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Using so many words to say so little…

What is the famous song “Strange Fruit,” by Abel Meeropol, a New York Jewish communist schoolteacher, and most famously performed by Billie Holiday, the immensely influential and important black singer, about?

Lynching.  It’s about lynching.  It’s about whites lynching black people in the US South.

See how easy that was?  Very few words.

Here’s what Annie Lennox thinks it’s about:

“Strange Fruit” is a protest song and it was written before the Civil Rights movement actually got on its feet, got established. And because of what I’ve seen around the world, I know that this theme, this subject of violence and bigotry, hatred, violent acts of mankind against ourselves. This is a theme. It’s a human theme that has gone on for time immemorial. It’s expressed in all kinds of different ways, whether it be racism, whether it be domestic violence, whether it be warfare, or a terrorist act, or simply one person attacking another person in a separate incident. This is something that we as human beings have to deal with, it’s just going on 24/7. And as an observer of this violence, even as a child, I thought, why is this happening? So I’ve always had that sense of empathy and kind of outrage that we behave in this way. So a song like this, if I were to do a version of “Strange Fruit,” I’d give the song honor and respect and I try to bring it back out into the world again and get an opportunity to talk about the subjects behind the songs as well.

Yeah, you can vague that up as much as you like, Lennox, but at some point you might want to mention lynching.  Because it’s not about “one person attacking another person in a separate incident.”  It’s about a very specific expression of a very specific violent racism.  It’s not about domestic violence; it’s not about warfare; and if you want an opportunity to talk about “the subjects behind the songs,” you might want to mention lynching.  Because that’s what it’s about.  Because the suffering and struggle endured by black people in the US isn’t some vague “theme” that can be lifted lock, stock, and barrel and emptied of specificity.  At least not ethically.

You can tell it’s about lynching because of subtle hints like, well, the lyrics:

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

This is not a subtle thing.  It’s not an interpretation.  It’s very specifically, very vividly, about lynching.  So stop fucking around, Lennox, and say so.

 

 


35 thoughts on Using so many words to say so little…

  1. Abel Meeropol,

    Also known for adopting the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their execution. They took his last name.

    Anyone who shows as much cluelessness (to be extremely charitable) as Annie Lennox — or, for that matter, who misuses the word “lynching” to characterize people disagreeing with them on the Internet — should be required to study ever one of the 80+ lynching photographs at this website: http://withoutsanctuary.org/main.html

    1. Or they could read about the 1907 trial of Sheriff Shipp, which illustrates some of the poisonous racial dynamics behind one lynching case, as well as being the answer to a Supreme Court trivia question. Q: What is the only criminal trial ever conducted by the Supreme Court of the US? A: The contempt trial of Sheriff Shipp, et al, for allowing his (almost certainly innocent) prisoner Ed Johnson to be lynched rather than allow the Supreme Court to hear his appeal.

    2. The Meeropols are second-generation activists; one taught for years at a local university, while the other runs the Rosenberg Fund For Children, which helps the children of jailed political activists. They’re fine men, and a credit to both their biological and their adoptive parents.

  2. I remember when years ago – maybe 2009 – Neko Case told the hosts of Sound Opinions that researching the meaning of “Strange Fruit” ruined that song for her.

    I like reader-response criticism. I’m about as anti-confessional and ambiguity-inclined of a songwriter as Case is. But I can’t get behind that. Some art doesn’t bend.

      1. I…don’t even understand how Case had to “research” it. Unless by research she meant “pay attention to the lyrics.”

        I can see how someone who had only heard the Billie Holiday version didn’t note the lyrics. I know I had heard the song a few times before I heard a segment about it on NPR, like 20 years ago. It was only after that I knew what it was about that I actually listened to the lyrics rather than just the voice.

        I guess I’m actually agreeing with you, it doesn’t need ‘research,’ just someone pointing it out to you, but I believe it’s plausible she didn’t “pay attention to the lyrics.”

    1. While I revel in being deemed the “cool” anything, I must note that this is the second time you’ve commented on one of my posts without actually responding to anything I wrote. So here’s a moderator note for the next time you comment: read the post and ask someone if what you’re going to say has anything actually to do with what was written.

    2. Is “‘cool’ feminists” the latest version of the “fun feminists” putdown? I think I’m beginning to understand where you’re coming from.

      Not that what you said has anything to do with this post, of course.

