Songwriter Abel Meeropol and singer Billie Holliday worked together to produce perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching songs ever written. The words to Strange Fruit (where the poem was titled Bitter Fruit) reveal the tragic nature of some of the darkest times in American history. These words describe the bodies of black people who were lynched- apart from the law, with no chance at justice. The images portrayed here are meant to move the reader to his core. These images burn in one’s mind so as to leave the reader unable to forget the bitter truth of the history of a nation plagued with racism. The trees in this poem, ironically, symbolize death. In most literature, the tree is the source of life and thus is symbolic of life. In Strange Fruit, the tree was used to bring death to innocent people, and thus it is a symbol of death.
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Summary of Strange Fruit
‘Strange Fruit’ by Abel Meeropol is a poem on the genocide of black people in America. The tragic effect gets embodiment in the poem by the use of Meeropol’s bitter irony. The poet presents an image of a tree that bears strange fruit. The symbolic tree has blood on the leaves and in its root. The poet can see the “black body”, a reference to the Afro-Americans, swinging on the tree. In the pastoral landscape of southern America, the rotting bodies create a shocking sensation in the poet’s mind. Meeropol creates a stark contrast between the superficial beauty of American culture and the rotting inside fused with bitterness and ruthlessness in the second stanza. The unending atrocities on black people throughout the year get reflected in the concluding section of the poem.
Structure and Form of Strange Fruit
‘Strange Fruit’ by Abel Meeropol contains three stanzas. Each stanza has four lines in it. The rhyme scheme of the poem is AABB. The poem has a perfect rhyme and the mentioned rhyme scheme runs throughout the poem. In the first stanza, “fruit” in the first line rhymes with the “root” in the second line. Likewise “breeze” and “trees” rhyme in the following lines. In the second stanza, “South” rhymes with “mouth”, “fresh” and “flesh” rhyme altogether. Likewise in the third stanza, “pluck” and “suck”, “drop” and “crop” rhyme together.
The compactness of the lines and the shortness of the structure makes the poet’s argument forceful. The lack of rhythm in the first stanza illustrates the “strangeness” of the scene, the poet sees. In the following stanzas, the rhyming pattern of the poem creates a mechanical kind of sound. The stress on the syllables at specific instances and the sound coming out in this process somehow seem satirical and ironic. Clearly, it reflects the mood and tone of the poem.
Literary Devices in Strange Fruit
In ‘Strange Fruit’ by Abel Meeropol, “Southern trees” is a metaphor. Firstly, it depicts white people living in southern America. On another hand, the tree represents “hatred towards black people”. The “strange fruit” is another metaphor in this poem. It refers to black people either dead or alive. In this line, “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”, there are two metaphors. “Leaves” and “roots” of the strange tree refer to the bloodstained hands of the white Americans and their vengeful heart respectively.
In the next stanza, “gallant South” is a personal metaphor. From this section of the poem, Abel Meeropol uses irony in most of the cases. In the last stanza, there is a use of anaphora in the second and third lines. In this stanza, the poet makes use of metonymy for referring to the summer and winter season. The natural extremities mentioned here can be treated as metaphors too.
Strange Fruit Analysis
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
In lines 1-4, of the poem, which can be read in full here, the writer creates an image the reader cannot easily forget. Whatever has happened, the speaker has not yet fully revealed, but it has left so much blood that there is blood on the leaves of a tree, and also at the root. These lines are highly important to the rest of the poem because they reveal two things: first, that the blood is from “black bodies” and second, that they are hanging from trees in the South. This creates the setting and also reveals the event. In the Southern part of the united states, black people have been killed and can be seen hanging from blood-spattered trees.
With these lines, the speaker subtly reveals how very unnatural a sight it is to see. To refer to the bodies as “strange fruit” allows the readers to grasp the sense of injustice. Whereas it is natural for the fruit to hang from trees, it is inhumane to hang bodies from trees. This line also creates a grotesque image reader will not easily forget. Now, the reader or listener can imagine the bodies swinging from the trees like fruit. The use of the term “southern breeze” and the metaphor of the bodies as “fruit” allows for the juxtaposition of something very beautiful with something entirely grotesque. The reader can imagine fruit swinging in a warm southern breeze, and that is a natural and beautiful image. However, the reality of what has occurred here is one that is sickening, and the reader can understand the truly horrific nature of what is being described because of the metaphor of the bodies as “fruit” and the description of the warm breeze.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
(And the sudden smell of burning flesh.)
The use of the word “gallant” here is clearly used in satire. While the people who committed these lynching crimes often considered themselves “gallant” for taking the law into their own hands and “protecting” their women and children, these lines reveal what a ridiculous notion that is. Those guilty of such grotesque crimes as to hang innocent people are clearly not gallant, but cowardly. The speaker describes the “bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth” of the victims to paint a picture of how truly horrible a sight it was to see the bodies of the innocent hanging in the trees.
The speaker continues to use the descriptions of the beautiful parts of the south to juxtapose with the atrocities committed there. Magnolias are often associated with the southern states, as they are found there most often. They are certainly sweet-smelling, and after the brutal description of the bodies, this description of the sweet scent of flowers serves to further exemplify the tragedies that have occurred in these beautiful southern states. The speaker then immediately follows the description of the scent of the magnolia’s with the description of the scent of “burnin’ flesh”. This reveals that though the south may have its share of beauty, the atrocities done by the people blot out the beautiful aspects of the south.
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
One of the most horrendous truths about the history of lynching in America is that the bodies were often left to rot for days so that people could not help but look up and notice. They were meant as a warning. People who committed these crimes took the law into their own hands and often proceeded to hang someone even if that person had been cleared of charges or had only been accused of a crime against a white person. These lines refer to the fact that the bodies were left there long enough to rot so that everyone would see that and take them as a warning.
The speaker ends Strange Fruit with the line, “here is a strange and bitter crop”. While the south was known for its cotton farms along with other crops, the speaker believes the memory of this bitter crop will rise above them all so that the south would be remembered for the murder of innocent people. The use of the word “bitter” in the last line of this poem connects with the previous descriptions of the bodies and leaves the reader to ponder the bitterness of these untimely and unjust deaths at the hands of those who believed they could take the law into their own hands. These words struck the American public, allowing the bitterness of the reality of these occurrences to sink in and sober the American people with the realization of the tragedies that have taken place on their land.
There are many poets who stood up for the cause of the Balck people. They voiced their strong protest through their poems. The harsh representation of the atrocities on black Americans like in Abel Meeropol’s poem ‘Strange Fruit’, is present in the following works too.
You can read about 10 of the Best Poems by African-American Poets here.