(I'm currently working on my second book. It's a jazz-shaped take on the cross…I'll share a few excerpts this week…here's installment #1.)
He stands stripped bare, arms restrained
at the wrists. His legs are lacerated on all sides; long deep grooves
cover his torso and lumps of flesh are missing. Only a slight grimace of his mouth hints to the immeasurable
torture that he has endured.
Illegally arrested and unjustly convicted they whipped him without
mercy. Surrounded by a jeering,
mocking crowd he has no friend in sight.
Hundreds have gathered to watch, as he is moments away from hanging on a
tree, dying a humiliating death reserved for those without citizenship.
His name was Frank Embree and he
was strange fruit.
Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,
is a pictorial history of lynching in America and it was here that I first saw
the three pictures of Frank Embree taken in 1899. Each stomach-turning
page of this book brings home the tragic reality of this form of execution that
was commonplace in America.
Lynching was expedited “justice” through torture and vigilantism. Most trace it’s origins back to the
1700’s and Colonel Charles Lynch who bore the ironic title of Justice of the
Peace. He would hold illegal trials and, upon inevitable guilty sentences,
he would tie the “convicted” to a tree to be flogged. By the late 1800's,
"Lynch Mob" was a part of the American vocabulary used to describe
the horrific practice of confiscating a "criminal" from the local
jail or kidnapping him from his home in front of his family. And then, without
proper trial, the mob would disgrace, whip with barbed wire, torture,
emasculate and hang their often-innocent victim.
Frank Embree was one of thousands
of Americans—mostly African-American—that was a victim of a lynching. They were hung from trees with their
bodies mutilated, lacerated, burned and/or riddled with bullets. It was a
community event often led by unmasked—yet usually never punished—perpetrators.
Pictures show men and women gathered by the thousands to witness the hanging of
this strange fruit. Even children were recruited to assist in the
grotesque gathering. It became tradition to cut off parts of the victim’s
body as memorabilia. People would
pose for pictures with the corpse.
The photographs that sometimes sold as postcards, depict surreal scenes
of men with rifles, people cheering and children playing with the body
suspended above their heads—a necktie party.
The pictures of Frank Embree show a
young man of only nineteen years of age standing tall in the back of a buggy…though
the look in his eyes reveal centuries of his peoples search for dignity. After a rope was slipped over his head, a
final picture shows him as he dangles with crooked neck…eyes still open…a
loin-cloth covering, his only article of clothing.
Bronx schoolteacher Abel Meeropol
saw one of these pictures and put pen to paper writing the disturbing poem, Strange Fruit. He then convinced jazz singer Billy Holiday to lend her distinct
voice to the haunting tale of…
trees that bear strange fruit,—
on the leaves and blood at the roots…
bulging eyes and the twisted mouth…
sudden smell of burning flesh…
is a strange and bitter crop,—
When Holiday performed the song in
concert, her audiences didn't know how to respond. She sang beautifully but
the lyrics were disconcerting; were you supposed to sit in silence or
applaud? Holiday felt the dilemma equally
and never quite knew what song to sing after Strange Fruit. She eventually
moved it to the end of her performances and made it the last song of the night.
all, how do you follow strange fruit?
James; Als, Hilton; Lewis, John; Litwack, Leon F., (New Mexico: Twin Palms Publishers, 2008)