The Hanging Tree
“Southern Trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.”
– Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit
Dear future child of mine,
This evening I heard the song, The Hanging Tree by Jennifer Lawrence, for the first time. As its eerie rhythm poured slowly out of my speakers, a strange familiarity whispered over my skin leaving a trail of goose bumps. It’s a strange feeling child, to recognise something you do not know; to realise that your heart and soul already know what your eyes and ears have not witnessed.
My mind chose to fill the sudden silence that came after the last strain of Hanging Tree with Strange Fruit. This song was famously (or infamously depending on your point of view) performed by Billie Holiday at the height of slavery in the South of America.
I wish a lot of things for you my baby. I wish you love, laughter, a love for books, wit, a sense of humour, good health and a whole lot more. More than anything I wish you freedom. I wish you freedom from the ugly side of humanity’s history.
Already, I find it hard to fathom that once upon a time people were sold, used, abused and killed like livestock based simply on the colour of their skin. In that time, a man could be hung from a tree by his neck and burnt alive simply because of the colour of his skin. It was called lynching. I hope you find this even harder to imagine than I do because it will speak better of the society I raise you in.
I live in an era where racial lynching is now only a historical fact. You cannot imagine how grateful I am for the great strides mankind has made. We still have some way to go though. Now we live in a society where the legal structures for equality exist but some people still battle to align their minds with that change. Would you believe that a client once told me that he doesn’t feel black people should earn the same as white people because they don’t know the same things? Along the same vein, I have been asked by many a person of my own race why I play a sport that’s for white people instead of leaving it to the white people who know about it? My encounters with ignorance are nothing compared to what is going on in the world at large based on race alone.
We live in a society where the mention of terrorism is often accompanied by a side-eye to the nearest Muslim person and Muslim people almost always get selected “randomly” for security searches at the airport.
My society has exchanged blatantly racial references like “black people” and “white people” for more covertly racial terms like “these people.” I guess we feel that saying things like “you can’t trust these people” or “these people never loved us” makes us less racist.
America is dealing with a shocking rise in the number of black people killed inexplicably and unjustifiably or subjected to indefensible violence by the police. Some people believe the media is making a meal of the systemic racism in America but according to an article published by the American Guardian on 29 September 2014, “Quantitative studies tell a vastly different story. Researchers consistently find that people of colour are more likely to be stopped and frisked; that white Americans are more likely to use illegal drugs, but black Americans are more likely to be jailed for drug use; that black men are sentenced to longer prison terms than their white peers for the same crimes and, even more incredibly, that the more stereotypically “black looking” a defendant is, the more likely he is to be sentenced to death.”
I live in a society where most people believe it’s a compliment to tell me that I “don’t sound black” or to say “you are very articulate. Where do you come from?” Believe it or not child, there is a whole debate about the racial politics of speaking articulately when you are a person of colour. Joe Biden once described Barack Obama, the first black president of America, as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Articulate. The word has been used to describe Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State and Oprah. Lynette Clemetson’s article in the NY Times “articulates” it perfectly. “The word perfectly conveys, to quote George Bush, the soft bigotry of low expectations. It literally comes down to that. When people say it, what they are really saying is someone is articulate…for a black person.”
The trees of the global village today bear their own kind of strange fruit. I hope that I raise you to do better than we have done and to love and hate people based on factors unrelated to their race. May you never recognise the rhythm of the Hanging Tree.