Lewis Allen Poem "Strange Fruit"
What is the first stanza talking about?
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots
Black bodies swingin' in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees
how does the imagery helps to communicate the general theme of the poem?
The "strange fruit" being described is referring to black people who have been lynched. Possibly, they were beaten before being hanged and/or their bodies were mutilated after they died - this would account for "Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots." The "black bodies swingin' in the southern breeze" are literally the dead, battered and mangled bodies of black people who have been lynched by southern racists.
The rest of the poem goes on to contrast the peaceful and refined southern countryside with the horrific scene of the earlier lines. The beauty of the land clashes with the gruesome and distorted corpses. The wonderfully pleasant sweet smell of the magnolias, that most iconic of southern flowers, contrasts with the stench of decaying human flesh. In the midst of the growth around the south, there is this "strange fruit" of death.
One of the major images that the South has had of itself (particularly in decades past) was that it was a beautiful, peaceful region. People felt that the Southern way of life was slower and less money-hungry than the Northern way of life. They believed that the South was more rural, more idyllic, and more like what the United States should have been like.
One of the major themes of this poem is that this view of the South was incompatible with the reality. The reality of the South, in this view, was violent and dark. The South was a place where African Americans were ruthlessly oppressed. Perhaps the worst aspect of this oppression, at least in the late 1800s and early decades of the 1900s, was lynching. African Americans lived in fear of being lynched for trivial or even imagined offenses against white people. The first stanza is talking about people being lynched.
The “strange fruit” is the bodies of the lynched African Americans. They are dangling from the trees in the way that fruit should dangle, but they should not be there. Fruit and flowers are supposed to smell sweet, but the dead bodies stink of decay. They make a mockery of the idyllic view of the South.
Overall, the imagery in this stanza does the same. It argues that the roots of the South’s alleged beauty are soaked in blood. It makes it so we cannot enjoy the gentle breezes of the South because we know they are causing the bodies of the victims of lynching to sway. It conveys the main idea of the poem, which is that the idyllic myth of the South is based on a foundation of violence and racism.