“Southern trees bear a strange fruit” that’s how starts the song written by a Jewish man called Abel Meeropol.
The real story starts on 7 August 1930, when three black men; Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith and James Cameron are waiting in the police jail in Marion, Indiana, accused of a white man’s murder and the rape of his white girl friend.
The three are taken out of the cell by a mob. James Cameron escapes, but the two others are beaten up and lynched high up a tree. No need to ask the colour of the mob but rumor is that the KKK was lurking around.
We are now in 1939, at the Café Society in Greenwich Village. The featured artist is Billie Holiday and she has left the stage. Applauses are still echoing the club but she will not come back for a curtain call.
Her last song was “Strange Fruit”, the newest title of her repertoire. A haunting slow song which she sung with eyes half closed.
Billie Holiday raged and pain to the words of the song. The pores of the black men sitting at the tables goose bump, they push away the whisky glass with the tip of their fingers and let down the smile from the melody of the previous love song. Their thoughts feel the bark of the tree where the strange fruit hangs. They look down and see blood on the root and leaves on the ground. They look up, legs are dangling and they angst to the bulging eyes of the strange fruit.
Many southern trees have bloomed strange fruits but when the wind blows the poplar trees sing.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body 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 magnolia 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.
“Strange fruit” is the story of the last recorded lynching in the USA. Well, that’s what they say.
James Cameron, the only survivor, before his death in 2006 founded three chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee.