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
Whenever I hear news of lynching, I listen to the blues. I hear my beloved Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit”. Far in time and space, and so far in history, but so close to our experiences. When I hear of bodies hanging from the trees, a person tied to a pole, youths flogged on the streets, and farmers hanged from trees, I remember Abel Meeropol, the school teacher and activist who wrote the lyrics for the song. Not out of the blue, Holiday’s Blues loom in her mournful raging syllables. “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” It goes on with the fullest poignancy, colouring everything red, turning everything sad, dark and melancholic.
As the cases of lynching rise, the strange fruit does not look so strange to us. In fact, it was never so strange. If you have not seen it, you must have sensed it. I’m sure you’ve heard it even if you have not read it. You must have smelled its burning flesh. Strange fruit keeps haunting us, tearing apart our hearts. And it keeps reappearing as if there is no end to it.
I recall this song to suggest that the fight against lynching cannot only be a political fight. It must be fought on all fronts, at the level of thinking but, most importantly, at the level of bodies and senses. At the level of sound and music. At the level of the desire to feel secure and superior over the crucifixion of others. Strange fruit appears in different forms. It is the Blacks in the United States, the Roma in Europe, and the Adivasi, Dalits, Muslims and nomadic communities in India. Women and “sexual deviants” were always strange. Subjects of suspicion are the subjects who dare to speak—the fruit that tastes different, the subjects whose face you don’t like.
Listen to it if you dare to, feel it if you have compassion left, and repeat it, so the act does not repeat itself.
A Rage Against Lynching
But what is the Strange Fruit I am talking about? As lynching rises with ethnocentric nationalism and market-induced insecurity, the strange fruit is our new crop. With legal and moral impunity, the cases of lynching are escalating with active State support. Lynch mobs are having fun with violence, leading us into the dark on roads of silence. The act has the wings of rumour, and it spreads like fire in the forest. Strange fruit hangs across trees, poles and wires. It was in a similar context that the song surfaced in the United States.
Written against the lynching of Blacks, Strange Fruit became the rallying song in the anti-racist movements in the United States. Meeropol wrote it to protest against the rampant rise of the lynching of Black Americans in the 1930s. But the real credit goes to Billie Holiday, who composed and dared to sing it, and faced the repercussions throughout her life. The FBI of the United States persecuted both Meeropol and Holiday. This song is understood to be one of the reasons.
Lynching is a deeply disembodied act. It is physical, and it is psychic. It is psychological. Its aim is not only to kill somebody but create a sensation. It wants to make an effect. It intends to spread terror so no one dares to speak, no one dares transgress, and no one dares to dissent. More than the body, it creates fear at the psychic level. It works at the level of the senses.
But the song Strange Fruit goes deeper, perhaps much deeper, than any lynching can cut. It goes deeper to heal wounds, to bring the senses back. It resists the violent desensitisation that lynching inflicts on our senses. It asks us to watch, sing, participate, and become the body getting lynched in the streets. Hear the song, and imagine the scene:
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is 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 cry
The song brings the scene of lynching alive before our eyes to see the installation art of hateful minds. It questions our sense of civilisation and mourns the inhumanity every time it plays. It activates all our senses and registers, visual to tactile, registering the crime in the sound, on the flesh. It leaves its marks on the leaves, crops, and roots. Its power lies in brutal violence and haunting rage against the banality of evil. Its bulging eyes and twisted mouth activate all the senses, visual, auditory, tactile, and kinaesthetic. It enters the extremes to counter lynching. It asks you to smell the burning flesh amidst the scent of magnolia.
Holiday lets fly the words as bodies fly in freedom, then clips their wings as lynch mobs do to bodies. Lyrics give her the setting to play with the sweet fresh scent of magnolias and the sudden smell of burning flesh. Then the sudden smell of burning flesh! See the pastoral scene of the gallant South. The haunting voice of Holiday will never let you rest. Hear her prayer call if you have not lost the sense to take such a call.
