Paper 3: Strange Fruit + Caruth Kimber Andress
Trauma theory, an outgrowth of psychoanalysis is explained by Cathy Caruth in her work Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History as “an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena.” A stressor such as a death, injury, or threat of either leads to traumatic experiences. These experiences are widespread leaving individuals with a compulsion to tell their story. Stressors then lead to intrusion symptoms such as nightmares, dissociative reactions, recurrent involuntary and intrusive memories, and lashing out. Those who experience traumatic events tend to avoid anything that reminds them of the stressor and experience negative alterations in cognitions and mood. The concept of trauma predominantly revolves around repetition. Caruth argues that the “experience of a trauma repeats itself, exactly and unremittingly, through the unknowing acts of the survivor and against his very will.” Caruth claims that “trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature—the way it was precisely not known in the first instance—returns to haunt the survivor later on,” meaning that trauma is without origin, where the act of forgetting in and of itself begins to haunt. The truth of the trauma in its “delayed appearance and its belated address, cannot be linked only to what is known, but also to what remains unknown in our very actions and our language.”
“Strange Fruit,” a poem written in 1937 by Jewish schoolteacher and activist Abel Meeropol, was brought to life in 1939 by jazz singer Billie Holiday. After the addition of Holiday’s melancholic crooning, “Strange Fruit” became the anti-lynching movement’s anthem. Meeropol’s inspiration for the haunting poem came from the graphic photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Shipp and Smith were just young boys when an angry mob hunted them down and publicly lynched them. The first stanza of “Strange Fruit” paints a picture of the southern landscape and sets the overall mournful tone, “Southern trees bear a strange fruit… black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” In the 1930s, lynching was nothing out of the ordinary, and it was mostly publicly accepted. Herein, Mereopol personifies fruit, and makes it symbolize all of the African American people who were victimized by the terrible practices of the times. African Americans being lynched became as common as a sight to see as fruit hanging from the trees.
When applying Caruth’s trauma theory to Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” one can begin to understand the everlasting trauma that lynching has provided, and its effects on African American society today. Caruth argues, “trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature—the way it was precisely not known in the first instance—returns to haunt the survivor later on.” Though the lynching were a terribly devastating event in American history, it seems to be swept under the rug, but the effects of this trauma still lingers within the African American people. Resulting from this period in time, there is still a racial divide. Institutional racism without a doubt still exists, and condemns a fair amount of the African American people to the ghettos, and to a life of crime—in and out of prison. In addition, Caruth contends, “experience of a trauma repeats itself, exactly and unremittingly, through the unknowing acts of the survivor and against his very will.” As Meeropol describes the southern land as a, “Pastoral scene of the gallant south/ the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/ scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh/ then the sudden smell of burning flesh,” one can look to the land, and all of its beauty, but will we ever really be free of our haunting past? Will the terrible deeds of man against man ever disappear from us?
Billie Holiday singing, “Strange Fruit”