Public Relations Firm Strange Fruit Got Some Well-Deserved Twitter Outrage This Weekend

You don’t get to have a hot take on systemic murders of black bodies and you don’t get to put your fresh spin on lynchings.
Publish date:
December 8, 2014
twitter, race, history, billie holiday

“Twitter Outrage.” I’ve written about it, I’ve participated in it, and yet I’m sick of seeing those two words side by side. However, there are times when that phrase is the most apt way to describe the cause of something, as in the strange case of the disappearance of Strange Fruit PR from the internet.

I had never heard of Strange Fruit, the Austin, Texas-based public relations firm, until 48 hours ago. I’ve known of “Strange Fruit,” the heartbreaking song about the lynching of black people made famous by Billie Holiday, since I was a little girl. I don’t care if you showed me the oddest orange ever, if you referred to it as “strange fruit,” that would mean one thing and one thing only: “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,” to quote the song.

Strange Fruit PR is a two-year old company founded by Ali Slutsky and Mary Mickel. Over the weekend, I saw an explosion of tweets on my timeline that simultaneously informed me of their existence, and disgusted me by showing that once again many intelligent and articulate people had taken to Twitter to address something that I can’t really believe happened in the first place.

Strange Fruit PR was presenting themselves as a public relations group run by two white women specializing in hospitality, named after a well-known anthem to historical lynchings of black people. And Twitter Outrage let them know of the glaring inappropriateness there. At first, on Saturday, the Strange Fruit PR handle replied to the furor with their own little mission statement:

Huh. Well, it turns out that regardless of the Twitter Gods deciding that this would be the weekend to get Strange Fruit outta here, efforts had been made before.

In fact, the Twitter Outrage machine dug up emails and previous tweets to the company expressing concern that they could sport a name that is so linked to systemic racial violence for so many, and in the name of hospitality no less. They held fast to their party line from day one, seemingly unaware that as time went on, their laissez-faire attitude grew to seem more deliberate, and with some interpreting this to mean they chose the name intentionally, fully aware of the connotations and just not giving a hoot.

Something as painful and historically factual as the frequent lynchings of black people in the American South cannot be cast aside or rebranded today by two white women doing PR for artisanal chefs in the American South. They pushed their own agenda of harmony when served non-negotiable evidence that the situation being referred to is one of pure violence.

Of course I want harmony, and I hope you do too. But not just as a seven-letter word to tweet or type here, as I just did. Harmony, peace, joy; these are beautiful ideas that I hope we’re all working toward as a society, but to get there, we have to do just that: put in work. That work includes white people acknowledging the systemic racism that got us here, and especially what we still face today. And it may take some discord to get there, and even cacophonous rage, before our chords all line up to produce the harmony we seek.

I’m sick of the phrase “Twitter Outrage” because so often if shows me how blissfully unaware many mainstream white organizations are of what is literally killing us that it breaks my heart. To have to fight to explain what it is that we’re fighting against in the first place is exponentially exhausting when sometimes we’re just trying to make it through the day.

But fight we must, because it is true that certain things that are crucial to black people are a total surprise to white people, made much worse by either willful ignorance or casual disregard. I never begrudge anyone their experiences or lack thereof, and ignorance is a real state that many people reside in.

It is entirely possible to be unaware of a great many things that don’t affect one personally, but when confronted with new information, what you do next is what matters most.

In the case of Strange Fruit PR, they knew about the song before this past weekend. Over the course of the weekend, the company must have finally had enough, because they changed their tune, announcing that they would also change their name, before completely deleting their internet presence (all social media, as well as their own website).

The longer statement sent via e-mail by co-founder Mary Mickel to their local publication the Austin American-Statesman indicates that they did not know about the song when they chose the name for their company, but that they certainly found out about it before making it official and decided to go ahead with it anyway. Mickel states,

“We thought the name would be perfect for a hospitality PR firm that specializes in food and drink. We of course Googled to ensure that it was not taken elsewhere and found the Billie Holiday song online. 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.”

In mentioning the concerns about their poor choice of name they’d gotten since the beginning, Mickel said,

“We received questions mostly on social media and we addressed each one immediately with our inspiration behind the name and our take. Had we known the horrible connotations this name evokes, we would have never chosen it in the first place. We just didn’t get it, but now we do.”

