I attended a live performance titled Strange Fruit at the University of San Diego. The play was written by a current senior and followed a small group of African American friends as they begin their first year at college. The cast discovers that the land the university is founded on was formerly the site of a mass execution of slaves after the confederacy surrendered. Some of those slaves managed to escape the execution, and the school is now purposely admitting students who are the descendants of the escaped slaves and making them disappear. While Strange Fruit is most definitely a thriller, it effectively explores the ways in which young African Americans face racial discrimination in the modern age. Studying how racial discrimination changes over time is a central theme of African American history, and Strange Fruit sheds light on probably the most forgot age of discrimination, the 21st century.
Growing up in suburban Utah, I learned in school that discrimination towards African American’s meant bus seats, water fountains, and separate bathrooms, and while that is true, it is a grave simplification and only relates to a small slice of African American history. African Americans first experienced racial discrimination in the United States in 1619 when they arrived as slaves, and since then, the type of discrimination, its impacts, and intentions have changed countless times. In the earliest form as slavery; discrimination was intended to tear African Americans from their previous identities and their identity as humans in general. Half a century later discrimination was being legalized, such as in Virginia where it was declared that “all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of their mother,” which intended to dehumanize slaves further and eliminate any hope of freedom (Virginia 1662). African American discrimination evolved following the civil war with the aid of Jim Crow, and with the new intention to intimidate the newly freed African American population. Probably the most famous era of discrimination, that my middle school valued so highly, was during the Civil Rights movement where the new discriminatory message was that African Americans might be equal in law but not in society. The final and current stage of African American discrimination is often underrepresented in today’s media, but Strange Fruit helps illustrate the challenges that young African Americans face today.
Central to the theme of Strange Fruit is how the group of African American students are routinely discriminated against during there first year at college. The majority of the discriminatory tactics are unique to this generation of African Americans because it utilizes modern technology. After arriving on campus, the students are frequently sent cryptic messages on their cell phones from unknown sources that imply they are being watched. Once the messages begin, the African American students begin to feel paranoid about their fellow students, adding stress to an already stressful time in a student’s life. When the students attend class, their rooms are broken into and left in shambles. The break-ins cause the friend group to begin to question their health and safety. When the African American students go to the dean to address these incidents, he dismisses them and offers no help. The dean’s actions cause the African American Students to lose trust and faith in the school. The students are also isolated within the student’s body. There are only a couple of African Americans at the university despite thousands of students, and while it is not directly stated in the play, this is a motif of the institutionalized racism that many African Americans continue to face in our time. Overall, the different types of discrimination that the African American students face are intended to scare them and make them feel isolated. One theme that can connect all these types of discrimination is the lack of contact. Whether its harassment through cell phones or destroying a dorm room while the inhabitants are gone, all of these types of discrimination avoid direct contact, which is quite the evolution from when most discrimination would typically occur face to face. This style of discrimination is a by-product of living in an age where there is added security and accountability within the justice system.
The most prevalent form of discrimination in 21st century America is that of institutionalized racism. Similar to the discrimination represented in Strange Fruit, rarely will institutions have a face. Institutions have a name, and they have employees, but rarely are they controlled by a sole individual that can be criticized. Institutions have the power to push a racist agenda while also protecting the people within the institution, which has made this form of discrimination very safe. Istatuitionized racism can have an impact on many aspects of an African American’s life, but none more prevalent than in the education system and, subsequently, the job market. In his book, Michael Higginbotham, a professor at the University of Baltimore and a current candidate for the 2020 election to congress, states that “Black unemployment is nearly twice that of whites, regardless of whether one is examining white-collar or blue-collar jobs, and education does not reduce the gap. Black high school graduates have a higher unemployment rate than whites who did not finish high school. Black college graduates have a higher unemployment rate than whites who did not complete college. At all income levels, blacks with the same educational degrees make less than their white counterparts” (Higginbotham, 144). Statistics such as these are caused by thousands of separate institutions and are, therefore, extremely difficult to improve upon. Institutional racism fits into the theme of Strange Fruit because it enables discrimination without the risk of human contact.
When analyzing Strange Fruit and modern forms of discrimination, the most significant single characteristic is a lack of confrontation. In discrimination’s lengthy timeline, this is the first era in which the perpetrators rely so heavily on privacy, and the anonymity of technology mostly enables this privacy. While Strange fruit is a work of fiction, it illustrates how anomalous forms of discrimination can still have devastating effects on people and groups. Spoilers, the friend group disappears.
Higginbotham, F. Michael. “Victimizing Blacks in the 21st Century.” In Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism in Post-Racial America, 141-78. New York; London: NYU Press, 2013. Accessed May 11, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qfd17.10.
White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: a History of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2017.