Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Strange Fruit Revisited

Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves, blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees...

"Strange Fruit" began as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, about the lynching of two black men. He published under the pen name Lewis Allan (the names of his two children who died in infancy).

Meeropol wrote "Strange Fruit" to express his horror at lynchings after seeing Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. He published the poem in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine. Though Meeropol/Allan had often asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set Strange Fruit to music himself. The song gained a certain success as a protest song in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden

Strange Fruit

As I listen to the song today, I’m thinking also of a different Strange Fruit, the novel by Lillian Smith, which was published in 1944, and then staged on Broadway in 1945. It was produced and directed by Jose Ferrer, and starred Jane White, (daughter of civil rights leader and founder of the NAACP Walter White) Robert Earl Jones (father of James Earl Jones Jr.) and George B. Oliver, my father.

In hindsight, the controversy that greeted the publication of Lillian Smith's Strange Fruit in 1944 seems unusually heated today. This novel of interracial love was denounced in many places for its "obscenity," although sex is barely mentioned.

Massachusetts banned it for a short time; so did the U.S. Post Office. But the book has had many admirers in the years since its publication. It was a commercial success—a best-seller, a Broadway play briefly—and it remains in print in many languages. From her home atop Old Screamer Mountain near Clayton, Georgia, Smith knew that many of her neighbors had bought the book, but in public they snubbed her.

Lillian Smith

As the discussions flow about Barack Obama’s bi-racialism I think of the ugly word “miscegenation” and its meanings in my own life.

Similar to Barack Obama, my father, George Oliver, was born to a white mother from Kansas and a black father, born in Tennessee. But the world he was born into in 1919 was a different America than the one we live in today. Where Barack’s parents could wed legally and with no difficulty, my grandparents could not find anyone willing to marry them in 1915 in Topeka KS, and left the state to be married in Wisconsin, settling later on the south side of Chicago, where my father was born. My grandmother’s family disowned her when she married my granddad; she was scratched out of the family bible, and only one of her 10 brothers and sisters even wrote her letters. So my father never had Barack’s exposure to a loving white grandmother.

Different from Obama’s story, my father had two parents, who loved him, cherished him and attempted to give him the best they could provide within their means. My grandmother worked for the Singer Sewing Machine company, my grandfather as a chauffer, and in later years worked for the post office. My grandmother, in order to conceal her marriage to a black man (for she knew if her employers found out she would be fired), arranged a scheme whereby my father could visit her at work. My grandfather, in chauffeur’s cap would drop my dad off, with his son seated in the back, a little Lord Fauntleroy, with blue eyes and shiny curls. He would pull up to the curb, doff his cap and open the door for his son, escorting him to see his mother. My father was warned never to indicate by any action, in this public sphere, that his father was anything more than a servant.

George B Oliver

My father at age 2

This hypocritical world – forbidding and rejecting the union of blacks and whites seems somehow far away to this generation. I say hypocritical because there are few African-Americans who do not have Euro-American ancestry, and they didn’t get it through osmosis. African-Americans could lay claim to a "Made in the USA" label. Today we openly discuss concepts like “bi-racial” and somehow the tale of the “tragic mulatto” and love across racial lines has no place in our discourse. But it is not so very long ago and far away.

Let us examine the case of Loving versus VA, resolved by the Supreme Court in 1967
The Lovings then took their case to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which invalidated the original sentence but upheld the state's Racial Integrity Act. Finally, the Lovings turned to the U.S Supreme Court. The court, which had previously avoided taking. In 1967, 84 years after Pace v. Alabama in 1883, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Loving v. Virginia that:

Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival.... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.

The Supreme Court condemned Virginia's anti-miscegenation law as "designed to maintain White supremacy".

