Strange Fruit


Our nation is exploding into violence as neo-Nazis, white supremacists and KKK members rally to protest the removal of statues that glorify a past that made black bodies property. We cannot be fooled that this is about statues. It is about racism and hatred and oppression rearing its ugly head and it is about a choice to normalize it or to call it out.

People that I love cannot seem to see the danger and still want to hang their hopes on a president who will not denounce these groups, and by not doing so; he is giving them power. I am at a loss for what has happened. I literally wake up each day and, for a brief moment, feel as though I am waking from a nightmare. Sadly, the nightmare is real.

This helplessness I feel is taking its toll. I sometimes feel like I am sinking into a hole that I’m not sure I can get out of. I don’t understand how we are reverting; going backward to a time when freedoms were reserved for the white skinned. When we were separated not by a wall, but by a color line. By fountains, bathrooms, and bus seats.

I remember when I was a young girl, by mother had an album by Billie Holiday. I think she and my father had seen Ms. Holiday perform in New York. My parents were not religious, church-going folks, but they had a sense of a God-given value for all people. Although my father’s use of the “N” word made him sound like the worse bigot, he was a product of his time and was surprisingly open-minded and open-hearted.  Anyway, there was a vinyl record that I listened to called “Strange Fruit.” (listen to it here  It rocked me. Billie Holiday’s passionate voice rasped out the words:

Southern trees bear a 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 the 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

This song has come back to haunt me. As did the sad history that caused it to be written. It was not written by Billie Holiday, but by a Jewish teacher named Abel Meeropol, who wrote it to protest lynchings of blacks in the 1930s. I saw the photograph that inspired Meeropol to write his haunting words. If you have the stomach for it, you can find it on the internet. It is a photo of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, hanging in the tree in Marion, Indiana, in front of the courthouse where they should have had justice.  The picture captures a crowd of white folks, who nonchalantly mill about, while their black bodies swing from the tree in front of the courthouse; strange fruit, indeed.

I preached a sermon series called “Trees of Life” and one sermon is titled “The Tree in the Center.” It is the story of Genesis 3 and the disobedience of those first people—taking matters into their own hands, reaching for fruit that was forbidden, exposing our human bent to sinning. They started that long slide down by trying to take the place of God when, in fact, we were all made to be like God all along. And even if you don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve, you can surely see that our history as humans is soaked in selfishness, greed, and blood.

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. We are beautiful, broken vessels and there are seeds for beauty and seeds for destruction inside each and every one of us. Now is the time to choose. Will we be people who try to break the curse? Or will we allow ourselves to be frightened by others that don’t look like us, speak like us, or believe like us?

I am reminded of a song from the musical South Pacific called “You Have to be Carefully Taught.” View it here

It is sung by the American Lieutenant Cable; a wealthy, white Princeton graduate, destined for great things after World War II. He has fallen in love with a Polynesian girl named Liat, but his racist upbringing will not allow him to bring her home with him. He laments that we are carefully taught to hate and fear:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Racism is a sin—and we can make excuses and justifications for our sin, just like Adam and Eve did. We can deny it or say that it’s not my fault; the devil made me do it! But racism is a sin that infects us all. And we must acknowledge it, repent it and seek reconciliation with God and with one another. Sin is in the leaves and in the root—but so is God. We have just as much saint in us as sinner and (with God’s grace!) we can choose to allow the better angels of our nature to prevail.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address in 1861

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