Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Strange Fruit, La Marseillaise and French Patriotism

When I'm introducing my students to the rhetorical analysis unit, we start things off by doing a quick rhetorical analysis of the poem "Strange Fruit" by Abel Meeropol, also known as Lewis Allan. So that my students can understand the importance of the poem, I give them a little background. Meeropol was a Jewish man from New York who wrote the poem upon seeing a grisly picture of a southern lynching (this is a link to the picture he saw. I feel I need to warn you; it is a fairly graphic image). The poem was set to music and it is in that format that it is most famously known. Billie Holiday, in particular, made this song big as she would often sing the song at the end of her nightclub act. The owner of the nightclub where she did her act recognized the power of the song, so when she would get ready to sing it he would turn off all the lights in the club and have a single spotlight on Lady Day as she sang. The song was so powerful that when Billie Holiday went to Columbia Records wanting to record the song, the label was so worried about how it would be received in the South that they refused. A writer for the New York Post who witnessed the nightclub act famously said of the song, "If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its 'Marseillaise.'"

Now most of my students don't really know what that means, so in order for them to understand what it meant for the exploited in the South to "have a Marseillaise," I show them this clip from Casablanca. After I give them a little background on what's happening in the movie, I tell them to focus on how the song inspires and rallies the beleaguered Frenchmen, and then to think about how "Strange Fruit" was said to have the power to do the same for any potential Civil Rights groups.

After they watch this clip, I have them watch a clip of Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit" while they follow along with the poem in hand. As they're doing this, I tell them to try and figure out how the poem and song evoke such a powerful reaction, and where in the text they see things that are especially moving. After watching the poem sung, we have a good discussion analyzing the rhetoric of the poem and everyone goes away uplifted.

Now I write all that in order to make a confession of sorts. But first I need to qualify what I'm about to say.

In many circles here in America it's not cool to like or admire France. Wait...that's not an entirely accurate observation; let me rephrase. In terms of culture, and food and style and those things, being a Francophile is fine. But when it comes to respecting them as a country and a system of government and a military force, it's the popular thing to make fun of them. From freedom fries to feats of the French military, we like to poke fun at France and all things French. Now I would be lying if I said I never partake in such humor, or if I said I didn't find it funny to a degree; I do. But this American cultural mindset makes things a bit uncomfortable when I say what I'm about to say.

Sometimes I feel patriotic about France.

I know, I know. I've never been to France, I don't speak French, and as far as I know I don't even have any French ancestors. Frankly (heh heh) there is nothing whatsoever tying me to France or giving rise to these feelings. 

But when I show this clip to my students, I get that familiar wetness behind my eyes that usually only comes at the end of Rudy. As this happens I can't help but feel proud of France and wish to some degree that I had more French influence in my life.

It's weird, I know, but this is my life. I just needed for someone to know.


  1. You are not alone. I feel patriotic about France and get laughed at for being so. That's when I pull out examples of what we should be thankful that the French gave us and how brave they are.
    And yes that version of La Marseillaise gets me too, I always stand up and sing it with them when I watch Casablanca.

  2. I used to come home from high school and put in my Casablanca dvd and skip to this scene. I'd watch it a few times just to rally myself up after a day at horrible, horrible high school. You are so not alone. I mean, compare this scene to "I'm proud to be an American." One inspires you to patriotism and one makes you cringe.

  3. To me it is just a sense of patriotism or pride in something you believe in or value. There are many times I feel that way about America, like every time the national anthem is played during a medals ceremony. The tie to France, I can't really relate to that one, I'm a little to proud. :)

  4. I love Casablanca. And I love Gourmandise in Salt Lake, a place you need to visit if you haven't before, so you can feel a closer tie to France—or at least a closer tie to Europe.

  5. That scene from Casablanca always gives me chills!! Yay Sam for your sentiments towards la France. I agree with you whole-heartedly. The poets, philosophers, artists, and revolutionaries!! simply fantastic