Dear Hope Sings readers, thank you for your patience during my long hiatus from writing for this blog, mainly due to technical difficulties — my university-issued laptop was under quarantine due to a cyber-attack. Prompted by recent events in Washington, I return to the blog with this brief remembrance of singer Billie Holiday, first posted four years ago, on the 100th anniversary of her birth.
No matter your political or partisan commitments, anyone who would defend the use of the term “lynching” to describe “what is happening” to the president today, as the president himself and some of his stalwart defenders did, ought to understand that such a conflation does grave damage to our already tenuous and deeply fractured democracy. It bears witness yet again to that terrifyingly accurate dictum, “History is written by the victors.” It is Pontius Pilate, reincarnated in our president’s virulent narcissism, standing over Jesus, mocking the very notion of truth.
The artist here, like Jesus on the cross, unveils the truth, directly, devastatingly, apocalyptically, shattering the executioner’s illusion of innocence. The difference between Pontius Pilate and President Donald Trump, however, is notable: Pilate was haunted by his encounter with Jesus. Our president has not a shadow of Pilate’s conscience.
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In remembering any great artist, prophet, mystic, or saint, there is always a risk of appropriating that person’s memory in ways that diminish, smooth over, “whitewash,” or draw their sting.
We prefer to remember Dr. King for his beautiful “Dream” of a future in which American children are measured not by the color of their skin but by “the content of their character.” We are less inclined to remember King’s disturbing prophetic judgment on our society for its enduring sins of economic inequality, crippling poor people of all races, and the hidden ways that peoples of color continue to suffer disproportionately from a deeply embedded military-industrial economy–and today, we would have to add a sprawling prison-industrial complex.
How a society remembers, remembers selectively, or forgets its greatest artists, cultural heroes,and prophets, reveals not a little about the depth and range of its cultural imagination and collective conscience.
Billie Holiday was born 100 years ago, April 7, 2015. I cannot claim anything like a deep or broad knowledge of her life and artistic genius. I own a near complete four volume set of her recordings. I occasionally play her music as I write, such that her voice has seeped into my consciousness, maybe like rainwater, as it soaks and disappears into receptive earth. I’m sure countless others would say the same.
For readers of Hope Sings, So Beautiful, and this blog, it will not surprise that one song in particular has soaked into and subsequently transformed my consciousness, as it has for many other admirers of Billie Holiday’s legacy. It is, of course, her 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit,” an early and devastating cry for civil rights, searing itself on the national consciousness, conscience, and memory.
To remember — in this case, a song about lynching — is indeed a dangerous and beautiful thing, an act of lament, a prayer for reparation, justice, and solidarity. For me, the song remains a piercing cry to remember all the hidden and forgotten ones, past and present, and to allow our hearts and feet to be moved into mourning, and loving action. God, I believe, shares our lament, and gives the strength to mend these wounds, if we ask.
It is enough to pause this day, and be grateful for the life and legacy of Billie Holiday. And perhaps to ask further: who are the hidden and forgotten and lynched ones of our times? Who are the artists that give them a voice? Are we listening?
Postscript: A wonderful remembrance here of Abel Meeropol, “The Strange Story of the Man Who Wrote ‘Strange Fruit,'” including footage of Holiday singing the song.