The Strange Symbolism of the Poplar Tree in Relation to America

As a kid, when my mama sat me down to listen to the revolutionary song, “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, I remember thinking the song was unsettling for a reason I couldn’t place. It felt haunting to me. Many years later, as stumbled upon the same song, really listening to what story the song was telling, I became unsettled again. The song’s rich symbolism for lynching made a powerful statement during its time, and continues to have impact today in how I see racism all around me.

Around the same time, I came across the book “Rabbit” written by Patricia Williams. It was astounding to see that there is a connection between Strange Fruit and the multiple different stories from every corner of the black community, modern and in the past. Rabbit’s story was one of getting roped up in the tangles of the poplar tree’s branches because of her need for survival. And that got me thinking: Isn’t the entirety of the Black community underneath a broken and murky system of rules for survival? We are still oppressed, still “hanging from the poplar tree”. I imagine the poplar tree, the one orchestrating the whole system, having a proud voice that proclaims:

“Yes, I am the poplar tree. Pride of the Bible Belt and fixture of American heritage. And, like anything else, I need to be tended to. You need to water me.”

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And Billie Holiday, one victim of this poplar tree would have agreed. I believe outside of the fake “equal” reality members of the black community have, there was a giant poplar tree that demanded to be watered to produce more and more strange fruit.

Basically, in theory, Black America is strangled. Our oppressors, the creators of the poplar tree, have made unclear rules on purpose. It’s always been difficult. I remember hearing my mom, when we turned up in a white neighborhood, saying to her friend, “Hi! Anyways girl, I figured it out…. I’m gonna live like white people. But they have so many rules to live. Hold on, do y’all deal with this too?” About the HOA rules. “Like how you gonna tell me how to live?” She wanted to fit in, but little did she know she was slowly getting tangled in the branches. Those rules are nothing but a nuisance to those white communities, but reasons to justify death for us. Us black folk live, we survive by rules of survival. We have been wired and conditioned over decades that we run a thin line when it comes to making the oppressor angry.

I believe the poplar tree, the system, also, as I have found, has a funny way of silencing those pushing for change. Those pushing against the small utterances that perpetuate racism. For example, back in college one of my friends asked me if she could tell me a joke. “All right, two black guys, and a watermelon.” I just stared at her and asked, “Okay so, if I had a sense of humor, I’d be laughing my ass off right now?” and I remember almost all of the people around me chastised me for “not taking the joke the right way”. But then I realized, Black people are their entertainment. We are for them. They say, “It would be great for you to show us your urban dance moves.” I remember people assumed all the time because I’m black that I can dance. But they aren’t ready when I tell them to prepare to watch me offbeat two-step my way through this Nelly song. They assume based on stereotypes and refuse to be swayed. And I was willing to do anything to fit in. It reminds people how much they love Black culture without the melanin attached. Oh sorry, was that too loud? Or are you going to pretend I didn’t say something about your covert racism?

But the poplar tree comes back. It is fueled off our disobedience and wanting for equality without rules, taunting us: “Yeah baby. Continue and dance for me baby. Come over here and water me.”

My college friends seemed against me. I had broken a rule. I am bound to those rules to survive.

If you are a black man or black woman, it doesn’t matter what you do, you won’t be able to escape being tangled in the tree’s branches. So, just blend as best you can.

The best way I can explain is through my mama. The most important lesson my mama taught me about white folks was that they are better than you. I was ten. And it stuck with me, growing into a fear I carried all the way here. And I think back to Rabbit, when she says, “I wanted a better life for Ashley” and that things are going to be different for Ashley. Her version of that is “I would just follow the rules.”

And I have discussed how you see the broken rule, the disobedience, but what are the rules’ consequences? What happens when you become the next target, innocent or not?

“Blood on the leaves, blood at the root. Water me.”

When you become the next target of the poplar, it’s frightening. You are walking home and white men start following you. You get pulled over by a cop. You get called racial slurs. It’s a trail of thoughts surrounding “What do I do to be safe?” And you know you were simply being. You have done nothing wrong, yet you find yourself questioning what YOU have done wrong. “What? Me? I followed all the rules?!”

What rule did YOU break?Baby, it ain’t about the rules.”

Why is it YOUR turn to be the next named yelled at a protest? Why did it need to be YOUR blood? “Excuse me? Who said that?”

What made YOU a target? “Me. I am the poplar tree. And you water me. I sprout suckers from my root because I am heritage.” And you think back to all the times you let your racist friends comments slide. “Can we all just get along?” “I have black friends” If you want to kill the poplar tree, you have to kill the root. And you let it slide. But you can’t blame yourself, I, America won’t let you.” The tree IS America. It’s BEEN America. It’s BEEN the system. And when you hear the headlines of those innocent black folk JUST TRYING TO LIVE, you’ll hear their screams. Their cries of:

But I followed all the rules.

Black Bodies swinging, in the southern breeze. You were the next headline. And you watered the tree.

And you whites believe the injustice was only Michael Brown? Those men, those women who killed all those black boys, those black girls, those black mothers and fathers, were simply enforcing the whims of our country, its heritage. It’s master. The poplar tree. And you believe the injustice was started with Michael Brown. He was just one of many.

I have come to the conclusion that my mama just had bad luck. That’s all. After she succumbed to the will of the poplar tree I moved to my mama’s house. Somehow, I survived the tree. I don’t know if I’m gonna make it. I just don’t know it. Because I’m fully aware now, and refuse to be silent about it. I refuse to be afraid of making my white peers angry.

Some will never understand. Some will continue to try to fit in. “I am Ashley. And I’m gonna follow the rules. All of them.” But it was then I realized it was never about the rules.

“Hi baby! I am the poplar tree. Pride of the Bible Belt and fixture of American HERITAGE. You were meant to water me. And speaking of, I’m quite parched.”

For as long as the tree, the systematic killing of black people lives, the rules of survival in this damn country won’t matter. The rules are a mask over the only clear rule meant actually for whites. Keep. Blacks. Under.

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