      1. Oh yeah, and nice job joining all of the other white feminists who have denounced Beyonce for calling herself a feminist. It’s all well and good when a white woman talks about why she needs (white) feminism, but when a black woman talks about as little as her identification as a feminist, she is mocked and insulted. I bet you’re also the kind of white feminist who thinks that “misogynoir” is a made-up or unnecessary term. Would you ever say that about your implicitly racist term “feminism-lite”? Nope, because that term suits your whitewashing purposes.

        In case you forgot (intentionally or otherwise), the credit for intersectionality – one of the biggest influences of feminism – goes to BLACK WOMEN. So before you insult Beyonce for identifying as someone who fights her own oppressions, take a fucking step back and learn some feminist history that isn’t completely white.

    3. supposedly she never named Beyonce directly. I don’t really get Lennox these days. She seems to be flailing, and I don’t understand it, considering how surefooted she has been in the past.

  3. One of the pitfalls of taking your artitiste, fancy intellectual lifestyle too seriously. ..you miss the forest AND the trees. Climb down a few notches Annie. Your ass is showing.

    1. I was about to post about how Annie Lennox was overthinking things to the point of taking as a theoretical essay a song that was in fact a factual report – but your post is much more concise and colorful.

  4. There has been a surprisingly polarizing flood of opinion on many blog boards and social media about the segment of Annie’s interview with Tavis where they discuss Strange Fruit. She’s being accused of disrespecting African Americans and the message inherent in the seminal song. We are all, indeed, well aware of the meaning, significance and importance of the song, Strange Fruit. We can be absolutely sure that both Annie Lennox and Tavis Smiley also know this significance. So why the witch hunt against Annie for not using the the word “lynching” or “black”? We all know exactly what the song is depicting through metaphor. The song never uses the word, so why should she need to literally say it during an interview to prove her worth in covering it. She says much in giving respect to it’s significance.

    During the part of the interview in question, Tavis asks two questions: “It’s a powerful song, why do Strange Fruit?” and “When you hear Billie Holiday sing that, what do you hear?”. Are we hearing her responses? They are thoughtful and in no way disrespectful or insulting. If we all know exactly what the song is about, then why do we need to hear it from her. She speaks of racism, bigotry, hatred, violent acts of mankind against ourselves. She states she hopes to give the song honor and respect and bring it back out into the world again to start a dialogue. She’s thinking about the bigger picture – and she’s entitled to do so. Man, she’s done a whole hell of a lot for a lot of great causes – numerous charities and foundations. This idea that she is being insulting or disrespectful, or not dealing with the “truth” is hard to understand. She is bringing the song back into the public consciousness again which is a good thing. We should all embrace that, rather than cling so tightly with some kind of lopsided ownership of the song. How about this, here’s a description from the man who wrote the song -something no one can argue with: The write of Strange Fruit describes that he wrote the poem in protest to “the continuation of racism in America” and later in 1971, Meeropol said, “I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it.” Not too far from Annie’s responses as to why she chose to do it.

    It seems that the general feeling here is that because she is a white woman she has no right to cover this song. For those of you who do not know the history of the song, it should be noted that this is a poem by a Jewish school teacher named Abel Meeropol who later put it to music. He wrote it as a protest song (his words) – which Annie mentions in the first sentence of her response. Abel performed it with his wife Anne as a protest song in New York City for two years before Ms. Holiday inquired about recording it. It’s been covered by numerous artists over the years – by numerous races and creeds – and my guess is that, like Annie Lennox, any artist who took to task covering this deep and moving song understood it very well and did their best to convey the message it contained in an honorable and respectful manner.

    1. What is it with people not reading what I actually wrote and instead projecting their shit all over the post? I talk about Meeropol in the first sentence, and other commenters expand on him–and let’s not US-wash him, by the way: he was a communist, and that was essential to his activism and anti-racism. And nobody has said jackshit about Lennox being a white woman covering the song–she’s hardly the first to do so.

      Seriously, people, get your reading comprehension together.

      The issue here is expanding a meaning about a very specific injustice in order to avoid talking about that specific injustice and thereby emptying it of meaning. “Domestic violence”? “One person attacking another in a separate incident”? No. That’s not what the song is about. It’s about lynching.

      And no, that’s not “a bigger picture.” US state-sanctioned racist murder is a pretty major picture that’s still being painted every single week. Let’s not move the focus onto random acts of violence and act like it’s the same thing.

    2. The song never uses the word, so why should she need to literally say it during an interview to prove her worth in covering it.

      Because lynching is heavily implied in like, literally the title of the song? I mean, these lines make the subject clear enough:

      (TW for antiblackness and lynching)

      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.

