Authors: Alan Duff
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
THE WORDS TO THAT POEM
came back to me — to any Negro who knew
them — not long after returning home from the war. To find as if we'd
never participated, as if we had served on the enemy side.
As if our dead servicemen had died for nothing. As if every lost limb,
eyesight, hearing and mind, every disability and constant nagging pain,
had all been wasted.
Back to our beloved, hateful South; back to the dominant white
populace still the same nigger-haters, and even more hell-bent, most of
them, on showing us who was boss.
Came home to strange black fruit still hanging from poplar trees, to
white citizens of the country we'd fought for stringing up Negroes, even
war veterans, even women. Men who'd not served were lynching good
men who had.
How stupid, how naive, how dumb we were to expect things to have
changed just because we'd fought alongside our white fellows. Land of
the free our national anthem claimed us to be. A lie if you were of Negro
extraction, living in a country where any drop of Negro blood was like
I should have known, we all should have known, that attitudes of
three centuries' making do not change, even given a world war we were
engaged in supposedly as equals, defending our country, our beliefs. We
Negroes should never have kidded ourselves this war might change things.
Not in the South.
We had another war left to fight, against an enemy called racial
They gave us the most lowly positions: sanitation, cleaning, dish-washing,
lugging heavy ammunition all day, every menial task an army
needs but no soldier wants to do. But then we were young Southern
Negroes only too glad to be called up for military service so we could get
out of Mississippi. To go other countries was an impossibility for any but
a rare handful of blacks. Now we were going, even if soon to a war. Felt
more like a windfall holiday to exotic overseas lands than fighting another
people to the death.
It should have been plain to us when we were segregated on racial
lines that war or not, Whitey from the South was never going to consider
us even remotely as equals. But we were so excited and anyway so used
to only Negro company, we hardly gave the segregation a thought. When
they told us we were going to a country called New Zealand, way down
in the South Pacific, no one had ever heard of it. We imagined them to
be brown- or black-skinned natives in grass skirts with bones through
their noses — and likely cannibals. We would have put up with anything
though just to experience how other folk lived.
What we arrived to was a modern society much the same as ours,
except quite a few years behind. And the majority of the population was
white. What a country, what marvelous people, what an experience, as
backward as it felt to even us poor colored boys from the South, bars
that closed at six o'clock at night, not a shop open past that hour and
everything closed on weekends. But friendly, open, hospitable locals who
gave their allies warmest welcome.
Including, to our shock, Negroes.
Which we didn't get, not at first: that white people could treat us as
equals and their own dark race, the native Maoris, had the same rights
as the whites, they played sport together, married one another, had
representation at political level, a born right to be whatever they chose.
How could Negroes be permitted to drink in the same bars as whites?
Back home that would cause a riot, cops would arrest us, a white judge
would throw us in jail.
Though we did discern an economic difference between the two
races and hear the occasional disparaging remark about Maoris being
inferior, the vast majority of whites were like what we'd heard some of
our North American whites were: unprejudiced, color-blind. Some of
those northern whites were even on our side, so we heard from Negroes
who had lived up north.
We found the Maoris a bit like us, more physically robust and
expressive in music and dance, and their men were very partial to a fight,
which won our admiration as they were not scared of anyone. And all
men love women. Their skin was brown to our mostly black and their
features more like Mexicans'.
Then a bunch of us soldiers went to this thermal wonderland called
Waiwera in the town of Two Lakes. Where I met a Maori woman; Lena
was her name. At home she would have been called a mulatto, of more
white than dark blood. That she was married made no difference: I was
hit between the eyes with love.
Two unforgettable weeks together then war called for real, as we got
sent in our thousands to Guadalcanal, to fight a Japanese enemy whose
battle tactics in the steaming jungle were stealth and cunning and surprise,
sometimes with open, near suicidal offensive. We lost tens of thousands.
So did the Japs, except it seemed to have no effect on them. They kept
coming at us. Thousands more of us went down with tropical diseases,
died of infected wounds — even small cuts and grazes could kill a man.
It was the complete opposite of the glamorous war we had believed
in. The enemy popped up from anywhere and quickly disappeared into
impenetrable jungle, and yet we knew they watched our every move
as they manoeuvred to hit us from another unexpected position. They
snipered us till the very last of the usually brilliant sunsets, and snipers'
bullets cracked the start of gloriously colorful dawns. We scanned the
thick jungle growth, every second expecting it to answer with a bullet
bearing our name. Mosquitoes, the other enemy, were constantly making
us feverishly ill and killing us. Months and torturous months of real war's
To think I felt relief to be wounded badly enough to get sent home
to recuperate and maybe not have to return again. Back home less than
six months when I was deemed fit enough for active service and this time
the arena was Europe. I didn't mind in the least: I wanted to serve my
country and do my bit to win respect from our white counterparts, and it
was more new countries, quite different to the Pacific Island jungles and a
far cry from Mississippi. I did think of Lena from time to time.
