Sunday, 22 November 2009

Two Trees and Jim Crow

I continue in my reading of “Trouble in Mind – Black Southerners in the age of Jim Crow” (Leon F. Litwack/Alfred A Knopf/ 1998). 

Litwack reveals that “Jim Crow” was frequently enforced by lynchings.

For instance he  records that in Sabine County, Texas, the Harkrider Drug Company published a postcard depicting the lynching of five blacks on June 15th 1908. This “poem” appeared under the picture.

This is only the branch of a Dogwood tree; An emblem of WHITE SUPREMACY.
A lesson once taught in the Pioneer's school, That this is a land of WHITE MAN'S RULE.
The Red Man once in an early day, Was told by the Whites to mend his way.
The negro, now, by eternal grace, Must learn to stay in the negro's place.
In the Sunny South, the Land of the Free, Let the WHITE SUPREME forever be.
Let this a warning to all negroes be, Or they'll suffer the fate of the DOGWOOD TREE.

In 1937 a New York school teacher, Abe Meeropol, saw a photo of another lynching. It led him, in 1939, to write this poem known as  Strange Fruit

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.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

I have often wondered if Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” was a conscious counterpoint to “The Dogwood Tree”.

Be that as it may, Meeropol’s poem was set to music and sung by Billie Holiday, to a haunting tune. I hope that you will be able to listen to it here

Lynching was not just “way back then”. See, for instance this story about the lynching of James Byrd in 1998

“Jim Crow” was also enforced by “law” 

That enforcement was also  not only “way back then”. The current Sherriff of Maricopa County in Arizona has honed it well. See

1 comment:

  1. Clifton Palmer McLendon19 August 2015 at 12:23

    "... in Sabine County, Texas, the Harkrider Drug Company published a postcard ..."

    The photograph was taken in Sabine County -- but Harkrider Drug was in Center, the county seat of SHELBY County.