The fact that Austin is a liberal island of blue amidst a sea of red that—this past November—seemed to get even redder at the ballot box is well-remarked upon. That liberal, progressive Austin also has some very serious issues to deal with when it comes to race (the city is the only growing American city whose black population is declining) gets remarked upon less often.
So a number of Twitter users over the weekend were surprised to learn that liberal, progressive Austin has also been home to a major PR firm whose name is a reference to Abel Meeropol’s poem “Strange Fruit,” which is about lynching in the South, and which was made famous as a song by Billie Holiday. The firm was launched in 2012 by Mary Mickel and Ali Slutsky (neither of whom is African-American), and its name has been a source of controversy in the past.
To Mickel and Slutsky, the term “strange fruit” was a reference to “incredibly talented artists [who] stand out in a crowd.” Their website and Twitter bio asked potential clients, “Are you a strange fruit?”
A “strange fruit,” meanwhile, to Meeropol, Holiday, and countless others who’ve sung the song over the 75 years since it was written, represented “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” Those lyrics are fairly unambiguous, and by Saturday—after a meeting of the organization Undoing Racism Austin brought the issue to the attention of a few Austinites with prominent Twitter connections—the contrast between Meeropol’s metaphor and the interpretation of those words by Mickel and Slutsky was a hot issue on the social networking site.
The anatomy of a Twitter storm is instructive, so it’s worth breaking down here to see how it played out in real time over a few hours on Saturday night: Austinites leaving the meeting tweeted at the company to inquire about the name, and after a handful of messages, the company (which has since deleted its Twitter account, along with the rest of its online presence) responded with a series of tweets pushing back against its critics:
“Our passion is telling the stories of hospitality professionals. We chose our name bc these incredibly talented artists stand out in a crowd.”
“We believe in hospitality. Including all. No exclusion. The author & its famous singer hoped for a world where that would be a possibility.”
“Different is good. Cultivating an accepting, progressive community is good. We are proponents for all. Always have been. We wish you well.”
It’s not hard to see why the response from Strange Fruit PR didn’t satisfy critics. That middle tweet seems to essentially argue that, because the company didn’t represent any whites-only restaurants, it was part of the same legacy of racial justice as Meeropol and Holiday. Within a few hours, the response generated as much outrage as the name itself, and it went from being an issue that a handful of Austinites in a meeting cared about to one that was, at its height, generating over a dozen tweets a minute, largely spearheaded by prominent black voices on Twitter. People began tagging Strange Fruit’s client list—a group that includes popular Austin restaurants and food-and-drink industry companies like Contigo, Hops & Grain, Dai Due, and more, as well as San Antonio’s Hot Joy, Barbaro, and The Monterey—and, by Sunday morning, Strange Fruit had changed its tune:
By Sunday, a local concern about an Austin business became a national story: USA Today, the Washington Post, and the New York Daily News all covered the commitment from Strange Fruit to change their name, and the outrage contained in hundreds of tweets.
It’s reasonable, of course, for people to be outraged at a business attempting to redefine “strange fruit,” a metaphor that has existed for 75 years to describe something horrific—and which, it’s worth noting, is not relegated to the distant past. It is likely that the outrage was especially fervent this weekend because of other events in the news that have nothing to do with Mickel, Slutsky, or their company and its clients. The name may be inappropriate, but it’s also probably true that the failure of grand juries in Missouri and New York to indict police officers who killed black men have brought racial tensions in the country to a head, making Strange Fruit PR an appealing target: the entire system of racism in the U.S. may not be something that Twitter outrage can change overnight, but one company with a racially-insensitive name is another story.
In Austin, meanwhile, the future of the company remains unclear. Mickel told the Austin American-Statesman that:
“Had we known the horrible connotations this name evokes, we would have never chosen it in the first place. We just didn’t get it, but now we do. We truly just wanted to encompass the uniqueness and creative individuality that our clients reflect. Our new name will reflect just that.”
Strange Fruit represents some of the area’s best-known restaurants, including Barley Swine, Odd Duck, Lenoir and Banger’s.
None of those clients have indicated they plan to stop working with the firm as a result of the controversy, Mickel said. But at least one client, Jack Allen’s Kitchen, said online that it planned to have discussions with the agency.
That’s probably a conversation that many in the Austin restaurant industry ought to have, with or without Mickel and Slutsky in the room. The name “Strange Fruit PR” didn’t suddenly become inappropriate when hundreds of black voices with larger follower counts from around the country began pointing it out on Twitter, and the previous flaps about the name failed to bring about challenges from Austin restaurateurs, food writers, or others in the industry. Statesman food writer Addie Broyles acknowledged as much on Twitter on Sunday.
Given that Austin as a whole is rather tone-deaf in response to issues surrounding race, it’s unsurprising that an Austin business would be similarly tone-deaf. But it is surprising that a PR business would make this sort of mistake, given the specific task of public relations is to avoid controversy that hurts your business. But Mickel and Slutsky are presumably not much different from many other Austinites in that regard: It’s hard to imagine that they’re actively, willfully racist, but it’s easy to believe that they haven’t had to think much about race, and the branding they chose for their company reflects that. The fact that the hospitality community in which they operate didn’t consider the problems with the name to be a big deal, similarly, indicts more than just the two women who ran the business formerly known as Strange Fruit PR.