"strange fruit" documentary: a nexus of the past and present, and a personal sense of loss

We recently watched "Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song," a documentary we found on Kanopy. Kanopy's catalogue includes a vast number of documentaries, many of dubious quality; we're skeptical every time we click on one. "Strange Fruit" was good -- not great, but solid, and worth watching.

Strange Fruit: the song and reason

Strange Fruit, the song, bears witness to the violent persecution of Black Americans. The history of the song coincides with another shameful episode of the American experience -- the persecution of socialists and progressive thinkers.

If you aren't familiar with the song -- made famous by the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, and performed by many others through the years -- it is about lynching. 

The lyrics:

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

Pastor scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouths
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a 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
Lynching was, of course, murder. And it was terrorism, intended to enforce the codes of white supremacy known as Jim Crow. 

It was also entertainment, a public spectacle. This is one of the most disgusting parts of the history. It certainly smashes any notion that these murders were perpetrated by a few "bad apples".  

It was also allowed to happen. 

There was strong and consistent activism against lynching. More than one anti-lynching bill was brought forward in Congress. And one Southern fillibuster after the next made sure it didn't become law. 

Of course, no law should have been needed. Murder is already illegal. But in these crimes, no one was ever charged. No one was held accountable.

I am purposely not including some of the most disgusting and lurid aspects of this hideous practice, for the same reasons I did not include details of the torture of concentration camp victims in a recent post about Operation Paperclip. If you don't know about the history of lynching in the United States, I encourage you to learn about it. (Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad must have educated many people about this.)

It has not ended

Lynching is still happening. What is the ongoing murder of Black Americans by police if not lynching? 

Mass incarceration and capital punishment are also lynching. Perhaps one could argue that those means of controlling Black people are part of the judicial system, and lynching is technically "extra-judicial"? That would be, as we say, a distinction without a difference. Slavery was legal, too. 

"Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song" was released in 2002, so the examples of contemporary lynchings are now dated: Amadou Diallo, the unarmed, 23-year-old man who was shot 41 times by police after reaching for his wallet, and Abner Louima, who was raped, tortured, and permanently disabled by police. If the film was made today, the most obvious reference would be George Floyd. But there would be so many examples to chose from.

It's not known how many Black Americans were the victims of lynchings from the 1830s until the 1960s. All we know is there were thousands -- probably more than 5,000. 

Allan wondered if the total number of lynching victims of the past would be exceeded by the number of victims of police killings. And if we count mass incarceration, then that number is dwarfed by millions. 

The songwriter: another history of persecution

Before watching this film, I didn't know who wrote "Strange Fruit," and I was under the impression -- false, as it turns out -- that it was written specifically for Billie Holiday. 

"Strange Fruit" was written by Lewis Allen, which was a pseudonym for Abel Meeropol.

When I heard that name -- Meeropol -- it hit me like a jolt. I have only heard that name in one context: it was the last name of the family that adopted the Rosenberg children -- the children left orphaned by the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. I thought, was that a common last name, is this a coincidence?

Abel Meeropol's sons were interviewed extensively in this documentary, and as we watched, it began to dawn on me that these men, incredibly, were those children. 

And if you don't know this shameful and disgusting piece of US history, here's something else to look up. During the height of anti-communist hysteria in the US, the Rosenbergs were accused of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets. They were communists, and they were Jewish, and this fed the persecution. On June 19, 1953, Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg were murdered by the United States government.

The documentary shows how communism had been popular in the US, and that in the 1920s and 30s, members of the American Communist Party marched and sang and openly discussed their beliefs -- as was their right.

Abel Meeropol was a teacher in DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, and as such, a member of the New York City Teachers Union. In those days, before the labour movement struck its fateful deal with government -- guaranteeing workers certain rights (which are constantly violated), in exchange for labour peace (which is strictly and often illegally enforced) -- the labour movement was more radical, and many members were communists. To paraphrase someone in the film: in no way was the teachers' union an arm of the communist party, but many members of the union were communist or had communist leanings.

The documentary eventually reveals that the brothers being interviewed were indeed adopted by the Meeropols, and their birth parents were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. There is even footage of them, shot from a distance, leaving Sing Sing Prison on their last visit with their parents.

