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Abel Meeropol, author of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” mentioned by UFT

February 12, 2021 pm28 7:38 pm


I get this newsletter in my email. And it is true. But maybe a bit incomplete.

Abel Meeropol was a member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) – but not in 1937 when he wrote “Bitter Fruit” (Billie Holiday first sang it two years later, as “Strange Fruit” and it became a signature song.) The UFT did not yet exist. Meeropol was a member of the Communist-led New York Teachers Union (TU). Not only that, it was the TU that  published the poem in its newsletter. Before I continue, if you do not know the song – go listen to the song. If you do not know the words,

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
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

(the link is to a website with some more history, and annotations)

So this poem was first published in 1937 in “The New York Teacher” – not the UFT newspaper, but the NYC Teacher Union magazine. The TU was red-baited out of existence, but in any case was never the bargaining agent for all NYC teachers. The TU was actually still around in 1960 when the UFT was founded, but the TU members joined the UFT, and the TU closed up shop in 1964. And at that time (I’m guessing 1960) Abel Meeropol joined the UFT.

There’s got to be culture shock, in a lot of ways. One that jumps out is going from an organization that is essentially anti-war, to the UFT, led by “state department socialists” – including Albert Shanker, well-known for his early, vocal support of the Vietnam War. Former TU members opposed him. I do not know what year Meeropol retired (he was 65 in ’68) or whether he was actively opposed to pro-war Shanker, but he may well have been. Eventually the UFT did change position and oppose the war. But the legacy remains. Eleven years ago I attended the AFT Convention in Seattle, and was horrified to read two resolutions, giving the AFT’s justification-in-advance for sanctions against Cuba and war against Iran. In a fitting twist, the pro-war “socialist” who wrote them now runs the Shanker Institute.

But when I saw Abel Meeropol’s name, I did not first think of the TU, or of DeWitt Clinton HS (a few blocks from me) where he taught English (and where James Baldwin was one of his students). No, I thought of the boys he adopted. Anne and Abel Meeropol adopted Robert and Michael, and Robert and Michael adopted the Meeropol name. They were the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Not only did the government execute the boys’ parents, but they did nothing as campaigns to identify and harass the children succeeded in plastering their photos across front pages, and forcing them out of school. The Meeropol’s gave the boys a home, a new name, and protected them.

There was an article about Robert and Michael, and it opens with Abel, published last month in Current Affairs. I’m copying the first four paragraphs, a teaser. You should go read the whole thing.

The left would go crazy over Jewish American dissidents Abel and Anne Meeropol if they were alive today. Their tale is a radical epic so poignant that one wonders where the 10-part miniseries is. It covers a range of contemporary themes: children separated from parents, the political persecution of dissidents, and social justice warriors doing battle against a racist, xenophobic, increasingly fascistic America.

It’s a story so fantastical, and containing so many celebrated names, that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t stuck better into the mainstream. Then again, a tale involving judicial executions on fake charges of espionage and the heroism of Jewish and Black radicals probably wouldn’t get the prestige TV greenlight. The only way the Meeropols’ story would get approved by network executives is if it were pitched by someone like Aaron Sorkin—who would no doubt fill his script with speechifying neoliberals.

While Hollywood isn’t going to tell the real story of the Meeropols anytime soon, if I were to make that TV series, I would open it on a party scene in the front parlor of a Brooklyn brownstone. The room is decorated for Christmas. The house belongs to Black socialist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. It’s December 1953.

At the party, perhaps standing off to the side of the partygoers, is the poet-songwriter Abel Meeropol (also known by his pen name, Lewis Allan), the author of famous anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit.” He stands beside his wife, Anne Meeropol, a public school teacher and union organizer. They are waiting patiently for the orphaned sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to arrive. Abel and Anne are going to be their new parents…

There’s more. You should click and read.

It was a good reminder, in the Team HS Newsletter, about Abel Meeropol. It was a reminder about his artistic contribution to the anti-lynching movement, an earlier incarnation of the current movement against officially sanctioned violence agains Black folks (including #BLM). And a reminder about protecting children, at least for those of us who know how he and Anne protected the Rosenberg boys.

I am going to close this post by making donations to the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which supports children whose parents have been targeted as progressive activists, and also children who themselves have been targeted… and to Mothers Against Police Brutality. And I urge you to do the same.

 

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 13, 2021 am28 7:31 am 7:31 am

    Thank you for the clarification 🙏💜🙏

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