Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
1939, a “progressive” New York City nightclub – the Café Society.
Billie Holiday beneath a single spotlight.
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
The reality of American racism revealed naked and undeniable beneath that light, thrust into plain view by the force of unflinching words, profoundly interpreted by the legendary songstress with a gardenia in her hair.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Is it possible for us to see, in our own time, our own inhumanity? What have we reaped?
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 a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
The song that inspired the title of this installation, quoted in full above, was originally a poem, written by Abel Meeropol in response to the image of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith carried out on August 7, 1930 in Marion, Indiana. According to the Tuskegee Institute, 3,446 African Americans and 1,297 whites were lynched between 1882 and 1968.
The cruel and unusual punishment, disproportionate to the offense and meted out in unequal portions to African-Americans, today takes a different and more subtle shape, less visible, and upon initial view, less shocking than the public lynchings of yesterday. Yet it is dangerously harmful for its ripple effect and, as with the 19th and 20th century lynchings, its legal validation.
In a 2005 AP press report on a Senate apology for having failed to pass a federal anti-lynching bill, it was reported
“[N]early 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, and three passed the House. Seven presidents between 1890 and 1952 petitioned Congress to pass a federal law.
But the Senate, with Southern conservatives wielding their filibuster powers, refused to act. With the enactment of civil rights laws in the 1960s and changes in national attitudes, the issue faded away.”
The phenomenon of mass incarceration in the United States of America is unprecedented in its scope, for our time and all time, and more prolific than anywhere else in the world. It signals a tortured and non-reformative existence for those trapped in the system, and penalizes multiple generations of the families of those imprisoned, often creating potential fodder for future institutions. Similar to other violently oppressive systems, those subject to the penalty feel the harshest sting of it, but families and communities also have a frighteningly high price to pay with the complete extraction of partners, parents, siblings and children from their lives.
In late 2012, my attention was drawn to the proximity of a massive state prison to the gravesite of the famed liberator – the Moses of her people, Harriet Tubman and I began to trace the line from slavery to mass incarceration. A century and a half ago Tubman repeatedly risked her life to free African-Americans from another legalized form of “race-based oppression” (Dr. Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow”). The irony of the liberator laid to rest a short drive away from the encaged children of those she fought to liberate reflects the ongoing conflict of race and human rights in this nation.
The photo-based installation, “Strange Fruit 21st Century” tackles the implications of mass incarceration in the context of slavery and its by-products. Mass incarceration can be understood as the latest stage in the evolution of a system of segregation and the denial of full humanity particularly to African Americans, and secondarily to other non-white citizens of the United States, from the genocidal founding of the nation, through slavery and Jim Crow, and beyond the Black Power and Civil Rights eras.
The installation addresses a history of violence against the Black body and spirit and the counterforce of resistance and resilience. The dimensions of the installation are comparable to a human body. The image of the root, enlarged to 6 feet x 22 inches, exactly matches the grid, suspended approximately 3 feet in front of it. The vertically oriented, magnified root begins to shift out of the realm of photographic documentation to take on a suggestive texture. It becomes slightly abstracted maintaining the substance of both a tree-like entity and a partially interred form. It is positioned to be viewed through a pre-fabricated, metal grid with a series of everyday keys dangling in seemingly random fashion throughout the individual cells of the grid. On closer inspection one can decipher a single letter on the front of each key. The groupings of the keys reveal words; and the words, strung together in order, form the phrase,
“IF THEY HAD KNOWN THEY WERE SLAVES.”
This is an excerpt from the famous Harriet Tubman quotation,
“I freed thousands of slaves, and could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.”
Each key is confined to a separate and inadequate space. It is suspended by a loop, echoing a hanging human form. It is at once an allusion to the racist system that today disproportionately and inhumanely incarcerates people of color; and one of its disturbing historic counterparts – lynching – another version of the violence against African Americans that occurred throughout slavery and beyond the Civil War, and was still commonplace well into the 1930’s. It can be argued that shootings such as the Trayvon Martin incident indicate that this type of legally sanctioned, fatal violence still occurs today.
The element of resistance lies in the image of the root, (which is that which buries itself into the grave of the freedom fighter Harriet Tubman) and the collective message of the individual keys. They point to the psychological aspect of attaining freedom, the first step – awareness. The deconstruction of the disturbing system of mass incarceration (the grid(s) of isolated bodies), begins with an awareness of the system that racialized inferiority and today, ‘criminality’ – the same system that facilitated the enslavement from which Tubman escaped, and that system which condoned the public, savage murders of Black men, and Black women and children as well.