Monday, April 16, 2018

"Strange Fruit"

Fannie Lou Hamer speaks at the Democratic national convention in 1964. Image source.
Let's look at chapter 5 of James Cone's book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It's called "Oh Mary, don't you weep," and it's about black women's role in fighting against lynching.

Cone starts out by saying that black women were lynched sometimes too- about 2% of lynching victims were women. He says this about Mary Turner:
[content note: graphic description of lynching]
When a mob in Valdosta, Georgia, in 1918 failed to find Sidney Johnson, accused of murdering his boss, Hampton Smith, they decided to lynch another black man, Haynes Turner, who was known to dislike Smith. Turner's wife, Mary, who was eight months pregnant, protested vehemently and vowed to seek justice for her husband's lynching. The sheriff, in turn, arrested her and then gave her up to the mob. In the presence of a crowd that included women and children, Mary Turner was "stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground and was stomped to death."
Holy shit.

How could this happen?

Howwww? Mary Turner wasn't even suspected of any crime. She was just angry about her husband being lynched- like, yeah obviously anybody would be angry about that. And her husband wasn't even accused of the murder, why was he lynched? And why did the sheriff hand Mary over to the mob- this sheriff should be punished because that is THE OPPOSITE of what his job is supposed to be.

I think the answer to the "how could this happen" questions is this: A lot of white people back then believed that blacks didn't belong in their society. Like, they're not supposed to even be here, but we'll let them, as long as they don't make trouble. When a black person was suspected to be connected with some crime, it wasn't like "but do they deserve to be killed just for this crime?"- it was like "ugh, see, this is why black people aren't even supposed to be here anyway, just get rid of them."

That's the explanation I've come to, anyway. And I wish I had learned more about that in school- I wish that, as a white person, I was educated about how white people have justified their racism, historically. So that I can recognize it when I see those same sorts of attitudes in modern politics. Or in myself.

Because I think for a lot of white people, when we read that account of Mary Turner's lynching, we're shocked and disgusted- it's so graphic, so violent, so obviously unjust, it's unimaginable. It feels like a horribly scary thing from history, a long time ago, with no connection to our current society at all. And that's a problem.

Cone then goes on to talk about the "unspeakable black suffering" caused by lynching, and how people have found comfort in the biblical story of Job, laments found in the psalms, and in Jesus' suffering.
Just as Jesus cried from the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" many lynched victims made similar outbursts of despair to God before they took their last breath, hoping for divine intervention that did not come.
In some ways, it was more difficult for black women than for black men. Men might be more able to flee to another city when they were threatened with lynching, but women often needed to stay because they had children to take care of.

Next, we read about Ida B. Wells, who made it her life's work to fight against lynching through her writing and in speeches she gave all around the country. She started her anti-lynching work in 1892 when her friend Tommie Moss and two other men were lynched because whites' "envy of black economic success." In her essay "Lynch Law in America," Wells wrote:
It is not the creature of the hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an 'unwritten law' that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal.
YES. See, I had always understood lynching as "an angry mob got out of control and it's not really anybody's fault." Like the murderers didn't even realize what they were doing, they just got caught up in their emotions or something, and it seemed like a good idea at the time, but maybe later when they can think clearly they would feel guilty about it. Wells says no. I now think it was probably more along the lines of "a lot of white people just wanted to get rid of black people in general, so they were happy to have an excuse to do it." (With slight variations depending on if we're talking about the white people who were active participants, or the white people who just kind of condoned it or did nothing.)

Rape was often used as a justification for lynching- white people said black men were "beasts" who often attacked white women. But: "In her research, Wells discovered that rape was given as the reason in only about one-third of lynchings. In many of these cases, the claims referred to consensual sexual acts, while in others, the claims were often false."

Cone gives the example of William Offett, who was accused of raping Mrs. J. C. Underwood in Ohio. Offett said that the sex was consensual, but was put in prison anyway. After he had served 4 years in prison, Underwood confessed to her husband that actually it was consensual, but she had lied to protect her reputation. Offett was then released from prison. Cone points out:
Had the Offett-Underwood sexual encounter occurred in the South, a white mob probably would have castrated him and strung him on a lynching tree or "burned him alive." This is what happened to Ed Coy in Texarkana, Texas (1892), as well as to many blacks in the South and sometimes even in the North and West.
And, I should point out, this idea that black men are dangerous because they rape white women is a thing SOME PEOPLE STILL BELIEVE. In 2015, Dylann Roof said "you rape our women" before he killed 9 people in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Also, black women pointed out the hypocrisy of rape being used as a justification for lynching black men, but white people not caring about black women being raped by white men. In the citation list in the back of Cone's book, we find At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power; maybe that would be worth reading too.

Cone talks about how Ida B. Wells risked her life in her fight against lynching- she was almost lynched because of it. She found strength in her faith to keep fighting. And she had Some Opinions about white Christianity:
Wells was especially critical of evangelist Dwight Moody, who segregated his revivals to appease whites in the South. "Our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians."
Damnnnnnnnn that'll preach.

