‘I heard Strange Fruit for the first time as a teenager when a girlfriend brought over a Billie Holiday album… I remember hearing these words: “Blood on the leaves, blood at the root…” It was too much. I pulled the needle off the record before it was done. I thought: “My God, I don’t want to hear that.”’
The song stylist Francine Reed, who said these words, was referring to her own rendition of the timeless Abel Meeropol composition. The lyrics of the song give visual clarity to the aftermath of racist mob violence.
There are those, I am sure, who would argue that the visual lynching conjured up by the song is not at all like judicial death penalties being carried out by various governments. I, along with thousands of others around the world, beg to differ.
I am under sentence of death here in the American Southland. Over a period of many years I have stretched and tested the limits of the so-called ‘appeals process’. I am very likely to be killed in the near, as opposed to the distant, future. When New Internationalist gave me leave to write whatever I chose about the death penalty, I decided to take an unusual approach. I respectfully request that the reader absorb this more as my last will and testament than a mere essay.
A judicial execution of an African-American, here in the State of Georgia, is little more than a lynching carried out by the state rather than a bloodthirsty mob rampaging through the streets.
Not for the wealthy
The death penalty is about race and class. There are few, if any, rich people on death row in America. When three wealthy young White men at Duke University were accused of sexually assaulting a Black woman, disbarment and criminal proceedings were started against the prosecutor. Less than a year later all three young men were cleared of the charges against them, without having to spend that time in prison.
On the other side of America’s judicial coin, more than a hundred men (and at least one woman) have been maliciously and illegally prosecuted. Some were forced to spend 10, 15, 20, even more years in prison (some on death row) before they were proven innocent. None of the prosecutors has been subjected even to a reprimand. I will ask the question, since no-one else has: why not? The answer is that those who were prosecuted had one thing in common – Black, White or Brown, they were all poor. PERIOD.
Americans of every stripe have by and large been church-mouse-quiet about this kind of prosecution. What I find especially sad is that here in Georgia the most disturbing silence comes from some of the local anti-death-penalty activists. When I hear of good caring people making large monetary donations to such activists, I feel angry. If this feeling could be set to music of my choice, it would be to Horace Silver’s Song for my Father. The piano introduction would serve as a balm and calm-container for my anger.
I write about certain favourite pieces of music to soothe my weary spirit in this musically deprived environment. I am not allowed to hear the poignant song stylings of the late Billie Holiday. So I write of my memories in an effort to maintain my sanity and humanity. Madness here on death row is always lurking just around the next emotional corner. Keeping it at bay is a moment-to-moment struggle.
The comforts of reason
In the same way that I am imagining being able to hear certain pieces of music that give the comforts of reason to my spirit, many racists in America are using the hangman’s noose to carry out imaginary death sentences on African-Americans.
The hangman’s noose is a difficult symbol to erase in America. In the past few months it has been employed in Jena, Louisiana, on the branches of the so-called ‘white tree’; then again at the University of Maryland; then at a police station in Hempstead, New York; again in Anniston, Alabama, at the US Army depot there; then at Grambling State University; and one was recently found hanging from the doorknob of a Black professor’s office at Colombia University.
Little wonder that it is so hard for much of America to free itself from the archaic and barbaric use of the death penalty. Alas, it is woven into the psychic fabric of the nation’s racists.
Some readers may wonder why I want to end this essay with the words of Strange Fruit, written in 1939 by a New Yorker. Truth be told, I want you to have a visceral reaction to the vision the words conjure up. You see, I hope to remind you that the death penalty is deeply rooted in the desire to terrorize and enrage not only its victims, but also the compassionless citizen-mob that helps to carry it out.
No-one in their right mind would want to be either.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood on 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 twisted mouth, Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, And the sudden smell of burning 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.
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