America has maximized human and societal potential in many ways – we are truly a republic of great potential and productivity. Of course, being black, Holliday experienced an appalling side of America first-hand, one grossly shy of the beautiful principles on which it was founded. We are the best and the worst of everything in humanity. It is fair, recognizing slavery and poverty and vicious wealth inequality since ideals such as liberty, inclusion, democracy, and opportunity are unambiguously glorious values and aspirations we do treasure here. We must be truthful and integrate all our past and reconcile our darkness with our light. Anyway, Billie Holliday represented something special to many people, and I think the story of her song “Strange Fruit” is quite relevant to the idea of integration – both on a personal level, and certainly on a societal one.
I think the story of jazz virtuoso Billie Holliday is relevant here, and so is her notorious song “Strange Fruit”. You know she was an African-American woman who lived an amazing life – which included some unfortunate and very unwise turns of events: drugs, alcohol, a marriage to a monster, and so on. Born in 1915, she was present in Greenwich Village and Harlem at a time of remarkable vibrancy and cultural verve. She and other culturally-creative individuals made quite a splash, even in the midst of the Great Depression, and then the dark days of World War II.
“If the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing for reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here and will again, and we can make America what America must become.” James Baldwin
The following lyrics characterize how Bono (the singer from U2, of course) expressed his captivation by some the great aspects of the land of the free and the home of the brave. From the stellar 1988 album Rattle and Hum, recorded in Memphis, TN during the final leg of the heralded The Joshua Tree tour, in “The Angel of Harlem” he extols the wonder, potential, and virtue of America. By referencing Holliday, John Coltrane, Birdland (the fabled jazz club), America’s inventions of blues, jazz, and gospel music, he was harkening back to the halcyon days of Harlem in the early 20th century. Bono was characterizing an integral part of America that has never really been treated fairly – African Americans – and extoling their contribution to American culture, defense, and economic progress. In so doing, he made Holliday emblematic for all that is great and good about this land, but all that is dark and dismal as well. Here is how Bono describes one impactful day in 1988:
“It was a cold and wet December day
When we touched the ground at J.F.K. [airport]
On BLS [an African-American radio station] I heard the sound
Of an angel
New York, like a Christmas tree
Tonight, this city belongs to me
Lady Day’s got diamond eyes
She sees the truth behind the lies
Where I am going with this is the following. “Lady Day” (as Holliday was known in the fantastic jazz clubs of the day) did see the truth behind the lies. The lies that America had built right into its foundation – from the day a slave was brought here, to the day when the Southerners forced a compromise that millions of African slaves (for the purposes of regional power considerations) only counted as three-fifths of a human being. All the way through to the modern era when Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, and Brianna Taylor were murdered. When America’s white, male founders crafted a system such as this, they signed a deal with the devil that is still costing us today. The devil always insists on being paid, and as the awful year 2020 shows, we are paying through the nose.
So, Holliday was just starting her career out when she was shown lyrics to a song that laid bare the hypocrisy, moral decay, and dark underbelly of the country school-age children must pledge their allegiance to daily. In 1937, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx named Abel Meeropol was inspired to pen a devastating poem about the world around him. It was a time when the country was in the worst economic depression it ever experienced, and still languishing under Jim Crow, racial segregation, economic enslavement of former slaves, lynchings, and a startling number of whites participating in the Ku Klux Klan. It was a time of great storm and stress, strife and stratification. The poem-turned-song “Strange Fruit”, published under a pseudonym, haunts us to this day. Holliday was hesitant to sing the song in the club called Café Society, in part because it reminded her of her father – whom she held believed from lung cancer in large part due to racial disparities in health care.
Despite her fears, in 1939, at the Café Society, she debuted it with nothing but a dark stage and one spotlight on her face. Her eerie voice no doubt drew unblinking stares. And she didn’t stop there; it was a hit. No encores; she just basically dropped the mic and no-doubt left audience after audience stunned. She said in her autobiography: “It reminds me of how Pop died, but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it but because twenty years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.” Musician Marcus Miller, when he heard it, noted he was surprised to learn the song “was written by a white Jewish guy from the Bronx.” He recognized that “Strange Fruit” took unusual courage for Meeropol to write – and for the young black female singer to perform. “The ’60s hadn’t happened yet,” he shared; “things like that weren’t talked about. They certainly weren’t sung about.”
The words and that voice were laying bare the truth behind the lies. The story that spawned perhaps the greatest, pithiest protest song of all time began with a gory black and white photo of a lynching from Marion, Indiana in 1930 – so appalling was it that Meeropol couldn’t get the image out of his head for days. Benjamin Franklin wrote that “A lynch mob is a beast with many hands, and no brains,” and nearly 5,000 blacks were lynched since the birth of the nation.
I would like to think that America has grown beyond such barbarous racism and tribalism, but I was watching television on January 6th, 2021 when the nearly-all-white mob of vile insurrectionists stormed the United States Capitol looking for blood. They weren’t protesting anything legitimate or fighting for actual rights; the story they glommed onto was based on the lies of a dastardly demagogue, and their goal was gross: they sought to execute Vice President Pence and no doubt kill Nancy Pelosi. They beat law enforcement officers with Trump flag poles, carried the Confederate Flag, stole property, bear-sprayed its defenders – it’s a laundry list of uncivilized violence and wanton hatred. The whole thing was shot through with racism and white grievance, I believe.