So they had Googled the song. The song that is based on a poem by teacher Abel Meeropol that “protested racism, particularly the lynching of African-Americans.” That quote is from the first paragraph of the first Google result. A few lines later, it reads, “In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana” with the actual photo of the two dead men hanging from a tree next to the text.

The lyrics don’t use the word “lynching,” but they do mention the “black bodies swinging” that I quoted earlier, as well as “blood on the leaves,” “bulging eyes and twisted mouth,” and the “sudden smell of burning flesh.” Hardly ambiguous, or easily malleable to suit a myopic worldview of plucky individuality.

“Had we known the horrible connotations this name evokes, we would have never chosen it in the first place.”

Strange Fruit PR’s own PR nightmare happened on the same weekend as nationwide protests in response to the lack of criminal indictment for the police officer who murdered unarmed black man Eric Garner in New York this summer despite a video recording of the killing having gone viral. Which followed the shooting of 12 year-old Tamir Rice, which followed the shooting of John Crawford, which followed the shooting of Mike Brown… I get emotional even typing that sentence and two white ladies think they can ask “are you a strange fruit” in their company’s Twitter banner because they get to decide that we’ve moved past the pain evoked by the phrase?

“…it wouldn’t be top of mind in the public consciousness.”

I’m aware that I referred to the song “Strange Fruit” as “well-known,” which is a relative term. It is well-known to many, but even if it was not to them, Ms. Mickel said they Googled it. A basic scan of the very first Google result shows the “horrible connotations” she would have us believe she didn’t see. Nope, you saw, and it had no impact on you. What’s that like?

You are not expected to know everything that we know, but we are taught your history and, if we’re lucky, a bit of our own, rendered however palatable it needs to be to be comfortably delivered by the establishment that caused it. Or we can seek out our history and specific knowledge, but are still expected to have a working knowledge of mainstream history that is simply not asked or expected of white people in the reverse.

Not knowing in the first place is not the real offense; it’s forging ahead despite being challenged because your intentions, your PR startup, your opinion piece are what matter most.

We just don’t matter to a lot of you. Yes, every ethnic group has its perils and yes all lives matter, but Black bodies are still perishing unjustly at the hands of the people sworn to serve and to protect, people are marching in the streets, and the co-founder of Strange Fruit PR thinks she can decide the state of the “public consciousness” with her own “take.”

You don’t get to have a hot take on systemic murders of black bodies and you don’t get to put your fresh spin on lynchings.

When we express outrage on Twitter and collectively use the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and are met with #AllLivesMatter, the reason why we’re here in the first place is being actively ignored. We didn’t just wake up one day and decide to single out black lives and ignore everyone else, it’s in response to having to bury our dead at disproportionate rates with zero consequence to their killers. The song Strange Fruit wasn’t a hypothetical musing on unique food items, it was a specific statement about lynchings, and specific lynchings at that.

I’m listening to Billie Holiday as I write this, but I know that not everyone is familiar with her haunting, heartbreaking recording of the song. Perhaps you’re more familiar with Nina Simone’s version. Or Diana Ross’ version. Or Cassandra Wilson’s, Nona Hendrix’s, or India.Arie’s. Maybe the samples Kanye West recently used for his track “Blood On the Leaves” will ring a bell. Or maybe you watch “Sons of Anarchy” like I do and it moved you to tears underscoring a black character’s attempt to hang himself in season 4.

I have my personal reservations with white performers covering the song because I think it speaks to a very specific pain, but it’s still been covered by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Tori Amos, and Jeff Buckley. So perhaps it’s not some obscure little tune forgotten about in 1939. Annie Lennox made headlines in October for trying a similar re-framing as Strange Fruit PR when discussing her new cover of the song.

Annie Lennox received some Twitter Outrage of her own, and I may not like seeing the moniker because it reminds me of how sadly common knowledge just isn’t common, but Twitter Outrage is necessary and in many cases, it works. Twitter Outrage is here to stay. Strange Fruit PR, as it existed before, is not.
And when The Artist Formerly Known As Strange Fruit PR returns under a different name, we’ll be watching.