Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith

Source of book: I own this.

This was my selection for Banned Books Week. It took longer than a week, but I did start it during Banned Books Week. 

Just as a reminder, I use the week to read books which have been banned, which means that a government has outlawed sale, publication, or possession of the book. I do not count challenged books - those which citizens or parents have sought to keep out of school curricula or libraries. This isn’t because I think challenges are uninteresting, but because I wanted to focus my once-a-year project on those where the power of the state was employed in censorship. I believe that is a different level from a challenge. After all, any library has limited space and budget, and decisions must be made. (Personally, I would have preferred an extra - and local - copy of The Rest is Noise rather than one of the 20ish copies of Eat, Pray, Love.) Likewise, students can only study so many books, and the choice of which to study is a judgment call.

Here are my past selections, plus the introduction to Banned Books Week.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller


“BANNED IN BOSTON!” is now a bit of a badge of honor, and it has a long history. Strange Fruit may not have been the first work that the overzealous Boston city officials (influenced by Anthony Comstock and his eponymous law), but it was the first number one bestseller to be banned in Boston. 

Strange Fruit was ostensibly banned due to references to sex - which are both crucial to the meaning of the book and handled in a tame manner by today’s standards - but everyone knew the real reason it was banned: the book is about a forbidden sexual and romantic relationship between a white man and black woman. In the Jim Crow South, this was literally illegal at the time the book was written - and was considered immoral and scandalous even in the North. 

It took me a while to get into the book, mostly because the first 50 or so pages jump around in time a lot. We know very early in the book what has happened: Tracy Deen has gotten Nonnie Anderson pregnant, and she is happy about it. Smith then fills in the backstory of both families. Nonnie Anderson is an elegant and educated young African American woman. Her family is well respected (after a certain fashion), and Nonnie turns everyone’s head. Her sister, the stolid and responsible Bess, can’t understand why Nonnie still works as a maid, rather than go north with their brother Ed, who has gotten a white-collar job. Nonnie claims to just not be ambitious, but the real reason is that she loves Tracy Deen.

Tracy is the feckless son of the local white doctor (the black doctor, Sam, figures prominently in the book as well - he is the best and most complex character in the book, in my opinion.) As we learn, when Nonnie was age 6, she was saved from a sexual assault by a group of white boys by Tracy. This is a moving incident, because the boys assume that Tracy “owns” Nonnie, and that is why they leave her alone. The idea that raping a black child was wrong never occurs to them. 

In fact, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that many - maybe most - of the white men in town have had sex with black girls and women. Some of them openly keep a black woman as a concubine. (“That’s the bible word for it,” Tracy says.) 

Tracy is, despite his inability to figure out what he wants to do with his life (other than that he hates his dominant and controlling mother), isn’t a bad guy. He and Nonnie do eventually become sexual, coming together occasionally in their teens and then after she returns from college, and he from World War One. It is in their 20s that she gets pregnant - to his surprise - he figured that a college educated woman would somehow just know how not to get pregnant. (He’s not the sharpest tool, but, to be fair, men didn’t really learn about female bodies at that time. Information on contraception was still illegal to distribute in Georgia.) 

This pregnancy, naturally, causes no end of trouble. 

In a perfect world, Tracy and Nonnie would marry, and probably have a happy life together. Tracy actually considers taking her to France, where interracial marriage was accepted. But he has no nerve, no career other than his parents’ attempt to get him to take over the family store or the old farm. Nonnie doesn’t seem to know exactly what she wants. It is implied that she would accept being his concubine, but we never really know her thoughts on this. She is too smart to think he will marry her, and she never asks him to. 

Tracy is pressured by his family to finally “go straight,” which means joining the church, getting married, and settling down. The preacher (a complex character who combines some good traits with the wrong kind of pragmatism) tells Tracy that most men have had “nigger girls,” but that God wants him to repent of that and marry a virginal white girl. Tracy’s mom has the perfect one picked out. Tracy isn’t attracted to her, but he can’t tell his mother no. 

In an attempt to both “go straight” and settle things for Nonnie, he borrows a large sum of money from his mother (no questions asked), and tries to bribe Nonnie to marry the Deen family cook, Henry (who was Tracy’s childhood companion), and Henry to marry her. Henry doesn’t want to - he is in love with Dessie - but he can’t talk back to a white man in public. 

