The Strange Fruit of Immigration

The wood of the Cradle that holds Christ’s newborn body is united to the Cross where he gives up his Spirit. At the Nativity, Christ is the New Adam. On the Cross, he hangs on a tree as the New Fruit; “the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Mary, the New Eve, has her immaculate heart pierced seven times, carrying the wounds of Christ as she carried his body to Bethlehem—the first stigmata. Christ carries these wounds of the Cross, too, even after resurrection. Let us pray: “Intra tua vulnera absconde me” (within Thy wounds hide me).

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,” Billie Holiday sings. This is the fruit Ida B. Wells chronicles in her 1892 report, Southern Horrors, the same fruit W.E.B. Du Bois alludes to in “Of the Coming of John”—“And the world whistled in his ears.” Holiday, a Black Catholic, continues her sorrowful song: “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” In Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday confides that this song, based on a poem written by a Jewish schoolteacher in New York, was offered as a tribute to her father, who was denied admission to a hospital for the pneumonia that eventually killed him in Dallas, Texas. For Holiday, her father’s unjust and preventable death was a part of the horrors endured by Black people on the tree of death called white supremacy. “Strange Fruit” is a daughter’s mourning, a Black blues protest.  

James Cone opens his 2006 Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard University—“Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Lynching Tree”—quoting Acts 10:39 where Peter proclaims, “They put Him to death by hanging Him on a tree.” Cone goes on to unite the beaten and bloodied body of Christ on the Roman tree of death to the “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze” on the American tree of white supremacy.

The thread continues unwinding when in the introduction to the 2018 Penguin edition of Du Bois’s magisterial The Souls of Black Folk, Ibram X. Kendi recounts the story of Sam Hose, a Black farmer who Du Bois intended to advocate for in a letter written for the Atlanta Constitution in April of 1899, a month before he would lose his firstborn son to nasopharyngeal diphtheria because, like Holiday’s father, he could not find a Black doctor to treat him. Du Bois’s letter was never published because Hose was lynched the day before.

Kendi does not spare any of the details of the manner of Hose’s horrific suffering and death: “Hose’s fingers, hands, ears, and genitals were sliced off. The flesh on his face was skinned off. Some people fought over his body parts; the rest watched his body hanging from a tree and being burned alive.” “Hose’s knuckles,” Kendi continues, “were on display at a store farther down Mitchell Street, if Du Bois cared to see.” Holiday’s song, again, rings out: “Here is a strange and bitter crop.” Kendi explains that these two experiences—the inability to prevent the lynching of Hose and the burial of his son—radicalized Du Bois to identify the root cause of these atrocities and others like them through his diagnoses of the color line as “the problem of the twentieth century” in 1903.

For Holiday and Du Bois, there was a common root to the Southern lynching of Black people and the anti-Black discrimination that denied them access to medical care and so much more. This common root was the cruel measurement of the color line. This line of color roots the tree of death, anchors the scourge of white supremacy. White supremacy, on this understanding, is not reducible to the actions of white supremacists. White supremacists like the KKK or the Proud Boys are symptoms but not the cause. “White supremacy” simply means the supreme and superior value assigned to the invention of whiteness, created by centuries of colonialism and enslavement and, in the nineteenth century, the numerous race sciences and other pseudoscientific apologias for the active objectification, dispossession and possession, of non-white peoples. It goes from the Indigenous peoples of the Americas to the Black peoples of Africa transported through the Middle Passage in the Transatlantic Slave Trade for the institutions of Chattel Slavery.

To be clear, the modern notion of race that codified the white identity—an identity that has no real nation, people, or ethnos—was never built for descriptive demographic purposes; it only exists for axiomatic and taxonomic ones. The notion of race with a white center and a non-white margin, with Blackness as its furthest point of contrast, is not about identification or cultural classification; it is about domination, an ongoing domination that is concrete and irreversible in past tense and in need of direct and sober confrontation in the present.

When we think of anti-Semitism, we rightly understand it as a unique form of historical violence and xenophobia, which has also suffered from its distance from the ideal center of whiteness. In a similar yet distinct way, anti-Black white supremacy refers to a root that is more specific than generic xenophobia or anecdotal racism, and even other forms of non-white discrimination, a root understood in Du Bois’s analysis and Holiday’s blues where the graphic horror of Southern lynching and their own personal losses as a father and a daughter were seen as symptomatic expressions of a more nefarious and perverse cause.

