Southern trees bear a 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 -Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit (1939)
Before it was a sample for a hit Kayne West song, Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit,” was a cornerstone of the American songbook. Named the Song of the Century by Time Magazine in 1999 because of its historical significance, the piece reflected an era in which black bodies were summarily brutalized and discarded at the whim of white mobs at epidemic levels. A recent report from Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama names 3,959 victims of “racial terror lynchings” in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950. Many victims were murdered without being accused of any crime, for minor social transgressions, or for demanding basic rights.
Blood on the trees and blood at the root. Over 75 years after Billie Holiday first performed the song, the question of whether #blacklivesmatter is still up for debate. What remains consistent is the branding of black bodies as innately criminal and suspect. Today, ashes in Baltimore still smolder in the wake of riots resulting from the death of yet another black man in police custody. I know it is not a coincidence that these lyrics haunt my mind. Like Tanisha Anderson, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Yvette Smith, Trayvon Martin, Miriam Carey, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice before him, Freddie Gray is strange fruit of a different name. His body hangs from a tree whose twisted branches of urban blight, mass incarceration, and intergenerational poverty are attached to a trunk of white supremacy. The roots of the tree predate the founding of the American Republic.
Freddie Gray’s story is personal for me. It hits to the core of my identity as a young Christian minister who is the direct descendant of African slaves, Southern sharecroppers, and civil rights activists. As a clergywoman, part of my job is to accompany those who mourn. In these bleak times, faith leaders are often quick to jump to messages of hope and reconciliation without giving space for despair, frustration, and rage. Yet I must confess that in these moments, I find little comfort in lyrical biblical poetry about the promises waiting for us in heaven. I find no salvation in an image of a God removed from the depths of human suffering. Wading in the darkness, I am more prone to lean into the laments of Jeremiah (Lamentations 2:11), the moan of Rachel (Matthew 2:18), and the tears of Christ (John 11:35). I find myself humming the melodies of spirituals, hymns, and freedom songs that fortified the ancestors and elders of my community. It is then that I remember that in the circular nature of time, I am never alone in my lament.
This sense of shared lament is part of what faith traditions can offer those in suffering. And yet, one of the more painful parts of this year of violence has been the aloneness I have felt in the relative silence on this issue from some of my Christian brothers and sisters. I have been reminded that American Christianity has often been complicit in the complex web of white supremacy. The emergence of a theology of white supremacy during the colonial era of our nation’s history tilled the soil that allowed strange fruit to become such a profitable crop. Central to the tenets of this theology was the construction of black people not as humans but as cursed objects who were to be conquered and ruled over. For centuries, the name of Christ was used as a tool to inflict physical, psychological, economic, and social violence on black people. Slavery was justified through theological means. Terrorists groups like the Klu Klux Klan were founded as “Christian” organizations. The social issue that prompted the rise of the Christian Right was not abortion, but the racial integration of public schools.
The legacy of this perversion of the gospel continues today in the de-humanization of black people both in Christian spaces and in the use of self-proclaimed Christian rhetoric in the public square. I would argue that the theology that allows some white Christians to “opt-out” of the national conversation on race and violence because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient is at its core the same that allows George Zimmerman to rationalize his killing of Trayvon Martin as “God’s plan.” Both use deflection to deny an undeniable fact: American Christianity is implicated in the white supremacy and institutional racism that allows some of its members to prosper while others are denied their basic humanity.
The current state of affairs is bleak indeed. I can certainly understand why some might break with religion altogether. But part of my mission as a minister and founder of the Faith Matters Network is to recover religious traditions as sources of positive social change even as they have been co-opted and twisted in the past for oppressive ends. One of my organization’s central aims is to put the power of interfaith organizing into action, but from my own location as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ I can share with disillusioned Christians that I remain a prisoner of hope. Hope is not the same as optimism. My hope is a resurrection hope. A hope born out of the suffering of Maundy Thursday, the pain and uncertainty of Good Friday, and the silence of Holy Saturday. My hope remembers that in order for the promise of a reconciled world to manifest we must, like the women in Luke 24, go to the tomb — a site of death. We must go to sites of death like Baltimore, Ferguson, North Charleston, Cleveland, and Staten Island where black blood was sacrificed on altars ofpavement and playgrounds to appease the gods of white supremacy.
When my fellow Christians and I go to the tomb, I suspect that we will find, like the women, that Jesus is no longer there. Jesus is in the world. Jesus is weeping alongside mothers who will never again know the warmth of their child’s embrace because their lives were cut tragically short. Jesus is marching in the streets lovingly calling systems of power to accountability. May we be brave enough to join him.