On that fateful summer night in middle America – long after 600,000 people died in the Civil War – a 5,000-person mob forcibly extracted Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith from a jail cell, murdered, and then hanged them from a tree. It was the Emmett Till lynching on steroids. The youths were, of course, accused of murdering a white person and raping his wife. A carnival-like atmosphere ensued; the vengeful crowd took strips of clothes from the victims as souvenirs, and thousands of copies of the macabre photograph of the innocent maple tree bearing its “strange fruit” were later bought and sold.
That night was not the birth of a nation, but the dysfunctional youth of a benighted nation; of a people lost in an immature and foolish state of development. As the crowd in Jerusalem on another fateful day in humanity’s mottled past were enthusiastically shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”, one person opined: “It was Jesus on the lynching tree that night.” It brings to mind the haunting words of Thomas Jefferson – both a brilliant writer and the architect of the Declaration of Independence, and a slave owner: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just….”
Here are the haunting words so beautifully written by Meeropol, a song TIME magazine named “the song of the century”:
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
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 crop
Indeed, we have been eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil, year after year after year, which long ago the God of the Hebrews is said to have warned his people not to eat. Indeed, if a mob of Americans from Marion, Indiana would hang young black men far before a fair trial could be conducted – and in a fit of mob violence and hate – and if thousands would, 90 years later, disbelieve in the free and fair election results of 2020 so much so that they would carry out an attempted coup, what does that say about who we are? That millions and millions could think Trump was a good leader boggles the mind. As a Jew, I behold that with fear and with disbelief. Does it speak volumes about who human beings are? Humanity has to accept the fact that it invented Nazism, torture, child trafficking, and the nuclear bomb. It must reconcile that with every poem, childbirth, and selfless act. It’s almost impossible to square the circle, frankly.
I see why Holliday and Nina Simone and others felt they had to keep reliving the grisly horror of lynchings in a country founded on slavery. It is a car accident that one cannot help but stare at. It’s the sore on the roof of your mouth that you can’t help but tongue repeatedly. As the vocal artist Enya said (in this case, about the good things of life!), “How can I keep from singing?” This is what artists and social critics and good historians and great teachers do – they teach the ignorant or uneducated valid truths and impart knowledge. They engage others in an example of critical thinking, rationality, and fact-finding. Always, the truth.
My point about all this depressing shit is that integration is about owning one’s own shadow, as Freud’s contemporary Carl Jung phrased it. If I, as a person – or Americans as a people, or Germans as a people, or human beings as a species – keep doing foolish, wicked, unwise, horrible, abominable things over and over and over, are we really “getting it”? What are the costs and implications of letting the sand run through hourglass as we do?
Writer Thomas Friedman pointed out that in the same year (2021), Americans went to Mars and attempted insurrection; consider that every year we allow Fox News and Rush Limbaugh to continue to spout lies for nefarious purposes (namely, money), and social media companies to divide us for selfish reasons (namely, money) – and yet also feed the hungry, provide vaccinations for the vulnerable, and produce millions of books/movies/paintings, etc. There is so much that is positive, healthy, and right about me, and about each of us, and yet we absurdly continue to fall so far short of our potential. It is disturbing when I think about my own shadow, and it’s heart-breaking when I think about how far shy of the aspirational words of an Emma Lazarus or an Emma Goldman Americans are every year. If we don’t integrate our good with our bad, our pain with our hope, and our dark with our light, that means our good and our hope and our light will forever be adulterated and impure and subpar.
David Nather and Scott Rosenberg wrote: “From Covid to the election fallout to the utter collapse of Texas’ electric grid, America is no longer showing the rest of the world how to conquer its biggest challenges. Instead, there’s always another uncivil war to be fought — even when democracy, global health and now climate change are on the line.”
In turn, I ask myself: Am I solipsistic, aggrieved, petty, insecure and greedy? Or am I compassionate, humorous, dedicated, creative, and moral? I ask myself: Is America vengeful, oligarchic, racist, arrogant, and pugilistic? Or is my country just, egalitarian, enterprising, freedom-loving and optimistic? Is humanity good, indefatigable, lovable, rational, and curious? Or is it petty, foolish, insatiable, fallen, and violent? Perhaps as long as boys grow up playing with toy soldiers instead of toy peacemakers, we will recapitulate the same absurd outrages, shames, tragedies, and follies endlessly.
It causes me heartache to answer in this way, but the real-life story of Billie Holliday herself is emblematic of all of this; the answer to each and every one of the aforementioned questions must be, Yes. Catholic Priest Peter O’Brien said of her: “She was caught between two opposites: filled with a kind of joy for living, and on the other hand, tortured and disturbed.” Such is the human condition, I’m afraid. No animal comes close to our barbarity. Since the time of Homer, people have grappled with thumos – ancient Greek for wrath, anger, passion, the war-like impulse, machismo, the desire to avenge, the wish to dominate, and rage. The Iliad and The Odyssey mention the word over 700 times! If true, to ignore or suppress the dark/bad/harmful/shameful/rageful capacity in each of us, we only give it power. Integration, self-awareness, and, some would say, grace, are the key to the locks that hold us fast. Ω