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On Race, Trauma, and “Strange Fruit”

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As a feminist, a longtime jazz aficionado, and an avid listener of Billie Holiday, I find myself…frustrated by the persistent distillation of the singer’s life into a neat and tidy category called “race and trauma.” As if everything about Billie Holiday, from her drug use to her ruinous relationships to her musical legacy, can be framed through this particular lens. It is easy to see why Holiday is considered a tragic figure: she lived hard, died young, and sang sorrowful songs. But my complicity in this framing (lynching song as teaching tool, Billie Holiday as racial signifier, singer reduced to trauma) disturbs me and unsettles how I’ve thought about this song for so long. And I am challenged to wonder how I—how we—might find new ways to narrate a legendary woman’s complicated life….

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