I wanted to follow up on yesterday’s post about racist lyrics set to a holiday song with a counter example, this one of an anti-racist song. “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billie Holiday, stands out as one of the most notable anti-racist songs ever written.
In 1930, two African-American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were lynched in Marion, Indiana. Copies of a photograph of their limp bodies hanging grotesquely, surrounded by whites, smiling with satisfaction and pride, were sold as postcards in thousands of drugstores across the nation. News of this lynching moved Abel Meeropol, a New York school teacher, to write a poem, which he published in the New York Teacher, a union magazine. He later set the poem to music. The song began to become famous once Billie Holiday started singing it in Harlem’s Cafe Society, the first racially integrated night club in the US. Holiday’s own father had been lynched, so the song held a powerful, and personal, message for her.
Yet, the song faced opposition from the white power structure in the U.S. According to this account from Barry Healy at Green Left:
Holiday’s record company, Columbia, refused to record the song, fearing a racist backlash. Eventually she managed to record it with Commodore and it became her biggest selling record.
Meeropol, no stranger to struggle having served in the anti-fascist forces in Spain, was targeted because the song was seen as “anti-patriotic”. In 1940, a government investigative committee barred him from teaching because of his political beliefs.
The courage of both Holiday and Meerpol to speak out against the terror of white mobs, the cowardice of record company executives, and the backlash of government reprisals speaks to a special kind of courage required of those who choose to do anti-racism.