Strange Fruits of the South

15. 3. 2017

Katarzyna Surmiak-Domańska, Ku Klux Klan. Tu mieszka miłość, Czarne 2015

The postcard shows two Blacks in tattered rags, bloody, hanged from a tree. Under the tree there is a crowd of mostly young people, laughing, snuggling, talking, smoking cigars. They are curiously looking into the camera, one of the men is pointing his finger at the hanging man; you can see pride and satisfaction in his eyes.

The picture is from 1930 and shows a lynching— a socially accepted and time-honored custom of punishment without a trial, which was also a wonderful entertainment. When in 2000 James Allen, a white man from the South, published an album of 145 photographs taken during lynchings, which later made up an extremely popular exhibition displayed in many American towns and called “Without Sanctuary,” many people could not believe in the reality which was present just a few decades ago. You went to lynchings like today you go to a festival or to an amusement park. They attracted crowds of white people, families with children, old, young, people from every walk of life—journalists, policemen, farmers, teachers. Organizers collected an admission fee, lessons were postponed so that the students could make it to school on time, and photographers took pictures for newspapers and sold them as postcards. Postcards with executions were hugely popular—you could sell as many as one hundred thousand copies. Members of the public were particularly proud when they could find themselves in a photo. You send such a postcard to your family. Post offices also made good money on selling them. All this seems to be taken straight out of a Monty Python movie. Except that it is true.

The poet Abel Meeropol wrote a poem about those who fell victim to lynchings. He called them “strange fruit”.

Southern trees bear 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.

In 1939, Billie Holiday used these words in a song. Time magazine proclaimed Strange Fruit as the song of the 20th century.

Katarzyna Surmiak-Domańska, author of such books as the very interesting Mokradełko shortlisted for the Nike prize, in her new non-fiction book entitled Ku Klux Klan: Tu mieszka miłość [Ku Klux Klan: Here lives love] tries to find out what kind of reality was bearing the “strange fruit.” And what kind of people created it.

The past tense is indeed illegitimate here, because the organization called KKK still exists and is fully legal. Despite the passage of years and the historical changes which have taken place it is resistant like a perennial plant. “[…] since it was established in 1866, it has never really disappeared. It fades and flourishes, present in the social tissue like a virus with a highly developed capacity of assimilating and adapting to its environment. It senses when it can spread an epidemic, and when it should lie low, crouch. But it continually fulfils the basic vital functions of the virus, that is it replicates its genetic material and infects.”

Surmiak-Domańska uses the fact of its tenacious vitality—she travels to the United States for the Congress of the Party of the Knights of the KKK in Arkansas to talk to people who still cover their faces with white hoods and stand under a burning cross. The town of Harrison to which she comes lies in the South East, the most conservative and religious part of United States. It is famous for being all white and for its uniform lifestyle—everyone has a house, a family, and children. And for the annual reunion of members and sympathizers of the Ku Klux Klan.

Surmiak-Domańska’s book, although it is partly an essay on the history of racism in America and a story about the functioning of the Klan over the years, focuses mostly on them—today’s Knights of the white race. She is exchanging emails with them, meets them for tea and tries to look under the hoods. What does she find there? This is perhaps one of the most interesting discoveries of the book. Instead of, as you might expect, hatred, bestiality, hellish fires of hostility, she finds some ghastly innocence. It can even be seen in the photograph published in the book—two little girls, daughters of one of the Knights, are selling lemonade at the annual reunion.

The people fighting for racial segregation include Rev. Thomas Robb, the leader of the Ku Klux Klan Knights from Arkansas. He is a shortish old man with silver glasses, dressed in a suit and a tie. Very nice, polite, and courteous. He politely explains why it is so difficult for him: “We, the white race, are equipped with a genetic flaw. This flaw is mercy. When we see creatures deprived of what we have, that is our intelligence, education, money, we begin to feel compassion. No other race is like that. And this is why it is us, not them, who are doomed.” The presidential election of November 6, 2012, he calls the end of civilization.

His granddaughter Charity, a charming, slightly overweight blonde, is selling pens, key rings, and other gadgets with the words “White Power.”

Shawn has never been beyond Ohio, Kentucky, and Arkansas, but he has heard about Germany in Europe—he wants to go and see the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s headquarters. He has heard that it was beautiful. He also says that were it not for the Klan, he would have landed in prison, like his father. “My children know that if they would ever defile the white race, they would stop to be my children.”

And so on, all of them are nice, simple- minded Americans who are very happy to meet “Kate,” although they hasten to add that the meeting would not have happened if she was black.

Surmiak-Domańska’s Ku Klux Klan brings out the whole horror of provincialism—conceived not as a locality, but a state of mind. You could venture a claim that it is one of the main reasons behind this “banal evil” which they practice— or rather could practice if the changed historical conditions and restrictive law of political correctness were not turning this evil into its frozen potential, both pathetic and terrible.

