Billie Holiday sings this 1939 recording of the anti-lynching song Strange Fruit. The song’s juxtaposition of images ripe and dead, innocent and grotesque, expose the hypocrisy of barbarous racism in the south.
The song, originally composed as a poem by teacher Abel Meeropol, was meant as a protest against racism and was often performed by Meeropol and his singer-wife Laura Duncan at rallies in New York City. It was first performed by Holiday at the Café Society in NYC’s Greenwich Village in 1938.
Holiday’s performance of the piece could be described as simple and reverent, yet her voice also contributed an eerie soberness to the already slow, dramatic musicality of the song. The dichotomous elements of the music are also reflected in the lyrics.
The second quatrain of the poem/song best exposes the irony of the fertile, fragrant “southern breeze” around the blooming “poplar trees” which make up the scene in Strange Fruit:
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.
The last two lines of this stanza poignantly address the simultaneous natural beauty and societal brutality of the south, and how the former is even employed in executing the latter.
The final quatrain of Strange Fruit illustrates the oxymoronic and futile notion of “separate but equal”:
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
By categorizing the symbolic “strange fruit,” as a kind of crop, but only for the “wind to suck,” “the sun to rot,” and “the trees to drop,” the “strange fruit” becomes something cast-off from the root of life and given over to death murderously and pre maturely.
Another African-American author also used dichotomous rhetoric in his literature in order to uncover societal contradictions in a so-called equal opportunity America, in both northern and southern states. Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man not only uses this technique but also happens to use fruit as his subject.
Ellison depicts his protagonist, the Invisible Man’s tumultuous summer in Harlem using a similar technique. In the heat of the work day, fruit carts abound as does the “stench of decaying cabbage,” little piles of “alligator pears,” and “stale and wilted flowers, rejected…like glamorous rags festering beneath…punctured fruit juice” (Ellison, 460).
The neglect, rejection, and rotting of the fruit in a Harlem vendor become for the reader a symbol of the dehumanizing African-American experience in the mid 20th century rural south as well as the urban north. Ellison seems to give his protagonist an awareness of how nature reflects societal constructs, yet the narration is one of crafted subtlety; the symbolism is not loud, so the reader may not be overwhelmed.
Ellison, Meeropol, and Holiday translate these cruel ironies to their audiences artfully; the impact of imagery in both works of art is all at once blindingly yet inadvertently powerful.