There once was an Austin public relations firm named “Strange Fruit Public Relations.”
Then Twitter found out about it — and now no one knows what it’s going to be called, but it certainly won’t be sharing its name with the 1939 song recorded by Billie Holiday.
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,” the song goes, referring to the Jim Crow South’s epidemic of lynching. “Blood on the leaves, and blood at the root.” The fruit, of course, referred to the tortured, brutalized bodies of black men and women.
The subject of lynching is one that’s resurfaced recently as part of a larger conversation surrounding the deaths of unarmed black people. In August, Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer prize winner and author of “The Warmth of Other Suns” wrote in The Guardian:
The haunting symmetry of a death every three or four days links us to an uglier time that many would prefer not to think about, but which reminds us that the devaluation of black life in America is as old as the nation itself and has yet to be confronted. Beyond the numbers, it is the banality of injustice, the now predictable playing out of 21st Century convention – the swift killing, the shaming of the victim rather than inquiry into the shooter, the kitchen-table protest signs, twitter handles and spontaneous symbols of grievance, whether hoodies or Skittles or hands in the air, the spectacle of death by skin color. All of it connects the numbing evil of a public hanging in 1918 to the numbing evil of a sidewalk killing uploaded on YouTube in the summer of 2014.
Annie Lennox was recently criticized for not mentioning lynching in an interview with Tavis Smiley where she talked about her decision to cover “Strange Fruit.” It’s on her latest album, “Nostalgia.” The song may be 75 years old, but its metaphors, for many, are still fresh. Perhaps that freshness explains why the issue of the firm’s name came to head this weekend, even though it’s been around since 2012, and why Twitter reacted with such unrelenting force. Twitter users stormed the account of Strange Fruit Public Relations, wondering how it could be so tone-deaf.
@StrangeFruitPR For a PR firm, your chosen name is more than a little disturbing and quite racially insensitive. http://t.co/Y6nyYp1L58
— Paul A-D (@Robogeek) December 7, 2014
How could a public relations firm, of all companies, have picked a name with such ugly connotations? The irony was not lost:
Within hours, Strange Fruit PR had seemingly vanished from the Internet. Its Facebook and Twitter pages were nonexistent. Its Web site led to broken pages, and even its Google cache had been swept of nearly all evidence of its former presence.
The firm apologized in a statement to the Austin American-Statesman. “We were wrong,” the agency said. “We extend our deepest and sincerest apologies for the offense caused by the name of our public relations firm.”
The dragging Strange Fruit PR experienced on Twitter wasn’t so much about political correctness as it was about the ever-widening chasm between what blacks and whites are expected to know about the history of their country. It was reminiscent of the controversy that found singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco when she announced she was holding a retreat on a former slave plantation. That didn’t go well, either.
“We thought the name would be perfect for a hospitality PR firm that specializes in food and drink,” co-founder Mary Mickel told the American-Statesman. “We of course Googled to ensure that it was not taken elsewhere and found the Billie Holiday song online. Thinking it would have nothing to do with our firm, and since it was written in 1939 it wouldn’t be top of mind in the public consciousness. We now know we were naïve to think that, and should have known better.”
Mickel continued: “We received questions mostly on social media and we addressed each one immediately with our inspiration behind the name and our take,” she said, referring to inquiries the company had received since 2012. “Had we known the horrible connotations this name evokes, we would have never chosen it in the first place. We just didn’t get it, but now we do. We truly just wanted to encompass the uniqueness and creative individuality that our clients reflect. Our new name will reflect just that.”