This thesis explores the works from the two writers of Billie Holiday “Strange Fruit” and Richard Wrights, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” The concept of prejudice and injustice emerges explicitly from the two texts when the collection of these works is read. In order to explain the similarity and dissonance of the two text, the lesson learned, titles and contexts of both works are discussed. In this pape, the two writers have explored various points of view in order to recognize the drawbacks and calls for the end of such barbaric actions by injustice and racism in the African american community. First, the titles of the two works are examined. Looking at the title of the song “strange fruit”, the significant meaning is created. The song compares black people to the strange fruit, identifying them as a “bitter crop” (Clegg 375). The song depicts the scene of the lynching of blacks by creating a picture of “a fruit hanging from a tree” (Clegg 375). The black bodies are portrayed as “strange fruits” which Southern trees bear since in the south most lynchings were carried out by hanging people on trees. Brown and Brown identified that the song is a terrifying protest against the inhuman acts of oppression and racism, condemning lynching (mob justice) of the black Americans frequently happening in the southern America during that time (55). The song brings to light about the dark past and attempts to show the contrast between cruel actions and oppressive nature of the white men towards the black people. The blacks are quite different from the whites. For example, whites are portrayed as beautiful while blacks are described as gawk and monstrous figures.
Also, investigating the title of the essay “the ethics of living Jim Crow”, Wrights is seen talking about his life as a black young man growing up in the south and living in the time periods of extreme racism and oppression. Delgado and Stefancic opined that during this period of racial inequality and segregation, blacks were regarded as completely inferior (164). They had no chance to survive or freely live in the white dominated society. The blacks would struggle beginning from the day they are born to their death trying to please the white people, though at the same time trying to show that they are also people. From the time he is a young boy, Wright is seen learning how to please the white man. He attends an inferior school (Jim Crow education) that does not give a great education, something contrary to their white counterparts (Wright 92). In many times in this essay, Wright is seen stick between a hard place and a rock and has no way of getting out of any kind of brutal oppressive and racial acts planned for him. There are many instances he is attacked for not behaving or speaking properly to the white man. With the theme of racism and oppression, the white man is playing a role of domination. This is the way things must be. The white man is superior and does everything to create a conflict, though avoid acknowledging that since he is the top of the society.
Now looking at the contexts of the works, Billie recorded this song based on the context of the suffering black Americans. Through her song, Billie depicts about the lynching of the black people in the southern America during the first half of the 20th century. It is estimated that there were about 4,000 lynching in the first half of the century before 1940, and the majority of the victims were the black people from the south (Brown and Brown 43). The lynching reached the peak in the south in the 1930s. Although singing the song made her fearful of retaliation; Billie initially performed the song in 1939 to unearth the inhumaneness of oppression and racism in the south. Thus Billie sang the song as a way of condemning the inhuman acts of the white men of lynching the black people.
Wrights talks about his life as a black young man growing up as a black male in the south while racism and oppression were always rampant. Wright shares his stories of living in the time of Jim Crow laws, thus trying to inform readers about the horrors of white oppression and racism (Delgado and Stefancic 72). Unlike the environment where white boys live, Wright lives in an environment where does not have the advantages of trees or hedge to hide behind. The white boys have the privilege of having nice houses and are of higher social class compared to the cinder home backyard of the black community. Wright reveals a punishment that his mother gave him by describing, “She would slap my buttock with the stave, and whereas my skin is still painful, she imparts gems of Jim Crow wisdom to me” (Wright 27). His mother stops his punishment by informing him that he should be grateful to God for his life for the white boys did not kill him. Rather than being angry with the sad situation, Wright is compelled to accept his social status as being inferior to the white culture and be grateful to them for not making the situation worse.
Conflict is evident in the song as white men attack blacks. Thus a key concern is to understand why is this happening? Such atrocities occurred because of racial inequality. Brown and Brown explained that white people feel more superior to blacks, and that attitude of domination influenced them to oppress the blacks brutally (33). The song protested against racism, seen through lynching of the blacks.
Also, conflict is seen in the essay. In the first time, Wright faces white oppression when he is a child whereby he and his friends involved in a fight with a company of white boys. In this fight, Wright notices the “terrible drawbacks of a cinder environment” (i.e. the poor environment where blacks live) compared to the white boys “hedges, trees, and sloping ridges of their lawns” (Wright 12). He discovers not only the social inequalities of his environment but also physical disadvantages of it. Wright’s company of friends throws harmless cinders at the group of white boys whereas the white boys throw glass bottles at them and consequently hit Wright, making him bleed. When he informs his mother about the story, she slaps him and asks him why he did not hide instead of engaging with them in the fight. Delgado and Stefancic identified that white domination serves vital purposes, both material and psychic (49). Wright is good in covering both the material and psychic purposes behind white oppression in his initial experience in living with Jim Crow laws. In terms of material goods, the white culture is superior with their better hedge, lawn environment and despite using dangerous weapons in the fight. Besides that, the whites are at the advantage psychically because even if Wright is a victim in the fight, he is told by the rest of the society including his mother that he is wrong and not the white boys.
Regarding lesson learned the song calls for the end of racial oppression. The song reveals intolerance and injustices caused by racism and oppression. Billie wanted to people to understand how immense the plight and the sorrow of the blacks were. She wanted to demonstrate how white people behaved callously with racist and oppressive attitude – running with the mob (i.e. the act of mob justice) and closing up ears and eyes – with the intention that they would change their behavior if they simply understand better (Clegg 376). Thus Billie played a significant role in reconstructing black identity in America.
Also, important lessons are learned in the “ethics of living Jim Crow”. Wright gives accounts of his life events where he had to learn the difficult ways about oppression and racism. In the entire story, Wright has to learn how to deal with white oppression so that to stay out of trouble in the white dominant culture. Based on the immense power that white people had over the black people, it is evident to understand why it was difficult for black people to gain civil rights and be regarded equal by the white culture (Delgado and Stefancic 97). Wright shares his life accounts of difficulties he encountered as he grew up being the minority and the views the society held during that time. He does a good job by showing the material and psychic disadvantages which were caused by white racist and oppressive attitude towards black Americans during the time of Jim Crow.
Having explored the two selected texts, the similarity and dissonance are highlighted. The two texts are similar in the sense that they talk about the oppressive and racist attitude of white men towards the blacks, and the incidences of such problems majorly occurred in the southern America. The song portrays a despair and powerfulness of a time when blacks had little political power and few legal rights. The song condemns the inhuman acts of the white racism and oppression. On the other hand, through his autobiographical account, Wright wants readers to understand the difficulties that the blacks went through in the hands of white men during early in America’s history. Both the two texts pass the same message that is to advocate the end of racism and oppression of the blacks.
Brown, Anthony and Brown, Keffrelyn. “Strange fruit indeed: interrogating contemporary textbook representations of racial violence towards African Americans”. Teachers college record, vol.112, no.1, 2003, pp.31-67.
Clegg, Stewart. “Strange fruit hanging from the knowledge tree: carry on carping.” Management learning, vol.34, no.3, 2003, pp.375-378.
Delgado, Richard and Stefancic, Jean. Critical race theory: an introduction. New York: New York University Press, 2001.
Wright, Richard. The ethics of living Jim Crow: an autobiographical sketch. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2005.