The meeting with Nonnie goes even worse: Tracy ends up hitting and raping her as a thoroughly unconstructive way of attempting to compartmentalize his relationship with her as “she’s only a nigger - they manage.” Meanwhile, Ed overheard the conversation with Henry, and when he sees that Nonnie is traumatized, he shoots and kills Tracy in the dark. 

With Sam’s help, Ed is rushed back to New York before the body is discovered in the woods. Henry is blamed for the death, and despite the efforts of Mr. Deen and the local factory boss (another complex and semi-decent character), is taken from jail and lynched. 

Billie Holiday claimed that Lillian Smith named the book after her song about lynching of the same name. Smith never confirmed this, and said that she meant “strange fruit” to mean the way humans, black and white, are twisted and damaged by America’s racist culture, rather than a literal reference to lynched bodies hanging in trees. It sure seems as if there was an intentional connection. 

There is lot to unpack from this book. The summary of the plot fails to capture all of the different facets of Southern Jim Crow culture - Smith grew up in the South, and portrays the culture with accuracy and detail. It is an unsparing portrait, painting the many ways in which the underlying belief in the superiority of white-skinned people warps and damages and destroys. 

Smith does not go easy on the role of religion. This part of the book was spookily familiar in the Trump era, where the Ku Klux Klan is again in open collaboration with white religion. It is no surprise that Smith deftly exposed the hypocrisy of Southern religion. As a young adult, she rejected religion, in part because of her experience with the double standards of the Southern church. In addition, Smith was outspoken in favor of civil rights for minorities - and also for women - both of which positions made her unwelcome in church. 

If that weren’t enough, Smith was lesbian in an era when it was even more taboo than racism. She lived with her partner, and the two of them published a magazine together. As their letters (discovered after their deaths) made clear, however, they were more than business partners. Lesbian themes make it into Smith’s books, including this one. Tracy’s younger sister (the one who seems made to succeed - and who is one of the very few truly progressive characters in the book) has a naked female figure in her drawer, and a relationship with another woman in town is hinted at, although not expressly stated. 

Another controversial theme in the book is abortion. Tracy and Bess and others wish Nonnie would just make the issue go away by quietly aborting the pregnancy. The local black herbal healer can get her some herbs, or she can go to the city and see a doctor there. But it isn’t just Nonnie. A 14 year old white girl gets pregnant from a young white boy, and her father goes to Dr. Deen to beg that he perform an abortion. There is an extended internal monologue where Dr. Deen wrestles with his conscience. What is most devastating about this is that he is clear that he would do the abortion without question if she had been raped or if the father was black. But, because it was consensual and the father is white, he can’t bring himself to do it, although part of him wishes he could. He ends up referring them to a city doctor. 

I noted above some of the more complex and conflicted characters. One of them is the newspaper publisher, Prentiss Reid, who has to keep his progressive ideas to himself or go out of business. It is an uncomfortable compromise - one made necessary by the culture of racism. He is also one of the few openly non-religious characters. He delivers this zinger to the daughter of the mill boss (who is more genuinely progressive):

“You’ve got it wrong, haven’t you? What they want you to do, my dear, is sponsor religion, not practice it. Don’t let your conscience mix you up. If you practiced the teachings of that man Jesus here in Maxwell, we’d think you were crazy - or communist. Don’t make any mistake about it--be damned embarrassing.” 

Not much has changed, alas. Try to actually practice the teachings of Christ these days, and you will, like me, be asked to leave the church. Know what else hasn’t changed? Religious views of gender and race. As Preacher Dunwoodie tells Tracy:

“On this earth, there’s two worlds, man’s and woman’s. Now, the woman’s has to do with the home and children and love. God’s love and man’s. The man’s world is--different. It has to do with work. Women teach us to love the Lord, and our children, and the we build the churches, don’t we, and we keep them going….Now, when a man gets over into a woman’s world, he gets into bad trouble. He don’t belong there...Too much love makes you soft.” 

He goes on to explain that being a good Christian means very different things for men and women. And yep, I feel like I have heard this sermon more than once. 

Tracy is susceptible to this sort of thing, of course, and finds himself trying to justify abandoning Nonnie. 

It’s like an obsession. Seems true to you, but everybody says it isn’t. You can’t love and respect a colored girl. No, you can’t. But you do. If you do--then there must be something bad wrong with you. It’s like playing with your body when you were a kid. You had to touch yourself. It felt good. It was good. But everyone told you it wasn’t good. Said it would drive you crazy or kill you. Decent people didn’t do it. did. You did it and liked it. And felt like hell afterward. You’d outgrown that. Now the preacher said time to outgrow this other. Past time. 

