"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.


"i'm afraid to leave the house, because i'll hear about another death": the ongoing crises and the toll on frontline workers

The branch supervisor of the Port Hardy Library
made these, on her own initiative. We have given
away more than 50 of these "crisis keychains" so far.
Front and back pictured here.
The Port Hardy community has been besieged with a series of untimely deaths, many of young people. This has been going on for several years, but last year it escalated sharply, and this year has been even worse.

In 2023, 21 people died from non-natural causes. This year so far, there have been 13 such deaths. This in a community of about 4,400 people. 

Almost all the victims have been Indigenous people.

These deaths are caused by toxic drug poisoning, by alcohol addiction, by car accidents in which alcohol was involved. There have been a substantial number of suicides. 

Many in the community are trapped in a cycle of trauma. Among people already using substances, in lives riddled with trauma, there is no healthy way to process these fresh wounds. The connections among intergenerational trauma, personal loss and grief, mental health, and substance use are an almost seamless web. 

It is heartbreaking.

This crisis hits frontline workers very hard, and library workers are part of that. Libraries are often the only public space left for the people most impacted by these multiple crises. Many of our customers have died. We have lost people that we used to see every day. Others that we see every day have lost sons, daughters, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts. They bring their grief and trauma to us daily.  

People within the community are intimately connected through extended family and Nation ties. As one of our beloved regulars said, "I'm afraid to leave the house in the morning, because I fear I'll hear about another death."

Two of our regulars, a couple, lost a child in an alcohol-related car accident. Before this, they were working hard at rehab. They were clean and sober for the longest time they had ever managed. Then this. 

One of them is the person I performed CPR on in 2019. He uses our public computers, watching videos of his son and sobbing. Imagine processing your grief in public. 

The other constantly gets into fights, hurling her anger and grief at everyone around her.

The woman whose dog I adopted -- Cookie's first mom -- died a few months ago. I saw her at the library every single day since starting work here five years ago. That was the only funeral I have attended so far. The room was full of elders, burying one young person after the next.

Library staff is constantly exposed to this grief and at the very same moment, must cheerily assist customers with their book searches, their holds, their checkouts, their tech questions. Must give a happy and upbeat storytime. Must simply move on with their day.

For many people, trauma combined with substance use equals aggressive and menacing behaviour, so we're always dealing with that, too. We call the ambulance. We (reluctantly) call the police. We call a mental health outreach worker, but they are overtaxed and can rarely respond. 

We're trained in Naloxone. One day each week, a harm-reduction nurse is available at the library to train anyone in the community. We have drug-testing strips. 

We've had training in crisis prevention and trauma-informed practice. We've had recognition and support from First Nations elders. We've discussed and debriefed and done way too much self-care. 

Some staff respond by going into overdrive, trying to help more. Some can't think straight. Some fold into themselves. Some pretend it doesn't hurt. I'm an expert at compartmentalizing. I'm expected to take care of my staff, but the demands of my job don't allow too much time for that.

This week, staff and I are attending a two-day workshop on suicide prevention: ASIST. It's being offered jointly by Island Health and the First Nations Health Authority. Demand was so great that many people couldn't get in, and a second round is being offered a bit later this year. It's wonderful that so many people are interested. It's devastating that the need is so great.