Billie Holiday and the War on Drugs

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There were some special arrangements the Black jazz icon Billie Holiday requested every time she performed her 1939 song “Strange Fruit.” It would always be at the very end of her show. The waiters at the club or restaurant would stop all service while she performed the song. All the lights in the room would be turned off, except for one spotlight on Holiday’s face. She would shut her eyes and standing as if reciting a prayer. Then began the haunting words of “Strange Fruit”:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather
For the wind to suck
For the sun to rot
For the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

The “strange fruit” and “bitter crop” in the song is, of course, the bloody, beaten corpses of Black men and women lynched and hanging from trees. Originally a poem composed by Jewish teacher Abel Meeropol in 1937, “Strange Fruit” sears into listeners’ minds the unforgettable image of lifeless and limp Black bodies dangling from a noose wrapped around their mangled throat. Such lynchings of Black Americans by white mobs were disturbingly common in the South, reaching a peak in the early 1900s. Whenever Billie Holiday performed the song, she thought of her father, who had died due to being refused access to a “Whites Only” hospital in Texas.

“Strange Fruit” has rightfully been immortalized in American history. The 1939 song has been called “the beginning of the civil rights movement.” Sixty years after it came out, it was named by Time magazine as “the best song of the entire 20thcentury.” In 2002, the Library of Congress chose to preserve it for its cultural and historical significance.

Yet when Billie Holiday performed “Strange Fruit” in the 1930s and 1940s America, evoking images of the victims of racist violence and White supremacy, not everyone was a fan. In fact, some were absolutely furious — not at the violent and brutal reality faced by Black Americans, but at Holiday for exposing it.

One White man in a position of power who did not take well to “Strange Fruit” was Harry Anslinger, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) Commissioner, a government agency largely responsible for introducing the War on Drugs to America. This “war”, later championed and taken to new heights by Republican leaders such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, is notorious for its disproportionate effect on Black Americans — hunting down, harassing, arresting, assaulting, and murdering people of color and lower-income citizens, while White Americans who consumed the same drugs at the same rates were largely exempt from such harsh treatment. The War on Drugs destabilized Black and immigrant communities for decades to come.

Harry Anslinger was considered a “crazy racist” — even by the standards of the 1930s. He actively demonized and targeted Black and immigrant Americans in his crackdown on drugs. Members of his own office and multiple senators complained about how often Anslinger would use the N-word in official documents. Many of the articles he wrote regarding the danger of drugs had racist themes; one claimed that “reefer [marijuana] makes darkies think they’re as good as White men.”  Anslinger had a special hatred for jazz music, which he saw as a product of African and Caribbean cultures. He described jazz as “sounding like jungles in the dead of night” and said the lives of jazz players “reeked of filth.”

This loathing of jazz is what led Anslinger to Billie Holiday, the most prominent jazz singer in the United States at the time. He was outraged upon hearing “Strange Fruit” — for all the wrong reasons: he was furious that Holiday was criticizing the U.S. for its treatment of Black people. As a firm segregationist and blatant racist, he saw this as a young Black woman overstepping her boundaries, and he was determined to destroy her. Claiming that her song was somehow promoting marijuana use, Anslinger sent an official government letter to Holiday ordering her to never perform “Strange Fruit” again. Holiday, of course, could not care less about the order and continued singing her truth anyway.

Shocked by Holiday’s disobedience and resolved to crush her career and ruin her public image, Anslinger plotted to put her behind bars as part of his war on drugs, which had evolved into a war on Black musicians. He had promised Congress to crack down on drug abuse among the nation’s cultural icons — or in his words: “not the good musicians, just the jazz types.” Considering that jazz was a heavily Black-led field of music, there is no doubt what type of person he really meant. As a further example, when he found out Judy Garland — a White actress — was a heroin addict, he did not order a raid, investigation, or arrest. Instead, he politely invited Garland to his office and recommended she take “longer vacations” to deal with her addiction. There is no doubt that if a Black celebrity had been in her place, such a meeting would not have been as pleasant.

Billie Holiday, Anslinger decided, would be among the first victims of his mission — a disobedient, rebellious Black jazz singer who needed to be shown her place.

Anslinger hired an agent, Colonel George White, to hunt down Holiday for him. White and his men arrived at Holiday’s hotel room without a warrant, where they ended up “finding” opium stashed in a wastebasket and a kit for shooting heroin, despite Holiday’s insistence that she had been clean. However, there were immediate suspicions about White’s discovery — a wastepaper basket seemed like an unlikely spot to hide opium. The heroin shooting kit had never been filed into evidence by the police. To this day, there is widespread confidence that Colonel White and his men had planted the drugs there themselves in an attempt to frame Holiday. In fact, after being checked into a clinic to be monitored, Holiday did not experience any withdrawal symptoms — further evidence that she had not been taking opium or heroin, to begin with.

White’s framing of Holiday eventually culminated in her trial, during which the 12-member jury sided with her against the police. Despite winning this case, Holiday’s public image and health were on the decline. At the age of forty-four, she suddenly collapsed and was taken to a local hospital, where she was denied service due to her alleged drug addiction. Later, at a different hospital, she diagnosed with a series of conditions ranging from liver cirrhosis to leg ulcers. Narcotics agents, spotting her moment of weakness, immediately swooped down on her. They confiscated all her belongings, from comic books to flowers to chocolates, and handcuffed her to her hospital bed. Police remained stationed outside her door and refused any and all visitors. They denied her access to a lawyer and interrogated her on her hospital bed. When a friend was finally allowed in to see her, Holiday frantically told her: “They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them.”

Soon afterwards, broken and starved and all alone except for White police officers determined to crush her spirit, Billie Holiday died on her bed, believing she was a criminal.

Though she never lived to see it, Holiday is now remembered as one of the most luminary and influential musicians of the 20th century. Her spirit continues to be a guiding light and a source of strength for all those who have heard her unforgettable voice. “Strange Fruit”, the song that had earned her the fury of the American government and ultimately led to the police hunting down and leaving her to die, is now commemorated as one of the most important songs in American history. Despite all her accomplishments, it is essential we not forget the bloody history of the war on drugs, its role in enabling White supremacy and bringing down destruction on countless families of color. Black, Brown, and immigrant communities across America today still feel the lasting pain and oppressive legacy of this misguided and devastating war.




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