The art I want to talk about is hardly under the radar–Time magazine named it the “song of the century” in 1999. But still, it has the currents of the upside-down kingdom in it, specifically in speaking prophetically about injustice. Take a moment to listen/watch the video of Billie Holiday perform “Strange Fruit”. For more information on the man who wrote the original poem, click here. For the image that inspired the poem, click here.
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
Quite a few years ago, my husband and I attended a small, progressive church. For the Good Friday service, there were stations set-up all around the small basement room we met in. I don’t remember all the stations, but one is stuck in my memory for eternity. It was in a dark corner stage, curtains pulled so that the fluorescent lights didn’t show through. My husband and I sat on a faded velvet couch and listened to Billie Holiday wail her song at us. On the screen, an image of a tree with bare limbs flickered. In my memory, there were birds on the branches, but my memory is not reliable.
As an installation piece, it was rather tame. A dark setting, a song, an image projected. But I had never heard the song before, and I had never had to face the picture of history being presented to me. On Good Friday, as I sat and let the words of sorrow wash over me, I was overcome. I stared at the image of the tree, and I imagined the strange fruit, the bodies waving from the branches. And instead of being horrified, of feigning shock, a deep sense of sadness filled me. At that moment, in that church basement, on that old velvet couch, I knew: I had killed those people. I was the one who had hung the nooses around their neck.
On that Good Friday, time and space and all that simply didn’t matter. I was painted a portrait of what sin is, and how it affects us all. I was not allowed to look away, to gain distance or perspective. I knew I was the same as those people who lynched the boys, so full of anger and self-righteousness and a sense of satisfaction. I am no different from them, and I never was. All my life I had been told how my heart was black before Jesus came. But it’s one thing to color in sin, neat and tidy in the boundaries of your heart. It’s another to realize what makes someone kill another is the same that is within yourself.
I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, or overwrought, I am just trying to explain what I felt that day. What I feel when I listen to songs about John Wayne Gacy Jr., or the genocide in Syria, or the killing of Trayvon Martin. You can spend your whole life running, trying to make it appear white as snow. But in the end, we are all the same, and we don’t get to claim otherwise.
The true bitterness of this crop is that we are all growing it.
The other station I remember from that day is the one where we took the Eucharist together. Coming from a realization of my own brokenness, into the harsh light of the basement room, I was finally ready for it. The simple bread and wine ceremony, the realization that this is why He came. He came to pour out his blood, to break his bones over death. He came for those boys, the ones who swayed in the trees. And he came for us lynchers, the red-cheeked, the nonchalant, the ones who are fine with how very wrong the systems of this world are–the ones who profit from it. I ate that bread so slowly, sipped the wine like it was the first time I understood what it was.
It was my first sense that forgiveness often feels like death, and I haven’t been able to shake it since.