Strange Fruit: Some comments

Lillian Smith. Image found here; Wikipedia entry here.

I’ve just finished rereading Lillian Smith’s 1944 novel, Strange Fruit, a novel that, though still in print, I suspect not many people read today. That’s a shame, really. Given its title’s origin (the Billie Holiday song), its setting (early Depression-era rural southern Georgia), its chief subject (an interracial relationship between a white man and a black woman) and the time of its publication–not to mention the fact that it was banned in some places when published–Strange Fruit is brave in ways that better-known Southern novels whose big subject is racism finally aren’t (To Kill a Mockingbird, good as it is (and happy 50th anniversary, by the way), comes to mind here). Which, after all, is braver for a Southern novelist in the pre-Civil Rights Act South to do: to show us as we’d like to think of ourselves as being, or to show us as most of us in fact are–and why we are the way we are?

The novel’s central story is an affair between Tracy Deen, the ne’er-do-well son of a respectable and well-off white family, and Nonnie Anderson, a college-educated black woman working as a maid for another white family. If you know the Billie Holiday song, you already know, more or less, where this story is headed: Nonnie becomes pregnant by Tracy; Tracy, who seems to love Nonnie yet already seems to know that a future with her will remain at best a clandestine one, and already under immense passive-aggressive pressure to marry the nice white girl across the street, breaks off his relationship with Nonnie and seeks to find a black man to marry her so the baby will have a father; that man, named Henry, a black boyhood friend of Tracy’s who is now the Deens’ house servant, brags on his upcoming marriage in earshot of Nonnie’s older brother, Ed; Ed puts two and two together, lies in wait for Tracy along the path he (Tracy) takes that runs from the colored to the white side of town, and shoots Tracy, killing him; his family and a family friend help him leave town; a few hours later, Henry and his girlfriend will come across Tracy’s body and attempt to hide it, but other people in Colored Town see this; once Tracy’s body is found, word gets out about Henry’s having been seen moving the body; despite the strong suspicion among the more-respectable white members of the community that Henry isn’t guilty, and their attempts to stop it, Henry is lynched and then burned.

However, though the above is the novel’s central narrative, it’d not be inaccurate to say that the novel’s main character is Maxwell, Georgia, the town it’s set in. We learn about its industries (agriculture and lumber) and their accompanying labor problems (farmers are having troubles finding (black) workers to work the fields because up North are better (and better-paying) opportunities; at the mills, there’s rumbling about unionizing the workers); about how religion is regarded by various cross-sections of the town (a revival happens to be in town during the “now” of the novel); and about how blacks who served during the first world war and/or have gone to college are (in the minds of whites) quietly but firmly insisting–through the mere fact of their presence in town–on an opening-up of economic opportunity for blacks.

We also learn that Jim Crow is Maxwell’s de facto mayor and, in the wake of Tracy’s murder and Henry’s lynching, varying degrees of complicity (ranging from participating in the lynching to disapproving but staying out of the way) work to keep that mayor in power. As Tom Harris, the owner of the town’s lumber mill and thus one of its most prominent citizens, puts it (via the 3rd-person narrator), “Maxwell’s a good town, a quiet town, good place to bring your children up in–and he had brought up nine. Except for Saturday nights, a few razor fights, a dead nigger now and then, nothing violent ever happened in Maxwell. Things still went on in the southwest of the county that had no business going on. Niggers disappeared out on Bill Talley’s place too often–dropped plumb out of sight–but you didn’t have proof, and there was seldom much talk about it” (300). The part about Bill Talley is especially telling: it’s not that black people are disappearing–it’s that they’re disappearing too often that disturbs Harris. And yet the novel is at pains to show that Harris is among the most sympathetic to the plight of black people in the town: he attempts to hide Henry from the mob searching for him; and when the mob finds Henry, Harris tries to stop the lynching.

Given a novel like this, then, it isn’t surprising that Strange Fruit lacks a figure analogous to To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch. Finch stands as our proxy in Harper Lee’s novel; we can vicariously stand with him as he defends Tom Robinson, giving voice to what we know is right yet may be too afraid to say out loud. Instead, what we get in Strange Fruit is, for the most part and at best, a resigned acceptance of the status quo. The two lovers at the novel’s heart aren’t especially sympathetic: much as Tracy Deen resists being defined by the town’s definitions of Success and Respectability, he succumbs to them and in so doing rejects Nonnie; and as for Nonnie, her sister Bess characterizes her accurately as not being especially clear-eyed when it comes to seeing that there’s no future worthy of her where Tracy is concerned–or Maxwell, either, for that matter. Sam, a black doctor who clearly has the respect of the African-American community there, commands our respect as well, but only up to a point–after all, after Ed shoots Tracy, it’s Sam who drives him to Macon to hop a train back to New York and then to Washington, D.C., where Ed lives. Of the novel’s white characters, Prentiss Reid, the newspaper editor, widely known to hold radical political and religious views, writes about the lynching but pulls his punches by writing that, yes, lynching is an unpleasant business but the North is not without its own race problems; Harris, as we see above, does not approve of lynching but, because his business employs some of the very men responsible for the lynching, feels he do no more than what he had done to try to stop this particular one. Harris’s children, Charlie and Harriett, are much more vocal in their opposition to the town’s endemic racism, but Charlie notes that in order to hang on to his ideas about how to fight against Maxwell’s mindset, he would have to leave.

But leaving Maxwell, one gets the feeling, is difficult to do. A frequent motif in the novel is the evocations of roads and paths that connect otherwise discrete parts of the town to each other but which, it seems, never lead away from town. Those with the ability and/or inclination to leave are a definite minority; those who remain loathe or resent, with varying degrees of intensity, the members of those whose race they are not . . . in large measure because they recognize that without them, they could not survive–at least, not in the world as they had configured for themselves. It’s a miscegenous relationship, but a mandated one: whites are just as trapped in it (though, to be sure, in different ways) as blacks are. So, even as we recognize and applaud Charlie’s clear-headedness as he tells first his father and then his sister that he hates how blacks are treated in Maxwell, it’s hard not to feel some despair for the town if Charlie either leaves town to preserve his current thinking or stays in town and gradually loses his convictions.

I’ve already gone on enough. Strange Fruit, I think, is well worth your time, especially when read against To Kill a Mockingbird–and just so no one misunderstands me, I do very much like and respect Mockingbird. But Smith’s novel investigates racism’s essential irrationality, something which, in the mid-century South, was an important task–especially since the prevailing argument in favor of Jim Crow at that time was that system’s insistence on its rationality. More on that, by way of a discussion of Thomas Dixon Jr.‘s novel The Sins of the Father, in a future post.

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