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?
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“In the direction of system”: Two passages from The Grandissimes

Aurora aurora-and-clotilde-nancanou-receive-joseph-frowenfeldand Clotilde Nancanou receive Joseph Frowenfeld. Illustration by Albert Herter from an 1899 edition of The Grandissimes. Image found here.

George Washington Cable’s most famous novel (1880) is sneaky with regard to its examination of Creole New Orleans in those years just prior to and just after the Louisiana Purchase: strident when the reader expects (but does not necessarily want) it to be; wry, even sly, when the reader does not expect it. Consider these two brief examples involving Aurora and Clotilde Nancanou, the mother and daughter whose genteel destitution figures prominently in this novel.

The first passage provide a glimpse of the domestic dynamics of the Nancanou household:

[Aurora and Clotilde] sat down opposite each other at their little dinner table. They had a fixed hour for dinner. It is well to have a fixed hour; it is in the direction of system. Even if you have not the dinner, there is the hour. Alphonsina [their black cook] was not in perfect harmony with this fixed-hour idea. It was Aurora’s belief, often expressed in hungry moments with the laugh of a vexed Creole lady (a laugh worthy of study), that on the day when diner should really be served at the appointed hour, the cook would drop dead of apoplexy and she of fright[. . . .] Not that she felt particularly hungry, but there is a certain desultoriness allowable at table more than elsewhere[.] (216-217)

“In the direction of system” strikes me as both a marvelously evocative turn of phrase on its own terms and one that also speaks to the strange combination of surface rigidity and domestic compromise–perhaps even an unspoken resignation–at work in a world that we today rightly characterize as brutalizing and dehumanizing toward people of color, whether freedmen or not. System–structure, rules, codes–must be in place, even if those whose actions are ostensibly most governed by that system are “not in perfect harmony with” it. Moreover, as the concluding sentence makes clear, the system referred to is intended for public visual consumption; the novel’s later brief public scandal of Joseph Frowenfeld (the American who serves simultaneously as the author’s mouthpiece, the novel’s moral center, and Clotilde’s romantic interest) being seen leaving a mulatto woman’s house with a head wound is a scandal precisely because it is public.

[The dynamic at work here, by the way is strikingly similar to that regarding the establishing and (lack of) policing of the dress codes (and the reasoning behind them) depicted in Mexican casta paintings from the colonial era. The intent behind the dress codes was to make one’s class–and, indirectly, one’s caste–more publicly certain. Implicit in the code was the assumption that lower-caste members, no matter their skin color, tended not to be financially successful. But some lighter-skinned members of those lower castes inevitably did make money, as artisans, as merchants, etc., and it is all but certain that some of those with the means tried and succeeded in passing as higher-caste members. The dress code therefore provided them with a legally-sanctioned disguise.]

These public displays in the direction of system, in combination with domestic desultorinesses, can lead to some rather odd musings in the face of the more awkward consequences of the Peculiar Institution, as is the case with this second passage:

That same morning Clotilde had given a music-scholar her appointed lesson, and at its conclusion had borrowed of her patroness (how pleasant it must have been to have such things to lend!) a little yellow maid, in order that, with more propriety, she might make a business call. (205)

While Clotilde is a very young woman whose mother seems to have protected her from situations in which she would have come to understand that the mulatto girl’s existence might not have been a source of much pleasantness at her student’s house, it’s still hard not to recall this famous passage from Mary Boykin Chesnut’s Civil War diary: “[L]ike the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the Mulattos one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children-& every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think-” (source).

Such a world is one of tacitly-sanctioned virtual disguises even more impenetrable than the clothes one wears, a world of very odd public dances on whose strangeness no one comments. Thus, it is no accident, given Cable’s characters’ preoccupation with appearance (in all its senses) and underlying identities and entangled family roots of plantation families (just as one example, two men in the novel are named Honoré Grandissime, one a Creole, the other his mulatto half-brother), that his novel’s opening scene is a masked ball.

“Miscegenation” as (a) “domestic issue”

It seems felicitous that I’m beginning this post on April 14: 180 years ago today, Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language. I say this because the word “miscegenation,” whose usage in these pages I’ll be discussing here, is in every sense an American word. More about that later.

I’m writing this post partly out of necessity–one of its concerns is, after all, the vocabulary of its subject–and partly in response to some questions asked of me by Jennifer and a commenter, cvt, over at Jennifer’s blog, Mixed Race America. Each wanted to know whether my choice of the term miscegenation when discussing racial admixture is a conscious one, and Jennifer has a post in which she asks her readers to comment on the efficacy of using loaded language and words and phrases with difficult and painful histories.

Here are the questions Jennifer poses:

Can loaded words and contested terms be rehabilitated? Can they escape, in the case of “concentration camp” the tragic and overwrought associations with one of the worst genocides of the 20th century? Can we use a term, like “miscegenation” to simply mean “inter-racial” without invoking its etymological roots in race baiting and its historic use as a word associated with negativity, rancor, and hatred (because whenever “miscegenation” was invoked in the mid to late 20th century it was usually done in the context of “anti-miscegenation” laws, ie: laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage, or white racist Southerners invoking the fear of “miscegenation” as a rationale for school segregation.

I suppose a few more questions to consider are:

*Why is this loaded word or contested term being used in current, contemporary usage?
*What is the purpose of this rehabilitation?
*Who is trying to use this term and for what purpose?
*Is there another term that is as accurate/precise in its meaning as the contested term? Why is it important to use the contested term rather than the less loaded word?

My response is below the fold.
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