About those nooses ... and ... I would have been only about twelve when she was soaring on Broadway ...Her name was Ethel Waters, one of the earliest of black Broadway stars -- the very first to receive equal billing with whites. Later I would remember her co-starring in Member of a Wedding with Julie Harris and singing "Happiness is just a thing called Joe" in the old movie, Cabin in the Sky. But one of the memories that burned its way into my brain was from stills I once saw of the Broadway revue, As Thousands Cheer. In it Ms. Waters was featured in a number written especially for her by the celebrated Irving Berlin. It was highly controversial, as it would surely be today. It is this image that rises to the surface when people speak of nooses as pranks, let me describe it for you:
There she would stand alone in the spotlight dressed in a traditional plaid gingham dress covered by a long apron -- with hair tightly wrapped in a print kerchief. The stage was completely dark -- except for the giant silhouette played against the back curtain -- the shadow of a man's limp and contorted dead body hanging by the neck from a noose attached to an extended tree branch:
Against this chilling backdrop she would quietly sing:
Supper time I should set the table cause
it's supper time
Somehow I'm not able
cause this man o' mine
ain't comin' home no more
Supper time, kid's 'll soon be yellin' for their supper time
How'll I keep from tell'in 'em
this man o' mine
ain't comin' home no more.
How'll I keep explaining when they ask me where he's gone?
How'll I keep from cryin' when I bring their supper on?
How can I remind them to pray for their humble board?
How'll I be thankful when they start to thank the Lord, O Lord!
It's supper time I should set the table cause it's supper time
Somehow I'm not able cause this man o' mine
Ain't comin' home no more.
The year was 1933. The number of lynchings in the decades prior to 1930 was approximately 50 blacks annually. In 1933 Irving Berlin dared to risk reputation and economic well-being to bring this statement to the Broadway stage. In much the same way Yip Harburg would risk writing Strange Fruit for Billie Holiday to perform to stunned nightclub audiences. Both would pay heavily in years to come. Harburg would become one of the defiled Hollywood black-listed writers.
I find myself wondering whether it is really ever possible to separate out black history from our national history when so much or our fate has been facilitated by others; in this case two Jews with the determination to defend the lives of others at the expense of their own well-being.
This all came to mind upon reading today's article in the New York Times about nooses turning up across the country in a variety of settings and institutions ... .
"... Nooses have been looped over a tree at the University of Maryland, knotted to
the end of stage-rigging ropes at a suburban Memphis theater, slung on the doorknob of a black professor's office at Columbia University in New York, hung in a locker room at a Long Island police station, stuffed in the duffel bag of a black Coast Guard cadet aboard a historic ship, and draped around the necks of black dolls in the suburbs. The hangman's rope has become so prolific, some say, it could replace the Nazi swastika and the Ku Klux Klan's fiery cross as the nation's reigning symbol of hate ..." .
In case we've forgotten -- as recently as June 14, 2005, 20 members of the U.S. Senate (19 Republicans and 1 Democrat) refused to sign anti-lynching legislation. They refused to do a roll-call in order to avoid being on the public record.