Strange Harvest: The Sanitizing of America’s Racial Terrorism

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

I no longer try to make sense of all that has happened during my peoples’ sojourn in the United States. For years I tried to do so, attempting to find a reasonable explanation for the sordid history revealed in both the pages of history books and the lives of those who came before me. I was left unfulfilled each time.  I just couldn’t explain a nation where the same people who eagerly cheer Black American athletes on game day callously revel in the loss of Black American lives. I couldn’t explain a nation which laps up the music and art crafted by Black Americans but still can’t decide if we should be treated as American in every sense of the word. To preserve my own sanity and joy I ended that quest. Instead I came to the conclusion that racism deeply impairs one’s sense of justice and morality. To put it more simply: that ish cray.

There are, however, times where writing off such episodes as insanity simply isn’t enough, and the more inquisitive, thoughtful part of me emerges. While listening to a Democracy Now segment on the War on Drugs earlier this month I learned of the backlash and harassment that legendary jazz songstress Billie Holiday faced after performing “Strange Fruit”. An excerpt from the interview with Johann Hari is listed below

“To have an African-American woman standing up, at a time when most pop songs were like twee, you know, “P.S. I Love You,” that kind of thing, singing against lynching in front of a white audience was regarded as really shocking. And that night, according to her biographer, Julia Blackburn, she’s told by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, “Stop singing this song.”

Hari goes on to discuss the subsequent harassment that Holiday endured  from the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger. The fact that a federal agency would demand an American singer stop bringing attention to what was happening to African-Americans at that time was quite ridiculous to me. Anslinger was not appalled by the fact that human beings, American citizens, were being lynched, burned and mutilated throughout the South. Though the NAACP and other African-American civic organizations sought anti-lynching legislation to protect African-Americans from the brutality of mob violence they were always blocked by Southern opposition. Claiming that such legislation would infringe on ‘states rights’ and was ‘unconstitutional they pushed back against legislation. African-Americans in the South would continue to suffer from violence. There was no way to truly protect yourself against this terror. It didn’t matter if you were hard-working, family oriented, law-abiding, upright and Christian-the values which adherents of respectability politics claim are the key to safety, success and acceptance in the US. At the time that Holiday delivered the painful and haunting tale of the strange fruit of the Deep South lynching was  still a problem.That such hatred and violence was considered acceptable while the exposure of it by Holiday and others was  not makes me nauseous.

President Barack Obama waded briefly into this history in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this month. Bringing up the fact that Christians in the US once committed outrages against African-Americans that were similar in nature to what ISIS is doing now made many, especially on the Right, quite aggravated with President Obama. But Obama’s comments are historically accurate, a topic that progressive Pastor Roger Ray addresses here:

The indignation that Obama’s words provoked-and much of comments I read online last fall-made me think of how deeply we have managed to swallow a lie about the past. This collective delusion  regarding race is the prime reason that I avoid films about that time in our history and why I have less patience for discussions on how that history impacts the present. There are too many Americans who just cannot face it. I am not even speaking of chattel slavery. The century that followed the end of the Civil War is too much for us to confront. There are so many times where I have been told that Jim Crow wasn’t that bad. The savagery and hatred of the ‘good old days’ is swept under the rug. The violence is treated as the work of a few misfits, ignorant extremists who did not represent a significant portion of the population. But the criminals who carried out the horrors of lynching and ethnic cleansing against African-Americans(you can read about that in this book) did so with the approval of Southern communities and the intentional obliviousness to such episodes in the North. We still do not call that system what it was: a regime of terror and forced labor, designed to keep Southern African-Americans in a position little better than that of slaves and to withhold their constitutional rights.

It wasn’t enough to murder African-Americans. Even in death they were denied respect, with crowds cutting off fingers, toes and genitalia of the murdered as souvenirs. The photos from lynchings were made into postcards, and lest one think White Southerners were alone in this it must be said that these postcards were popular throughout the nation. It wasn’t the postcards that affected me the most. It is the ones of crowds dressed in their Sunday best, no sign of regret or shame in their faces as they pose with their children around the corpse.  You can view this legacy yourself at the online memorial Without Sanctuary. Be warned: the photos are graphic and disturbing. However I share the link because I feel that seeing it for yourself is essential to understanding the history that President Obama was slammed for bringing up.

As Americans we have been sold a particular vision of our nation from childhood. The words of President Obama and the images of the burned, mutilated corpses of the victims of lynchings intrude upon our ideal. So I can understand why some have such a vehement reaction when it is brought up. We can attempt to sanitize and downplay our past, but if we hope to truly grow and learn from it we must face it. There is no alternative.

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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

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