At some point in her career, she became addicted to drugs. In 1939, at the age of 23, her struggle with addiction was compounded by racist policing of Black jazz artists, and she became the target of harassment by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. In 1947, she was arrested on drug charges and had to defend herself in court pro se because no public defender would represent her. Rather than receive the treatment she needed, she was incarcerated for a year.
Author Neil Postman, in his book The Disappearance of Childhood, said that “children are the living messages that we send to a future that we will never see.” Reflecting on this, what then is Billie Holiday’s message and why should she be called a civil rights heroine?
During her lifetime, Billie Holiday battled internal and external demons, yet rather than give in to the pain and hardships she experienced, she used her voice to sing about and bring attention to racial injustices that she had witnessed. Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” in 1939 at the age of 24, performing it as a part of her show at Café Society, a New York City Greenwich Village Cabaret Club. Strange Fruit was first written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher in the Bronx in 1937 and put to music in 1939. The poem was inspired by a well-known photograph of two Black teenagers who had been lynched in the town of Marion, Indiana, in 1930. They were being held in jail for allegedly murdering a white factory worker and raping his female companion. “A mob dragged the boys from the jail, killed them and hung them from a tree for all to see.”
“Strange Fruit” became Holiday’s battle cry. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, allegedly believing that the song would incite riots, forbade Holiday from singing the song at her performances. However, Holiday would not comply and usually closed all of her engagements with the singing of “Strange Fruit.”
Billie Holiday’s message to us is that even those who’ve been impacted by hardships and injustices can be some of the greatest champions for change. By all accounts, Billie Holiday’s life was filled with many challenges and difficulties. It would have been easier if she had just given in to the demons or passively accepted the role of singer and entertainer. But she did not. Her message also teaches us that we should be passionate about our beliefs and that we should not be forced to emulate someone else. She is reported to have said, when suggested that she should be more like Ella Fitzgerald, “If I’m going to sing like anyone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” From Billie Holiday, we want to give our young people messages of determination, truth, peace, and hope, and, as singer Janet Jackson said, “a belief in our right and our responsibility to be equal members of society.”
The “living message” that Billie Holiday sends with the story of her life is to use our voice to call out injustice wherever we see it and to be consistent and steadfast in delivering the message, including rising up against injustice, sometimes at great costs to our own freedom.
This systems-involved young Black girl went on to change the world. While not recognized or honored in her lifetime, she inspired multiple future generations of singers, both Black and white, including Frank Sinatra, Etta James, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Tracy Chapman, Erykah Badu, Norah Jones, and countless others. Her legacy as a fighter against injustice has also lasted well beyond her lifetime. In fact, “Strange Fruit” became an anthem in the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, and her original version from 1939 has been streamed more than 10 million times.
Today, we still see too many children and youth facing similar injustices. These hardships have real impacts on their physical and mental health. But by fighting against injustice and sharing their truths, those with lived experience can help to make the world a better place not only for ourselves but also for the children who we send to a time we will never see.