“Strange Fruit,” a poem written by Abel Meeropol and popularized by Billie Holiday’s musical recording in the 1930s for its anti-lynching and human rights message, was named the song of the century by TIME magazine in 1999 and added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2002. The lyrics: “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/ Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees” are morbidly metaphoric, evoking imagery of victims, mostly black men, lynched by white supremacists.
Fast forward to 2012, when Ali Slustky and Mary Mickel launched their Austin-based PR company “Strange Fruit PR.”
Why the name “Strange Fruit”?
The duo thought it would be “perfect for a hospitality PR firm that specializes in food and drink,” Mickel told the Austin-based Statesmen. They didn’t anticipate that people would associate the company’s name with its painful historical roots.
“We of course Googled to ensure that it was not taken elsewhere and found the Billie Holiday song online,” Mickel continued. “Thinking it would have nothing to do with our firm, and since it was written in 1939 it wouldn’t be top of mind in the public consciousness. We now know we were naïve to think that, and should have known better.”
Despite surviving two years with the historically myopic company name, representing some of Austin’s best known restaurants like Barley Swing, Odd Duck, and Bangers, it wasn’t until last week that Twitter users finally got through to the young white entrepreneurs and confronted them for their perceived racial insensitivity. Some of the tweets also questioned how a PR company, responsible for the public image or “political correctness” of brands, could have made such a poor judgment in their own brand-identity.
Meeropol, who was the adoptive parent of Julie and Ethel Rosenberg’s sons after the couple was executed for committing espionage, wrote the poem “Strange Fruit” in 1937 after being horrified by the widely-circulated photograph of lynching of two young black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, in Indiana. Meeropolo’s poem was first published in the Marxist publication The News Masses and later gained global attention with the musical recordings by Holiday and Josh White.
Since then, dozens of musicians have continued to record the timeless piece including Herbie Hancock, Nina Simone, and most recently by Kanye West in a sample of Simone’s rendition featured on the song “Blood on the Leaves,” from his sixth studio album, “Yeezus”. “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” is the second line in Meeropol’s song, presumably referring to the blood that falls from the victim of a lynching on to the tree’s leaves.
“We sincerely apologize to those offended by the former name of our firm,” they said. “In no way did we ever intend for the name of our firm to offend nor infer any implication of racism.”
Perennial PR has not yet returned msnbc.com’s request for a statement.