Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Strange Fruit: A Reflection on Race, Culture, Faith, and Dialogue from the North Side


Southern trees bear 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.
- Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday

It's Wednesday night. I am at the Church of St. Philips in North Minneapolis. Actress and singer Thomasina Taylor Petrus is performing in the Mixed Blood Theater production of the one-woman show, "Daughters of Africa." At the corner of 26th and Bryant, inside this Catholic church, I am a member of this diverse audience that includes neighborhood children and teens, parents and mentors all gathered with fellow church members and Patchwork Quilt volunteers from partnering parishes around the Twin Cities. Black, White. Brown, yellow. Old, young. All are welcome and assembled for this free community performance of a musical honoring the lives and legacies of African American women through the ages.
At this moment, I am struck by Ms. Petrus' performance of Billie Holiday. The actress embodies this vocal legend -- physically, emotionally --singing "Strange Fruit" from the stage space created in front of the church's alter. In the course of her song, hearing these harrowing and powerful lyrics, I take note of the setting. I stand in awe of this juxtaposition of a Holiday in our midst, offering such potent words, with Christ on the Cross behind her, hanging atop a multi-colored stone-constructed wall.

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.

My breathe stops short for a second. I pause, and take it in. Blood on the leaves. Blood at the root. Bulging eyes, twisted mouth. Bodies swinging. The scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh.

A month ago, I sat in this same space, to witness the ecumenical memorial service for Annshalike Hamilton, a 15 year old young girl found frozen in a garage, two blocks away, having been beaten to death. She was 7 months pregnant. Every sunday, I attend mass in this same space, blending with a congregation of West Africans and Polish Immigrants, North Siders, Suburban members and other Urban dwellers. And I am moved by it all: the proximity of people and tales, language and culture, crucifixion and terror, faith and community, fear and love, creation and transcendence -- all in one space. All seem to converge and speak directly to my core as some kind of celebratory witness of our humanity.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.


By the time the performance ends, we have seen Harriet Tubman, Elisabeth Freeman, Madam C.J. Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Lena Horne, Rosa Parks, Oprah Winfrey. All come to life. All these women tell their stories, sing and engage our crowd.

Afterwards, after the applause, after the question and answer period -- after the little kids marvel and move toward Thomasina, after the children crawl up to sit next to her, after I even add my comment about this moment that has stood out to me -- this is when I have the next conversation. The layered conversation, the race meets faith meets culture and language conversation.

Fr. Jules Omba Omalanga, my newly installed pastor from the Congo, is locking up the place. I say to this dear man, with brown skin and a warm, round face, "Hey! Good stuff, eh, Pere Jules?"

He is beaming, and notes, in his African-French-accented English: "Did you see all the little kids coming up to her? I love seeing children so engaged."

I smile. I nod. I say, "And, this took place in church, Father!? And there was not one overt mention of Jesus!?" He nods and turns his head to me. I continue, "It's powerful what the arts and opportunities like this do for engaging us all, eh?"

I want to squeeze him. I want to thank him for his role in having this kind of thing happen in our church. I want to talk about my own large catholic spirit layered notions of how faith intersects with story, and works to inspire us all. I hold back. I wonder if this appropriate? I wonder if my Congolese Catholic priest gleans the way words shared, performed, sung this evening, are not unlike the words we hear shared each Sunday morning at service? I consider the way I feel fed by this performance, in a similar way to how I feel fed each time I attend mass and receive the Eucharist. I wonder if I can even utter such things? I wonder how he perceives, what he gleans of this evening, what he gets from the history of African Americans? I wonder too, especially, what it's like when his own Congolese and French-speaking self has only been here a few short years? I wonder if he understands me? Ultimately, I wonder if I understand him?

"Fr. Jules, did you get the "Strange Fruit" reference I mentioned?"

He shakes his head, "no" and continues locking up. Fumbling with keys, he says, "What is this 'strange fruit'?"

I try to explain, "It's an allusion to the lynching of an African American in a song by Billie Holiday."

"What is this word, "lynching?" he asks, still turning locks, still looking puzzled.

I pause, put my hand on his arm, "Father, imagine Jesus is black, and instead of a cross, he's hanging from a rope in a tree. That is 'lynching.'"

