Plays track evolution of lynching

“Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on leaves and blood at root.”

So go the lyrics to “Strange Fruit,” which describes the brutality that racism yielded in the South after the Civil War, and was definitively sung by Billie Holiday.

“When she rendered this song it became symbolic of lynching,” said Kathy A. Perkins, co-editor of “Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women,” an anthology of plays written by women on the brutal practice of hanging black men that once occured in parts of America.

Perkins and co-editor Judith Stephens spoke Nov. 7 at Northern Kentucky University to more than 100 students about the compilation of stories gathered to form “Strange Fruit”.

The stories deal with the racial motivations behind lynching and how black and white women viewed the mobs that acted as judge, jury and executioner of black men often innocent of the crimes that took their lives.

As Stephens described, a lynching was seen as a social event, often advertised in the local newspapers, and photos were shown from “Without Sanctuary,” a book by James Allen that visually describes lynching through photography.

In many of the pictures white children were smiling at the camera while a dead body hangs from the tree above them.

“They had no shame in what they had done,” Stephens said. “What do children watching this spectacle think?”

The bodies were sometimes set on fire by the mob, and spectators would take body-part souvenirs, like fingers and the penis, Stephens said.

“When we consider our history truthfully we must consider this part as well,” Stephens said.

Ida B. Wells and Mary Talbert were two prominent activists against lynching who are featured in the book. They worked to raise the conscience of the nation and Wells would strike at the United States’ pride by attacking its claims of being a socially just nation.

Many activists would express their grievances to foreign states hoping they could pressure the U.S. from the outside to stop lynching.

“Lynching is an intersection of race and gender,” Stephens said. “Black men were rapists, black women were whores, and white women were victims.”

The history of the U.S. is filled with examples of fear being used to control the actions of groups of people, Perkins said.

Lynching was a fear tactic used to control black men and women after slavery ended and reinforced the community’s belief that black men and women were dangerous especially to white women, she added.

The black men accused of raping white women were often innocent, Perkins said, and the true crime was actually based on the jealousy of white men.

Perkins described a case where a black man opened a grocery store across from a white-owned grocery store.

The white owner accused the black owner of raping his wife and it resulted in the lynching of the black owner.

Jesse Daniel Ames, a white southern woman, whose voice is heard in the novel, spoke out against lynching because, Perkins said, it was done to defend the honor of white women though their honor wasn’t tainted.

She organized church women to revolt against this male chivalry that was based on lies.

“Media had a large impact on the decreasing amount of lynching,” Perkins said.

Public lynching began disappearing in the 1950s as Civil Rights demonstrations were broadcast nationwide, but the practice did not end, Perkins said.

James Byrd, Perkins said, was lynched in Jasper, Tex. in the 1990s by two white men that dragged his body behind a truck.

The white men were convicted and sentenced to death, something Perkins said never would have happened after the Civil War.

“Certainly we do see a change,” Perkins said, but both Perkins and Stephens feel that lynching has just changed form and is more institutionalized.

Stephens said that the overwhelming number of black males in prison and on death row is a state-sponsored form of lynching.

Black men who were sent to fight in Vietnam for democracy, Perkins said, while back home were being discriminated against often felt that the U.S. was hypocritical.

“Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women” can be purchased at the University Bookstore.