There are things I don’t need to remember… and things I must never forget. The latter took me down many flights of back stairs to the servants’ quarters – to sit outside a door with no number… to listen with my heart … and be reminded.
Her name is Emma Masterson, a gray-haired woman of color who rarely speaks. But every night her door cracks open … the frail hand places the needle on vinyl … the deserted hallway fills with Billie Holiday’s lithe voice. Rising above scratches and the crackle of time, she sings a song called Strange Fruit: slow, plaintive and brutally honest …
Southern Trees bear a strange fruit
blood on the leaves, blood on the root.
I’ve heard the song a hundred times. I still wince … still feel the knot in my stomach … the shame of a nation … as the song continues.
Black bodies swaying in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from poplar trees.
I’m haunted by the lament in her voice … by the history behind it. Floating like smoke, it seeps through the doorjamb, rises to the ceiling. It spreads throughout the Hotel, then out across cities and farms … knocking on closed doors, pressing against drawn blinds … hammering on walls wherever human decency can be found.
Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone and Bessie Smith, joined by countless others, will sing about it, fight against it – now and forever … until nothing but leaves and flowers grace the branches … and the strange fruit of our ancestors is never seen again.*
* Later that night I sat on the cot in my room and wrote the song “King” – my tribute to MLK.