In 1967, 17 Southern states (all the former slave states plus Oklahoma) still enforced laws prohibiting marriage between whites and non-whites. Maryland repealed its law in response to the start of the proceedings at the Supreme Court. After the ruling of the Supreme Court, the remaining laws were no longer in effect. Nonetheless, it took South Carolina until 1998 and Alabama until 2000 to officially remove defunct anti-miscegenation laws from their law books. In the respective referendums, 62% of voters in South Carolina and 59% of voters in Alabama voted to remove these laws
Anti-miscegenation laws

Barack Obama’s mother would not have been allowed to marry his father in 17 states of this country when he was born in 1961.

Obama came to Chicago, to the South Side to root himself in the black community. These were the same streets where my father grew to maturity; tall, slim, (almost scrawny) he had to learn how to fight. His fair skin and blue eyes branded him as a child of two worlds, and made him a target for taunts from both whites and blacks. This caused my father to become militantly black, choosing sides; no matter his white mother. But the endless battles hurt nonetheless. My grandmother understood my father’s struggles but was pained by them. She left her white Baptist church and became a Bahá'í; the only religion at that time that promoted and accepted inter-racial marriage. http://info.bahai.org/article-1-6-4-1.html

No one on either side of my dad's family had ever been to college. He won a scholarship, not to Harvard, but to a Negro college in West Virginia, based on his tennis prowess (he held the national Negro tennis championship title at one point) and it was at West Virginia State he met my mother, wooed her and later married her. While at WVA State he earned a license to fly planes, and learned acting in the campus drama society. When WWII broke out, he became a Tuskegee Airman, part of the first group of trainees in an experimental program that almost didn’t make it off the ground. But for the assistance of Eleanor Roosevelt, the famed Tuskegee pilots may have stayed grounded

When Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee Army Air Field in 1941, she insisted on taking a ride in an airplane with a black pilot at the controls. ER's pilot was Charles Anderson. ER then insisted that her flight with Anderson be photographed and the film developed immediately so that she could take the photographs back to Washington when she left the field. ER used this photograph as part of her campaign to convince FDR to activate the participation of the Tuskegee Airmen in North Africa and in the European Theater.
Tuskegee Airmen

My father’s joy in serving his country at a time of war and doing it with pilot’s wings was short-lived. His skin color again made a difference. During a break in training he went home to Chicago and returned to Alabama on a bus with a childhood buddy, another airman, also black, but there was one difference. Daddy looked too white. The two buddies, leaving the bus, were spied by a group of 10 or 12 rednecks, who seeing them together, arm in arm – both in their uniforms, spat out epithets of “nigger lover” and proceeded to try to kill my dad and his friend. Two against many was impossible odds, and my father – who took the brunt of the attack, was hospitalized. A rumor got back to the base that my father had been killed. The Airmen were ready for battle; they broke out equipment from the armory and were headed into town to extract revenge. My father was quickly removed from the hospital on a stretcher to prove that he hadn’t been killed to quell the revolt. For this incident, my father was court-martialed for “inciting a riot”. Years later, his record was cleared.

At the end of the war, with a college degree and no outlet to use his flight skills, my father worked briefly as a sleeping car porter, then as a reporter for a Los Angeles newspaper, but was drawn to New York by the call of the stage. He and my mother quickly became a part of a racially integrated bohemian group of young actors, musicians, writers, poets and left wing progressives; many who had joined the Communist Party. His path crossed with a young Puerto Rican, who was acting and producing and they became friends. That young man was Jose Ferrer. Ferrer had read the controversial novel by Lillian Smith, and wanted to stage it on Broadway.

No stranger to working with black American’s, Joe Ferrer played Iago to Paul Robson’s Othello in 1943. In 1945, Ferrer made his Broadway producing debut with Strange Fruit, which he also directed. My father was typecast in the role of the angry half-white brother of the leading female figure “Nonnie”, played by Jane White.

There were not that many roles for him at that time; black actors on stage were supposed to "look black". Ferrer, coming from Puerto Rico, had no understanding of the notions of race here in the United States. Not that there is no racism in Puerto Rico, but the definitions of black and white were more fluid, and in Puerto Rico, my father would have been white. Joe was planning a production of Cyrano de Bergerac, and he decided to cast my father as one of the Musketeers.

