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Strange Thanks

I’ve written about 50 blogs since retiring as RFC Executive Director, but the one I published last Thanksgiving is my favorite. I’m revisiting it here for that reason and because Strange Fruit has been even more culturally present during the last twelve months. Not only did Audra McDonald sing it almost daily on Broadway for most of 2014 in her Tony Award winning Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, and Annie Lennox cover it this fall in her new hit album, Nostalgia, but it has, among other things, become a popular hook for commentaries about racism worldwide.

Strange Thanks

November 27, 2013

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for Strange Fruit.

My adoptive father, Abel Meeropol, wrote the words and music to Billie Holiday’s signature song, Strange Fruit. Abel, a high school English teacher with a passion for writing, reacted to a gruesome photograph of a lynching in late 1936, with a poem entitled “Bitter Fruit.” In 1937 or 1938 he set the poem to music and changed the title. Billie Holiday did not perform it until 1939. Strange Fruit was the composition my father was most proud of, but one that he never lived with easily. In 1940, Abel was called before New York State’s Rapp-Coudert Committee, a legislative commission attempting to root out communist teachers, and asked if the Communist Party ordered him to write the song.

Later, Billie Holiday claimed in her ghost-written autobiography that she set Abel’s poem to music. To this day you can find online references to Strange Fruit that attribute its words to Abel Meeropol and music to Billie Holiday. Growing up in the Meeropol household I witnessed Abel’s frustration at his inability to correct this misperception.

But Abel was even more troubled by the song’s eclipse. It was widely recognized in the 1940’s, but in the great red scare of the 1950’s, it almost disappeared from the public arena. In fact, by the time Abel died in 1986 the song had faded into relative obscurity. This was one of Abel’s biggest regrets.

But the strange fruit allusion - lynched bodies hanging from trees – was one of genius. It had gotten under our culture’s skin, and as time went on, it seeped out of its pores.

The song’s rebirth was slow at first, recorded out of the country or at the edges of acceptability. The Jamaican group UB40 taped it in 1980. Sting performed it on an album celebrating Amnesty International’s 25th anniversary in 1986, and the punk group, Siouxsie and the Banshees, followed suit in 1987. Cassandra Wilson introduced Strange Fruit to a new generation in her widely acclaimed debut album in 1995. In 2000, Time Magazine named it the “song of the century” and Daivd Margolick’s book, Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, sold well. That was followed by Joel Katz’s film documentary about the song, in 2002.

David Margolick wrote that although Abel wrote Strange Fruit, he was best known for adopting my brother and me. I don’t know if that was ever the case, but it certainly has not been so for the last decade. Nowadays there are more online references to Abel Meeropol as the author of Strange Fruit, who “by the way,” also adopted the son’s of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, than to any other member of our family.

2013 has seen the Strange Fruit concept, explode. Kanye West’s sampling of Nina Simone’s version in his Yeezus CD made it an internet sensation. Almost every week I hear about new recordings, concert performances, musicals, dances and even art exhibits inspired by the song. The November 20th episode of the TV series Criminal Minds, which ironically features heroic FBI agents, was entitled “Strange Fruit.” It has even been used as a verb. To “strange fruit” someone, is to do what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin.

Close to 80 years after Abel wrote those 97 potent words (that’s right, the entire song contains less than 100 words), the pot is in full boil. I am so thankful for Abel’s brilliant creation because Strange Fruit’s growing power gives me hope. The pen just could be mightier than the sword after all.  Read More 
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“It's not easy being green.” - Kermit the frog

Elli and I have been reading and discussing Naomi Klein’s new book, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING. Elli said she didn’t realize how serious the predictions were when scientists first voiced dire warnings in the late 1980’s. I countered that I knew.

“Okay.” she said. “If you knew, why didn’t you talk to me about it? Why didn’t you do anything?”

I rummaged through memories to figure out what I understood 25 years ago. Fortunately, while I have trouble remembering why I entered a room, where I left my phone, or what appointments I’ve scheduled this week, my long-term memory remains sharp.

I left the private practice of law at the end of 1988 and founded the RFC in late 1990. It was a tumultuous period for me; it began with me clueless about where I was headed and ended with me on a clearly defined path that would become my life’s work. I spent the first few months exploring several courses of action. In one, my lifelong passion for weather and climate led me to consider writing and teaching about ecological concerns. I read several books about the growing threat of climate change and the deteriorating environment. In particular I remember reading the 1989 edition of The World Watch Institute’s THE STATE OF THE WORLD. The authors warned clearly that time was short, we were headed in the wrong direction, and significant policy changes were required to avoid disaster.

So, I did know about those dire predictions 25 years ago, but Elli was right about something more important. I didn’t talk with her about my fears and I didn’t do anything about it.

