On our March cover, we demonstrated a remarkable lack of judgment and sensitivity when we matched a photo of a young band hanging from monkey bars with the headline “Strange Fruit.” The combination of the phrase and the hanging image was far too close to the subject of the Billie Holiday song first recorded in 1939—lynching—and we’re profoundly sorry for our mistake.
As one reader pointed out, the song started as a poem by Abel Meeropol, who published it in 1936 as a response to a photo of two lynched Black men. He wrote:
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.
In David Margolick’s Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, he documents the song’s transition from a poem by a white, leftist high school teacher to the song that came to define Holiday. She first performed it at Cafe Society, an integrated nightclub in Greenwich Village. Meeropol had set the poem to music, and he took it to the club’s owner and asked him to have Holiday sing it. By all accounts she did so reluctantly, most likely because she was uncomfortable being asked to sing those sentiments. Cafe Society’s Barney Josephson said, “I remember a time a woman followed Billie into the powder room. Billie was wearing a strapless gown and she tried to brush the woman off. The woman became hysterical with tears—’Don’t you sing that song again! Don’t you dare!’ she screamed—and ripped Billie’s dress. I asked her to leave. She started to cry again. She explained she came to Cafe Society to have fun and here she heard Billie sing about ‘burning flesh’ and it brought back a lynching she had seen when she was seven or eight years old down south.”
Officially, the last lynching took place over 40 years ago, but James Byrd was dragged to his death in Texas in 1998. In 2006 in Jena, Louisiana, six nooses were hung from a tree in a schoolyard where six Black students had sat the day before. In 2005, the United States Senate formally apologized for not enacting an anti-lynching law. Bill sponsor Senator Mary Landrieu told a gathering of the families of victims of lynching, “The Senate failed you and your ancestors and our nation.”
We regret treating such a history so casually, and we’ll make an effort to do better in the future.