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Strange Fruit

Do you remember the first time you heard a song that gave you the chills? For me, that moment happened the same month Richard Nixon resigned. Too young to fully grasp current events, I still knew that a disturbing otherness was intruding into daily routines, something unsettling enough to make grownups forget their keys at the supermarket or lose their train of thought in mid-sentence. People seemed strange, and I didn’t know why. During these culminating moments of Watergate, a Billie Holiday anthology from the library gave me my first taste of “Strange Fruit.” For reasons I couldn’t explain, the way she sang her way through her numbness captured the unsettling strangeness around me. I had no idea that the song was about lynching; for years, I still thought it was about fruit. Decades later, when I saw photographer Amy Kubes’ “Little Worries” collection, which features images of a bandaged pear and a cantaloupe wearing underpants, I couldn’t stop hearing “Strange Fruit” in my head.

For the past few weeks, “Strange Fruit” has followed me everywhere. Partly that’s because recent events made me recall a picture of two studious-looking little boys who reminded me a bit of myself—little Robert, dressed in a Brooklyn Dodgers t-shirt, looking over the shoulder of his big brother Michael, with his face buried in a newspaper. But these boys were the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the newspaper in Michael’s hand bore details of their parents’ impending execution. Robert and Michael became the adoptive sons of Abel Meeropol, a Bronx-based schoolteacher, union activist, and occasional poet/ songwriter who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. After seeing Lawrence Beitler’s gruesome image of a lynching in Marion, Indiana, Meeropol wrote a haunting poem that he later turned into “Strange Fruit.” One wonders whether he saw the Rosenbergs’ execution, which Jean-Paul Sartre once termed a “legal lynching,” as strange fruit of a different sort.

The iconic picture of Robert and Michael reading the newspaper reappeared in the news this month along with new evidence confirming Julius Rosenberg’s involvement as a Soviet spy, while adding to doubts that Ethel was guilty of more than being a loyal wife. That news prompted the Meeropol brothers, who spent decades attempting to prove both parents’ innocence, to confront the strange reality that things were not quite what they seemed. Ironically, the revelations about the Rosenbergs coincided with the near-collapse of the banking system and plans for the most sweeping state takeover of private enterprise in American history—not because of a Russian invasion, but because under-regulated and over-leveraged financiers ran out of ways to creatively repackage crushing debt. Time will tell whether the reaction to this crisis will, 78 years after the lynching that inspired “Strange Fruit,” lead to the election of our first African-American president. I’m trying to be hopeful, but much of the time, I’m singing my way through my numbness and feeling a little strange.

Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit”

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