Lynching and Hanging - and All That Jazz
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed after a long struggle for freedom and equality for African Americans. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement fronted by Dr Martin Luther King and other activists, equality and integration were now secured by law, also in the South. But some decades earlier, it was a different story: the USA had been a segregated country where Black Americans, particularly in the southern states, had been discriminated against and treated as second class citizens.
Jazz and Racism
In America, the second decade of the 20th century is usually referred to as “The Roaring Twenties,” both because people were enjoying a booming economy (until the bubble burst in 1929), and because of the new swinging musical trend – jazz. The music was initially called Dixieland, since it emerged in “Dixie”, which was a common label of the South. The jazz-fever soon spread all over the American continent; people went wild about this new and catchy rhythm played by horns, clarinet, a double bass and banjo. Black band leaders like Duke Ellington and Count Basie were the masters, who also achieved international fame for their big band jazz music. The bands had both black and white players; this cultural integration was possible in the North, where people had a more liberal attitude to the race issue.
But in the South, segregation still prevailed; the Ku Klux Klan was raiding the communities and spreading terror. Lynchings and burnings were commonplace incidents to deter the black population from voting or protesting. Gradually, people in the North became aware of the situation for Black Americans in the South, and one day a New York jazz musician, Abel Meeropol, saw a photograph of a black man hanging from a tree, strung up by the Klan. The picture inspired him to write the song, “Strange Fruit”, which was a strong protest against the racism in the southern states. The song was performed by the black jazz singer, Billie Holiday, as a regular last number of her stage acts during the 30s and 40s. “Strange Fruit” is an example of how poetry can address political and social issues and perhaps even make a difference.
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.
- Point out some metaphors in the poem.
- Can you find examples of irony in the poem?
- How do you think the song was received in the different populations of America (Black, White, North, South)?
- Read other critical poems on this menu (Die for Your Country or Ethnocentrism) and compare with this one. Do you think poets and poetry with a political and critical agenda can make a difference?
- Search the net for information about the Ku Klux Klan. (When was it founded? How many members did they have at the beginning of the 20th century? Why do they burn crosses, wear white robes and cover up their faces? Are they still active?)
- Check out YouTube for Billie Holiday performing Strange Fruit.
In the early 19th century, the USA was a mixture of populations with different languages and currencies. Some areas in the South were inhabited by French immigrants, both from France and Canada. They spoke French and their counting included the French word for ten – “dix”, which is why the region came to be called “Dixieland”.