The ‘Strange Fruit’ that haunts my days and dreams as a Black physician
Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” in 1937.
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”
It is a beautifully sung protest of a deeply inhumane American legacy of racism — lynching. Imagine, only in 2020, the House passed The Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal crime. Having this anti-lynching bill stonewalled by the Senate from becoming law while we simultaneously see global protests against police brutality in response to the modern-day lynching of George Floyd is an irony that leaves Black people in America hollow.
Global demonstrations against police brutality have been inspiring. Their occurrence during the COVID-19 pandemic only amplifies their power. As a Black woman, a first-generation Haitian-American, and a Black female physician, wife and mother, it is imperative that I am out there with my power and yearning for change that is well overdue.
Remember: during these protests that fight for the bodies and humanity of all Black lives, there has been another murder of an unarmed Black person, Rayshard Brooks, at the hands of police, and at least four supposed suicides of Black men in this country, all found hanging from trees. Hanging from trees. This strange fruit of which Billie Holiday laments is not a lesson for the history books. Instead, it is an incredibly relevant, painful story of today.
So, when asked, “But how can you protest with the looming threat of coronavirus?” My answer?
Racism doesn’t occur at convenient times. In fact, its purpose is to be incredibly inconvenient. Toni Morrison reminds us that racism is a distraction.
She explains, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Accordingly, despite COVID-19, we must address the public health crisis killing Black Americans at disproportionately high rates: racism.
We must systematically accomplish this goal with Herculean efforts because changing minds, hearts and the American way to value Black lives is an ultramarathon and not a sprint.
Amplify your voice through protest
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, safe protesting is an impactful way to magnify your voice to make progress in the fight for Black lives. Wear your mask and protective eyewear, use noisemakers, bring your signs, socially distance as able, and exercise your right to protest in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Work from the inside out
The onus should not be on one’s Black colleagues, peers and friends to educate non-Black people about race relations in America. The commitment and conscious behaviors in support of knowing more, knowing differently, and knowing better require self-motivation. Engaging in these discussions thoughtfully with your peers, and with the humanity and value of Black people at the center of these conversations, is vital.
Look under the hood at your institution
Identify key stakeholders and allies who are about action in changing the status quo of institutional racism. Examine inclusiveness and representation of decision-makers, attrition of Black employees, especially in positions of leadership, and whether formal programs exist to improve diversity, equity and inclusion.
If these systems are not in place, work collaboratively with those in high places who share your goals of creating a safe, supportive and equitable environment for Black employees to grow and lead.
Put your money where your passion is
Financially uplift causes and businesses consistently demonstrating the value of Black lives and livelihood. Further, shift your money away from businesses that tout support of Black Lives Matter in their press releases and sound bites, but employ behaviors strongly divergent from these messages.
“Rock the vote”
Roughly 100 million eligible U.S. voters did not cast their ballots for the 2016 presidential election. A privilege so many Americans squander dishonors those who died on Bloody Sunday, and on so many other days, for the right to vote. Those before us have suffered severely to expand our freedoms. Even today, we see people waiting over 6 hours to vote — with their masks, under the hot sun, during a pandemic — because it matters that much. Every vote counts, and not just for presidential elections.
Medical institutions need to lead the change
Some argue that it is not appropriate for medical institutions to discuss race relations in America. But who better to do it?
Dr. King recognized that racism is indeed a public health crisis: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman.”
Whether it is strange fruit hanging from trees that haunt our days and dreams and should haunt America’s conscience, or health and health care disparities resulting from social determinants of health within Black communities, the time for change is now.