Despite numerous other despicable practices, lynching was not common during the period of slavery, especially in the USA. Across the Americas, enslaved Black people were counted as economic units of capital, as literal forms of property, with corresponding prices and immediate and generational profits. Although survival rates and life expectancy in sugar cane and cotton fields were extremely low, it still made little sense to destroy without a profit-motive, infected by colonial greed and chattel logic, hence the rarity of lynching before emancipation. Since the ships departing for the hell of the Middle Passage were taxed by their total weight, it was common for them to prize children for their compact size to sell by the head and maximize profits and also to mitigate the horrifically low survival rates across the Atlantic. Anyone who wonders how Chattel Slavery and capitalism developed together, along with industrialism and colonialism, need only note the elementary and plain fact that the Black body was not only marked as subhuman, but also as a form of capital creating a new economy unto itself.

But what were the historical origins of the Transatlantic Slave Trade? In the USA, the beginning of slavery is often dated as 1619, the date when the first enslaved people were brought against their will to the shores of Virginia. This date is real, but it conceals a major part of the story. The “20 or odd” enslaved people were abducted and torn away from their native Africa in present-day Angola, forced upon the São João Bautista, a Portuguese ship, which sailed through the Middle Passage towards its destination in Veracruz, Mexico. Along the way, the ship was attacked by English privateers, who seized the “20 or odd” of the survivors of the barbaric Middle Passage, bringing them to Virginia to be sold as property in 1619.

The Portuguese had begun colonizing and enslaving Africans in the fifteenth century, beginning in the Canary Islands, under the ecclesiastical authority of a series of Papal Bulls disputed by the neighboring kingdom of Castile. After Columbus reached the Americas in 1492, the Portuguese soon began to export enslaved Africans to the New World in the Americas, above all to Brazil. For the first 250 years of postcolonial Brazilian history, 70% of its immigrants from across the Atlantic were enslaved Africans, ten times more than the enslaved forcibly taken to the USA. The legacy of the Iberian Union’s practice of enslavement can be seen across Latin America to this day with unique realities in Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic as well as the aforementioned Brazil.

A ship named São João Bautista, “Saint John the Baptist,” bound for Veracruz, “the True Cross,” carrying enslaved Africans from Angola, shows that the Transatlantic Slave Trade is American in the continental geographic sense, and the national institution of slavery in the pre-revolutionary, colonial United States of Americas was directly imported from the Iberian Union—a profoundly and absolutely Roman Catholic imperial geopolitical and cultural phenomenon. To be clear, the root cause of slavery in the United States has a thoroughly Roman Catholic genealogy. 

Few understood these realities like Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. His father sailed with Columbus on his second voyage, and he immigrated with his father to Hispaniola when he was 18 years old in 1502. Upon arrival, he owned enslaved Indigenous people and was also the first priest ordained in the Americas. As his secular and sacred vocation developed, he eventually renounced his position and title within the Spanish encomienda system. He would go on to write against the enslavement of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, but he erred in arguing for the substitution of the Indigenous people he knew and loved for enslaved Africans. Later on, he would join the Dominican Order and become aware of their radical Thomistic approach to pastoral antiracism, including the denial of deathbed absolutions to those who would not emancipate their enslaved subjects as penance. He also witnessed the barbarism and inhumanity of Portuguese Transatlantic slavery and repented for his profound moral error. After this, he again renounced his old life, and devoted himself to the liberation of all the colonized, oppressed, and enslaved peoples of the Americas.

There are some who claim that these periods of monstrous oppression, from the Canary Islands in the fifteenth century to the Jim Crow South in the twentieth century, were ignorant to the objective moral evil of their ways. This is relativistic nonsense. Las Casas and numerous Dominicans and Franciscans are all recorded rebuttals to this lie. Furthermore, the one who claims ignorance as an excuse for grave historical sins is confessing their own dismissal of the awareness of oppression by the oppressed themselves. After all, it is certain that enslaved people were keenly aware of the very evils they suffered. Add to that, their own rebellions, resistance, and revolutions are also recorded and well known. This adds even more evidence to combat the lie that no one knew right from wrong at that time. By failing to count the screams and torments of those precious souls who took the Middle Passage, the one seeking to relativize and deescalate the scale of moral and mortal sins becomes their unwitting apologist.

In the USA, the Transatlantic Slave Trade was outlawed on January 1, 1808 by Congress. This is in many ways as consequential as 1619. Despite the continued illegal immigration of enslaved Africans from the continued practice in the Southern Americas, ending the Transatlantic Slave Trade did not bring an end to Chattel Slavery, just as the Emancipation Proclamation did not bring an end to white supremacy, and as the Civil Rights Act did not save Martin Luther King Jr. nor Breonna Taylor, nor George Floyd. In all these cases of racial progress through policy, white supremacy was forced to become more precise and articulate. This was especially evident in the period after 1808, through the sickening use of enslaved Black women as sexual objects for the continuation of the enslaved population and for the pleasure of white men—a grotesque use that Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson took part in well before then. In Holiday’s life, we are again reminded that the objectification and rape of Black woman remained constant and intact from its cursed beginning without an end.

