Several months back, I blogged about the Australian aerial performance troupe called Strange Fruit. More accurately, I blogged about the singular meaning of the phrase in American culture.
Not long after, OffBeat, the magazine of Louisiana music and culture, captioned their cover photo fo the band MyNameIsJohnMichael, you guessed it, Strange Fruit. The all-white band hangs from monkey bars, looking chipper and funky-fresh.
Once again, I tilted my head like a dog who’d heard a cat scream in the distance. Was there some memo that had circulated saying that the phrase Strange Fruit had been divorced from its historical context?
Apparently not, and more than that, many people wrote in to complain to the magazine. They’ve published an apology, stating:
We regret treating such a history so casually, and we’ll make an effort to do better in the future.
On the one hand, at least they apologized. On the other, judging by the comments and notes on other blogs, the apology rings rather hollow for most people.
OffBeat has become rather defensive about the whole situation. When I read this post on OffBeat’s blog, I cringed:
But the wounds are still fresh, and we are truly sorry. We just didn’t think it through. We have to comfort ourselves with the fact that OffBeat’s body of work, which if investigated, would certainly have revealed to anyone who deemed the cover “racist,” that they were reading into our cover a sentiment that wasn’t there to begin with.
Again—we didn’t mean to offend anyone. The people at OffBeat have a unique perspective when it comes to skin color: we really don’t care. Music is color blind. Our eyes and ears are color blind.
Surprisingly, many young people we talked to about the cover didn’t even know about the Billie Holiday song connection. How long does it take before people begin to forget how horrible racism is? Should we ever forget, even in times where interracial dating and marriage is acceptable?
A little defensive?
“We didn’t mean to offend” does not absolve you from bearing responsibility for the offense. Acknowledging the mistake and apologizing sincerely is the only way to keep us moving in a healing direction.
And, by the way, let’s hope we never forget how horrible racism is. What a teachable moment, in fact. The young people who weren’t aware of the meaning of the phrase need to know, and need to understand the profound scar our country will always bear from the legacy of racism.
Incidents like James Byrd’s dragging death, and the Jena, Louisiana noose-in-the-schoolyard nightmare suggest that the scar, in fact, is still covered in a scab, easily scratched off to this day. That’s our shame, our challenge, and our opportunity to do better, each and every day.