Full post layout for the traditionalists

Using so many words to say so little…

What is the famous song “Strange Fruit,” by Abel Meeropol, a New York Jewish communist schoolteacher, and most famously performed by Billie Holiday, the immensely influential and important black singer, about?

Lynching.  It’s about lynching.  It’s about whites lynching black people in the US South.

See how easy that was?  Very few words.

Here’s what Annie Lennox thinks it’s about:

“Strange Fruit” is a protest song and it was written before the Civil Rights movement actually got on its feet, got established. And because of what I’ve seen around the world, I know that this theme, this subject of violence and bigotry, hatred, violent acts of mankind against ourselves. This is a theme. It’s a human theme that has gone on for time immemorial. It’s expressed in all kinds of different ways, whether it be racism, whether it be domestic violence, whether it be warfare, or a terrorist act, or simply one person attacking another person in a separate incident. This is something that we as human beings have to deal with, it’s just going on 24/7. And as an observer of this violence, even as a child, I thought, why is this happening? So I’ve always had that sense of empathy and kind of outrage that we behave in this way. So a song like this, if I were to do a version of “Strange Fruit,” I’d give the song honor and respect and I try to bring it back out into the world again and get an opportunity to talk about the subjects behind the songs as well.

Yeah, you can vague that up as much as you like, Lennox, but at some point you might want to mention lynching.  Because it’s not about “one person attacking another person in a separate incident.”  It’s about a very specific expression of a very specific violent racism.  It’s not about domestic violence; it’s not about warfare; and if you want an opportunity to talk about “the subjects behind the songs,” you might want to mention lynching.  Because that’s what it’s about.  Because the suffering and struggle endured by black people in the US isn’t some vague “theme” that can be lifted lock, stock, and barrel and emptied of specificity.  At least not ethically.

You can tell it’s about lynching because of subtle hints like, well, the lyrics:

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

This is not a subtle thing.  It’s not an interpretation.  It’s very specifically, very vividly, about lynching.  So stop fucking around, Lennox, and say so.



Don’t you get sick of those damned poor trick-or-treaters in your rich neighborhood?

This week, an actual win from advice columnist Dear Prudence:

Dear Prudence,

I live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, but on one of the more “modest” streets — mostly doctors and lawyers and family business owners. (A few blocks away are billionaires, families with famous last names, media moguls, etc.) I have noticed that on Halloween, what seems like 75 percent of the trick-or-treaters are clearly not from this neighborhood. Kids arrive in overflowing cars from less fortunate areas. I feel this is inappropriate. Halloween isn’t a social service or a charity in which I have to buy candy for less fortunate children. Obviously this makes me feel like a terrible person, because what’s the big deal about making less fortunate kids happy on a holiday? But it just bugs me, because we already pay more than enough taxes toward actual social services. Should Halloween be a neighborhood activity, or is it legitimately a free-for-all in which people hunt down the best candy grounds for their kids?

— Halloween for the 99 Percent

I KNOW, RIGHT? You work so hard to live in a million-dollar neighborhood and pass out Halloween candy to the kids of billionaires and media moguls. And then poor kids invade by the minivan-load in costumes that are clearly not from this neighborhood, so you’re stuck handing out charity candy when you already pay more than enough taxes toward actual social services. Is there no trick-or-treating in prisons and poorhouses?

Obviously, this makes me feel like a terrible person[.]

It should.

Prudence agrees with me.

Dear 99,

In the urban neighborhood where I used to live, families who were not from the immediate area would come in fairly large groups to trick-or-treat on our streets, which were safe, well-lit, and full of people overstocked with candy. It was delightful to see the little mermaids, spider-men, ghosts, and the occasional axe murderer excitedly run up and down our front steps, having the time of their lives. So we’d spend an extra $20 to make sure we had enough candy for kids who weren’t as fortunate as ours. There you are, 99, on the impoverished side of Greenwich or Beverly Hills, with the other struggling lawyers, doctors, and business owners. Your whine makes me kind of wish that people from the actual poor side of town come this year not with scary costumes but with real pitchforks. Stop being callous and miserly and go to Costco, you cheapskate, and get enough candy to fill the bags of the kids who come one day a year to marvel at how the 1 percent live.

— Prudie

For Angel H: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

A little while ago, I mentioned that I was reading Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, on an open thread, a really interesting retelling of the Snow White fairy tale by a Nigerian-British novelist that engages issues of race in a way that very few fairy-tale retellings do (“The Glass Bottle Trick” by Nalo Hopkinson is a notable exception, and I know there are others).  Angel H. posted and noted that she had read reviews saying the novel was transphobic–I was confused, because I was halfway through the book and there didn’t seem to be any trans-relevant content at all, but I promised that I would respond when I was done.

The thing is, there is no way for me to talk about this book with respect to race or trans-ness, without giving away some major spoilers, so please only read past the jump cut if you’re OK with that.


Spoilers, I really mean it.

OK, here we go.