In Europe most Negroes found the attitudes of our white countrymen
had softened markedly. Due to, we realized, northern whites' influence
with their far greater tolerance, and just from fighting alongside each other
and realizing racial difference was plain silly. It was from that experience
that I think a lot of us Negroes came home expecting a heroes' welcome
and even a small change in how we were treated. Not that on the boat
home any of us dared to think an end might come to Whites-only
and Colored signs everywhere or that integration of schools and other
institutions might come about. Even if the more radical blacks talked of
such impossibilities as civil rights and equality for Negroes.
It was not a heroes' welcome. We blacks got to march at the end
of the parade in my small home town of Whitecave, Mississippi, where
the majority white citizens were in a happy clamor for their boys and
noticeably silent when we tail-end black Charlies filed past.
A few weeks later I and a black veteran buddy, Vernon Hill, went to
register as voters for state and county elections at the local polling station.
We were the only blacks in a room full of hostile white officials and fast
realizing nothing of Southern racism had changed.
A big Confederate flag was on the wall behind tables lined with
narrow-eyed men who ignored us a good twenty minutes. But damn it,
we were determined to exercise our right to vote, bolstered by knowing
we had earned it the hard way.
Two forms were pushed at us. These asked the registrant to
interpret a section of the Constitution.
Having schooled ourselves up Vern and
I wrote accordingly. The man who took our forms gave cursory look and
and stamped twice: INELIGIBLE VOTER.
Still under the illusion the war had changed things, I informed the
official we had learned the quoted passage off by heart so why were we
deemed ineligible? Reminded we had served our country in the war.
He told us that his decision was final and to get our nigger asses out of
there before he called the sheriff.
As long as I live I'll never forget the waves of impotency that rolled
over me in hearing, seeing that man, a portly, plain-looking individual
who had control over me, over Vernon. Now here we were being treated
like vagrant children. I had the strength to snap the man in half. Vernon,
whose boxing skills had won him renown in our army division, could
have held his own against several of these people. We were
utterly disrespected and not able to do a damn thing about it.
So began an anger that took a hold of me and sent me plummeting
into the abyss for a good number of years.
Walking into that polling station hall I had felt proud, believing I
presented a respectable figure, tall and rather fine looking I don't mind
saying, a man who carried himself well in the company of friend Vernon,
who had similarly proud bearing. Two men who had fought for country,
for this state, this Southern county, who had earned we thought the right
to be treated as equals. And I knew the official's face, as you do growing
up in a small town. I'm sure he knew ours.
But the face looking back did not recognize either of us, except as
unwanted niggers who had better see sense quickly. I was close to saying
something insulting, even threatening the man with physical violence.
But a lifetime of training to bite my nigger tongue stood me in good stead,
unless I wanted to be behind bars for years.
In our humiliation we left and found a bar — for coloreds of course
— and got soundly drunk. Without my realizing it, something inside
me had snapped. In Vernon too, and worse, I was later to find out. He
ended up on Death Row for murdering a white couple who caught him
ransacking their house. I happened to know it was his warped sense of
Within the year there was a Negro lynching in my county. The two
victims were veterans of the Pacific. I first saw the photos published not in
a newspaper but reproduced on a postcard that was circulating in the area,
seemingly for certain white folks' amusement. A
It showed two black figures strung up, eyes closed, countless bullet
holes in the bodies — as if lynching wasn't enough. Two fellow veterans,
Negro soul brothers, dangling from a tree.
On the other side was the normal space to write address and a message,
a marked rectangle for the postage stamp. The wording describing the
scene read simply: Rotten Black Fruit.
We weren't readers — our poetry was scat-talk — but we knew this
was crude play on the poem 'Strange Fruit'.
It began with lines about the strange Southern fruit, then
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Niggers had had to burn and hang to inspire those words. But took a
white man to write them, though Billie Holiday is known for singing
them; Negroes too close to the suffering can't step far enough back. A
Jewish school teacher, Abel Meeropol, composed it — and his race knew
suffering. On an unimaginable scale at Hitler's hand, the world found out
once the war ended. Our six million were slaughtered over three centuries
and less systematically.
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
I had seen strange fruit once in the flesh, in my fifteenth year when witness
to a lynching my mind stored away in some dark recess.
I met a girl and married too soon, we had two daughters in quick succession,
and I only had a series of low-paid jobs. In our small town there wasn't
much choice. So we moved to Jackson. I quickly gained employment at
a print factory, manual work which was assumed the only suitable role for
Negroes, but I managed to work my way on to one of the sophisticated
machines, well on the way to learning a new craft, better money. I even
dared to think I might have a future.
Till my wife announced she was taking self and kids back to her
hometown, Biloxi: she felt we had nothing in common, she didn't like
the big city and I think she saw the drinking signs in me — of a weak man
going to succumb one day to himself, to the notion of being born a nigger
forbidden to raise himself up, excluded from destiny by written laws and
custom and therefore justified in turning to drink.
