Lady Sings the Blues: Billie Holiday
Some voices are so compelling you just have to stop and listen. The American jazz singer Billie Holiday has such a voice.
Lady Day, as she became known, was a survivor. By the time she was 15 she had endured poverty, prostitution and prison, and you can hear it in her voice. It is the voice of a woman who has endured and lived to tell the tale. Many like her did not. One of her most famous songs is Strange Fruit. It’s not subtle.
Southern trees bear 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.
Into the 1960s, lynchings were all too familiar; about 4,000 have been recorded but many extrajudicial murders remain unrecorded. Whites were targeted by lynch mobs too, but African Americans bore the brunt.
As for the judiciary, it also too often believed being black was enough to prove guilt. Justice may be blind, but in the United States of America it was never blind to the colour of a person’s skin.
Historical stuff? Yes, America has been transformed, equal rights is embedded in law and an African American is in the White House. Yet earlier this week I listened to a remarkable interview given by Anthony Ray Hinton. Exonerated this week, Mr Hinton spent half his life in solitary confinement in Alabama, sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. And yes, he is black.
The thing that pained him most was the injustice done to his mother. Denied the company of her son, she died while he was still behind bars. His priority on getting out was to lay flowers on her grave.
Miscarriages of justice happen – we have seen our share on this side of the Atlantic. But in a country where the death penalty is administered with psychopathic fervour, the wrong verdict is often a matter of life and death.
There are too many examples of injustice. Since 1973, 152 people been freed after being cleared of capital crimes.
The Alabama administration’s slogan is “connecting our state with its people”. It’s website invites us to explore the great outdoors. “It’s not called Alabama the beautiful for nothing”. But behind the slick marketing lies a sick regime that uses lethal injection and electrocution to dispatch those it deems unfit to “explore the great outdoors”.
The statistics are chilling. Alabama has more than 190 people on death row, and in the US more than 3,000 citizens are waiting for the executioner’s call. Since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1976, more than 1,300 have been executed. Hanging is too good for some. Electrocution, lethal injection, and the firing squad are all deployed.
The US obsession with the death penalty is wildly at odds with the Enlightenment spirit of its founding fathers. They proclaimed their independence with the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Injustice after injustice demonstrates these “unalienable rights” are for the chosen – and they are white.
Racial discrimination is a distinctive feature of the US justice system. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, more than half those on death row are people of colour – more than four in 10 are African Americans.
And a defendant is more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white.
In Alabama, 65 per cent of murders involve black victims, yet 80 per cent of people on death row have been convicted of crimes in which the victims were white. The judiciary is overwhelmingly white. Only one district attorney is black, and 23 capital cases have been overturned because prosecutors were found to have excluded blacks from juries.
I listened to Mr Hinton with sympathy, but no real surprise. Later that day, when I heard Holiday singing Strange Fruit on the radio, I made the connection and fully appreciated the scale of the injustice done to him. Nothing much has changed. He was lucky to escape with his life.
While the US continues to use capital punishment, and until it addresses the racism in its judicial system, it cannot claim to be leader of the free world; and Obama’s two-term presidency will look like a hollow act of tokenism.
“Blood on the leaves, and blood on the root”, strange fruit indeed.
- This article first appeared in The Irish News on April 10 2015