A sense of loss: the long goodbye

As a socialist and a Jew, the story of the Rosenbergs affects me profoundly. And now, hearing the name Meeropol affects me, too. It makes me miss my mother. 

My mother is still alive, and in good physical health, and I am grateful for that. But she has dementia. In the past -- not even the distant past, just a few years ago -- after seeing this documentary, I would have called her. I would have said the name Meeropol and she would have said, "The family that adopted the Rosenberg children!". She read their book, We Are Your Sons, and told me a lot about the Rosenberg case. My mother knew a lot of history, and for all I know, she already knew that "Strange Fruit" was written by the adopted father of the two Meeropol children. 

My mother and I used to talk about everything. She loved history, and we frequently talked about history and politics. Many times, she told me how the night before the Rosenbergs were scheduled to be executed, thousands of people filled New York City's Union Square, and similar protest rallies were held all over the world, calling for clemency. 

Right now, as I write this, I can hear my mother's voice saying this. And I miss her.




In "Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song," a person interviewed expresses their surprise upon learning that the songwriter was "not only white, but a Jewish-American". They say this as if it was strange that the writer would be Jewish. First of all, Jewish songwriters abounded in that era -- Irving Berlin and George Gershwin being the most famous, but there were many others. More importantly, no one should be surprised that a white person protesting bigotry and persecution was Jewish.  Jewish people were always disproportionately represented in the civil rights movement. The reasons should be obvious.

I was also weirded out by the expression Jewish-American, which two people in the documentary use. As I thought about it, I realized it's not wrong. We say Italian-American, Irish-American, and surely Jewish-American is a similar idea. Perhaps the speakers, who were both Black, were mirroring the African-American, which was the preferred terminology of the time. But it's a strange expression nonetheless. We would normally say the songwriter was Jewish, or a Jewish man. 

The Rosenberg Fund for Children

Michael Meeropol founded The Rosenberg Fund for Children, with this mission.

The Rosenberg Fund for Children was established to provide for the educational and emotional needs of children whose parents have suffered because of their progressive activities and who, therefore, are no longer able to provide fully for their children. The RFC also provides grants for the educational and emotional needs of targeted activist youth. 

A list of their board members, past and present, is instructive and moving.


Lorne said...

A very informative post, Cathy. I used to play Strange Fruit in my Grade 10 classes when we were discussing the racism of the South as part of the context of To Kill A Mockingbird.

Regarding the terrorism inflicted on Blacks, I read a book a few years ago called The Murder of Emmett Till, a very effective meditation on a horrible crime and the subsequent "not guilty" finding in a trial of his murderers. Had it not been for his mother's insistence on an open coffin of his mutilated corpse when his body was returned to Chicago, Till would have been a mere footnote in a long line of racist killings.

laura k said...

Thank you, Lorne. Emmett Till is an important story -- because of his courageous mother.

(Who's Cathy? :) )

Lorne said...

Sorry, Laura. I remembered your name after I sent the comment along. ;(

johngoldfine said...

"I was also weirded out by the expression Jewish-American, which two people in the documentary use. As I thought about it, I realized it's not wrong. We say Italian-American, Irish-American, and surely Jewish-American is a similar idea."

The other hyphenates you cite deal with ancestral ethnicity, not religion. Of course, my mother being Jewish, I'm technically a Jew. But it makes no sense to categorize an atheistic, secular, totally deracinated USAmerican, who happens to be Jewish by birth, as "Jewish-American."

If we have to go this way, I could Just as easily and reasonably be tagged a Lithuanian-American, a Belorussian-American, a Galician-American, or a Ukrainian-American, although each of those would mislead as much as inform.

laura k said...

Lorne, no problem, it's exactly like something I would do. :)

laura k said...

John, well, it works for me, and that doesn't mean it's going to work for anyone else. I'm an atheist, and to me, Jewish is my ethnicity. I have no religion, but I am still Jewish. That's why, for me, Jewish-American is the equivalent of Irish-American or Italian-American.

When my ancestors were in Belorussia and etc., they were not allowed to be Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, etc. Their identities were defined by Jewishness, so when they emigrated, that's what they brought with them. German Jews were completely separate from other German immigrants. So personally I would never identify myself with those countries and cultures.

