Editor’s note: This entry is the fourth of a multipart series on white fragility. Read the introduction here, part two here and part three here. Every other Tuesday through mid-May, look for new posts from Martin Zimmann on this topic.
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.
In 1939, Billie Holiday popularized the song “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol. His lyrics capture the horror he felt in 1930 upon learning that two young black men were lynched (a third narrowly escaped that fate) in the courthouse square of Marion, Ind. Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” as the finale of her performances at New York’s Cafe Society nightclub as testimony against the horrors of mass lynchings in Jim Crow America.
This song shows that this lynching could have taken place in any town across America. And, sadly, it did. In the class I’m teaching on white fragility, we learned the extent of lynching from this map provided by the Smithsonian Institute. Our class has been researching this oft-passed-over chapter of American history by reading the works of James Cone and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Robert Amico’s Exploring White Privilege.
“Strange Fruit” was the clarion call that shook America from its lethargy and forced us to examine ourselves critically. This is why Matt Lenahan, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Akron, Pa., chose to incorporate it into Good Friday worship using this 15-minute video. (Watch it to better understand the biblical connection.) In advance of Good Friday, Lenahan shared his plan with our class, and we discussed and prayed about this prophetic moment. To say that Lenahan, a self-admitted exhortative pastor, was nervous would be an understatement. He was worried how his congregation would respond to this in worship.
Lenahan shared, “This is what I must preach, otherwise I’m lying to myself and the congregation. Sharing this video helped me bear witness with the congregants to this horrible history that ties to our hope in the cross.”
Members of Zion were shown this video after months of careful and intentional education. They had been working with a Mennonite congregation to learn about and address race and socio-economic disenfranchisement in their community. They had formed an adult class studying issues of race and ethnicity. In his Palm Sunday sermon, Lenahan spoke openly about his plans to share this video in worship as part of their Holy Week journey. Importantly, he built relationships with parishioners, especially those with whom he shared ideological differences.
When I spoke with him the Tuesday after Easter, Lenahan was relieved that most of the congregation responded positively to the video. One parishioner wrote in an email: I am glad that I came to the service on Friday. The film was troubling, for sure. I cannot imagine that level of hatred. I’ve never felt it. I’m grateful for that. I’m appreciative that you mentioned the latest police shooting of Stephon Clark. It was appropriate. As a white woman, I have no real comprehension of the black reality in our country today. Sometimes, I wish I didn’t know what I’m beginning to know. And, otherwise, in braver times, I’m grateful to be part of hope.
Lenahan is aware that others may not have had the same response. He said he worries some may not be in a place to receive this message. He also worries he’s simply “preaching to the choir.” On the other hand, Lenahan shared, “this is what I must preach, otherwise I’m lying to myself and the congregation. Sharing this video helped me bear witness with the congregants to this horrible history that ties to our hope in the cross.”
As my class enters the second half of the semester, we’ll shift our focus from defining and illuminating the enormity of white fragility’s ongoing crisis in our culture to something new. Now we’re studying how to build relationships with others so they might echo what Lenahan’s parishioner stated so eloquently: I wish I didn’t know what I’m beginning to know. And, otherwise, in braver times, I’m grateful to be part of hope.
The work continues.