A friend from Chicago, a black female physician, had a sobering conversation with her three school-age sons days before a Florida jury failed to convict Michael Dunn of the premeditated murder of Jordan Davis, a black teenager, in a dispute over loud music.
“I presented the concept of “Strange Fruit” to them through poetry, music and the frightening visual …but with Trayvon Martin as an example,” said the doctor who is deeply concerned about how white men view young black men.
She was offering her sons a powerful historical testimony to bring past to present to discuss an emerging crisis targeting young black males in America today – a crisis that could also be described as modern-day lynchings.
“Strange Fruit” was a song performed by Billie Holiday in 1939. The song exposed racism in America, particularly the lynching of black men in the South. A chilling photo of two black men who were lynched and surrounded by racist white men in 1930 was the inspiration for the song written by teacher Abel Meeropol. A video that accompanies Holiday’s song shows eerie black-and-white photos of Ku Klux Klansmen in hoods burning crosses and watching half-nude black men hanging from trees.
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.
So how did my friend’s sons react to Billie Holiday’s song, the video, and a mother’s life lesson?
“Sad. Mad. Processing,” she said.
Another friend, a black male journalist from Washington, D.C. who has two young sons, has pulled his sons aside on several occasions, looked them in the eyes, and talked to them about how unfair life can be for young black men in America – and how the situation is getting worse.
And yet another friend, a black female college professor from St. Louis who has written extensively about challenges facing black boys, is trying to decide when – and how — to talk to her sons (6 and 7 years old) about this crisis where young black men are being shot down senselessly.
She, too, is extremely concerned about a disturbing pattern where young black men are being shot by white men who claim to be standing their ground in self-defense.
Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012, and Jordan Davis, who was also unarmed, are the most recent high-profile examples of young black men who have been killed because white men claimed they feared for their lives. But let’s not forget Garrick Hopkins, 60, and his brother, Carl Hopkins Jr., 61, two brothers from West Virginia who were shot and killed by a white man, Rodney Bruce Black, 62, who thought the Hopkins brothers were trespassing on his land – when in fact, they were inspecting a shed on their own property.
Every month, it seems, I write about another black man who was gunned down simply because he was black. So a black man can’t walk the streets wearing a hoodie like Trayvon Martin; a black man can’t play loud music like Jordan Davis; and black men can’t stand on their own property without being shot to death?
Apparently not. And this is why my friends are having heart-to-heart talks with their black sons about the potential perils of being black and male in America. It’s a conversation that could save someone’s life.
When I was growing up in Detroit during the mid-1960s, my father warned me about white cops who were quick-on-the-trigger and he taught me how to handle myself walking and driving on the streets of Detroit.
I was told to stay away from Dearborn Heights, an affluent, predominantly white Michigan suburb that had a region-wide reputation for not welcoming black folks to the neighborhood. There were all kinds of rumors back then: White supremacists lived in Dearborn; black teenagers could get attacked while biking through the well-manicured neighborhoods; black men could get beat up just for glancing at a white girl; and white boys would yell the N-word at black pedestrians in the area.
As a teenager, I always heard that a black person could easily get shot just for passing through the Dearborn Heights city limits. And that’s exactly what happened to 19-year-old Renisha McBride, an unarmed black woman from Detroit who was shot and killed while seeking help in Dearborn Heights after a car accident on Nov. 2. The shooter, a white man, said he feared for his life and shot McBride in self-defense.
I was blessed to have a father who had a clear understanding about how being black and male in America could be a fatal combination.
Black parents now have the same opportunity to speak directly to your black sons. Talk to your boys today about strange fruit that
hung from trees in long ago autumns.
And tell them how history is repeating itself.