Southern trees bear a 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.
by Abel Meeropol, set to music and sung by Billie Holiday and others
I cannot hear this song or read this poem without feeling an overwhelming amount of rage. This doesn’t mean I hate the South or dislike Florida where I grew up. I love the land, the folklore, and most of the people there past and present.
As an outsider who came to Florida just in time to start the first grade there, I knew nothing about the Civil War or racism, much less the fact that the Sunshine State had a very active and violent KKK and was near the top of the list for African American lynchings. Discovering this was, I think, my childhood loss of innocence.
Perhaps that’s why I felt so betrayed. Even in the first grade, I heard about the wonders of Florida. I saw them, too. We lived near a national forest, the Gulf Coast, multiple sinks and lakes and blackwater rivers, and–other than the cockroaches, palmetto bugs, mosquitoes and sandspurs–it was a paradise in many ways. I think I first heard about Blacks when the kids in my segregated school called me “a nigger lover” because I didn’t have a Southern accent and was obviously an outsider. They called me a Yankee even though I tried to point out that Oregon (where we moved from) wasn’t part of the “North” in Civil War terms.
The South is still paying for the worst frruit it had to offer: it’s mocked by everybody for its accents and customs and presumed to be the bastion of racial discord. I resent all this because mocking the South has become what many “good liberals do” because it’s just so easy even though some of the worst that racism has brought us did not happen in the South, and other parts of the country have distinctive accents as well.
The title “Strange Fruit,” of course, is especially apt and paradoxical in Florida as the leader in U.S. citrus production (sorry, California, your output is a fraction of the Sunshine State’s) where good fruit is what we advertise. This song and everything it’s about haunts me more than usual now because racial issues have once again become so divisive and have spawned a lot of hatred, misdirected and otherwise. I had hoped we were done with the hatred, unfairness and violence, but it appears that we’re not and so everything we thought we had fixed (or at least were making better) is still bearing strange fruit.
I have written two novels about Florida’s racism as I saw it as a grade school child in the 1950s. Yes, they are magical realism and some people call them folktales. But they’re not fairy tales. So, let’s not mince words: I’m writing about the strange fruit that poisoned even the best of people and further solidified the deplorable evil of those long-since gone bad.
As I grew older, of course I was more aware of the news coverage (when things got too bad for the media to ignore) about racial incidents. That was part of my continuing loss of innocence. But most of what I know came from the stories of an African American lady down to road who treated me like family, from delivering telegrams and hearing people’s stories in African American neighborhoods most white people avoided, and from the good people, Whites and Blacks, who had the courage to speak the truth and risk waking up to find burning crosses in their front yards.
Nightmares about the KKK were a fact of my young life, another cultivar of hatred’s strange fruit. We all hear about more strange fruit in the daily news. I wish more people saw it for what it was rather than planting the seeds and cultivating it, for it’s making all of us sick and still killing a lot of people. There’s no excuse for it.