Why did I say and do nothing? I could rationalize about not finding the right group to work with, but how could that explain not talking about it with Elli? I think that the predictions were too awful, too overwhelming, too depressing to talk about. I couldn’t even begin to figure out what to do and how to go about doing it. And later that spring, the concept of the RFC popped into my head. I had something really good and positive and exciting to sink my teeth into. I have no regrets about the course I choose.

I’ve kept up with environmental issues. I read much of the literature and championed the RFC’s support of targeted environmental activists. But it was the RFC, rather than preventing climate change, that consumed me. It wasn’t until my first grandchild was born in 2008 that climate justice issues became central to my politics. Now I’m committed to reversing global warming (the cause) and climate change (the effect). However I’m still wrestling with the same issues that caused my silence and inaction a quarter of a century ago: What to do and how to talk about this stuff?

I want to talk about it with family, friends and acquaintances, but don’t know how to do it without being a total downer, sounding alarmist, holier than thou, a know-it-all, or manipulatively sugar-coating what I say. And once I’ve engaged with folks, how can I address the half-baked or wishful-thinking driven “solutions” that all reading and experience screams will be counter-productive distractions. I try to keep in mind that our need to involve huge numbers requires accepting a range of positions and levels of involvement, not gathering a small band of purists.

Naomi Klein’s book is helpful in this process because it provides important historical information, as well as the political and economic context in which the proponents and opponents of environmental movements have operated. It also canvasses the burgeoning global resistance to the rape of the planet, which is a great boon to those of us who are trying to figure out how to engage in the struggle.

But Klein’s book raises as many questions as it answers. Klein says this changes everything, that the solutions require systemic change, but the solutions she highlights are incremental. She writes in the introduction that we must make such basic changes in our economy AND our way of thinking that we must change “even the stories we tell about our place on earth,” but we read precious little about the latter in the rest of the book. Clearly, this brilliant author is grappling with some of the same questions as the rest of us.

That said, I’ve read nothing that does a better job of reporting the most effective work out there, of highlighting the actions we should join and/or support. And I’m encouraged that despite our questions, so many of us are finally entering the fray.  Read More 
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Moralism, mysticism or strategy

I was raised in a materialist tradition, and so have been deeply suspicious of mystical or spiritual explanations of reality. I was also taught to ground political actions in strategy rather than morality, that is, based upon their impact rather than upon bearing personal witness. Recently, however, I’ve been told I’m taking moralistic political stances and grounding my activism on a spiritual, even mystical, embrace of our planet’s biosphere. I’m only slightly guilty as charged.

I’ve been charged with demanding purity for refusing to vote for “lesser-evil democrats.” I voted for the Green Party candidate in 2012, not because Obama was already guaranteed Massachusetts’ electoral votes, but because his support of increased fossil fuel extraction and the military industrial complex was pushing us to the brink of ecological disaster. I was told that because Mitt Romney’s policies were worse, it was “moralistic” to advocate voting for the Green Party, even in hotly contested Ohio.

I reject this claim. While my position is fueled in part by moral outrage, its primary basis was and is strategic. Both major political parties’ policies increase the likelihood of environmental catastrophe; therefore we must not vote their standard bearers into office. We should not waste our time, energy and money, on electing candidates who are more likely to impede rather than aid our efforts to save life on our planet.

It will not be easy, and it isn’t even certain that it is possible, but the only way to save ourselves is to build a mass movement outside of both major political parties. You may disagree with me, but my position is strategically based.

And I haven’t become a mystic either, but it is true that I believe now that the needs of the biosphere trump the needs of humanity. This puts me at odds with those who espouse a green socialist distribution of resources while placing human beings at the center of the ecosystem (even though I do believe such a redistribution is a giant step in the right direction). I fear that our species, both self-aware and uniquely capable of environmental manipulation, retains an almost adolescent sense of self-importance, leading even green socialist solutions to maximize our biospheric footprint at the expense of other species. I doubt our ability to manage in a truly sustainable manner earth’s awesome web of animals, plants and minerals as long as the ultimate aim of such management is to meet human needs. If we fail to understand that people are not the pinnacle of evolution, that we are not more deserving or better than other species, we will revert to exploiting our planet unsustainably.

There may be a spiritual component to my gut-felt sense that our species must come to accept a humbler place in a greater whole. However, I also see this as strategically necessary to prevent us from distorting the biosphere in a manner that could destroy it. You may disagree with me, but my position also has a material basis.

Perhaps at this point in our struggle it is premature to focus on the issue of understanding our place in the biosphere. Maybe, but I can’t figure out a good strategic route until I know the destination. Read More 
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