The press reaction was instantaneous; “Negro Integrates Cast of Cyrano” was a headline in Life Magazine. It was okay for there to be all black shows on Broadway, it was okay to have a few black actors playing maids and butlers, but to put a Negro in a “white” role was controversial. Joe stuck to his guns, and the show went on, with my dad in it.

My father told me a funny story about that time. A group of reporters were hanging around outside of the theatre to get a chance to interview “the Negro” when he came out. My dad removed his makeup, got dressed in street clothes and walked right past them. A Greek actor, also in the cast was chased down the block when he exited the stage door.
They thought he was "the Negro".

After Cyrano and during the McCarthy period life became tense in my household, and in the homes of all my parents friends and associates. The witch hunt was on. Acting jobs were slim, and there were even less roles open for my father, though he did do a few “race films.” My father’s dream of one day being allowed to play Hamlet (and not Othello) was deferred. Joe argued with my father – why not just pass for white or better yet, just be “Hispanic”, which was an option taken by several other fair-skinned black actors at that time. But my father would not leave his wife and children and father; who was a proud “race man”; nor would he ever put himself through the agonies he had gone through as a child, “passing”, by day, and black at home.

We were living at that time with my grandparents in their brownstone in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that was predominantly Jewish, with only four black families. My grandparents had moved from Chicago to be close to their new granddaughter, and a Jewish neighborhood was the safest place for them to live in relative peace. Money was tight and my sensible mother, who had never been a “fellow traveler”, prodded my father to get a job teaching to stave off creditors. She wanted to get us out of New York, away from the increasing scrutiny of the Inquisition. We went south. This is where I first felt the slap in the face of the reality of a divided world, with signs posted everywhere "for Whites only". "No niggers, no Jews, no dogs welcome." This is where I got my first lessons on being black in America. It was a world where Negroes had to step into the street if a white person was walking on the sidewalk. I went into shock. This was not my beloved Brooklyn where my best friend had been a little boy next door, the son of a rabbi. To me, the kids on campus were strange, they didn’t know what Chanukah was, they were afraid of white people, and I had to ask my mother what “white people” were. Wasn’t Bobby (my grandmother) white? For the first time in my life I lived in an all black world, on the campus, and there was a fearful world outside in the little town of Princess Anne. We were surrounded by redneck bigots who frightened my mother and we rarely went into town. This is the world where I learned to understand the lyrics of the tune that had inspired the title of Lillian Smith’s play.

Strange fruit...

A world where ugly stares followed you when you went to a store. A world where I could not buy an ice cream cone. A world where my father would stop the car and go somewhere alone and bring us back something to eat. A world that was like descending into hell, if you set foot off the reservation. After an episode where I was hospitalized and placed in a “Negro Ward” with no nurses, and doctors who were not interested in treating “niggers”, where no one changed the dressings of the little black girl in bed next to me who had been burned all over her body, who screamed and whimpered all night in pain, my mother put her foot down. We had to go north. We left Maryland behind, and went back to NY to stay with my grandparents again. My father, torn by the need to feed his family, applied for and was miraculously awarded a John Hay Whitney fellowship to get his doctorate at Penn State and so by 1954 we were living in the almost all-white town of State College, where we watched, along with other young academics and their families the Army-McCarthy hearings in uneasy silence on a neighbors television.

After completing his doctorate, with no permanent job in the offing at Penn State, in 1956 my father got a new job to go along with his new PhD. But it was in the south. My mother was unhappy about it but we moved to Baton Rouge LA to the campus of Southern University. Back to the world of campus living, but at first it wasn’t as bad as Maryland. Baton Rouge had a large and prosperous black and black Creole community, and if you were careful, you could avoid the signs, the slurs, and the racial ugliness.

