Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Strange Fruit


Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Sort of haunting, isn’t it? That is Lady Day herself, Billie Holiday singing a long, forgotten song, called “Strange Fruit.” 

The song – which was originally a poem called “Bitter Fruit” was inspired by the lynching’s of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. They were two young African American men who had been accused of murder and rape in 1930. A crowd– men, women and children were all present- took them from their cells; the young men were beaten and hung. A third young man was spared the noose in the nick of time.

This sounds like a story that had taken place in the Deep South, right?

The lynching’s took place right here in Marion, Indiana.

My grandmother used to tell me that when I was researching our genealogy, that when I climbed up the family tree, beware of what might fall out of it. I think the same applies to doing research on your home state.

Indiana has a checkered past.

We Hoosiers, particularly the Quakers, were involved in the Underground Railroad and believed in abolition. Many of our young men fought for the North during the Civil War, my great-great grandfather was one of them. Yet we had some Jim Crow laws here, along with segregation. In 1924, the KKK had its rebirth here in Indiana. There are many sun down towns in Indiana- towns that do not permit African Americans or ones that do not want them around after dark. Growing up, when I watched “To Kill a Mockingbird,” my parents said that some of what went on in that movie, happened in Indiana when they were growing up.

In writing the first draft of my Indiana novel, I didn’t mention racism once. I was aware of what went on in Indiana’s past, but I didn’t think it was my place to write on a subject that I have no concept of. Also, it didn’t really fit in with my story.

Or so I thought.

However, in the last few weeks, I realize that if one writes about Indiana and the 1930’s, the racism can’t be ignored. There had to be a way for me to show what it was like in those days without trying to take advantage of someone else’s pain.

As a fan of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Help,” I have read some critical reviews that implied some irritation that the African American characters of those novels needed help from the white characters.

What if an African American character helps my heroine, or tries to?

As much as I like the song, it won’t be featured in my novel. My story ends in 1936 and the song was sung in 1939. The point is clear: we must confess our sins and try our damnedest not to repeat them. We must do what we can to atone for our mistakes and when we leave behind the world, we must leave it behind a better place.


  1. I think what you're trying to do is wonderful. I love our state, but that doesn't mean I'm blinded to it's flaws. The way the African-Americans, Jews, and early on with the Native Tribes, were treated are all blots on our history, not just as a state, but as a country.

    Might I add that the way you are choosing to write about racism in 1930s America is similar to you choosing to write about anti-semitism in Poland. I know you will handle both with care.

    1. Thank you. I guess every state/country has a past. I'll be curious what you will do with your Indiana story in regards to the Native Americans. Unfortunately I don't know a whole lot about Indiana's Native Americans, so you'll be educating me along the way.