The other day I was busily looking through discussions in BlogCatalog when I came across a question asking if anyone thought that Racism still existed in the United States. There were many responses that both covered the fact that it did exist as well as just as many that thought it didn't. In my opinion too many people are blind to the fact that we are living in a racist country so I decided that I needed to write something. At the time I had no clue that this post would include what it now does; but that will come. However, in 1937 a poem was written by a School Teacher named Abel Meeropel living in New York state who penned it under the name Lewis Allan. It was spurred by his feelings towards the events that were taking place in the South at that time, and from time to time still awfully happen. Sometimes I'm embarrassed to say where I live but that's my problem. Anyway, you may have heard of the poem turned song which was first performed in 1939 in New York's first integrated nightclub. The nightclub was in Harlem and it's name was the Cafe Society; The performer who first sang it was Billie Holiday. The song was "Strange Fruit".
Billie was born on April 7th 1915 as Eleanora Fagan Gough and sang all of her life. On July 17th, 1959, at the age of 44 Miss Holiday, also known as Lady Day died in New York City. She was 5'5" tall with brown eyes, black hair and skin and according to someone I loved who is no longer with us, she was beautiful and sang like no one she had ever heard before; they had met. Billie has become a legendary Jazz singer. U2's "Angel of Harlem" was a tribute to her.
She not only sang this song in 1939 but she also recorded it with Commodore Records, the only label that would allow her to sing "such a song". The song went on to become the anthem of the Anti-Lynching movement and it planted the first seeds of the Civil Rights Movement. It had become a song of protest all around the New York area. It was a haunting song. I first heard it about 40 years ago and even then I thought it powerful. Once it gained popularity it was picked up by other artists however it was known to be Billies song. In 2002 it was one of 50 songs chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. Some of the others that have performed it over the years have been Sting, Tori Ames, Pete Seeger, Lester Bowie and Nina Simone just to name a few.
After I wrote the above piece I was still doing some research to finish it up when I discovered that racism is much more prevalent than I thought. It's true that racism isn't as blatant as it once was, nor does it as frequently involve public exhibitions of it the way it once did but it's still rampant. Miriam-Webster defines the term as "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race". This definition is a simple belief, a belief that I would say I could hear hourly if I put myself in the midst of many people I know. I personally don't choose to interact with these people however there is a huge contingent of them and I am beginning to believe that merely burying my head in the so called sand isn't enough; not for any of us. I had never even considered that true racial problems, not fights between kids, were as widely recognized by the youth of the country as they are. I thought it was an adult problem. Well guess what? In April of this year a poll was conducted with the assistance of the Associated Press and MTV that hit on all major categories of happiness in people between the ages of 13 and 24. On August 21st when AP aired the results of the poll racism was mentioned by these young Americans.
Within the past year, the town of Jena, Louisiana, home of the Jena Six has been in the news and it all seems to have stemmed from the "white tree". I remember thinking to myself, what the hell is a white tree? Then I found out. Jena's white tree is on the property of Jena High School and sitting below it was supposedly reserved for "white" students. Black students who had been given permission to sit under the tree did so, only to come back the following day to find three nooses hanging from it's limbs. Now, was that supposed to be the message that "I" would have read or is it really just "a childish prank" as it was called by local law enforcement? A racial war has been waged in this town with beatings, trials, excuses and jail sentences. For full insight read this blog and research it further if you can't believe it. I couldn't and did; it's real. Just because we no longer have separate bathroom facilities or drinking fountains or seating in theaters, and just because we're no longer allowed to discriminate according to law, and just because the NAACP buried the "N" word within the past months doesn't mean it's fixed. It's far from it and the racism now includes, blacks, whites, asians, indians, arabs and all the rest of the world. Switzerland, the neutralists, they're just as racist as the next guy. This is a big mess we've got going here. There are many, many other instances of racism all over the world and I've come to the conclusion that "I" too have been blind to the terror that this issue evokes in those involved.
I would someday love to be able to say with true conviction that racism is dead but unfortunately right now it's only limping a bit. Billie Holidays song portrays racism aimed at one particular group but ALL races face this problem. This country has taken many great leaps in the right direction but I think we still have a long, long way to go. The worst part is that racism isn't only a problem of the Americans; it's global. So, what does that tell me? It tells me that as long as we continue to fear our neighbors for whatever reason, racism will exist. The post below contains YouTube video with Nina Simone's rendition of the song I learned as a child. I felt that Miss Simone's version was more startling. If you care to, please watch it.