Lillian E. Smith’s Strange Fruit (1944) has been on my shelf for a few years now. Right now, it sits back in the United States, untouched and locked away in a box in a storage room. When I purchased it, at a book sale, it was one of those books that I had heard about and that looked relevant to my research. I bought it, sat it on the shelf, and always picked something else up when I started to read something new. Here in Norway, I am starting work on a new project that explores interracial intimacy in works by African American authors that appeared around the time of the Loving v. Virginia decision. Even though Smith was white, I felt that I needed to finally read Strange Fruit and see what connections I could make between the 1944 novel and the later works. There are many connections, especially to something like Ernest Gaines’ Of Love and Dust.
Today, though, I do not want to focus on those connections. Those are for the longer project. Instead, I want to take a moment and look at a section early in the book where Tracy Deen, stationed in France during World War I, comes to a realization about Nonnie Anderson, the African American woman that he loves. I find this section intriguing because it works within a larger tradition of having individuals leave a space, specifically the South, thus allowing their true feelings to arise.
I do not want to give too much away about the novel, in case you haven’t read it. However, it is important to know that at the age of twelve Tracy comes upon a group of white boys attempting to rape the then six year old Nonnie. He stops them, and while the boys at first question Tracy’s actions, they acquiesce once they think that Nonnie is his girl. Throughout the years, the two share intimate moments, not just sexual. Tracy goes to the war. Nonnie goes to college. Both return to their hometown of Maxwell.
In chapter four, Tracy thinks about his time in France during the war. He thinks about the conversations that him and the other men would have, focusing on soap, houses, and lawns. He recalls a guy from Newark who firmly believed that he was fighting for democracy and that the world would come together after the war. “During the peace conference,” the narrator proclaims, “when any fool could see what was happening, he said Wilson could still do it, if the people would stand by him,” referring to Wilson’s peace-keeping efforts in his Fourteen Points. However, the result of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, as Eric Hobsbawm put it, “The logical implication of trying to create a continent neatly divided into coherent territorial states each inhabited by separate ethnically and linguistically homogeneous population, was the mass expulsion or extermination of minorities.”
Tracy sees the Newark guy’s optimism that the end of the war will bring about equality and equal access to food and jobs as nothing more than an unattainable dream. Tracy tells the guy, “That sounds good . . . but you don’t know the South, you don’t understand us. We’d never let a Negro into that world.” Others in the group speak up making statements about their own communities. A Swede from Chicago states, “We’d never let the Jews in. . . not in my town.” A guy from California yells, “We’d never let the Japs and Chinks in.” The men move on to discussing women, and the argument fades away. As the days progressed, the Newark guy continued to talk about the hope for equality. Tracy would tell the guy, “Nice idea. . . you’ll never get folks to believe in it. Too much like heaven.”
When the conversations shifted to women, Tracy found something else to do because “[t]here was no woman he wanted to talk about or think about,” that is until he went to Marseille. Walking around Marseille, Tracy started to recall Nonnie. A woman, in the shadows, calls out to him. He ignores her. Then the sounds and atmosphere cause him to start to think about Nonnie. He dreams about dancing with her, something he had never wanted to do. In Marseille, though, he thinks, “We could dance here.” This thought, like a key, opens Tracy’s mind to the memories of Nonnie.
He begins by thinking about Nonnie in the same way that Jimmy Caya tells Tee Bob to think about Mary Agnes in Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, as nothing more than an object to use then discard.: “She had been something you tried not to think about–something you needed, took when you needed, hushed your mind from remembering.” In France, removed from the societal strictures that forbade him from ever loving Nonnie, those thoughts change. He begins to think about “[a]ll the little things. . . Voice inflections . . . odd way she said the word down . . . brushed up hair above her temple . . . vein that throbbed there when she was tired . . . sudden quick way she would lean forward when excited.” These thoughts cause Tracy to see her not as “a Negro girl” but as “the woman he loved.”
Tracy’s removal from the societal and familial strictures in Maxwell causes him to realize he truly loves Nonnie. To highlight this, Smith deploys dirt as a metaphor for the psychological suffocation that refuses to let Tracy and Nonnie have anything resembling a true and open intimate relationship.
She was that; and he knew it. It was as if, walking along a road cluttered with people and things where all is confusion, made more confused by the rules people move by, you almost step on something. You pick it up, knowing you’ve found the thing you’ve been looking for–covered with dirt, caked with it, yes, but you take it along, as you take a little image, knowing it has meaning for you. You take it along everywhere you go but you never seem able to get by yourself long enough to brush the dirt off.”
In Marseille, Tracy brushes the dirt off of his memories of Nonnie. This cleansing causes him to want to hurry back to Maxwell, “before the dirt and dust settled back on the image.”
Tracy’s return to Maxwell, though, does not keep his thoughts of a relationship with Nonnie clean. The dirt comes back, almost immediately. While the couple share an intimacy, Tracy never truly treats Nonnie as someone he can share the rest of his life with. She remains like Willa Mae in James Baldwin’s Blues For Mister Charlie, Desiree in Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow, or Pauline in Gaines’ Of Love and Dust, the other woman that will never be the only woman.
Tracy gets Nonnie pregnant, and when she tells him about it, Tracy begins to turn towards the church. This turn leads him back to the woman that his parents want him to marry, Dot Pusey, and the two get engaged. Tracy feels like he should help support the unborn child and Nonnie, so he plans to have Henry, the Black servant whom he grew up with, to marry Nonnie. He does this so no one will know for sure that the child is his. He pays Henry and pledges to give them money to support their lives. Tracy does this without talking to Nonnie. He feels he is being helpful, but he is, in fact, telling Nonnie that she does not matter. He is telling her that she exists for his pleasure. She exists to make him feel good about himself, noting more.
Tracy, no matter how hard he tries, always has dirt clinging to him. The rules that Maxwell abides by come back, no matter how hard he scrubs, and scrubs, and scrubs. What this continued return of the dirt signifies is how these ideas attach themselves deep within the psyche of individuals. Solomon Northup talks about this with Epps’ son and Mistress Epps. Mark Twain shows it with Huck Finn. Gaines shows it with Sydney Bonbon. How do we deprogram years, decades, and centuries of racist thought that kicks up around us and clings to our clothes? This is something I think about daily. I do not have answers. I only know that we need to figure it out.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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