James Baldwin and the Strange Fruit Hanging…

By: Bill Whaley
13 March, 2017

The Magnolia Pictures Raoul Peck directed I am not your Negro features the philosophical insights of James Baldwin’s commentary on the death of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and depicts the journey of race and confrontation with reality, the tragic reality of American history. As Baldwin says, you can’t understand the present without knowing the past, a past that haunts America with the Strange Fruit referred to in the Billie Holiday song, the fruit hanging from tree limbs. (See Baldwin’s essays in the collection The Devil Finds Work  for background and foreground.)

When Baldwin himself isn’t speaking directly in documentary footage, Samuel Jackson narrates in steady tones from Baldwin’s insightful essays about popular culture and the myth-making movies that perpetuate White Supremacy. Black and white footage from the fifties and sixties depicts civil rights conflict. The devilish images caught on television in Birmingham, Little Rock, and Selma are juxtaposed to the recent images of riots in places like Ferguson. Images of young black men, current casualties of the race wars, are juxtaposed to the courageous black school kids facing down white mobs while integrating schools in the old-new South.

The documentary is both chillingly real and exquisitely artful in its effects. One experiences the arousal of rage and purgation of fear as Evers, Malcolm, and King sacrifice their lives for justice. One also sees hope in Baldwin as witness and spokesman in the prophetic tradition. For Baldwin’s art lies in his willingness to free his perspective  in his language while also shaping his prose to accommodate the Black and White experience. Yet he doesn’t let anyone off the hook.

What costs politicians, academics, and social scientists reams of commentary Baldwin, a classic modern essayist, manages to say in a few words. He speaks eloquently with the voice of authority. As he notes, nobody knows the dangers evoked by the presence of the White Man better than the Black Man, whose life and children are born at risk from birth due to the color of skin (except for the Native American and Mexican. The White Man in America is a danger to others and himself).

The “black images” presented in the documentary range from white to off-white to cream-colored and shades of black: the visages gradually forming a panorama of chiaroscuro. The true horror of slavery comes to mind when one realizes that the “Strange Fruit” hanging from trees constitutes the collective children, the descendants of white and black Americans: children lynched by their own fathers and brothers due to “miscegenation.”

The rise of White Supremacy today can be seen in the White House, the Cabinet, the Justice Department, and the Congress. See the increasing violence aimed at Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, women, and the GLBT community. Given the current health care proposal, the white working class is next.

For members of Congress and the White House seek to cut back on medical services for the needy in favor of tax breaks for the wealthy. The tools of violence tested abroad on terrorists are being used to arm the police state as the elites transform citizens, especially college students, who have mortgaged their bodies with the chains of indebtedness, into indentured servitude.

Martin Luther King says in Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all… One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly…I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.”

One could ask if the Congress and White House have any sense of human decency, “any conscience” at all?

For the lawless Agent Orange, his White Supremacists, the fanatical Ayn Rand Speaker of the House, the Dead Man Walking Majority Leader in the Senate all appear to be using the Health Care system, like the aberrant immigration laws, as a rationale to roundup and/or cure to re-create us all in the image of Strange Fruit.

King reminds us of our duty to resist and Baldwin serves as witness. I am not Your Negro can be compared favorably to Gillo Pontecorvo’s enduring Battle of Algiers. But the fire this time is about America burning.

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