The Birth of a Nation & "Strange Fruit"

Guest blog  by Robert Meeropol, Rosenberg Fund for Children Founder & son of Ethel & Julius Rosenberg (originally published on Robert's blog, Still Out on a Limb)

Most of you probably know about D.W. Griffith’s horrible 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. It glorified the Ku Klux Klan. President Woodrow Wilson, a virulent racist, showed it in the White House.

African-American filmmaker Nate Parker’s new film with the same title is the story of Nat Turner, who led the great Virginia slave rebellion in 1831. There is already a lot of buzz about this film, which will be released on October 7. It has generated rave advance reviews and sparked an unprecedented bidding war for distribution rights at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I’m eager to see the film, which I hear is presented from Turner’s point of view. The trailer below features Nina Simone singing Strange Fruit, written by my father, Abel Meeropol.

Some may wonder what Strange Fruit, a song about lynching written in the late 1930’s, has to do with a slave uprising that took place over 100 years earlier. I don’t know if Strange Fruit is played in the body of the movie, so I don’t know how entwined the song is with the plot. But despite the 100-year gap, given what I know about Nat Turner’s rebellion, the film and song are well matched.

Strange Fruit is often referred to as a “sorrowful dirge,” or as a “protest song.” While it does fit within the protest song category, I think that term misses its essence. Strange Fruit is an attack song. With his couplet “Pastoral scene of the gallant South. The bulging eyes and twisted mouth,” Abel was saying that beneath its genteel facade the South was rotten. Its scornful tone infuriated many whites so much that its performance was banned in some cities and radio stations refused to play it. There were riots at some of the venues where it was performed. In 1940, my father was called before a committee investigating communist school teachers and asked if the Communist Party paid him to write the song.

Similarly, the 2016 version of The Birth of a Nation is an attack movie. It isn’t about non-violent protesters peacefully asking for desegregation and civil rights in the 1960’s. Instead, it is a justification – and possibly a glorification – of an armed rebellion.

How would my father feel about the use of his greatest work in this manner? He once said he wrote Strange Fruit because he hated lynching and he hated the people who perpetrated it. Abel was no turn-the-other-cheek pacifist. He would have applauded the slaves taking up arms. He would have loved having his song used in this new film.

I look forward to seeing the movie. I intend to watch it through two sets of eyes, my own and my father’s.

[See Robert's previous guest blog about Strange Fruit here, to read more from Robert about this iconic song, and see a video that reflects on the surprising convergence between Billie Holiday and Ethel Rosenberg and includes a live performance by Pamela Means.]

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"Strange Fruit" is the most haunting song I have ever heard, and we are fortunate that such a song was written by a man of such integrity and character. It is now an important part of America's history in terms of our legacy of slavery. I look forward to the movie and to the continued amazing work of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

I have adored this song since I first heard Billie sing it. My Jewish mother, Rose Lynn Massing, was involved in the fight to free the Rosenburgs, when we lived in Cleveland in the 50's. I have not seen the movie, but personally I consider it important to associate this song with the most painful memory (lynching) of the racist past of this country, and not let it be simply a jazz standard. I look forward to seeing this film.

I'm glad you approved use of the song in the movie. I was dismayed when I saw the exhibit, "After the Fall," an otherwise excellent show of depression-era art at Chicago's Art Institute, that they didn't include the song with music of the period that played in the exhibit space. The '30s weren't all "Yessir, she's my baby," as I show in my novel of the period, A Free, Unsullied Land.

Recent articles have covered the FBI targeting Nina Simon and contributing to her death as part of their effort to associate blacks, drugs and the civil rights movements. Nina was struggling with her addiction using Methadone when the FBI interfered with her medical care, Nina infuriated the FBI because she was an admired symbol of black achievement and insisted performing Strange Fruit. More recent evidence has shown that the War on Drugs was intended to prevent a developing association between blacks and the alternative youth movement. These deadly connections are often avoided.

First heard this song when I was in my teens, c. 1955. Have never been able to sing it because I choke up with tears (also when I hear it played). I recognized its significance from the start. Here's hoping it's properly used.

Rarely read blogs, but this one held me.

Rob's point about our father needs to be stressed. He was a gentle humorous man who was also (as I said in the movie Strange Fruit) also one of the angriest people .... He was truly angry about injustice and used his art to fight it his entire life. The line about "hating the people" who engage in lynching is quite telling. Many people like Gandhi's statement "hate the sin, love the sinner." Our father did not believe that; he did not practice it.

I think he conceived of his song as an attack song. When he first published it as a poem he called it BITTER CROP. The more ironic title Strange Fruit obviously suggested itself from the first line --- but the words BITTER CROP are the last two words in the song ....

And the long history of lynching in this country does not conjure up SORROW for him but bitterness and anger.

We probably (can't speak for Rob) never spoke specifically with our father about slave revolts but since he was no pacifist he undoubtedly would have approved of them --- John Brown was a hero to the left in the 1930s and later for taking up arms against the Slave Power ....

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