For the first time, my father fit in, the campus looked like an integrated society – the southern creoles attending the school or on the staff were often as pale as my father. The only problem was that they tended to be a closed society, mired in lineages and aristocratic snobbery. But it was not the fearful sullen world of Maryland’s Eastern shore and for a brief moment we were happy. That moment was short-lived.

In September of 1957 President Eisenhower deployed the 82nd Airborne Division for the desegregation of Little Rock Arkansas schools. Klan activity around our campus in LA increased, and my father and other young teachers quietly armed themselves with shotguns.

Strange fruit...

The 1957 Little Rock school integration incident had polarized the United States on the subject of race. The Supreme Court had decreed that nine black students were to be allowed to attend Central High School in Little Rock. On September 2, 1957, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus called in the National Guard, ostensibly because he had heard that white supremacists were going to descend on the town. He declared that Central was off limits to black students, and the town’s black high school was off limits to whites. More disturbing still was his statement that “blood would run in the streets” if the black students attempted to attend Central. Louis Armstrong told a reporter that President Eisenhower was a hypocrite and that he (Armstrong) was sick to be a goodwill ambassador for a country that was silently condoning racist activity. There was a great deal of controversy, but Louis stood by his statement. He also didn’t make the trip to the Soviet Union that had been planned for him by the U.S. State Department; Armstrong’s statements to the press stood out as a defining moment in his life and career
Strange Fruit

At my mother’s urging we left the south, moving to back to NY, and finally to Queens, where in 1959 the Klan was burning crosses on the lawns of the new black middle class families who were integrating solidly white neighborhoods. Dad got a job at Nassau Community College. My introduction to Queens was being bussed into a mostly white Junior High School where there was a bloody race riot on opening day.

Strange fruit...

My father died in 1996.

NYTimes Obituary George Oliver

He never got to play Hamlet, though in later years, as the Chairman of the Drama Department he got to direct it. Tired of fighting against the system, my father would become a Democrat, though he was a very left of center one. But at a meeting of the Tuskegee Airman’s Association he got to meet and hear Colin Powell speak, and he said wistfully that he hoped to see Colin Powell become President of the United States one day. He felt that Powell was the only black man that might, just might get a shot at it; that even white Americans would be able to see him as Commander in Chief. A lot of black people felt the same way, even though Powell was a Republican. But Powell’s wife, wisely, feared for his life, and he did not run. America was not ready for a black President.

Strange Fruit...

So as I look at Barack Obama, and I am proud. But I hear the chords of that tune whispering in the background...strange fruit ....they try to make him a Muslim...lynch the terrorist...strange name Barack Hussein...
Strange fruit...

as the press moves in for the kill like a lynch mob...gonna crucify him for the words of a Reverend who only spoke the truth from his life experience in this county.

Strange fruit
when fellow liberal Democrats start acting like Dixiecrats or Republicans

Strange fruit...

My father would have understood Jeremiah Wright. Curiously, Rev. Wright has rather obvious European ancestry as well, though no one has commented on it. Branded a racist by the press, in spite of all the work he's done with whites through the years, he's the target of a jihad, to crush Barack Obama.

Strange fruit...

My father would have understood his anger, just as my father supported my membership in militant organizations. He knew that my fights against injustice was a battle to gain justice for us all. He understood my rage, and frustration. But my father’s generation, and my generation, have now given birth to another set of choices, our struggles have borne new fruit. I’m not sure if I believe in an afterlife, but my dad lives on in me. So I share his story here as a piece of histoy, of how it used to be and doesn’t have to be anymore, if we change the record on the turntable.

My hope is that Barack Obama will somehow prove by his candidacy and ultimate victory that the sad refrain so engrained in our collective black psyche will fade into history as a tragic footnote of a past that took overlong to die. But it will be up to Americans; black, white, brown, yellow and red; to erase that haunting melody ... Strange fruit... and to see if we can burn down that poplar tree, and plant something else in the ashes.