Powerful protest song inspires series of lithographs
“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.”
So goes the first stanza of a poem written by Abel Meeropol and eventually set to music by the poet himself. That song attracted the attention of Billie Holliday, who, against the wishes of her record label and her producer, made a recording in 1939. The record sold a million copies that year and became a staple of the singer’s subsequent live performances.
Meeropol, a high school teacher in the Bronx, once said that the poem and song were his response to the horror he felt when he saw for the first time a Lawrence Beitler photograph of the lynching of two African-American men in Marion, Ind. Accused of murder and rape, the two men were dragged from the jail and, with the aid of the police, hanged from a nearby tree. The arms of one of the lynching victims were broken so that he would stop struggling against his assailants; in the photo, which became a popular and gruesome commemorative item – the photographer sold thousands of copies at 50 cents each – the bodies of both men hang limply from the tree branches while a jubilant crowd mills in the foreground.
“Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.”
Art can often spring from pain. That is the impetus for the song “Strange Fruit,” and it is also the inspiration for a series of lithographs created by contemporary African-American artist Joseph Norman and bearing the same collective title. Each of the 13 black and white lithographs in this series features a limp fish suspended in air; they offer excellent examples of the artist’s evolving aesthetic. In a recent lecture at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, where this series of lithographs is on display, Norman spoke of growing up in the 1950s in what he himself referred to as the Chicago “ghetto.” Even with the support of his parents, every day posed new challenges, and Norman put his faith in his natural athletic abilities to clear the path to a better life. A knee injury crushed that dream, and he suddenly found himself without a plan and essentially without an identity. He had always been the star athlete; now what was he supposed to do?
He turned to art, and for his subject matter, he chose the impoverished and essentially segregated neighborhood in which he lived. Norman claims that he eventually came to realize that even in that unlikely place, beauty dwells. His basic approach he came to label “poetic realism.”
The “Strange Fruit” series offers a good example. Instead of making the viewer confront head-on the gritty reality of the situation – in this case, the battered remains of the lynching victim – Norman has provided a visual metaphor – a partially decomposed fish on a string. It’s a powerful image, one with religious overtones, that takes an act of ultimate inhumanity and transforms the brutalized victim into a holy martyr.
Art also has served as a transformative force in Joseph Norman’s own life. It prompted him to pursue further education; in fact, he eventually earned two master’s degrees, one in art education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and one in drawing from the University of Cincinnati. He is now a professor at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia, and his works are part of the permanent collection of over 50 museums, colleges and other institutions.
“Strange Fruit” is on display at the Morris Museum of Art through Sunday, Sept. 16. The oldest museum in the country devoted to the art of the American South, the Morris is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call (706) 724-7501 or visit www.themorris.org.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Mack currently holds the G. L. Toole Chair at the University of South Carolina Aiken.