Hate and Hope - Billie Holiday | Abel Meeropol, Langston Hughes

Jewish high school teacher Abel Meeropol wrote the poem Strange Fruit after seeing the photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith on August 7, 1930 in Indiana.  From visual to written to song representations, all attempt to capture the core message of this hate crime.

Teaching Strange Fruit requires background historical knowledge for rich reader response and fair critical analysis.  I would suggest offering direct instruction and discussion on the history of lynching and hate crimes in the United States before reading the poem.

Teacher Vision offers a very comprehensive lesson plan with background research activities for students.  The website even provides copies of primary sources from newspapers and activist documents students can read through.

The photograph is overwhelming itself, but it might be better to show it to students after a reading of the poem.
Strange Fruit by Abel Meeropol (sung by Billie Holiday)
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.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and twisted mouth,
The scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

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 the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Billie Holiday lends her voice to Meeropol's words in this haunting rendition of perhaps one of the most memorable and controversial recordings in jazz history.  Nina Simone also sings her version of "Strange Fruit", but Billie Holiday's for me is more powerful.

Drawing on reader response, you can ask your students:

  • After learning a little bit about the history of lynching in the States, describe your thoughts after reading the poem.  What words or phrases resonated with you?
  • How do you feel after reading about Meeropol's vivid description of the fruit and plantation crops?
  • Would the poem be as effective or disturbing if Meeropol simply described the bodies of lynch victims without using nature metaphors?  
  • When you think about farms and crops, what thoughts and emotions do you commonly associate with this pastoral scenery?

Langston Hughes' "Daybreak in Alabama" offers a visually hopeful view of the future despite the history of hate and violence in the southern States.

Daybreak in Alabama by Langston Hughes
When I get to be a composer
I’m gonna write me some music about
Daybreak in Alabama
And I’m gonna put the purtiest songs in it
Rising out of the ground like a swamp mist
And falling out of heaven like soft dew.
I’m gonna put some tall tall trees in it
And the scent of pine needles
And the smell of red clay after rain
And long red necks
And poppy colored faces
And big brown arms
And the field daisy eyes
Of black and white black white black people
And I’m gonna put white hands
And black hands and brown and
yellow hands
And red clay earth hands in it
Touching everybody with kind fingers
And touching each other natural as dew
In that dawn of music when I
Get to be a composer
And write about daybreak
In Alabama.
  From a reader response perspective you can ask students the following:
  • Hughes paints a song for his readers. He describes the song he would write in the future using colours, symbols, body parts, elements of nature (like rain, dew, and flowers).  What do you think these visual images represent?
  • Both Meeropol's and Hughes' poem blur the distinction between human body parts and elements of the natural world.  But how are their messages different? 
You can even ask your students to...
  • Create a watercolour painting of Hughes' "Daybreak in Alabama".  Try to collect images from the poem as he describes them while offering your own artistic interpretation and representation.

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