I’d like to tell you the story of this award and why Straw Dog Writers Guild created it.
Like most stories, it’s not easy to know where to begin. Maybe in 1935, when a young Jewish high school teacher in the Bronx saw a photograph of a lynching. It haunted him and he wrote a poem about it which was published in a Teachers’ Union magazine. He set the poem to music and it was performed around New York City over the next few years by his wife and others.
That poet was named Abel Meeropol. In 1939, He sang the song, “Strange Fruit,” for Billie Holiday at Cafe Society in Greenwich Village. Billie started performing it and the rest is music history. “Strange Fruit” has been performed by dozens of singers and was named The Best Song of the Century by Time Magazine in 1999. More than 80 years after it was written, “Strange Fruit” continues to resonate, to move us and inspire us and remind us of the enormous power of art and resistance.
What does this have to do with Straw Dog Writers Guild? Abel Meeropol was my father-in-law. He and his wife Anne adopted my husband Robby and his brother Michael in 1953, after their parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed. In the last years of his life, Abel lived in western Massachusetts, to be near our family.
Over the past few years, there has been increased interest in “Strange Fruit” and increased royalties. In memory of Abel and his work to change the world through literature and the arts, we’ve donated these funds to organizations Abel would have loved, including Straw Dog Writers Guild.
I believe that Abel would have admired the work of Patricia Smith, poet and activist, and Straw Dog Writers Guild has selected her as the recipient of the 2017 Abel Meeropol Social Justice Writing Award. Patricia is the author of eight books of poetry, including Incendiary Art; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets and Blood Dazzler, a National Book Award finalist. A Guggenheim fellow, a National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient, a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam (the most successful poet in the competition’s history), our honoree is a professor at the College of Staten Island and in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.
On November 12, 2017, 3:30 pm at Gateway City Arts, Holyoke, MA, Ms Smith will read from her work and discuss writing as resistance. For more information about attending the program, about our wonderful co-sponsoring organizations, about Abel Meeropol and Patricia Smith, please visit our website. I hope you will join my family in honoring Abel Meeropol and Patricia Smith on November 12.