I am documenting the flowering of a magnolia. I pass it on my way to work each day. This is the first shot.
There are magnolias everywhere in Sydney right now. Yesterday I visited an old colonial home with two magnificent trees out the back, one covered in blooms, the other in buds. Of course, I went in for the close up.
Although they are so beautiful, I can’t see a magnolia without thinking of Billie Holliday’s scathing song about post-slavery manifestations of racism in the southern states of the US. Her powerful evocation of the ‘sweet and fresh’ scent of magnolia, overpowered by the stench of ‘burning flesh’, has stayed with me ever since I first heard Strange Fruit, more than 30 years ago, and learned what it was about.
I’ve always felt that ‘scent of magnolias’ was a reference to the facade of gentility that the White South plastered over its rotten core. Listening to it again now, I realise that single phrase is also about the inherently beautiful humanity of the people who were destroyed by the putrid racism of the ‘gallant South’. Those few words are the 1939 equivalent of #BlackLivesMatter.
Black lives matter to me. My son is Black. His father, step-mother, siblings, all his Dad’s family are Black. But even if my whole family was as white as I am, Black lives would still matter to me because I hold it to be self evident that every human life is precious, and each person on the planet deserves the chance to not just live, but to blossom.
I admit that saying I think of Strange Fruit every time I see a magnolia is exaggerating. But only a little bit. I think of it more often than I don’t. That’s not a morbid thing. I think it’s good to be reminded of the brutality of racism, because that makes it more likely that I, as a white person, will keep speaking out against it. And now that I have in my head that magnolias also represent the value of human life, it’s not just racism that I’ll be thinking of, but the glorious possibility of a world without it.