I really love about 90% of this book, and then, to my mind, it all falls apart in the final chapter, which is, not coincidentally, where there is a big trans-related revelation.  I’m not a fan of flinging in some major “surprise, so-and-so is trans!” as a plot twist at the end without any prior or subsequent consideration of what that means in general, and I really think it’s not only unearned here, but doesn’t do what Oyeyemi thinks it does (or so I assume–I assume from the fact that it’s in the final chapter and seems to trigger some kind of reconciliation among Boy, the stepmother, Snow, the stepdaughter, and Bird, Boy’s daughter and Snow’s sister, that it’s meant to explain some emotional issues, open up the potential for a new chapter in their lives, generally be a kind of resolution, and I think it fails utterly).  I definitely think it’s an artistic failure.

And yeah, I can see how it’s transphobic as well.  For me, the transphobia is less glaring than the artistic failure, no doubt in large part due to cis privilege and in small part due to the fact that I just don’t buy the revelation, don’t see it as relevant to the story, and on a fundamental level think it’s kind of bullshit, so it’s hard for me to see it as a real thing.

Let me give you a spoiler-iffic rundown.  In 1953 or so, at 18, Boy Novak runs away from her very, very abusive ratcatcher father,  on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (they’re not Jewish, but he is Hungarian) and winds up in a New England town.  There she stays in a boarding house for a while and does various odd jobs, making friends and doing odd jobs.  She meets Arturo, a local jewelry-maker, and after a beautifully drawn series of interactions, marries him, although she does not know if she loves him.  She does love his 7-year-old daughter, Snow.  Snow is preternaturally beautiful and angelic, and is the darling of her three grandparents, who live next door.  After a year or so, Boy gives birth to a daughter who is very clearly of black descent, and it comes out that Arturo’s family has been passing for white, and is so committed to doing so that his parents disowned a daughter who could not pass and sent her away (it annoys me that we don’t find this out until about a third of the way through the book, and I think it is supposed to be a revelation, but the American edition gives this plot point away in the blurb).  It also becomes clear that part of the reason for the grandparents’ adoration of Snow is that she can pass almost perfectly.  After the birth of her daughter, Boy begins to resent Snow and the love her grandparents have for her, as their internalized racism cause them to reject their other granddaughter, who cannot pass.  Boy sends Snow away to Boston to live with her aunt, the disowned daughter, and uncle, transforming her childhood utterly.

Snow is deeply hurt–she had adored Boy, thinking of her as a fairy-tale princess and doesn’t understand why she’s been sent away from her stepmother, her beloved father, the sister she loves, and her adoring grandparents.  Eventually she and Bird get back in touch when Bird is around 10, and Snow, along with the aunt and uncle, Clara and John, come home for Thanksgiving.

During their visit, Frank stalks Boy and Bird, corners Bird, and coerces her into having lunch with him.  He is appalled to learn that this black child is Boy’s daughter, tells her that her mother is “evil” (Boy is certainly fucked up, but no, not evil), and is run out of town by Arturo, who knows all about his abuse and is having none of it, thank you very much.

In the final chapter, Mia, a friend of Boy’s from the boarding house, who has become a journalist, meets with Boy.  She has been looking into Boy’s family for a story she wanted to write and discovers that Frank Novak was born Frances Novak, and had been a a bright and charismatic young lesbian (in this version of trans-ness, Frances had identified firmly as a woman, as far as we know, up until the event I’m about to speak of) who made her way from working-class roots to doing a PhD in psychology at Columbia when she is raped by a fellow student.  She finds herself traumatized and pregnant, and begins seeing a man in the mirror, and within months has dropped out of sight of all those who had known her and become Frank the ratcatcher.  So, you can see the transphobic elements here, I think: trans-ness is the result of a trauma, and the trans-parent is evil and abusive.

This revelation is somehow supposed to be a major thing for Boy, and I’m not convinced that the novel doesn’t mean us to agree.  Boy, however, is convinced that if she can just go back to her father and coax him into being her mother “again,” all will somehow be well.  At which point, I say what?  Who gives a fuck?  This asshole beat you into unconsciousness several times, tried to drown you, and at one point, drugged you, tied you up, and almost had a starving rat eat through your face so that your boyfriend would no longer find you beautiful.  He stalked you, rejected your daughter out of racism, and told her you were evil.  Who gives a flying fuck what genitals he has?  If this had been presented as Boy’s desperate need for parental love and approval after all these years, something that had been motivating her in her rejection of Snow, part of an ongoing search for a mother who could have protected her from her father’s abuse, it would make psychological sense to me.  But I don’t see that here.  Boy wonders in a couple sentences in the beginning what kind of mother would’ve left her with Frank, but that’s it.  And it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with her relationships with Snow or Bird.  Anyway, Boy takes Snow and Bird with her, and they get into the car to go back to NYC and find Frank and somehow “bring back” Boy’s “mother.”

The novel would’ve been so much better off without this nonsense.  It adds nothing.  It plays on transphobic tropes.  And it has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the novel.  This novel needed to resolve the relationships among Bird, Snow, and Boy.  It needed to explain why Arturo allowed Boy to send his older daughter away for a decade.

But I can’t not recommend the book, either.  Up until that last chapter, it’s really interesting and thoughtful.  I find what it does with race fascinating.  The relationships among the women are fascinating and full of misunderstanding.  It’s very well written.  Just skip the last chapter.