I started this painting months ago simply to express my love for jazz. And it stagnated until I learned more about Billie Holiday & her bravery at age 23 to sing Strange Fruit for her mostly white audiences.
In clubs, where she had the lights turned off & only a spot on her, her last song of the night was Strange Fruit—at the end, the venue went dark and when the lights came up she was gone. Civil Rights activists applauded—others walked out in protest. The FBI hounded her relentlessly until she was jailed for 18 months and they continued to make her life miserable until her death at 44. But she never relented. She sang and sang and sang the painful truth of Strange Fruit.
Strange Fruit was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish civil rights activist, when he couldn’t get a lynching photo out of his mind—he had to write about it and Billie had to sing it. Time magazine named it the song of the last century.
Protest art moves people. Shakes them up. And as an artist, it allows a platform for speaking truth—it is a privilege.
In this work of art, I collaged the lyrics to Strange Fruit over the entire body of this strong lady. It is the fabric of who she is. It is defiance.
As I sat at my 1940’s typewriter, repeatedly typing the lyrics for Strange Fruit, I had a visceral reaction to the imagery. A sickening feeling of how lynchings continue in so many iterations. In 1939, people hung from trees. In 2020, there were knees to necks and joggers tracked by vigilantes. These crimes sicken me. The resulting pain it causes communities of color is unfathomable.
But we cannot feel shame and just move on. The overt micro and macro acts of aggression based on race, religion, culture, gender identity and sexual orientation are WRONG.
This week, Georgia passed legislation outlawing bringing water to those waiting in line to vote. We must be WATER CARRIERS.
In every new effort to put a stranglehold on voting, rights and people’s ability to be safe and be afforded equal opportunities, think of Billie and use your voice…again and again and again.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin' 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