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"The Strangest Fruit" Reimagines Lynching

A new art exhibition at Washington and Lee University in Lexington references a particularly dark period of American history...... the lynching of minority males in the 19th and 20th centuries. Except, the death explored in this particular exhibit is not that of African American men, but of Latinos—today.  WMRA's Jessie Knadler has the story.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root…

These are opening lines from Abel Meeropol’s poem “Strange Fruit” about the horror of racism. Billie Holiday turned it into one of her most haunting songs in 1939.

San Antonio-based artist Vincent Valdez nods to Meeropol’s poem in his latest art exhibition, “The Strangest Fruit” currently on display at Washington & Lee University’s Staniar Gallery until May 29.

The exhibit consists of eight larger than life, hyper-realist paintings of young Latino men posed as if hanging from the end of a rope—twisted, contorted, limp and lifeless.

It’s an unsettling reference to the often-overlooked widespread lynching of Mexicans and Mexican Americans by mobs of white vigilantes that occurred from the mid-19th century until well into the 1920s.

While there’s no question African Americans have suffered more racial violence than many other minorities, the jarring images in Valdez’s work demand a rethink of the history of lynching.

At the same time, he conspicuously depicts his subjects in contemporary clothing -- basketball jerseys, thick black spectacles, tattoos – to make the point that racial violence and oppression still exist today, just in other forms. Vincent Valdez explains.

VINCENT VALDEZ: Sure, the noose is no longer present. Let’s consider for a moment mass incarceration, stop and frisk, racial profiling, war on drugs, war on poverty, war on education, immigration hysteria. The Boogey Man is out there, right?

And that is The Strangest Fruit of all.

Jessie Knadler is the editor and co-founder of Shen Valley Magazine, a quarterly print publication that highlights the entrepreneurial energy of the Shenandoah Valley. She has been reporting off and on for WMRA, and occasionally for National Public Radio, since 2015. Her articles and reporting have appeared everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to Real Simple to The Daily Beast. She is the author of two books, including Rurally Screwed (Berkley), inspired by her popular personal blog of the same name, which she wrote for six years. In her spare time, she teaches Pilates reformer, and is the owner of the equipment-based Pilates studio Speakeasy Pilates in Lexington. She is mom to two incredible daughters, June and Katie. IG: @shenvalleymag