This Black History Month, I am sharing 28 stories of Black women who shaped me and showed me the way towards liberation. Because Black women are often not cited for their ideas, I thought this would be one way to give flowers to those who influenced me.
On Day 5, I’d like to honor jazz singer Billie Holiday for her commitment to using her platform to create visibility about brutality and racism experienced by Black Americans - even when it made her the target of law enforcement officials intent on destroying her.
Born in 1915 in Philadelphia, Lady Day, as she was sometimes called, changed the music scene with her unique vocalizations and willingness to play with tempo and sound. She was quoted as saying, “I never sing a song the same way twice.” When Billie Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, the induction essay claimed, “Billie Holiday didn’t just sing a song, she took possession of it. And she repossessed it every time she sang…She would feel out the bones of a tune, lift up a lyric… shake it out, then smooth the words like a glove over the contours of her own heartache.” When Billie sang, magic happened. (https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/billie-holiday)
Lady Day’s discography is filled with truly iconic jazz numbers. God Bless the Child. Them There Eyes. These Foolish Things. Billie Holiday was a true artist. Many would argue that her most impactful song is Strange Fruit.
Strange Fruit was written by Abel Meeropol using the pseudonym Lewis Allen after her saw a picture of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana that haunted him. (cw: the following link includes a picture of the lynching that inspired the writing of Strange Fruit. https://www.npr.org/2010/08/06/129025516/strange-fruit-anniversary-of-a-lynching) The horror he witnessed drove him to write a poem that became the song Strange Fruit. That song made its way to Lady Day and it resonated with her because of her own lived experience as a Black woman in America. The song also scared her because she knew singing it would make her a target of forces intent on maintaining “law and order,” and saw the rising outrage over the racism experienced by Black Americans daily as a threat to that order.
Lady Day was right. It did make her a target. She sang the song anyway.
Strange Fruit would go on to become one of the most important protest songs of the US civil rights movement. It painted a vivid picture of the brutality of racism in America - activists knew it was important that people did not look away. Change required seeing the horror. (https://www.history.com/news/billie-holiday-strange-fruit-lynchings)
I’m grateful for the soldiers of the civil rights movement, like Billie Holiday, who put up a mirror to America and demanded change - even when it meant confronting the horror themselves. #28LoveLetterstoBlackWomen #BlackHistoryMonth2023 #Day5
Photo credit: William P. Gottlieb, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Image Description: Black and white picture of Billie Holiday singing.