Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Misguided Editorial That Yields Strange Fruit

I picked up my local paper today - The Bryan College Station Eagle - and as I am wont to do on Sunday, turned to the Opinions section. There greeting me like a curmudgeonly neighbor was editorial entitled "Hearne Officer Should Not Have Appeared in Rap Video." 

The backstory is not complicated. A Bryan rap/hip-hop artist named L-Dub, stage name for Larry Workman, recently released a video "Don't Shoot Me Down" in which a Hearne police officer appears. Near the end of the video, the officer, Randall Barrow, points a pistol to the head of a kneeling Workman.The editorial correctly points out the lyrics criticize police for the recent deaths of African American men. The video also prominently shows a sign about seeking justice for Sandra Bland, a woman of color who died a year ago in the Waller County (Texas) jail.

At the end of the video, the officer puts down his weapon and arrests Workman without violence.

The problem, according to The Eagle Editorial Board?
[While] the video shows what Workman and many others see as reality, it is a reality we are trying as a country to end and move on. 
If Barrow's superiors or other city officials gave permission for him to be in the video, they were misguided. For Barrow willingly to participate is disappointing. 
We can do better in America. 
We must do better. 
Except for the doing better part, this editorial gets it wrong. For starters, Hearne has been a singular example of what Workman's video is about: The often deadly interaction between law enforcement and persons of color.

A specific case in point? In 2014, The Eagle reported a Hearne police officer was fired after shooting and killing a 93 year old African American woman.

More broadly, music has always been the anthem of racial frustration and a dramatic clarion call for political change. Most famous is Strange Fruit, the haunting, knife blade sharp standard by which racial violence lyric put to music is measured.

Written by Abel Meeropol under his own stage name of Lewis Allan, Strange Fruit became a political centerpiece as sung originally by Billie Holiday. If you chose to watch it below, note how Lady Day slowly, deliberately lifts her eyes to the lone, stationary camera when she sings the first few words of the line, "Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze," as a light simultaneously swings across her face. She then looks away as she finishes the line. It remains subtly powerful some 77 years later.

Some 30 odd years later, in another racially charged era, Nina Simone was not nearly as subtle when she covered the lyric.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
There are other examples of lyric coupled with music and images providing politically charged messages. They have provided an mechanism, especially for those insular and disenfranchised to communicate frustration with institutions and institutional inaction. These images do not incite violence but are a valve to vent frustration and anger that could easily show itself in more destructive ways.

The Eagle Editorial Board writes, "[I]t is a reality we are trying as a county to end and move on." The question then, is how? The issues raised by Workman's video have occurred not for merely weeks, nor even years. It has been decades. Instead of criticism, The Eagle editorial board ought to praise Officer Barrow, and by extension the City of Hearne, for helping L-Dub give it voice.

1 comment:

  1. And what about "American Violet"? Same subject. Same town. Years later no difference. Is anyone listening?