It’s this sort of gaslighting that characterizes so much of religious teaching about sex, of course. But in the American version, the sexual puritanism and the racism are one and the same. They are inseparable. Tracy never does get over Nonnie, as much as he tries. 

You’d think God wanted to play a fine joke and had made Nonnie. Here, He said, is a woman any man would love and be proud of. She has everything you could desire. But you can’t have her. No. You can have sips and tastes, but you can’t have her. And you’ll be ashamed and sneak around and feel nasty...That’s the price you have to pay--for the sips. 
Well...white men had paid it before. And thought it cheap. Guess he could too. 

This casual disrespect for the humanity of non-whites permeates the culture in the book. Even the “good guys” accept white supremacy at some level - nobody can escape it. Ms. Sadie, who is horrified by the way white men treat blacks, still thinks that “the entire Negro race was a mammoth trick which nature had played on the white race.” 

There is another great line about Mrs. Stephenson, who is quietly a loving and gracious person - but one who was strangely detached. 

You had a queer feeling about it--as if Mrs. Stephenson had died some time when nobody was noticing and now nothing was left of her but good deeds blooming like little flowers on her grave.

I want to return a bit to the role of religion as shown in this book. Preacher Dunwoodie shares something with modern preachers: he wants to save the “respectable” sorts. Meaning the wealthy, who will keep the church in business. All the Tracy Deen’s of the world are nice and all, and it is a good thing to save the mill hands, but what he really wants - and how he knows God is blessing his ministry - is for the “prominent citizens” to return to the church. And my goodness is this still true. I firmly believe one of the reasons my former pastor couldn’t do the right thing - even a little thing like keeping hate groups out of the church - is that certain prominent (and tithing) members were the driving force behind it. Address the white supremacist beliefs, and he would have lost some of his financial base. It’s that simple. 

But white supremacy goes deeper than money in religion, then and now. There is a chilling scene when the lynching party sets out. Smith makes it clear that the point isn’t justice - it is putting the “nigger in his place.” And lynching, just like our current cruelties toward brown-skinned people, is driven by a weird religious feeling. Smith describes it thus:

And sometimes there was laughter, or drawled words of voices not unkind in sound and not without humor; but eyes were hard and hating as they hunted a black victim to sacrifice to an unknown god of whom they were sore afraid. 

There is so much fear in white religion in America. A desperate fear of outsiders, of people who are different, whether racial minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ people, atheists, and especially people who don’t vote for Trump. Lillian Smith is on to something here - they seem eager to sacrifice other humans to an unknown god who they cannot name, but who terrifies them. Every time you see a brutal and cruel separation of immigrant families, children in cages, another African American murdered by the cops, or another gay or transgender person denied housing or a job - well, you are seeing a human sacrifice to a terrifying god that Evangelicals cannot name, even to themselves. 

Near the end, even as he realizes he can’t really publish an anti-lynching article, Reid thinks to himself of the core problem. 

That’s the South’s trouble. Ignorant, Doesn’t know anything. Doesn’t even know what’s happening outside in the world! Shut itself up with its trouble and its ignorance until the two together have gnawed the sense out of it. Believes world was created in six days. Believes white man was created by God to rule the world. As soon believe a nigger was as good as a white man as to believe in evolution. All tied up together. Ignorance. Scared of everything about science, except its gadgets. Afraid not to believe in hell, even. Afraid to be free. 

You can perhaps put “Evangelicalism” in for “South,” and “White Republican Americans” for “white man.” It’s the same thing today. Walled up in its own bubble of fear and ignorance and hate. It has been nearly three years since I left that cesspit, and as time goes by, I am ever more thankful I got out. 

This wasn’t an easy book to read. There is so much darkness in the human heart, and so much destruction caused by racism and hate. And religion, then and now, seems all too eager to feed the hate. This book is well worth reading, though, and shines an uncomfortable light on the dark realities of our culture. 


My wife found this book for me used. This hardback was the 13th printing (copyright 1944) Inside are a few notes by the previous owner, Kae Bell, and an inscription from the person who gave the book to her, apparently in 1944.

 Click to expand. The inscription appears to read "To Kae "44 from Bobby and Jan."

"Good comparison of life of a white & negro - so different? Afraid not. Damn these prejudices."

"Life goes on....... with or without the necessary corrections --"


Take it away, Billie Holiday:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

No comments:

Post a Comment