This place matters

This place matters

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Soundtrack of freedom

We don't know what was going through Billie Holiday's mind as she stood on the stage at Cafe Society, New York City's first integrated night club, that night in 1939. Maybe she was reflecting on how much she had to lose. She'd first been in trouble with the law at 9, when she'd been hauled into court for truancy and sentenced to nearly a year in reform school. At 11, she'd nearly been raped, only to spend another several months in protective custody at the same reform school. At 13, her mother forced her into prostitution, yet when the women's brothel was raided several months later, Billie Holiday served five months in prison to her mother's two.
Music had been Holiday's ticket out, but that night in 1939, the night she first performed  Abel Meeropol's Strange Fruit, could have ended it all. Meerpol had written the song in 1937, following the Indiana lynching of lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith a few years earlier. White jazz fans then liked black music a whole lot more than they liked black people. White audiences might not like being confronted with the reality of racism. But she sang it anyway. And audiences, most of them, loved it. 
I can't imagine that anything I will ever do in life will be as brave an act as Holiday's. 

Southern trees bear 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

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

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
--- Hollywood wasn't eager to take on Hitler. Even in the twilight of the 1930s, when it was becoming clear that Hitler might just be the human embodiment of evil, studios didn't want to touch Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. Indeed, no one would have blamed Charlie Chaplin for walking away from the film he'd written satirizing Hitler and the Nazi regime. Most of the folks in Peoria hoped to avoid getting into World War 2, and a decent number still thought those Nazis might be on to something. Then there was FBI's massive file on Chaplin; the little tramp would have been wise to stay off their radar. J. Edgar Hoover was already convinced that Chaplin was a communist, and these words from The Great Dictator's final monologue could only strengthen that conviction. 
I should like to help everyone if possible- Jew, Gentile, black men, white…
We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each others’ happiness, not by each other’s misery... In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls; has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. 
The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.
Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will!
Chaplin hoped that his magnum opus would shorten the coming war, and he didn't care about the consequences for him. He hoped it would wake America up to the atrocities they were so eager to ignore. I don't know if it did, but I do know I watch it every time I need a shot in the arm.

1 comment:

Susan Prendergast said...

Thank you.