Now, that doesn't mean I would ever call myself Jewish-American. It struck me as weird in the movie and it still does. But for me, it's not wrong.

Amy said...

I probably have told you that Robert Meeropol was a student of mine; he and I had some conversations about Strange Fruit and other songs his adoptive father wrote because he had some copyright questions (and was in my copyright law class). I also knew his brother Michael, as he was an economics professor at the same university where Harvey and I taught. It was hard to believe that these two men had endured the awful nightmare of living through their parents' trial, imprisonment, and execution as young children. Robert founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children in memory of his birth parents to provide support to the children of parents who are being targeted for their progressive activism.

As for Jewish-American, I think historically Jews never fully felt (or feel) fully accepted or integrated into whatever country they've lived in. People always say German Jews, for example, not Jewish Germans. I would call myself an American Jew, not Jewish-American, based mostly on my ethnicity (though I also identify Judaism as my religion). I am someone who is Jewish who lives in the US and is a citizen of the US. I would carry my Jewish identity with me if I moved to another country and became a citizen there. If I moved to Canada and became a citizen there, then I'd be a Canadian Jew, not a Jewish Canadian. I would shed my American identity, but not my Jewish identity. I wouldn't choose to nor would the world stop seeing me as Jewish no matter where I lived.

laura k said...

Thanks, Amy. If you told me that about the Meeropols, I didn't remember.

There is a link to the Rosenberg Fund for Children in the post. I know people in the peace movement who benefitted from it as children, people whose parents were blacklisted, dishonourably discharged, etc.

Your thoughts on Jewish identity are exactly what I was trying to articulate in my comment above. Except I don't think anyone can ever shed their American identity. Emigrating to Canada and becoming a Canadian citizen -- that is, a dual citizen -- did not erase 40+ years of developing in the US. From what I observe, adult immigrants never completely lose their identity from their original countries. You can add on without subtracting.

Amy said...

That makes sense---that you still have some American attributes, identity, values, whatever. But would you call yourself an American? If someone else called you an American, would you be offended? Would you correct them? I can see that you would always say you are American-born and raised. Or is it like when we refer to someone as Italian in the US---we know they are American citizens with Italian ancestry, but we may still say they are "Italian." Or Irish or Chinese or whatever ancestry or background that person may have.

laura k said...

Good question! The answer depends on the context.

In another country, if we are traveling, if someone says, You're American? I would say, Canadian. That's the simplest answer to what they are asking.

In Canada, no one asks, because huge numbers of people here are not Canadian-born, and many never become citizens (remaining Permanent Residents). Also huge numbers of Canadians have American roots somewhere in their family. So if it comes up in conversation, I will say, "I'm originally from the US."

If someone local ask where I moved to Port Hardy or the North Island from, I say, "From southern Ontario, and before that, New York City."

If someone asks where I grew up, I'll say, in the suburbs of New York City.

For most of my adult life, once my worldview was solidified, I identified myself as a New Yorker rather than an American. But obviously I had an US passport, and when we were in France or Italy or wherever, if someone asked if we were American (as opposed to British or some other Anglophone country, I'd say yes. But normally I said I was from NYC.

laura k said...

And when the subject of ethnicity comes up, I say I'm Jewish.

Amy said...

I get all that. When traveling, I say I am American. When I met people who are not American and they ask where in the US I am from or live, I just say Massachusetts. When other Americans ask where in the US I am "from" as opposed to where I live, I tend to say, "I was born in the Bronx and grew up in the NYC suburbs, but I've lived in New England my whole adult life." That way I cover all the places I've lived in one sentence. I still identify more as a New Yorker than a New Englander when it comes to certain aspects of my life. When I see photographs of New York City, it feels like home to me. On the other hand, I love being able to say I live on Cape Cod (and I love living here).

Amy said...

And so do I---without qualifying it as American Jew or Jewish-American!

laura k said...

Same here. :)

Also similarly, I love saying I live on Vancouver Island. I also love saying "I live in a remote community in BC" or (if not in Canada) "a remote community in western Canada".