Also this:
Black people did not need to go to seminary and study theology to know that white Christianity was fraudulent. ... There was no way a community could support or ignore lynching in America, while still representing in word and deed the one who was lynched by Rome.

I am SO DONE with the "high view of Scripture" Christianity which says you can't trust your own heart to know injustice when you see it, and instead you have to find bible verses that say so. I am SO DONE with the endless arguments about "what did Paul really mean" about how women shouldn't speak in church, or about how same-sex relationships are sinful, or whatever. By their fruit you will know them. Just look at how bad and harmful it is when you teach women they're not allowed to be leaders. Just look at how bad and harmful it is when you make gay Christians believe there's something wrong with them. (And how bad it was back when white people were using the bible to justify their racism.) We don't need to carefully comb through the bible in order to be allowed to show basic decency to people.

A good tree cannot bear bad fruit.

Next, we read about Billie Holiday and the song "Strange Fruit" (which was written by Abel Meeropol, a white Jewish man, but made famous by Holiday). Here is a version from youtube:

The song starts out like this:
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Cone writes this about "Strange Fruit":
With vivid and horrific imagery, deep and disturbing emotions, Billie Holiday's rendition of "Strange Fruit" forced white listeners to wrestle with the violent truth of white supremacy. No white person could listen to Billie's "Strange Fruit" without feeling indicted and exposed by the sound of truth and contempt in her voice. She made whites look at the brutality they wanted to forget. That was why "Strange Fruit" was often banned from many radio stations and several clubs would not let Billie sing it, especially when whites walked out, claiming that it was not entertainment. Those who stayed to listen were eerily quiet as Billie told the story of lynching in the South. Billie's record company, Columbia, refused to record it, fearing that the South would boycott them.
Cone also talks about Fannie Lou Hamer's work during the Civil Rights Movement. For her, Jesus' cross was an inspiration, and she taught that blacks should follow Jesus' example and "take up the cross." However, Cone writes:
Yet Hamer did not embrace the cross uncritically. She was aware of its dangers. "We have always been taught," she said, "that we have to suffer as Christ suffered. He was killed and all of his followers persecuted. But I think in terms of what David had to do. David was a shepherd boy. He was giving service to his people. But it came a time in his life when he had to slay Goliath."
(I'm assuming that "aware of its dangers" refers to the ideology that says suffering is a good thing in and of itself.)
After telling the country and the world (at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City) about her attempts to register and vote and the vicious beating that followed in a Mississippi jail, Fannie Lou Hamer asked the poignant question that stirred the conscience of most Americans watching her speak over live television: "Is this America?" Her power and eloquence captivated the nation. She knew that even liberal whites could not deny the truth about white supremacy in America. Yet, they did not want to hear that truth, the fact that America's democracy is hypocrisy in the lives of its black population. President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan, knew all too well the hard truth of Hamer's testimony. Immediately, after seeing and hearing her speak, he called a news conference in order to get that "illiterate woman" off live television.
You can listen to her whole speech on youtube.

This is shocking- black people were beaten for registering to vote. (How did I not know about that? I mean, yes we learned about it in history class, but I didn't really *get* what that really meant.) But this isn't ancient history- voter suppression of black Americans is still a problem today. (Gerrymandering, voter ID laws, closing polling stations, not allowing early voting, etc.)

And Jeff Sessions was involved in blocking black people from voting, back in the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, Jeff Sessions, current Attorney General of the United States. This isn't ancient history. This still matters now. Remember Senator Elizabeth Warren, reading Coretta Scott King's letter about Sessions, in the year 2017? King had written, in 1986, "The irony of Mr. Sessions’ nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods."

Near the end of the chapter, Cone talks about Delores Williams, a womanist theologian:
She rejected the view common in classic texts of the Western theological tradition as well as in the preaching of African American churches that Jesus accomplished human salvation by dying in our place. According to Williams, Jesus did not come to save us through his death on the cross but rather he "came to show redemption through a perfect ministerial vision of righting relationships." She argued that if Jesus were a surrogate, then his gospel encourages black women to accept their surrogacy roles as well-- suffering for others as Jesus did on the cross. But if the salvation that Jesus brought could be separated from surrogacy, then black women were free to reject it too.
I believe this is SO IMPORTANT. It's good that different people have different interpretations of the meaning of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. And it's extremely important that we examine the effects of our theology- like Williams criticizing the "Jesus died in our place" ideology because it can be used to teach people they're supposed to suffer in others' place and they should just accept that.

Overall, this chapter of The Cross and the Lynching Tree shows us how lynching affected black women and how they fought back. Cone says that even though the most well-known leaders in the Civil Rights Movement were men, it was "also a women's movement," and that "If Rosa Parks had not sat down, Martin Luther King Jr. would not have stood up."


Posts about The Cross and the Lynching Tree (by James H. Cone):

Reading US History Inerrantly
Ending Slavery Didn't Address the Real Problem
For the Sunday School Kids Who Never Heard About "the Curse of Ham" Or "Black Simon" 
Dr. King and What Taking Up the Cross Actually Looks Like
"The South is Crucifying Christ Again"
"Strange Fruit"
"The Cross and the Lynching Tree": Conclusion

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