One of the best things I’ve done since I’ve been here is persuade the splendid People’s Forum to screen the film Strange Fruit, followed by a Q and A with the director, Joel Katz.
I’ve been a huge admirer of the film since I first saw it when it was released in 2002. I’ve organised several screenings at home in the past, but it was a different experience doing it in the country it’s about. It’s also the first time I’ve seen the film since the lynching of George Floyd. I thought it was a brilliant and profound film that captured the essence of 20th century America before 20th May 2020. Now it stands as testimony to the fact that, while some progress has been made, the underlying racism at the heart of America, endures.
I’m reluctant to say too much about Strange Fruit, for fear of plot-spoiling for anyone who hasn’t seen it. But the main theme is the song about lynching made famous by Billie Holiday and the extraordinary story behind it. There’s a particular moment in the film that made me gasp when I first saw it and although the subject and some of the images are harrowing, it’s also an inspiring account of solidarity and resistance.
With that in mind, I was really disappointed and disturbed by some of the comments in the discussion after last night’s screening. Two people questioned its validity because it was made by a white person and features the involvement of other white people, like the folk singer Pete Seeger, in the struggle against racism. Joel (who I now know a little and strikes me as a thoroughly decent bloke), took the criticism on the chin, but I think (and said) that it reveals a profoundly misguided political perspective that seems to be a significant current within the US left and perhaps elsewhere.
It’s not the first time I’ve encountered it since I’ve been here. The suggestios of “white guilt”, “white fear” and “white fragility” are recurring, high profile features of the country’s political discourse. There are some complex issues involved, which it’s sometimes difficult to address without appearing defensive. I was accused of displaying “white privilege” within days of arriving, by someone who’d never met me (so in fact, didn’t know my skin colour), or anything about me. Like Joel, I tried to take it calmly, but the experience did reveal how freely the term is banded about.
I’ve thought about the accusation against me quite a lot since, but it was only the discussion after Strange Fruit that brought home just how dangerous this type of sectarianism can be. The people who questioned the role of white people in the civil rights struggle appeared oblivious to the fact that many of them (like Joel) were Jewish. Their determination to fight racism came from the experience of being victims of it, especially at a time (the 1930s) when racist violence was approaching new levels of barbarity. If some African-American artists of the period had made a film condemning the Third Reich, would Jewish people have been justified in besmirching them?
Black and brown people should be at the forefront of anti-racist struggles and white people need to be very wary of appropriating such campaigns. But the form of crude identity politics that was on display last night critically undermines the multi-ethnic, class solidarity that is the best – ultimately the only – way to defeat the kind of racism that Strange Fruit is about.
If anyone reading this in the UK would like to arrange a screening of Strange Fruit, please get in touch.