“Break It Down” is a new HBW Literary Blog initiative that strives to offer critical interpretations of song lyrics, excerpts from novels, and poems.
This week, Blog Contributor Goyland Williams has analyzed Strange Fruit, a song written by Abel Meeropol and performed by jazz singer Billie Holiday.
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Southern trees bear strange fruit Billie Holiday, similar to many literary figures in African American literature, utilizes metaphors to discuss issues that have deep political and moral implications. The term ‘strange fruit’ is used as a substitute for the lynching of black people in the American South.
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees As the early 20th century ushered in the Harlem Renaissance, black protest poetry became increasingly popular. Poets Claude Mckay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, and later Sonia Sanchez, and Amiri Baraka are just a few who came to master the page with critiques of systems of domination. Thus, Billie Holiday’s 1939 masterpiece follows a tradition of protest through artistic renderings that challenges her white audience through emotional appeals.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh The juxtaposition of the beautiful with the tragic not only conjures up the complexity of racism in America but it forces the audience to appreciate the beautiful while acknowledging the dark and degraded plight of black people. Similarly, in Toni Morrison’s final chapter of The Bluest Eye she describes the cause of Pecola’s descent through the juxtaposition of marigolds and garbage.
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 The use of natural forces in conjunction with human action illustrates the complexity of institutional racism. It [black bodies] should be a sweet and fresh fruit for the “crows to pluck” but instead it remains a “strange and bitter crop.”