One of the distinguishing features of Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit (1939) is its politicized lyrics, radically differentiating from the pop genre as a whole, with its more light-hearted and banal themes. The text was written by a Jewish man, Abel Meeropol, whose intent is explicit in the work, protesting the treatment of blacks in the American south, most especially critiquing the lynchings performed by whites. The document provides a critical viewpoint into the racial injustices of the American South characteristic of the time period in which it was written. Meeropol’s text coincides with a specific historical context and political problem: the inhumane violence against blacks, while also fitting within a larger genre of art as form of socio-political protest.
That the text itself was not written by an African-American, but rather by a Jewish-American, does not diminish the authenticity of the text’s protest. Rather, one can speculate that Meeropol, as a member of historically prosecuted group, makes a step outside of the negative experiences of his own community, so as to grasp a more universal and humanist viewpoint on all injustices committed against minorities. Meeropol in this sense is influenced by his shared status as a minority and experiences of injustice. In Strange Fruit it was as though Meeropol attempts to give voice to the minority population, expressing the inequalities that were present in American society during his time period. That these inequalities often took a violent form corresponds to the violent lyrics of Strange Fruit, which themselves do not attempt to generally refrain from directly referring to the subject matter at hand (i.e., consider the powerful lyric: “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze”): the explicit inequalities of the social system are mirrored in the explicit lyrics of Meeropol’s text.
At the same time, Meeropol’s usage of metaphor, comparing the lynchings to fruit on a tree should not be interpreted as merely the poet employing his normal tools. Metaphor implies a hidden and subtle connection, which means that explicit Southern racism is also the result of implicit widespread racism. Namely, such violence could only continue if it was permitted by society itself. Meeropol is identifying a radically racist society, in particular in the American South, both on individual levels, made clear in those performing the lynchings, and also on a systematic and political level, insofar as these acts are on-going. Meeropol’s necessity for writing the text follows from a failure to address this question and therefore he attempts to bring attention to the issue.
Certainly, this systematic racism does not entail that alternative viewpoints were present within society, as is made evident by Meeropol providing one such alternative perspective. Furthermore, the emphasis on the American South in particular identifies a clear cultural/social difference from North and South. This is not to suggest that racism was absent in the North, but that this racism was more explicit in the South.
Meeropol’s lyrics therefore discuss the unresolved issues of racism in American cultural, which did not end with the end of the Civil War. This continued violent racism indicates a consistent historical problem in the U.S., equally shaped by the historical legacy of slavery. Through Meeropol’s text one sees the race issue as a key unresolved antagonism in the American historical consciousness, one that is arguably present today.