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The Swing Era (part two)
"Strange Fruit" and the emergence of American empire
You can listen to this episode of Red White Blues here.
There’s a picture in Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book of poems Citizen, right at the end of a poem titled “February 26, 2012 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin”. It’s a doctored version of a famous—or I should say infamous—picture, in which a large crowd of people, clearly from early in the last century, stand around a tree. There’s an almost festive atmosphere, like they’re at a village fête or a fairground attraction. The people are all white, and in the branches of the high old tree, there’s an empty space where the image has been doctored. The original, undoctored image inspired Abel Meeropol to write the song “Strange Fruit”: it’s the picture of a lynching.
It doesn’t really matter which lynching, because the picture is depicting the act and the fact of lynching as much as the specific event here—though of course, it was real people being murdered in an act of racist violence in 1930: Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two young men with families and friends, personal lives, belongings, habits and jobs. And it’s not the voyeuristic gaze of the camera that’s obscuring and depersonalising the victims; it’s the racist violence itself that does this.
That’s what makes the picture, doctored by photographer John Lucas, so potent,: he’s removed the image of the people being lynched; he’s removed the object of horror—horrifying because it’s so dehumanising, this hateful act of turning people into inanimate objects. Instead, all we can see is a crowd of white people, a big tree, and a big black emptiness where the bodies in the original photograph should be.
This simple act of photoshopping completely reorients our relationship as spectators to the image, since we’re no longer seeing the lynching, but rather the people who’re there to witness it. Watching along with them, we’re in this terrible, uncomfortable and pointedly challenging position of being among them. And if you’re white, you’re suddenly acutely aware of your own whiteness, an awareness that it’s taken this unbelievably awful and clever bit of imagery to bring into focus. Which, I would hazard a guess, is part of the point.
To me, this sudden reorientation, this forceful imagery that makes you see not only the horror of lynching but the socio-cultural construction of race that precipitated it and where you yourself fit in this construction, is the meaning and the potency at the heart of Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit”. But before we get to 1939 and the recording of “Strange Fruit”, there was the tumultuous decade of the 1930s bringing a new idea of America into being.
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