Andrew Anthos is dead. He was 72. Reports say that he was attacked by a man who followed him home after asking if he was gay on the bus. What tipped off the attacker? What went through his mind? Did he see Anthos as “limp-wristed,” “light in the loafers,” or my father’s favorite, a “fruit” – a strange fruit?
As I read the accounts of his life, attack and death, I loaded “Billie Holiday” into the CD player. I needed to hear her voice. I needed to hear Billie singing not just any song but “Strange Fruit.”
“Strange Fruit” began as a poem, first published in 1937, written by Jewish schoolteacher Abel Meeropol, using the pen name “Lewis Allen.” He wrote his poem to express his horror at the publication of a photo of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.
Shipp and Smith, African-American men, along with a third man, 16-year-old James Cameron, had been incarcerated for the alleged murder of a white man and rape of a white woman in Marion, Indiana. A large crowd broke into the jail with sledgehammers, beat the two men, and hanged them.
Police officers in the crowd cooperated in the lynching. A studio photographer took a photograph of the dead bodies hanging from a tree surrounded by a large crowd. Thousands of copies of the photograph were sold across the country.
Shipp and Smith had no trial but were found guilty and executed. Their real crime was not rape or robbery but being African-American men in a racist society.
Meeropol/Allen asked others to set his poem to music but in the end he set Strange Fruit to music himself. The song gained a certain success as a protest song in and around New York before Billie Holiday introduced the song. Fearful of retaliation, Holiday said that the imagery in “Strange Fruit” reminded her of her father’s death, and that this played a role in her persistence to perform it. The song became a regular part of Holiday’s live performances.
Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition is a harrowing portrayal of the lynching of two black men in the American South in 1930. Today, 70 years later, this hate-driven brutality continues no longer limited to the south or African Americans. Strange fruit still falls beaten and broken across the land but its root remains deeply based in bigotry and hatred.
Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena, JR Warren, Billy Jack Gaither, Sakia Gunn, Gwen Arajuo and now Andrew Anthos are our strange fruit hanging from the trees with “blood on the leaves and blood at the root”.
It took seven years after the photos of the 1930 lynching were taken to give voice to a society’s protest to this brutality. Today reports of beatings, murders and attacks on American gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are reported almost immediately on television, in the print media and now across the internet.
Reports of Andrew’s attack were reported on national and local news within days of its occurrence. The attack was decried by LGBT advocates and civil rights leaders calling again for hate crimes legislation.
Andrew was a patriotic American who loved his country despite its homophobia and bigotry. He devoted over twenty years in a campaign to have the dome of the state Capitol building lit red, white and blue one night every year. He believed in the promise of America. He wanted to celebrate the promise of equality represented in the red, white and blue colors of the flag. Andrew Anthos committed no crime, but was deemed guilty and executed for being gay. His “crime” was being himself, a gay man.
Andrew’s attacker left him beaten and bleeding on the snowy sidewalk. There were no photographers to chronicle his suffering, no witnesses to step forward but a cry for justice has gone out across the city and the country.
Justice for Andy will only come when America, as a nation, adopts hate crime legislation to protect every citizen regardless of their race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or expression; when there is a national employment non-discrimination act; when all youth are protected in schools from bullying, and equality is not a dream but a reality for all Americans. Until then we will continue to see crimes of hatred and violence against African Americans, Immigrants, the poor and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals and we are all at risk of becoming Strange fruit,
Strange Fruit 2007
(adapted from the Lewis Allen 1937 poem)
American trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Gay bodies lying on the city streets,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Now seen in both the north and south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of equality, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of broken flesh.