FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 10/28/2013


Strange Fruit: Lives in the Service of American Debt

August 29, 2013  Volune 6, Issue 11

Faith +Ideas= an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College

By Ivy George

The year was 1937 and a young Jewish man born to parents who had emigrated from Russia wrote the poem “Strange Fruit,” later immortalized by the great Billie Holiday in a song by the same name. It was dubbed the “Song of the Century” by Time Magazine in 1999. Biographers and commentators have written at length about the “extraordinary courage” of the writer and New York public school teacher, Abel Meeropol, and the “unrepentantly defiant African-American songstress” Billie Holiday who sang the song.

It is said that Meeropol’s inspiration for the poem was a photo of a 1930 lynching of two African-American men in Indiana, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Haunted, he put pen to paper and created “Strange Fruit.”

As the U.S. reflects on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this month and as I write this on the actual day of Dr. King’s now famous Dream speech, I am struck by what my South African compadres call the “struggle” art that emerges in “Strange Fruit,” a certain religious disposition displayed by some who carry an immigrant/pilgrim sensibility. Meeropol was ensconced in a kind of holy tension, a feeling of being in debt to the great bounties offered along with the simultaneous knowledge that these bounties were undergirded by tragedy. It was this racial hell of American bounty that Meeropol captured so breathtakingly in the words:

“Pastoral scene of the gallant South.
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

As a Jew who no doubt heard of the Russia that his parents fled, Meeropol was clear eyed about his American inheritance and found his prophetic charge in it. He knew deeply that he signed a promissory note daily to those on whose backs the bridge towards the Promised Land had been built. Yet, he, too, was a stakeholder in the American project.

And by inheriting such a debt, Meeropol understood that we are all mere tenants on this planet and to live fully we would have to care for one another’s well being. He understood well that African notion of ubuntu: “I am because You are.” My well being is intrinsically tied to that of my neighbor’s. Human destiny is decidedly relational. Therefore we are called to commit to spending our lives with good deeds and just acts as payment. In “I Am a Jew,” a lesser known but still keen verse, he wrote:

“I am a Jew?
How can I tell??
The Negro lynched?
Reminds me well?I am a Jew.”

Indeed, such remembrances of life past are connective tissues for life forward. As a teacher and an artist, Meeropol bore witness to beauty, to tragedy, to joy, to lies, and to truths.

Yet from where we sit in 2013, recalling the scent of magnolia mixed with the stench of human rot may seem like a nuisance by gone. An irritating distraction or even in bad taste for some, what with our moral mandates for the world at large today. I know. We text and we tweet. We contract our grammar and abbreviate our words where the present is the only tense and I don’t know how my reflections on Debt matter.

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz—who attended that march in Washington—wrote this week how Dr. King shaped his economics. While Stiglitz was headed for a career in theoretical physics, from a childhood in Gary, Indiana, where poverty was widespread, unemployment rampant and random, he noticed the “unending discrimination against African-Americans” and changed course. As an economist, he is propelled by the fundamental issues of distribution and the multiple subjectivities around race, class and gender that constitute the system.

Which brings me to the bigger question to which Stiglitz, King and Meeropol all pointed: Knowing the trenchant disparities extant in education, income, and beyond, how do we live in this legacy of discrimination? Certainly, democracy can be shaped only by the attentiveness of people like Meeropol or Stiglitz who struggle with the past in one hand and work to envision a different future in the other.

Both are joined in my mind by the depth of gratitude and what is owed as a remainder. A poet could not make his peace with America until he wrote for Shipp and Smith. An economist was unable to forget his native Gary, Indiana. And an “unrepentantly defiant” King reminded the U.S. of its “bad check” 50 years ago, one that still calls us to make good on our promises.

Ivy George is a professor of sociology at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. She and her family live in Beverly, MA.

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Ivy George