Monday, January 16, 2017

Musical Monday - Strange Fruit by Billie Holliday

Rebecca Ferguson was invited to sing at President-elect Trump's upcoming inauguration scheduled for January 20. She said that she would agree, provided she was permitted to sing Billie Holliday's Strange Fruit as part of her performance. This is not a request that should have come as a surprise to anyone - after all, Ferguson recorded the song as part of her 2015 album Lady Sings the Blues on which she recorded a number of Holliday's jazz classics.

On the other hand, the request was quite a pointed one. Trump ran on a platform that displayed a casual, almost unthinking racism: He opened his campaign by asserting that a disproportionate number of Hispanic immigrants were rapists of murderers (the opposite is true), and then moved on to claiming that a Mexican-American judge could not be relied upon to carry out his duties impartially solely due to his heritage. He then moved on to calling for a complete ban on Muslim's coming into the United States, and moved on to laying the groundwork for a registry of all Muslims in the country. Most recently, after congressman John Lewis pointed out the illegitimacy of trump's presidency as a result of factors such as his losing the popular vote, the Russian efforts to interfere in the American electoral process in his favor, and so on - Trump lashed back with his usual reflexive and unthinking racism, claiming that the district Lewis represents was a disaster, specifically saying it was "falling apart" and "crime infested". The reality is that the district Lewis represents includes Atlanta, one of the economic powerhouses in Georgia, and something like 40% of its adult population holds a college degree. The crime rate in Atlanta, like that in many major cities in the United States, has been in decline for years. Nothing about Trump's claims concerning Lewis' district rally stands up to any kind of scrutiny. Calling areas with majority black populations a disaster without checking to see if they are is, however, right in line with Trump's behavior in the past. This sort of reflexive reaction to majority black areas reveals the racism that is at Trump's core.

Strange Fruit, based on a poem written in 1937, and originally recorded in 1939, is a song explicitly about lynchings of African-Americans, which were horrifyingly commonplace in the U.S. South of that era. When Holliday recorded it and started including it in her live performances, she was fearful of retaliation. She would sing it to close her show, and would not give an encore afterwards. The lights in the house would all be turned off except for a single light on Holliday, and if she was performing in a nightclub, the waiters would stop serving before she performed the song. Columbia, Holliday's recording label, and John Hammond, her regular producer, refused to record the song, worried about the negative reaction that would be provoked in the Southern states. Instead, she received a one-session release from Columbia and recorded the song with the Commodore label. The song had, and has that kind of power.

Trump's racism is not as virulent as that depicted in Strange Fruit, but it is still racism just the same. Lewis spent his youth fighting for Civil Rights, while Trump spent his being sued by the Justice Department for refusing to rent apartments to black tenants. When asked about how he can connect with and address the concerns of African-American voters, Trump's immediate response is to start talking about crime and poverty in the inner cities. It is clear that when Trump thinks "black" he reflexively thinks of crime and poverty. This kind of unconscious racism pervades Trump's personality, and is revealed by what he says that pass for pronouncements on matters of public policy. The one common thread that runs through Trump's thinking is that non-white people are sources of violence, crime, and poverty, and must be watched and monitored. Everything he says and everything he proposed ties back to this one truth. This is, fundamentally at odds with the ideals the United States aspires to, but sadly, it is perfectly in line with the practices that have dominated the history of the United States.

I had thought the United States had become better than this. I had thought that although there was still much that could be improved, the era of openly expressed racism from our political leaders was in our past. Apparently, I had thought wrong. The United States is still mired in racism, and there is still a lot of work to do to overcome it.

Previous Musical Monday: Diamonds Are Forever by Shirley Bassey

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