of exaggerating about racism as they point out our Black president.
Having grown up in the always-claiming-liberal New York City, I remember the tragic deaths of Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpurs, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and others. The only difference in the Eric Garner situation was, like something out of the prophetic film The Running Man, we got to watch the murder from the comfort of our own homes.
As Professor Walidah Imarisha, co-editor of the upcoming Octavia’s Blood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice says, “Lynchings weren’t done in secret that was done undercover in the night, they were public spectacles. They did these murders without ever having to fear any retribution or justice, and that’s exactly what happened in this case. I wondered if the police officers cut off toes for souvenirs the way they the lynchers did, because that’s the level of brutality we’re at and have been for hundreds of years.”
Moments after hearing the decision on Tuesday night, I closed my eyes and somewhere in the back of my mind heard the haunting voice of Billie Holiday’s pained rendition of “Strange Fruit”—a song that’s become has been a protest anthem of injustice and death for over seven decades. The first time the legendary singer performed “Strange Fruit” at the then-recently opened Café Society in New York City in 1939, two years after it was written by Bronx poet and schoolteacher Abe Meeropol (who used the pseudonym Lewis Allan), the integrated audience was stunned silent by its power.
“There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished,” Holiday noted in her autobiography. “Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everybody was clapping.” In Holiday’s short but prolific career, the brutal “Strange Fruit” became one of her signature tunes. As essayist Gerald Early noted in Ken Burn’s Jazz documentary, “this was a whole new sensibility” in the progression of the music.
In shows, with the venue dark and a single spotlight on her face, Holiday sang the harsh lyrics, painting a harrowing portrait as she mournfully wailed about the “bulging eyes and twisted mouth” of a corpse hanging from a tree where there was “blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” So used to seeing Negro acts “cooning,” brainlessly performing and smiling while knowing their place in the Jim Crow era, Holiday saddened a few, outraged others, and made herself more than a few enemies that contributed to her eventual downfall.
The late musician-singer-activist Nina Simone, whose classic “Mississippi Goddam” serves as another aural signifier of Black folk’s suffering at the murderous whims of racists, also recorded an equally moving cover of “Strange Fruit” on her 1965 album, Pastel Blues.
“It deals with America and the Black and White problem really,” Simone once told an documentary interviewer. “That is the ugliest song I have ever heard. Ugly in a sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what White people have done to my people. It really opens up the wound completely raw when you think of a man hanging from a tree and call him ‘Strange Fruit.’ ”
Inspired by the music of both Holiday and Simone, artist Renaldo Davidson has painted lush portraits of both. “Obviously the past is not the past, and any of us can be ‘Strange Fruit,’ ” Davidson says two days after the December 3 grand jury decision to not indict Eric Garner’s killer. “I heard Nina Simone singing ‘Strange Fruit’ at a concert in 1986, and the way she phrased it, that song just got into my bones. Playing the piano, she emphasized certain keys that just felt spooky.”
Though the recording debuted 75 years ago, I first heard the evocative “Strange Fruit” when the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues played at one of my favorite uptown bijous in 1972. Starring Diana Ross as Lady Day, I saw the flick at the RKO Coliseum on 181 Street and Broadway. Sitting in a plush velvet burgundy chair, I heard the song began when Ross/Holiday, who was on tour down South, stumbles upon a group of crying Black folks standing beneath a body hanging from a tree. Like her, I too was saddened by the harrowing image.
“The words of the song are extraordinary, but what bring them to life is the power and soul of Holiday’s voice,” says journalist/novelist Asha Bandele. “She was speaking the truth about her people, Black people, and that took a lot of courage.” Even Holiday’s contracted label Columbia Records (now Sony) refused to record the song, allowing her to release it on Commodore Records with Frankie Newton’s eight-piece Café Society Band. Recorded at Brunswick World Broadcasting Studios, it was completed in one four-hour session.
In Holiday’s voice, we can hear the troubles on her mind, the racism she had experienced in land of the free. While there weren’t any bodies swinging from trees in Central Park, the Big Apple both then and now has never been a place of complete racial harmony. “The anthem that is ‘Strange Fruit’ goes beyond the South, far beyond the trees that Holiday sang about in that song,” Bandele says.
Lifelong Brooklyn resident and celebrated photographer Laylah Amatullah Barrayn says, “Seventy years ago, my great grandmother was probably listening to that song, so it’s ironic that in 2014 that I would be experiencing the same turn of event, witnessing these state-sponsored murders. The importance of art is to get people to think, and if it’s true and compelling in the way ‘Strange Fruit’ is, it’s going to last. The song has been recorded numerous times since it was first released and it’s still relevant.”
Since 1939, “Strange Fruit” has been covered by Lou Rawls, Jeff Buckley, Sting, Cassandra Wilson and, most recently Annie Lennox, who got called out by various media for whitewashing the song’s lynching origins while discussing it on Tavis Smiley. “To me, Holiday’s version is the most interesting and powerful,” says poet Patricia Spears Jones. “There is something anguished, terrified and pissed off all at the same time. Nina’s version is great, but Holiday’s is as foundational as Shakespeare.”
Walidah Imarisha, who published her first collection of poetry Scars/Stars last year, says, “The lyrics of ‘Strange Fruit’ speaks directly to our soul, speaks directly to our spirit in ways that speeches and manifestos just don’t. Poetry cuts through all of rhetoric, all of the denial, and shows us starkly and absolutely what the real cost of these systems are.”
Two days ago, after the decision to let Pantaleo walk for a murder that he obviously committed, I blankly watched the news coverage of nationwide die-ins, demonstrations, and a march up New York’s aptly named Avenue of the Americas. When I couldn’t take anymore, when I felt like screaming loudly and tossing the TV out the window, I retreated to the basement to play “Strange Fruit” over and over.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.