Monica Johnson
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♪ Southern trees bear a strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees ♪ I read an article the other day that claimed "Strange Fruit" killed Billie Holiday. Journalist Eudie Pak etched a complex epitaph to the legendary singer's legacy and tortured relationship with the American federal government. Pak outlined how a poet, Abel Meeropol, wrote a poem after coming across a photo that documented a 1930s lynching of two Black men in Indiana. Indiana, which would be the epicenter to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and just so happens to be where we are today. Pak outlined how Meerapol turned that poem into a song and ushered it into the hands of Billie Holiday herself. And Billie Holiday? She was particular. You see, she demanded that when she did that piece, the world stopped and listened. She always wanted the lights low. She wanted the room to be quiet, so she demanded there be no service - not even at the bar. Billie wanted the world to stop and listen, stop and listen to ... a Black woman's truth. So I did. I played that song, and I listened. And at first, I took the words at face value. Southern trees - poplars, weeping willows, magnolias - like the ones I grew up climbing in my grandmother's yard in Mississippi, they had a nasty habit of hanging the broken and twisted bodies of my kinfolk like ornaments on Christmas trees. I thought of the countless number of Black women who stood in the shadows and watched the fruit that they bore and nurtured hung for the spectacle of White family picnics. Billie Holiday made me listen. Not only to her truth or those Black women's truth but to a truth that I personally had repressed, a truth of my own strange moment: the moment when I met my first White friend. So in the second grade, I transitioned to my first of many dominantly White private schools. First, Presbyterian day school. And every day, my grandfather, who was born in the 1920s, would get up and proudly drive me 20 minutes to an ultra-White Jackson, Mississippi, neighborhood for me to attend a school that he never would have been able to. I was one of three Black children in my class. There were no Black teachers. A lady who went to church with me helped out in the kindergarten room as an assistant, and there were two Black ladies who ran the cafeteria, and I loved them, (Laughter) but everybody else that looked like me either cleaned bathrooms or cut grass. My classmates, they were real comfortable. Most of them lived in the neighborhood that surrounded the school, the same neighborhood that would be chosen as the backdrop for the 2011 critically acclaimed and treacherously problematic film "The Help." I was an interloper here, and I was aware of it from the very first moment. So one day, I was able to meet my first White friend, a young girl who sat next to me in class and shared my table at the lunchroom and played with me on the playground. And at the end of the day, we walked out to the pickup line together. And I watched her run to the loving arms of a beautiful Black woman with a sweet smile. And unaware of all of the politics surrounding race and gender and class associated with domestic labor in my hometown and probably influenced by watching one too many episodes of "The Young and the Restless," I assumed that that Black lady was my friend's mom. So when I went home that day, I went to my grandmother, and I said, "Ooh, guess what? I got another Black friend. She real light-skinned, but I got another Black friend." (Laughter) And I remember the pain in my grandmother's face as she had to explain to me that Black woman's truth. She said that she was my friend's mammy. Mammy? "Mammy" is a term that predates the American Civil War and is firmly grounded in American slavery. It was used to gloss over the way that African-American women were required, during that time, to love and nurture and raise generations of White children who would grow to ... own them. And some say that those children would also grow to love them. But can you love someone you own? I remember thinking through all of these weird feelings and not understanding how bondage could be cloaked in love or hate could be hidden behind an amorous smile, so at the first opportunity, I went to my friend the next day. And now, you know you can't talk nowhere but the playground. And I said, "Wasn't that Black lady that picked you up yesterday your mama?" (Laughter) And with a benign smile, she said, "No," and explained that that lady was indeed her mammy. I had more questions, so I asked, "Well, what does she do for you?" And she explained to me the way that lady washed her clothes and cooked her food and put her to bed and got her dressed in the morning and dropped her off at school and, yes, picked her up every day in such a loving way. So I followed up with one more question: "Well, if I come to your house to play, would I have to be your mammy too?" And with sincerity, she said, "I don't know." That conversation at the bottom of a jungle gym is an ever-present accoutrement to my existence as an ethnically African American, racially Black woman in the United States of America. It seems to find a way to attach itself in unwritten ways to every relationship or professional opportunity that I have, an expectation that my purpose, despite academic pedigree or intellectual capability, is tied to taking care of "all Massa's chillin." I felt helpless and bound to a strange Black existence in a big White world. And as I listened to Billie Holiday, it reminded me of how ... the world started to look different, how I could see the elements of race and racism actively in play at every stop, and how the compounding nature of my race and my gender separated me from opportunities that other people seemed to access so easily. I had no idea that at this same time in history, legal scholars were calling these things "critical race theory" and "intersectionality." People like Derek Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw were putting words to feelings that I was living in the second grade! And here's Billie, singing this song, making me listen. But Billie Holiday wasn't a legal scholar. But she had that power to make you hear and see truth. ♪ 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 the tree to drop ♪ They say that the American government ordered the killing of Billie Holiday because they wanted her to stop singing that song because she had a little bit too much power to make people listen. And people were starting to hear that America was operating on politics that were unequal. And I mourned for Billie. And I mourned for me. And I mourned for the strange fruit. And I mourned for the tree. Because Black women and trees have a similar affliction. You see, we are destined to bear and tell truth in a world socially constructed to rely on us for the structure of their families and homes and cultural identities and businesses, but to discard us like scrap paper in the end. I am Black. And I am a woman. And I am Southern. Therefore I am a Southern tree. Fruit turned to seed and planted into fertile soil, sprouting to sapling and breaking through to meet a hostile world. I have been nurtured and throttled in this thing called life. And I meet the sun. And I sprout limbs and leaves and deeper roots for protection, and I bear and shade a fruit that the world is determined to consider strange. But I am Black. And I am a woman. And I am Southern. And I shall not ... be moved. Thank you. (Applause and cheers)