Too immature to think much about my daughters, too much getting
by in a strange town knowing hardly anyone, I guess I got fogged up for
more years than I care to admit. Lost my way to drink and anything that
could be smoked or swallowed to get me out of it, took the momentary
comfort of any woman available. I was a man full of nigger self-loathing.
Thought I had good reasons why, and they were just too much for a nigger
to fight against. After what I had given to my country it had ignored me,
denied my basic rights.
Years I wallowed in self-pity. Till I had a dream as real as my own
groping fingers for her, Lena being the subject.
TOOK SOME TIME TO ACCEPT
it had been a delusion, that I was not the
son of a white American hero. Near every song from records Jess had
sent went off the band's repertoire and naturally my pals were wondering
why. I lied and said the trend wasn't going that way, the Beatles had just
arrived. English bands were all the rage.
But, they said, your voice doesn't suit the English band style. Thought
they were paying me a compliment saying I sang more like a Negro, that
I had a natural bent for black music, it was what I loved to sing and listen
After a few weeks of misery I adjusted and came down from my
throne to mix with the slaves of the world. It seemed my mother had
this all worked out with Jess, for a parcel of records arrived from him and
though it took a couple of sulking days to even open the parcel, I found
a treasure trove waiting when I did. And knowing I was part Negro
explained everything, including falling hopelessly in love with the gospel
singer Mahalia Jackson's angelic voice. This new batch of recorded artists
had set another benchmark, it seemed to me. And a person should know
of his own kind.
So I was the descendant of slaves — the people hardly mentioned
in school history books, those poor souls crammed into galley ships like
livestock, transported from Africa to the Americas. To a life of slavery.
I was not high-born, not descended from a great Maori chief, not the
offspring of an all-white American hero. I wasn't John Wayne Junior. Just
ordinary Mark Hines of low lineage, a mix of bloods that some might say
made me a mongrel.
Eventually I apologised to the band, reinstated every dropped song
and added many more, every one of them by black artists.
Pulled out the two photographs of my father and said, guess who this
And three said almost in chorus, your old man?
Nigel, who did most of his talking through his very good lead guitar,
did not look a bit surprised. Was him who drawled, yeah, well, we kind
of figured your voice can't have been just good imitation.
The chief, the king, son of a gunslinging cowboy, replica of
Elvis, slave owner, pharaoh, John Wayne Junior, was dead. Long live Mister
Ordinary, descendant of a Negro slave.
I met Isobel at my flat about once a month; had an arrangement with my
boss to start work an hour earlier and take a two-hour lunch break. My
boss, who liked music, believed it was for guitar tuition.
Of late she'd been asking if we shouldn't end this, what with the age
difference and even more her son's presence in the band.
But I didn't want to let go. I felt I was growing up more rapidly
than the chronological norm; I was being prepared for adulthood in
understanding women — yes, the plural, as I intended knowing quite
a few more before settling down and marrying. I did want children
somewhere down the track. As to what Isobel got out of the relationship,
she didn't say. I presumed it was partly physical and something about our
chemistry that just worked.
At least Isobel was surprised on learning my blood heritage. You'll
recall I thought you had Latin blood, she said. Well, part Negro makes
it even more interesting. And on the subject of interesting we moved
like dance partners who were old hands and fucked each other to mutual
I think I'm ready to go to America to meet him, I told Isobel. She
thought it a good idea, and did I have the money? Yes, I said, another
money order came with the records. My father must be quite well off.
With winter coming on and no bookings for the band, I'd have the
opportunity to go. So I decided to study up on where he lived as the
stories I'd heard of Mississippi were not good, what with the Ku Klux
Klan, the horrific things they did to Negroes. Wondering — fearing —
how I would be treated.
Hours I had spent in front of the mirror trying to see how I must
appear to others. If my band mates had always assumed I had Negro
blood, but Isobel my intimately closer friend did not, what then did I
really look like? If too obviously of Negro origin then my visit to America
might not be something to look forward to, even do.
I drove the six hours to Auckland one Saturday, to see someone who
would know in an instant which race I would pass for most. Mata. (And
to see my nephew again, just a baby when I saw him last.)
Not giving Mata notice was deliberate. I just arrived: no need to
bother about the niceties, not my own sister. But thankful her boyfriend
was at rugby.
Ma? (What I called her in private.) What race do you think my father
My big sister asked, what sort of question is that? Do you really want
to know? Haven't I told you what I thought as we grew up? Surely I
Not that I recall.
If she said Negro then I would have to prepare myself to eat in
coloured-only joints, be subject to other restrictions and racial prejudice.
Come on, Ma.
I think you look a bit like Dad, actually. And she broke out
This is serious.
So am I. You look quite a bit like him, especially when he was
How can I look like him?
Maybe he rubbed off on you. I don't know. Might be you picked up
some of his mannerisms. You certainly sing the same.
This was total confusion. Do I look like I've got Negro blood?
A bit of that too. Mata didn't drop a stitch. But if you stood beside
Henry Takahe, people would say you are his son.
Twelve hours driving there and back to hear this. Still not sure what
category the Mississippi whites would put me in. Maybe I wouldn't go.