Like most stories, it’s not easy to know where to begin. Maybe in 1935, when a young Jewish high school teacher in the Bronx saw a photograph of a lynching. The image haunted him and he wrote a poem about it. That poem was published in a Teachers’ Union magazine. Then he set the poem to music and it was performed around New York City over the next few years by his wife and others.
That poet was named Abel Meeropol. In 1939, He sang the song, “Strange Fruit,” for Billie Holiday at Cafe Society in Greenwich Village. Billie started performing it and the rest is music history. “Strange Fruit” has been performed by dozens of singers and was named The Best Song of the Century by Time Magazine in 1999. More than 80 years after it was written, “Strange Fruit” continues to resonate, to move us, inspire us and remind us of the enormous power of art and resistance.
What does this have to do with our conference? Abel Meeropol was my father-in-law. He and his wife Anne adopted my husband Robby and his brother Michael in 1953, after their parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed. In the last years of his life, Abel lived in western Massachusetts, to be near our family.
Over the past decade, there has been increased interest in “Strange Fruit” and increased royalties. In memory of Abel and his work to change the world through literature and the arts, our family has donated funds to organizations Abel would have loved, including Straw Dog Writers Guild, an organization I love. In 2017, we decided to offer an award in Abel’s honor. The first recipient was Patricia Smith, poet and activist. She accepted the award on November 12, 2017, at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke, MA, where she read from her work and discussed writing as resistance. You can watch a video of that event here.
The WriteAngles Writers Conference is pleased to offer the second Abel Meeropol Social Justice Writing Award to Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, prize-winning poet and author of the novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. Ms. Jeffers will accept the award and give the keynote address at the conference, scheduled for April 6, 2024.