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The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Review

Professor James H. Cone

WARNING: This essay contains graphic language and images.

James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2011; Kindle edition) was a difficult read, at times excruciating for an American child of upper-middle class white privilege like myself. Yet if healing is ever to come – if we are ever to live as one race, the human race, for whom skin color is no more important than a dozen other interesting but secondary characteristics – then we must return to the scene of the crime. Reconciliation begins there.

For Americans, the crime scene spanned at least sixty years, from 1880-1940. Over that period, nearly 5,000 black Americans died at the hands of white lynch mobs (Cone, 3). The victims included a handful of women but were mostly men strung up on trees, castrated, pulled behind automobiles, flayed into unconsciousness and burned alive.

Lynching on 9 August 1930, in Marion, Indiana
Lynching on 9 August 1930, in Marion, Indiana

No due process of law was given to these black men often accused of raping white women. In many instances, white anger was provoked by consensual sexual intercourse between a black man and a white female (Cone, 127).

The Marion, Indiana lynching (pictured above) inspired Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allen) to pen the poem, “Strange Fruit,” later recorded by blues singer, Billy Holiday (cited by Cone, 120):

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 tree.

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