Then he nods, stopping, looking straight at me, and says, "Yes. I know many stories like this. It reminds me of stories from home. Stories from places the Congo and other African countries... like in Darfur. I know what this is."

Whew. And there's another conversation, right? Another 15 conversations! Here I am thinking all about catholicism and race and culture and history as it mixes itself up on the North side. Here I am trying to sort if this fellow and I have much in common and how we might ever really communicate, understand one another, be on the same page. And here, in this honest exchange, in this slowing down and stopping sort-of-exchange, my priest and friend takes me right out into the larger world. Into his home country, and into his experiences -- into spaces that I have no first hand knowledge of, but desire to understand deeply. He also takes me right into his own heart. I feel like I am present, lucky, so privileged to be standing here and part of something that feels so much larger.

And it makes me ask:
How many layers of communication must we peel back until we are all on the same page -- until we are all speaking about the same thing, using a common language, or common frame of reference? How many doors, hallways, buildings, alleys, (continents) do we travel over and through, until we find ourselves euphemistically, literally, in same room? What does it take to get there? How many keys do we need? How many doors do we lock and unlock? How many plays and masses and funerals do we attend? How many conversations do we have? Who wants to go through all the work? Who wants the hastle, the mess, the emotion? Who wants to hold feelings of perhaps being lost or confused? Who wants to acknowledge the work, and what exists in this room, on this page, when we arrive? And why would any of us want to go there?

These are questions I'm passionate about. These are questions that plague me. These are questions that seem to be at the heart of all my work and experiences of late. Whew. So I put them out here, in light of this recent encounter, and I invite you to hold this with me.
I invite you into the strange fruit experiences, conversations and contemplations of your own.

LOVE!
Melissa





4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Whew is right! Oh my. Yes, the arts move us to live heightened emotions, thoughts, and insights within a twenty minute period which may in "real" time take years to experince. Yes, the arts and mass are good teachers. I often think of a prism when I try to understand the complexity of the human heart. So many different shapes - points, curves, lines; and colors and hues. So complex like our hearts after we view a powerful performance or attend a special mass. Part of the human experience...ah? Jesus, who was part human and part God, was the only truly perfect human. Our journey is to keep trying to "live Jesus". All my love, to my dear, dear friend, Melissa.

Love,

Anonymous said...

Dear One,

This ROCKS!!!! I love it to pieces. The section below, should be in every hand of every person who crosses the threshold of CSP.

And it makes me ask:
How many layers of communication must we peel back until we are all on the same page -- until we are all speaking about the same thing, using a common language, or common frame of reference? How many doors, hallways, buildings, alleys, (continents) do we travel over and through, until we find ourselves euphemistically, literally, in same room? What does it take to get there? How many keys do we need? How many doors do we lock and unlock? How many plays and masses and funerals do we attend? How many conversations do we have? Who wants to go through all the work? Who wants the hastle, the mess, the emotion? Who wants to hold feelings of perhaps being lost or confused? Who wants to acknowledge the work, and what exists in this room, on this page, when we arrive? And why would any of us want to go there?
WOW!!! This speaks deeply to me.

BRAVO

J

Anonymous said...

Melissa,
Thanks for sharing. You are a wonderfully talented writer and I've long been admiring your work and your dedication to getting to the core of your humanity and making connections with others, here and abroad. Your example of Father Jules shows how much we can have in "common" but that that similarity may define itself in many diverse ways.

I miss your presence at North High, but I appreciate your 'presents' here!

Sr. Rafael Tilton said...

Dear Melissa,
I will.
Thank you.
For me Jesus is the Way I experience the reality of this Strange Fruit here and now, here at Assisi Heights, in this country Pres. Obama has taken into account.
In my poem "Feeding Annie," I have said something about it. As well as I can remember it right now, here it is:

I can't do it I can't do it
I can't do it I can't do it,
Annie says.
Her hands are palsied,
side effect of Mellaril,
can't balance on her fork
red squares of Jello
joggling like eyes that will not meet.

Sweet Annie, I say,
picking up her spoon.
I dip it in,
she opens her mouth,
I press it on her tongue.
We find all our rhythms,
all our correspondences.
She swallows what I spoon.
We can do it, Annie,
We can do it.

Peace and All Good
Sr. Rafael
Rochester, MN