We see the same effect in the torture of lynching in the Jim Crow South, where the emancipated Black body was shown the meaning of freedom by burning and desecrating Black people at no cost in terms of the past abolition of slavery and the future lack of criminal punishment as documented by Wells and many others. Strange fruit, indeed. In 1849, Frederick Douglass writes these words:

I am far from finding fault with the Irish for coming to this country [but] I met with an Irishman a few weeks ago [who] conversed with me on the subject of slavery and that man, newly imported to this country, gravely told me that the colored people in this country could never rise here, and ought to go back to Africa. What I have to say to Ireland is, send no more such children here.

As we know, many more of these children were sent from Catholic Ireland and elsewhere. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, numerous waves of Catholic immigrants from all over the world came to the USA. They encountered real forms of oppression, from the Irish fleeing the potato famine and intramural colonialism of the English, to nativist sentiments against Italians, Germans, Poles, Mexicans, Filipinos and more. It is tempting for these communities to relativize the specific and institutional reality of anti-Black white supremacy—rooted in Chattel Slavery—by the other forms of xenophobia and discrimination are suffered by these later immigrants to the USA. But these indignities are not morally or politically or economically equivalent to anti-Black white supremacy. They also deny the participation in anti-Black white supremacy, by commission and omission, by these immigrant groups, seeking assimilation and acceptance through an embrace of the white core of American society. Without denying their real grievances, there are numerous well-documented accounts of Anti-Black white supremacy by these marginal immigrant groups from their arrival to the present moment. This includes people of color like my own Mexican-American community—a regional community that has been in Texas and New Mexico since before those places were in the USA.

As I noted, these accounts are not only historical; they are also contemporary. They are common and routine. If I am being honest, they are also personal and painfully so. I can see my own sins and shame in Las Casas’s gradual conversion and incremental awakening, but above all in the inadequacies and moral blunders of his evangelical activism. Unlike Las Casas, I am not of pure Spanish blood, I am a mestizo, an Iberian ethnic designation created to separate “mixed blood” from “pure blood”—a separation also determined by birth soil, dividing criollos from peninsulares, anticipating the blood and soil race ideologies of the twentieth century by centuries. Mestizaje is also used to avoid the “lower” colonial classifications of the Indigena and the often-invisible Afro-Latino.

Mestizaje is a mixed and double-edged inheritance and I have wielded it strategically and conveniently far too many times, even as I have suffered for it as well. This much cannot be avoided and must be confessed: the inevitable victim of my own self-victimization has not infrequently been my Black brothers and sisters, including Black Catholics. Here, in these most intimate disclosures, we see the strange fruit of immigration within salvation history and also the history of Europe, Africa, and the Americas, including the USA, but most of all, for me, in my own ongoing personal conversion.

“The Cross and the lynching tree, therefore, interpret each other,” Cone preaches in his Ingersoll Lecture. “Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble,” he intones. “Were you there?,” he asks. Here, Cone speaks of the lynching tree first and the Cross second, by analogy. Just as for the Christian there is no Resurrection without the Cross, no Easter Sunday without Good Friday, so too there is no reparation, redemption, or reconciliation in the USA—and all of the Americas, from the Yukon Territory to Tierra del Fuego—without the bitter truth of the tree of death, the lynching tree, and its root cause of anti-Black white supremacy.

What this requires is a blues pedagogy, a sad curriculum of truth, an education that accepts its proper form and function as soulcraft for the person and the polis. For Roman Catholics it also requires a sorrowful mystagogy like we find in the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, the Stabat Mater, the Way of the Cross, and the Passion. This is what Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is; this is what the scriptures of the Black Intellectual Tradition offer; this is why Black Power, Black is Beautiful, and Black Lives Matter are kerygmatic, evangelical messages. If the Gospel is the good news, then it must be truthfully antiracist.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Dr. Rocha's essay emerged from the 23 March 2021 installment of the University of Notre Dame Office of Human Life and Dignity's "Conversations That Matter: The Intersection of Racial Justice and Life Issues" series. The next installment in the series will take place on 14 April  2021 at 1:00 p.m. EDT / 10:00 a.m. PDT and will feature ​Ernest Morrell talking about  "Why Black Education is a Life Issue" (more here). 

Dr. Rocha will also take part in a Georgetown University panel today at 7:00 p.m. EDT on the topic "Life, Young Latinos, and COVID-19: Where Do We Go From Here?"

Featured Image: Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947, taken by William P. Gottlieb; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.


Samuel D. Rocha

Samuel D. Rocha is Associate Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Folk Phenomenology and The Syllabus as Curriculum.

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