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Strange Fruit...

The lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, 1930 [1]

Topics: Civics, Civil Rights, Diversity, Existentialism, Human Rights, Politics

On a hot August night in 1930 a crowd gathered in front of an Indiana jail — men, women, and children shouting and jeering, demanding that the sheriff release his three prisoners. Three African-American teenagers: Tom Shipp, Abe Smith, and James Cameron — huddled inside their cells, charged with the murder of a white man and the rape of a white woman.

Some among the thousands of people in front of the jail formed a mob. They beat down the jail doors, pulled the three youths from their cells, brutally beat them, and dragged them to a tree on the courthouse square. At the last minute the mob spared Cameron, the youngest and most boyish of the trio. Smith and Shipp died, lynch ropes around their necks, their bodies hanging as the town photographer captured one of the most famous lynching photographs in American history. They weren't even hung properly. They had a noose put around their neck and were then pulled up into the tree. And one of them tried to get free so they hauled him down, broke his arms and hauled him back up again.

The third person 16-year-old James Cameron, narrowly escaped lynching thanks to an unidentified participant who announced that he had nothing to do with the rape or murder. Cameron was moved out of town, convicted as an accessory to the murder and served four years in jail. After the lynching, Cameron became a very devout man and vividly describes this day in his autobiographical account “A Time of Terror”. He became an anti-lynching activist in Indiana and, later, Wisconsin — where he founded a Black Holocaust Museum. He believed that the voice that came from the crowd to save him was the voice of an angel. Cameron died on June 11, 2006, at the age of 92.

The picture was the inspiration for the poem “Strange Fruit” which was later put to song and popularized by the incredible Billy Holiday and became an early anthem for the burgeoning civil rights movement. Teacher/poet Abel Meeropol ran across this photo of the Shipp-Smith lynching a few years later in a magazine, and it so “haunted” him — his word — that he penned the anti-lynching poem “Strange Fruit”. [1]

*****

A contemporary of Kavanaugh's at Georgetown Prep told HuffPost the scene there included "14-, 15-, 16-year-olds, 17-year-old kids doing whatever the fuck they wanted to do, with no repercussions. Drugs everywhere. Partying everywhere. Drinking—just whatever we wanted to do. It was unbelievable, off the rails." At Yale, Kavanaugh belonged to a "secret society" that was basically a bunch of guys getting drunk together. To some extent, that's normal college nonsense, but after law school, Kavanaugh clerked for Alex Kozinski a federal judge later pushed out in disgrace after being accused of sexually harassing women he supervised, and showing pornography to his subordinates. (Kavanaugh has said he was unaware of this behavior, though Kozinski's nature doesn't seem to have been much of a secret; the judge ran an email list where he shared dirty jokes and stories.) When Kavanaugh was a judge himself, Amy Chua, the Yale professor most famous for writing Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, reportedly told her students it was "no accident" his female clerks "looked like models." (According to the Guardian, a student "reacted with surprise, and quickly pointed out that Chua’s own daughter was due to clerk for Kavanaugh. A source said that Chua quickly responded, saying that her own daughter would not put up with any inappropriate behavior.") [2]

*****

The Museum of African-American History and Culture is in part a catalog of cruelty. Amid all the stories of perseverance, tragedy, and unlikely triumph, there are the artifacts of inhumanity and barbarism: the child-size slave shackles, the bright red robes of the wizards of the Ku Klux Klan, the recordings of civil rights protesters being brutalized by police.

The artifacts that persist in my memory, the way a bright flash does when you close your eyes, are the photographs of lynchings. But it’s not the burned, mutilated bodies that stick with me. It’s the faces of the white men in the crowd. There’s the photo of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana in 1930, where a white man can be seen grinning at the camera as he tenderly holds the hand of his wife or girlfriend. There’s the undated photo from Duluth, Minnesota, where grinning white men stand next to the mutilated, half-naked bodies of two men lashed to a post in the street—one man is straining to get into the picture, his smile cutting from ear to ear. There’s the one of a crowd of white men huddled behind the smoldering corpse of a man burnt to death, one of whom is wearing a smart suit, a fedora hat, and a bright smile.

At a rally in Mississippi, a crowd of Trump supporters cheered as the president mocked Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who has said that Brett Kavanaugh, whom Trump has nominated to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, attempted to rape her when she was a teenager. “Lock her up!” they shouted.