      The first eight lines are extremely explicit. They mention the south, they mention the appearance of the corpses, they even mention the odor and color of the dead bodies. This is all about anti-black racism. And you know why Meeropol wrote the song? To protest the lynching of black POC in the south. Where Meeropol and Lennox differ is that the former was actually interested in speaking out against a horrifying form of anti-black violence, whereas the latter wanted to make the song about “humanity” or whatever. (Yes, I did read her shitty interpretation.)

      Regardless, the fact that it’s been covered by numerous artists doesn’t change the fact that Annie Lennox is whitewashing not only the meaning of the song, but also its historical associations. She, like so many white artists, has decided to universalize her own white worldview so that she can twist the song’s subject matter into something she can relate to, at the expense of the countless black POC who were murdered by white folks and the countless black POC who have related to this song as a protest against white supremacist injustice. The fact that Lennox has done some philanthropy means nothing to the black POC who are angry at her erasure of black history.

      1. Also, in case you didn’t read the link I provided: you’re misquoting Meeropol. In the link I provided he is quoted as saying this:

        I wrote Strange Fruit…because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it.

        And let’s momentarily accept – for the sake of arguing – your false assumption that Meeropol didn’t actually specifically care about lynching and only wrote it as a song protesting an unspecified kind of injustice, with no racial attachments whatsoever. In any case, the song is still about anti-black lynching because this is a song that black POC have specifically used to protest against that – they have integrated it into their own history. Even if Lennox was technically right about the song not having any specifically anti-racist subject matter, she would still be whitewashing by erasing the historical significance of the song. But the truth is that she is even worse because she is not only erasing the history, but also the true meaning of the song.

      1. Does it even occur to you that black feminists and womanists who are concerned about this issue issue may have actual reasons to be concerned, none of them being “finding a new feminist to call a traitor?”

        Maybe you should listen to what they’re saying rather than just immediately assume that they are just being petty and hateful and dismiss them entirely.

        I’m so tired of white feminism.

    3. The song is not about the bigger picture. Its a reaction to lynching. Its a tribute to the victims of lynching and a statement on South’s culture.

      There are just so many other songs she could have chosen.

  5. The song never fucking left the world so how in the flying fuck does it need to be brought back into the world by this white woman? I’m not the least bit surprised she tried to “universalize” the subject with talks about various themes or that there are people supporting her. Of course the suffering of black people can’t be empathized with until it is universalzied to such an extent it doesn’t even mention us and the very specific violence discussed is erased in favor of “theme.”

  6. This reminds me so much of the way the real story of Anne Frank and the Holocaust was appropriated, de-Judaized, and effectively Christianized — in order to turn it into a more universalist message of hope, of people being fundamentally good, etc., and to turn Anne herself into a Christ-like symbol of martyred innocence — in the Broadway play version.

    See this analysis: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books-and-arts/84919/meyer-levin-anne-frank-compulsion, which recounts the story and concludes as follows:


    The fact that such impulses were motivated by considerations more literary than anti-Semitic does not necessarily make them easier to accept. Are human beings so fundamentally lacking in natural empathy that a Jewish catastrophe must be universalized in order to generate feeling? Do we really seek only ourselves in the books we read?

    And this New York Times review of a book on the subject, quoting the comments of the play’s director himself:

    http://www.nytimes.com/1995/09/27/books/books-of-the-times-fixated-on-a-more-jewish-anne-frank.html

    Garson Kanin, for example, who directed the Broadway play, told Goodrich and Hackett to take out lines in the script in which Anne speaks about the constancy of the historical persecution of the Jews. The lines represented “an embarrassing piece of special pleading,” Kanin said. “The fact that in this play the symbols of persecution and oppression are Jews is incidental, and Anne, in stating the argument so, reduces her magnificent stature.”

    The same impulses are at play here.

  7. And what goes unexamined is the idea that lack of specificity is the same as universality, even while the history of resistance to racism/anti-semitism and other oppressions is rife with examples of oppressed groups reaching out to each other in common humanity through specificity.

    As an example, during the Irish Famine, the Choctaw nation, who had suffered the Trail of Tears in 1831, sent $710 to Ireland (as a comparison, Queen Victoria sent the equivalent of about $4800). I cannot help but think that the Choctaws made the connection between the different types of being starved and forced off their land, and the historical opportunity was opened up for the Irish to have a very different relationship with whiteness internationally than the one they developed. Anyway, the point is, the commonality was found through the specificity.

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