One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses. -James Baldwin to Angela Davis.*
Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” (lyrics)
Last night, the state of Georgia, with the blessing of the highest court in the nation, executed Troy Davis despite evidence showing that Davis’ guilt was not established “beyond the shadow of a doubt.” It was, as some have said, a judicial lynching. Over a million signatures were collected to oppose the execution, and protesters showed solidarity in protests as far away as Paris:
(By World Coalition Against the Death Penalty from Paris, France (Paris Die-in, July 2, 2008) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
As Billie Holiday sings: “Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh/Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.“
In her book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, feminist anti-racist philosopher icon Angela Y. Davis argues that “[what] gives [jazz and] the blues such fascinating possibilities…is the way they often construct seemingly antagonistic relationships as noncontradictory opposites.”* Ultimately, she shows that it is possible to interpret “prominent recording artists of the African-American past as helping to forge other legacies—blues legacies, black working class legacies—of feminism.”
In “Strange Fruit,” Holiday juxtaposes grotesque, violent imagery with “pastoral scenes of the gallant South.” Beauty and death are not bygone Southern characteristics; they are with us today.
Last night, as word spread about the ruling, I remembered those many times standing outside Raleigh’s Central Prison to protest as executions were conducted in the middle of the night. Every time, without fail, I would wake up the next morning to a bright, beautiful, sunny Chapel Hill day.
There was never any of the Biblical imagery that the day seemed to warrant. No opened earth, no oppressive cloud cover, no angry lightning bolts. People smiling and laughing in the sun. It is small comfort that today, in Jackson, Georgia, the weather appears likely to respect the somber occasion.
Someone on Twitter last night wrote, “I have to believe in a higher power because I don’t believe in people.” I am not so sure that I believe in either, though I do believe in some sort of redemptive spirit—secular or not—that moves in music. Please listen to Sweet Honey in the Rock’s performance of “Ella’s Song” (lyrics contained in video) as an example:
The song is a tribute to late Civil Rights activist Ella Baker. The women sing “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” and in 2011, for far too many, it still has not come.
The song has the call-and-response structure of black gospel music, but it places women in the center of anti-racist struggle. It reminds us that we are not to stand down “until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons/Is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons.”
In this song, there is no question that the subaltern speaks: “I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard/At times I can be quite difficult, I’ll bow to no man’s word.” The lyrics challenge the traditional Christian belief that women belong in the private, not public, sphere. The narrator is willing to take on additional social stigma—to be “quite difficult”—if that’s what it takes to claim her place in struggle.
But this is not individualistic white US feminism. Rather, the only thing that sustains action in the face of unfreedom is community: “Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light to shine on me/I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny.”
This is a dark day for the US, and while grieving is important, we must have renewed motivation today. I don’t believe in people in general these days, but I do believe in the ongoing history of those who fought and sometimes died for freedom. All of us living in the South today stand in their wake, and we honor Troy Davis by picking up the fight.
Please join me in signing Amnesty’s pledge to oppose the death penalty in the US, and find out how you can get involved. And if you can, donate to grassroots anti-racist organizations Project South,** a grassroots Southern organization fighting to undo the worst legacies of our beautiful, blighted lynching country.***
*Baldwin, James (2010). The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (p. 207). Pantheon. Kindle Edition.
***h/t Katie Mulligan, for the Baldwin quote and the songs.