The great jazz singer Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” on April 20, 1939. It is a song about lynchings, inspired by the 1930 murder of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, who were photographed, like in the words of the song, “hanging from the poplar trees.” Holiday sang the song so often and it meant so much to her that she apparently came to believe she co-wrote it. She didn’t. Abel Meeropol wrote it. He was a Bronx high school teacher — white, Jewish and, not uncommon at the time, a communist. Now, maybe, he would be called a “cultural appropriator.”
The term, both understandable and repugnant, is in vogue on account of two well-publicized incidents. The first involved New York’s Whitney Museum, which displayed a painting called “Open Casket.” It depicted the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was tortured and murdered by two white men, purportedly for whistling at a white woman. This was Mississippi, 1955.
The painting by Dana Schutz was immediately denounced for cultural appropriation. One of the accusers, a Berlin-based artist named Hannah Black, said that Till’s lynching was black “subject matter.” She demanded, in an inadvertent homage to cultural appropriation, that the painting be not only taken down but also destroyed — exactly what the Nazis had done with art they labeled “degenerate.” (Hitler favored Teutonic kitsch.) Others simply denounced Schutz for the effrontery of addressing the subject of black trauma. In fact, she said she was addressing the subject of maternal trauma — the pain of Till’s mother, who had insisted on an open casket so the world could see what was done to her son.
The second incident involved a sculpture called “Scaffold.” It depicted the gallows used in various executions, including the hanging of 38 Dakota Indians in 1862. The piece was exhibited at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center and was quickly protested by about 100 Native Americans as insensitive. The artist, Sam Durant, who said he was showing the “racial dimension of the criminal justice system,” did not put up a fight. He had the work taken down and destroyed.
In both cases, I can appreciate the emotion behind the protests. But emotion is not thought. Neither the execution of the Indians nor the lynching of Till is owned exclusively by a particular community. These were American outrages, committed by Americans against Americans — and I, for one, will not be shut out. I was horrified by Till’s murder when it happened — I was the same age as Till — and the event is seared into my memory as a frightening realization: This can really happen in my country?
The concept of cultural appropriation is nothing less than an intellectual fence: Keep out. If it had been adhered to, then Richard Fariña would not have written “Birmingham Sunday” after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 that took the lives of four girls. (The song was recorded by Joan Baez.) Bob Dylan could not have written about Hattie Carroll, the black barmaid who was killed by a drunk white patron in 1963. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” speaks to both race and class. It is as much “An American Tragedy” as Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel.
We are a nation of cultural mutts — a point made brilliantly by Ann Douglas in her book “Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s.” Irving Berlin and other Jewish songwriters of Tin Pan Alley were influenced by the black music and musicians of New York. As Elvis Presley was decades later, they were clearly “appropriators,” but what could they do? Ignore what they were hearing? No, they were musical aggregators, as was, in his own way, Antonin Dvorak, a 19th-century Czech classical composer who either incorporated an American spiritual in his Symphony No. 9 or, as seems more likely, inspired one. Either way, it’s a great tune.
“Strange Fruit” had a powerful effect on those who heard it. David Margolick, who wrote a book about the song, quotes several white and black cultural figures who attest to its evocative power and how, in the words of the music impresario Ahmet Ertegun, “it was the beginning of the civil rights movement.” Whites, in the boozy comfort of some club, were confronted by lynchings for the first time. One listener told Margolick, “It tore your heart out.” But it was the picture of Shipp and Smith, “ Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze ,” that did that for Abel Meeropol — a white, a communist and, thank God, a cultural appropriator.
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