Meeropol and Holiday’s song was a cry against the spectacle of violence. At a point in time, the images of the lynched bodies would appear on newspaper pages not as shame but as pride and honour as they appear now in videos and selfies. Lynch mobs would pose with a body hanging in the background like an art installation.
Meeropol’s words found their real voice in the melancholic chords of Holiday. Holiday sings it in a mournful sound filled with a rage that makes the senses shiver against the culture of hate and desensitisation of lynching. She turned the song into an anthem against lynching.
Strange Fruit emerged as the most shocking and influential protest song of the 20th century. The song is seen as the declaration of the civil rights movement in the United States. It is a song unparalleled in its music, words, evocation and sensations. Unparalleled in solidarity, it brings rage and compassion together. It creates a horrifying lyrical description of a lynching, appearing as an installation art. What we see in every lynching is a specific arrangement of bodies at a site for society to view. Strangely, the song never mentions lynching, it creates the scene. It portrays the body with an epic description that connects all narratives of lynching. The song crosses the seas to connect to the communities still at the receiving end of such violence.
Every time a mob lynches, Strange Fruit haunts like spirits arising from a whirlwind. The song is a reminder and remanent of our gory past that unmasks our glorious history. But it is also about our present, from bloodthirsty lynch mobs sloganeering in the streets to lynch mobs spreading hate on social media. The song also commemorates our collective failures that keep the hateful form of violence alive. For all these reasons, it should become a prayer song in our schools. It should have been played in the courts in front of judges. It should have been played from temples, mosques and churches. It should have been played in Parliament and all assemblies where people gather to discuss life and politics.
Solidarity in Silences
The act of lynching arises when hatred colours innermost feelings. It is a form of cruelty in which one finds pleasure in inflicting pain. What could be a possible alternative to this violence? And how do we read the solidarity between Meeropol and Holiday, a white Jew and an American Black, a Communist and a member of a vulnerable community? Is this the solidarity between a singer and the listener? Some said they never thought that the lyrics were written by a white, that they must have been written by someone who has suffered violence. But the beauty of solidarity is that it arises from innermost rage and compassion.
Unlike solidarity speeches that carry explicit messages—I stand with you—poetic solidarity takes the deeper route of silence and anonymity and flows through bodily rage and rhythm. It does without saying. Arising from a deep sense of self-compassion, it transforms the participants. It embodies the pain of others. One becomes the other, or both change positionalities, not from points of privilege but grievability. Not in a sentimental rhetorical sense but in transforming themselves. Like the agony of the virah song: Tohri baat johat piya, baat bhayo more nain (While waiting and longing for you, I have become you).
Meeropol said in an interview that a photograph of lynching had haunted him for many days. He did not only see the picture but transformed himself. Similarly, Holiday does not sing the song he wrote; she transforms it. She interprets and embodies it, becoming a witness. She saw her father die young, denied treatment in white-only hospitals because of his race. It is the personification of the song that makes it universal.
Meeropol once said after witnessing Holiday’s performance: “She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation, which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere.” The point is not only to express solidarity but to break complacency.
In the words of Meeropol, the song found meaning. In the voice of Holiday, the song found a body. While open solidarity is vital occasionally, poetic solidarity asks for a much deeper bond. It looks into silences. It expresses solidarity without speaking, taking credit, or speaking out loud.
If lynching is tactile violence that creates a bone-chilling experience, poetic solidarity and compassion are names of a touch that reaches the nerve. In poems about solidarity, that is the main message. In poetic solidarity, the feeling emanates from shabda-jeeva, life words that touch the heart soundlessly. Meeropol did not write “Strange Fruit” to express solidarity but to describe the condition of the othering of our common bonds. The greatest solidarity remains unnamed, unsaid, in silence. It has salient features, but it disappears more than it appears. It eludes the meaning of love and relationship.
Communitarian hatred and lynching are the best sites to see this silent solidarity. When lynch mobs were looking for Muslim bodies, we know some households hid them silently, taking all the risk, not speaking out, and showing silent solidarity. It was poetry without words. It was a solidarity that connected us all for life.