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  • Reverend James Squire

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a biopic that was recently released and reviewed on NPR. The movie is a fictionalized version of the real-life story of the FBI pursuing Billie Holiday for drug abuse. Billie Holiday lived during the time of J. Edgar Hoover’s leadership of the FBI. Billie Holiday was a drug user. The basis of the story, however, is that the FBI framed Billie Holiday, one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, so that they could stop her singing a controversial song called “Strange Fruit” which is a thinly disguised song that describes lynching.

Billie Holiday was 23 at the time she sang “Strange Fruit” for the first time to close her performance at New York’s Cafe Society. The song is mournful as it describes the lynching of black people in the Jim Crow South. She created the metaphor that the black bodies of those lynched were like “fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

She sang “the bulging eyes and twisted mouths” slowly.” She poured her soul into the lyrics such as “Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh. Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.” “Strange fruit” is the theme that runs through the movie. She was one of the most popular singers of the time. The FBI refused to give her a license to sing in certain places and had a campaign to silence her because she insisted on singing that song that the FBI thought just stirred up trouble. Holiday died at the age of 44 from liver disease. Holiday’s life was rough and so is the movie as well so I would not have children in the room if you choose to watch it.

Like an emotion, the more you suppress it, the more it grows. “Strange Fruit” had a resurgence in popularity during the Civil Rights Movement. Time Magazine gave it the distinction of being the “song of the century” in 1999. It was recognized for its importance to history and culture by the Library of Congress.

The movie is a racism gut punch, but I wasn’t prepared for what appeared at the very end of the movie as the credits were rolling. The credits stopped and a statement appeared on the screen: “The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act” has still not passed in the Senate in the 2020 vote.” (Emmett Till was the 14 year old black boy who was tortured and killed in 1955 in Mississippi.)

3,446 black people and 1297 white people have been lynched. Isabel Wilkerson in her book, Caste describes the additional damage done to black people because lynching was used to create fear in African Americans as well. The fear was based in the fact that you could be lynched for the smallest of perceived offenses. It was not unusual for a lynching to be public, to have children brought to them as a public event, and to have bodies burned in front of the crowd. Lynching caused the Great Migration out of the South to the North and West which Wilkerson writes about in her book, The Warmth of other Suns.

I couldn’t understand why the bill was not passed and how I missed any news about it. I checked. In essence ironically the bill was being decided upon during the Black Lives Matter Movement this past summer and the accompanying protests. Our nation was also in the midst of the Pandemic.

The New York Times headline read “Frustration and Fury as Rand Paul Holds Up Anti-Lynching Bill in Senate.” Nicholas Fandos wrote on June 5, 2020, “Mr. Paul argued that the lunching bill was sloppily written and could lead to yet another injustice, excessive sentencing for minor infractions, unless it was revised.” The Times article concluded with words from Senator Booker. “The frustrating thing for me is that at a time this country hungers for commonsense racial reconciliation, an acknowledgement of our past and a looking forward to a better future, this will be one of the sad days where that possibility was halted.” One person held it up. Paul is not my favorite person. He oozes privilege in moments when he went swimming in the Congressional Swimming Pool when he had the Covid-19 virus and how he chose to not wear a mask during the approval vote to elect Joe Biden president. If you are above the law, you think you are privileged!

The Republican Party is now Trump’s Party. His actions on January 6 changed only a few thousand minds. Millions are still enthusiastic about him. We need a strong two-party system for our democracy to thrive. Black Lives Matter, but how long will they be able to match their enormous amount of grit and resilience with the quality of patience. Make no mistake about it! We are where we are as a nation because we seem to be having a significant increase in white supremacy and now even more bias against Chinese Americans. Think of it. One man, Rand Paul, stopped the anti-lynching bill, and one man, Donald Trump, has divided the Republican Party.

Perhaps it is time to start singing that “Strange Fruit” tune again by someone too popular to stop her voice from proclaiming Truth.

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