In a stirring dirge for victims of a lynching, Billie Holliday mourns the strange fruit borne by Southern trees. “Blood on the leaves, and blood at the roots” she laments, “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.”
Centuries of desperation, frustration, and anger over racial crimes and injustices are distilled into Nina Simone’s evocative cover of the song, in which a raw vocal pours over the simple strains of three chords: A hollowed out musical structure that echoes the moral vacuum in which lynching became common in America’s South. “Strange Fruit” reveals perfectly the true power of art. By stripping superfluity and presenting the ugly, what remains is devastating to the core and impossible to deny.
So too are the jarring pictures of the bodies of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi and his five-year-old brother Galip, who were found last week on the Turkish coast. In a series of disturbing pictures, photographer Nilufer Demir captured the moment the bodies of the two boys and their mother, Rehan—all Syrian refugees fleeing the devastation in Kobani by crossing the Mediterranean Sea on a flimsy boat—washed onto the shore. The image of Aylan’s lifeless form in particular has sparked public conversations about whether photos of a child should be taken and shared without the consent of their guardians; whether sharing these photographs is cruel voyeurism; and what it says about the state of humanity that a genuine conversation on intervening in the conflict in Syria can only be had once the public is confronted by a waterlogged and lifeless infant body.
Our interactions with the pictures raise critical questions about the role of empathy in contemporary society. Although there has been some academic treatment of the capacity of humans to relate and respond to the circumstances of others, only in dire moments like these does there seem to be collective reflection on where empathy as a moral value fits into our societies. After all, Aylan’s unnecessary death isn’t just