Ford testified to the Senate, utilizing her professional expertise to describe the encounter, that one of the parts of the incident she remembered most was Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge laughing at her as Kavanaugh fumbled at her clothing. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Ford said, referring to the part of the brain that processes emotion and memory, “the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” And then at Tuesday’s rally, the president made his supporters laugh at her.

The cruelty of the Trump administration’s policies, and the ritual rhetorical flaying of his targets before his supporters, are intimately connected. As Lili Loofbourow wrote of the Kavanaugh incident in Slate, adolescent male cruelty towards women is a bonding mechanism, a vehicle for intimacy through contempt. The white men in the lynching photos are not merely smiling because of what they have done, but because they did it together. [3]

American "Exceptionalism"

Because we cannot resolve the past, we cannot move into a more equitable future or, as our personal mythology goes, "a more perfect union." We cannot resolve what we cannot admit has happened, and how that past scaffolds the current, blatantly-obvious present. The deified, slave-holding "founders" never wanted direct democracy. Democracies and republics are always "experiments": abstract ideals that are never meant to be concluded, or realized.

Way before the "Strange Fruit" of Abel Meeropol's poem and the iconic voice of Billy Holiday making it a classic, the first "other" were the natives found in the Americas and the Caribbean, slaughtered for the affront of existing on real estate colonizers from Europe wanted. Colonizers gave themselves the excuse they were not Christians, therefore "others" and slaughtered accordingly. As they did in Africa with fields of diamonds beneath the feet of natives there, they plundered and made themselves wealthy beyond sultans and kings. Way before that in Europe, the iconography of Christendom was purposefully changed from the Madonna and Christ child I purchased in the Vatican store during the reign of Pope John Paul III. John Paul was originally from Poland, and the iconography never changed to its Anglicized versions made popular during the international slave trade that also contributed to the colonizers' exchequer. Yeshua Ben Joseph's name was also transformed to its Greco-Roman equivalent, with a smattering of pagan folklore and sun-worship thrown into what was "the way." It was no great leap that under the circumstances "Manifest Destiny" - the precursor to exceptionalism - was a perfect mythology to mask crimes against humanity, humanity like people of color (see: Scottsboro Boys and the Central Park 5), humanity like the LGBT: humanity like...women, who are vilified by either Eve or Lilith depending on the day. Way before this present darkness of fascism, was the scaffolding of sadism.

It is quaint to see us almost on-cue wring our hands in woe. That the descendent's of those photographed smiling around the hanging corpses of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith (one of many proto-selfies) would act at all differently than their forebears. Some of these photos historically were taken after church services with the preacher in attendance. The notion that calling ourselves a "Christian nation" is itself an abomination. Christian supremacy was the precursor for its  ethnic-nationalism equivalent, replacing choir robes for Klan ones. This disdain for everyone other than themselves is baffling how they've managed to pull it off as long as they have, until they have a Karl Rove "permanent republican majority" for at least two generations, and the raving maniac confirmed by the fiat of a stolen Supreme Court Justice seat from his former boss, Merrick Garland may well one day become Chief Justice and put the nail in the coffin of anything resembling our better angels and usher in a kangaroo court for a soon-coming banana republic and Idiocracy.

But "better angels" is myth as well, a folklore we tell ourselves. History is only learned by historians and taught formally at universities, or self-taught by the purchase of books by actual historians (at least while we still can). All else is propaganda to reinforce the constant lies that flow from the fetid streams of bullshit mountain.

I guffaw almost to ralfing as I repeat those lies: we're the "indispensable nation," Winthrop's "city on a hill," a dung heap far above the necks of lesser humanity stamped upon by the 1% owners of the former republic. We, people of color, the LGBT and women are now the "strange fruit" hanging from fascist poplar trees.

No. This nation is exceptional for only ONE thing: cruelty.

And that exceptional savagery now has a "justice" robe and an asterisk next to his name.

But justice was never the point, nor was "law": only order (white supremacy).

"If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever." O'Brien, "1984" by George Orwell.

Howard Zinn epilogue:

"It would be naive to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice." [4]

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,

Nothing is going to get better. It's not."

― Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

1. The lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, 1930, Rare Historical Photos

2. Kavanaugh Has Exposed the Savage Amorality of America's Ruling Class, Harry Cheadle, Vice.com

3. The Cruelty Is the Point, Adam Serwer, Staff Writer for The Atlantic

4. Howard Zinn: Don’t Despair about the Supreme Court, The Progressive, October 21, 2005

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