“The banality of evil,” the term coined by Hannah Arendt to describe the crimes committed by the Nazis against the Jews, works well also in the context of the Klan members. Of course, mostly those from a hundred years ago, who actually “meted out justice” by hanging “strange fruit” on trees and then, satisfied, they took their children to school and went for lunch, but in some sense it also regards the contemporary members, much more profoundly grotesque. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the inhabitants of Harrison emerge as a kind of provincial demons, like Eichmann. Their greatest sin is their truly narrow mental range. Some of them have not been outside their state, many cannot really say where Europe is, not to mention Poland. They are surprised that you can cook dinner from anything other than half-finished products from Walmart. But there is an idea in which they are very well versed— this idea is God. This sounds more serious. Not without a good reason Surmiak-Domańska’s book is subtitled “Here lives love.” God is the crucial idea for Ku Klux Klan—all its groups present themselves as defenders of Christianity. Its members are opposed to what is un-American, that is: nonreligious, modern, liberal. The highest value for them is the white traditional family sanctioned by God. Their favorite reading is the Bible (and Hitler’s Mein Kampf). This is well illustrated by the invitation for the annual national reunion of the Ku Klux Klan published on Thomas Robb’s website: “Your children will play and learn about the ancient values of our forefathers. We will take care of them in an atmosphere of Christian love.”

As we discover arriving to Arkansas with Surmiak-Domańska, today it is mostly an empty spectacle. Playing Knights by a bonfire. At today’s Ku Klux Klan meetings dances under the stars are organized, you can buy an ice cream or a hotdog, see a fireworks display, play ping-pong and foosball, and finally watch the climax— perhaps the closest to the dark past—that is inflaming the cross when “the light of Christ banishes darkness.”

It seems very strange that these nice Americans kindly looking at “Kate,” the author of the book, asking her what people eat in Poland that she is so skinny, had just a few dozen years ago supplemented the fireworks and dances with murder.

And yet it is true. Ku Klux Klan shows that ordinary people do terrible things as a result of psychology and history meeting each other. Surmiak-Domańska of course refrains from making strong claims, she is motivated by a reporter’s curiosity and integrity, rather than the desire to prove preconceived facts, but you can deduce such an idea from her book. From the early 17th century, when the first transport of Black slaves arrived in America, through the growing fear of the owners of a mutiny of these hardened, increasingly numerous men, a fear which led to the creation of a universal theory wider than the expired “Christian mission,” that is 18th century racism, to 19th century theatre performances called minstrel shows, aimed at dehumanizing Blacks and glorifying the Civil War lost by the South—all this opened the way for 20th century lynchings. The abolition of slavery in 1865 created a situation which surpassed both the slaves and their masters. The former, ill-adapted to life in society, not taught independence, and even the language, often motivated by revenge, trying to learn freedom on the American soil, were often the source of terror. The latter, terrified by the new situation, humiliated by the lost war, were absolutely unable to reconcile themselves with the new reality. Among them there were six friends—officers of the Confederate infantry, who in winter of 1865 or perhaps the spring of 1866 during a social gathering casually dropped the following idea: “Guys, let’s found a club!” They decided that they liked the Greek world “Kuklos,” meaning a circle, which they soon modified into Ku Klux and added the obvious word Klan. Then they wrapped them selves with sheets, put pillowcases on their heads and were happy to see that they looked like ghosts. They took care of the fundamental thing ensuring the popularity and stability of various organizations: the aura of mystery and expectation of something big. Quite quickly and totally spontaneously the essence of this expectation emerged—preventing the former slave, the foolish Sambo, from usurping places reserved for whites. Stopping this mediaeval carnival where everything was turned upside down, the fool became the King, and the sinner became the Bishop.

They were aided and abetted by the imperfect law. It was only in 2005 that the US Senate apologized for not passing any anti-lynching law when it was the most necessary. On the postcards with death which were sent to family members you can often very distinctly see the faces of amused participants. No one was ever arrested, jailed, tried.

And what about psychology? The American psychologist Philip Zimbardo believes that people are led to commit atrocities not so much by blindly following orders as by submitting to what is expected of them as members of a group. On the faces of people taking part in lynchings you can see the herd instinct—the author of the exhibition showing the postcards with lynchings is speaking about “dog faces of the human pack.” The power of the community reigned triumphant.

Although the very successful book of Surmiak- Domańska could contain a more extensive historical background, a deeper grounding of contemporary stories about the knights errant in the very rich, terrifying and fascinating history of the South and the whole United States, it probably should not be seen as a shortcoming. The author’s perspective is different than, for example, that of Sven Lindqvist in Exterminate All the Brutes or Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Instead of a historical, philosophical fresco, she proposes a perhaps even more blunt strategy: to stick a hotdog in the hand of a simpleminded inhabitant of the South and let the terrifying words remindful of a Nazi rally flow from his mouth. And hence to leave the reader in a state of an increasing amazement concerning the human race.

Patrycja Pustkowiak

is a writer and journalist, author of the novel Nocne zwierzęta (Night Animals), shortlisted for the Nike Literary Prize and nominated for the Gdynia Literary Prize. 

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