The animus for Time Magazine’s “song of the 20th century” was a photograph of a Southern lynching. A Southern lynching would often draw an entire region of spectators together for a day of socializing. Small children were even present in the crowd, lifted high upon shoulder for an uninterrupted view of the day’s fatal proceedings. It was a strange, albeit frequent Southern spectacle, one that claimed many Black lives.
Given the frequency of this horrid practice, and the abundance of lynching photographs in circulation, many that doubled as postcards, it is unclear why one particular photograph troubled, then inspired Abel Meeropol, a New York English teacher and poet. Yet, it did. Unable to free his mind of this troubling image over several days, Meeropol sought consolation through his pen. As ink dried upon its canvas, its residuum formed words that have haunted generations, words etched into our collective memory as lyric by the incomparable Billie Holiday:
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Now seventy-six years removed its initial recording, there is still cause to sing this sorrowful song.
On August 29, 2014, another Black body was added to the crowded annals of those swung by Southern breeze. In a cruel twist of irony, the body of seventeen year-old Lennon Lacy was not found swinging upon a Southern tree, but upon a Southern swing set – a fact only beginning the strangeness surrounding his death. Authorities in Bladenboro, North Carolina, abruptly ruled Lennon’s death a suicide, declaring that he was depressed, and closed the case in five days.
Still, many questions remain.
Why did authorities fail to place bags over Lennon’s hands to prevent contamination and preserve DNA from a possible struggle?
Why didn’t authorities take any pictures at the scene of Lennon’s death?
Why were the shoes found on Lennon’s feet not the same shoes that he departed from home wearing?
Why were the shoes found on Lennon’s feet a size and a half smaller than his foot size?
Why were those same shoes removed from the body bag between the time his corpse was placed in the body bag and the time the body arrived at the medical examiner’s office?
Strange, still, is an independent examiner’s conclusion that declaring Lennon’s death a suicide is virtually impossible given Lennon’s height, weight, and the items found at the scene.
The circumstances surrounding Lennon’s death, however, begin to lose some of its strangeness when the fact that he was in an interracial relationship with a white woman in an area still ripe with racial tension, and where the Ku Klux Klan has an active presence, is brought to the fore. History has taught us time and time again that when authorities move too quickly to close a case, a cover-up is afoot. With so many questions surrounding Lennon’s death, the move to close his case remains startlingly strange, and it is cause for great concern. Thankfully, the FBI is now investigating the case.
Strange, still, is how justice for so many Black lives remains so fleeting.
Strange, still, is how swiftly certain tragedies that befall Black lives are swept under the rug.
Strange, still, is the spectacle of a Southern lynching upon a swing set, a symbol of youthful euphoria now rendered the site of a Black youth’s strangulation. Of Meeropol and Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” the late jazz writer Leonard Feather penned that it was “the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism.” The very nature of a lynching is to render the victim forever mute — asphyxiating in suspended space — the violent snapping of the neck. While Lennon Lacy is forever muted, we who love justice must become for him as Meeropol and Holiday: an unmuted cry.
We must continue to pen Lennon’s story.
We must continue to sing Lennon’s song.
We must continue to seek answers to strange circumstances.
We must continue to seek justice for another Black life, a life, strangely, still, gone too soon.
This post is part of the “28 Black Lives That Matter” series produced by The Huffington Post for Black History Month. Each day in February, this series will shine a spotlight on one African-American individual who made headlines in 2014 — mostly in circumstances we all wished had not taken place. This series will pay tribute to these individuals and address the underlying circumstances that led to their unfortunate outcomes. To follow the conversation on Twitter, view #28BlackLives — and to see all the posts as part of our Black History Month coverage, read here.