Strange Fruit


On Sunday night, November 25th, James Cone appeared as a guest on Bill Moyers’ Journal. Cone discussed his work on race and religion in America and offered a provocative account of lynching as a type of crucifixion. I turned back the pages in my mind to Donald Mathews’ challenging article “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice” that appeared in the Journal of Southern Religion vol 3 (2000). (More recently, Ed Blum has analyzed these connections in W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet, 2007). Cone’s comments on the subject were powerful:

BILL MOYERS: That old Billie Holiday number that--that we played, Strange Fruit-"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 tree." I mean, nobody sings that anymore. You don't hear it. But, yet, that is deep in our DNA, is it not?

JAMES CONE: Yes, it's deep. Because lynching is so deep. And that song is about lynching. It's about black bodies hanging on trees. And that's deep in the American experience. . . .
The lynching tree is transcendent of defeat. And that's why the cross and the lynching tree belong together. That's why I have to talk about the lynching tree. Because Christians can't understand what's going on at the cross until they see it through the image of a lynching tree with black bodies hanging there.


JAMES CONE: Because the Christian Gospel is a transvaluation of values. Something you cannot anticipate in this world, in this history. But, it empowers the powerless. It is-- what do you mean by power in the powerless? That's what God is. Power in the powerless.

Lynching is, says Cone, something that Americans must come to terms with. It will help “break our silence on race in American history.” Cone looks back to Reinhold Niebuhr’s timely classic, The Irony of American History. That book still allows Americans to understand that they are, in fact, not innocent.

JAMES CONE: The core of it is, is helping America get over its innocence. Helping America to see itself through the eyes of people from the bottom. And you see, America likes to think of itself as innocent. And we are not. No human being is innocent.

Of course, that’s exactly why Niebuhr appealed to C. Vann Woodward, who incorporated some of Niebuhr’s ideas into his essay “The Irony of Southern History,” a piece that still resonates. Niebuhr, too, is no less relevant today. Niebuhr’s legacy, like that of Winston Churchill, is claimed by both conservatives and liberals.

I can think of little that sheds light on the many ironies of American history and American religious history more starkly than the subject of lynching.


Art Remillard said…
I may have already linked this, but I really enjoyed the Speaking of Faith show on Reinhold Niebuhr. Here's the link:
Anonymous said…
Orlando Patterson has done some great work on religion and lynching too. So has W. Scott Poole in a collection entitled _Vale of Tears: New Essays on Religion and Reconstruction_ that he and I edited.
Phil said…
Powerful interview. For the classroom, perhaps clips of the 2006 film _Color of the Cross_ may prompt interesting discussions, as will some of Du Bois's shorter Crisis essays (e.g., "The Gospel According to Mary Brown" and "The Son of God") found in Phil Zuckerman's reader. Interested readers may also wish to consult James Perkinson's work on white theology.

For the larger context of lynching and religion segments of Edward J. Blum's recent Du Bois biography are an absolute must--particulalry since he argues Du Bois preceded Cone as the father of black theology (among other important arguments).
Randall said…
A few other videos on the subject that are a good fit for the classroom:

The _Tell About the South_ documentary has a nice clip on Lilian Smith:

PBS's _This Far By Faith: African American Spiritual Journeys_ is appropriate also. Though that's not an easy film to get:

_Briars in the Cotton: The Story of Koinonia Farm_
Kelly J. Baker said…
Elizabeth Grace Hale's work handles lynching in regards to whiteness, and she hints around religion. She documents several famous lynchings and focuses upon the issues of consumption.

For my next project after my diss. (which I have to finish promptly to move to a next project), I am going to examine the lynching of Claude Neal in Marianna, FL (my hometown) to examine issues of religious consumption of the bodies of victims. I agree with the previous comments that this is a topic that needs to be much explored.

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