In last Thursday’s post, I wrote about the image of dirt in Lillian E. Smith’s Strange Fruit (1944). Today, I want to continue looking at Smith’s novel. Instead of focusing on Tracy Dean as I did in the last post, I want to take a moment and examine the ways that Nonnie and Bess Anderson, along with Dessie, react to what occurs in the novel. As such, I will focus on two scenes in the novel, not the whole thing. One will be a conversation between Nonnie and Bess and the other will look at the last chapter of the novel.
While I did not give away much of the plot in the previous post, I feel it is pertinent to do so in this post. Nonnie and Tracy have a relationship at the start of the novel, and Nonnie informs Tracy that she is pregnant with his child. Being from a wealthy white family, Tracy ponders what to do. Ultimately, he decides that he will marry Dorothy Pusey, a white woman who is friends with the Dean family, and pay for someone to marry Nonnie and support her. He chooses his servant, Henry McIntosh, as the man to marry Nonnie. (The relationship between Henry and Tracy is something else that can be examined in more detail.)
Nonnie’s brother Ed overhears Henry talking about the plan at the Salamander’s Cafe and punches Henry. Later, Ed murders Tracy and leaves him on the side of the road. Henry, who is out with Dessie, comes across Tracy’s body and moves it out of the road. Ed escapes back to the North as the white townspeople believe that Henry murdered Tracy. They arrest him, and ultimately a lynch mob captures him and burns him alive. The novel concludes right after Henry’s murder.
Coming home from the Stephenson’s house one night, Bess tells her sister that that they are upset because they just discovered one of their teenage daughters was pregnant. It is at this point that Nonnie tells her sister, “I’m pregnant too.” Bess knows that Tracy is the father. After Nonnie tries to explain that things won’t change between Tracy and herself even though “Tracy lives in a white world,” Bess begins to lay out for Nonnie what the pregnancy means for not just Nonnie but for her unborn child. She tells her sister,
It can’t! God Jesus you say it can’t! What do you think love is–a charm you wear around your neck? You don’t know what’s ahead of you. You haven’t any idea! And a baby! Lord God, what chance would a child have–how could you want to bring one into this world and subject it to–Trouble is, Non, you won’t admit this world! But it’ll make you admit it sooner or later. It’ll pound you and beat you over the head until it gets you down on your knees, begging it to–
Nonnie thinks that things will remain the same between her and Tracy; however, the pregnancy changes everything. It causes Tracy to realize that society will not accept his relationship with Nonnie, no matter how much he claims to love her, so he decided to find religion and start to settle down with Dorothy. This leaves Nonnie alone, as the other woman, disgraced and ruined in the eyes of the community. Tracy, according to the “rules” of Maxwell, can do what he wants to Nonnie, but Maxwell will not let him love her. That love would disrupt the very fabric of fear and hatred that permeates through the community.
Within Bess’ comments is an argument that many individuals have used when approaching interracial intimacy: think about the children. This was the argument that the state of Virginia used in the Loving case. It was the defense that Keith Bardwell gave for not marrying an interracial couple in Louisiana in 2009. It is the argument that Aunt Margaret has when Marcus and Louise want to head North in Ernest Gaines’ Of Love and Dust (1967). The children become the argument, not the relationship between the people who produced the children. In Strange Fruit, I would argue that the relationship between Tracy and Nonnie is problematic. She loves him, and he claims to love her. However, he uses her as Lyle Britten uses Willa Mae in James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie, as Bonbon does Pauline in Gaines’ Of Love and Dust, as Jimmy Caya tells Tee Bob to do with Mary Agnes in Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
Nonnie challenges her sister’s argument by telling her, “There’re back ways to happiness, and the Negro knows them all.” For Bess, this argument does not hold any water. She admits that during slavery and later that women “folks had to find back ways,” but now that the Andersons are on Main Street and Nonnie has received a college education they cannot turn back and find back ways. They must remain “respectable” and “follow American ways.” For Bess, Nonnie’s desire to make it with Tracy is a backwards movement because she knows that Tracy will never, publicly, acknowledge Nonnie or the baby. The town, though, will know, and already knows, about the relationship, thus making Nonnie a public secret.
What did Nonnie and Tracy’s relationship change? Did it lead to Maxwell’s acceptance of interracial intimacy between consenting parties? Did it lead to a change in the town’s racist ideologies? No. Their relationship, even if both of them loved one another, ended with Tracy’s murder at the hands of Nonnie’s brother and Henry’s murder at the hands of a lynch mob. Nothing changed. The final chapter of the novel highlights this fact.
The morning after Henry’s lynching, Nonnie, Bess, and Dessie wake up in the Anderson home. Bess wakes up first and walks over to her sister, thinking about the fetus that she carries. She thinks that it would be easy to do away with it, if Nonnie actually wanted to, but she doesn’t. Bess wakes the other two women and tells them to get washed up and eat before they get ready for their domestic servant work. They cannot call in sick, not today. She says, “It’s late. We’d better not be late–today.” Like “automatons,” the women rise and get ready.
At the gate, the women could imagine “around the curve of the cemetery, past Miss Ada’s old house, the town lay. The streets would be in full sunshine by the time they got to their kitchen doors. And Dan would be delivering the ice. Everything would be the same–as it always was.” Nothing changed. Nothing would change when Nonnie’s baby entered the world. Change would occur through action and a confrontation of a system that denied Tracy and Nonnie and public relationship and murdered Henry. However, in order to survive, Bess, Nonnie, and Dessie could not push for that change without repercussions. Sydney Bonbon in Of Love and Dust couldn’t. Willa Mae in Blues of Mister Charlie couldn’t. Tee Bob couldn’t. Each chose not to push for change but to rather live within a system that denied them any agency in choosing whom to love.
Speaking about Tee Bob and other characters in his work who work to escape the past and move forward, Gaines states,
This is the kind of thing I am doing in all of my work. These characters make an attempt toward change, and some other character might continue where they left off. But to break free from the past, from one philosophy to another, is a burden that one person cannot endure alone. Someone must pick up and go from there.
Who will pick up the fight after Nonnie? Richard Henry? Tee Bob? What if everyone who followed openly pushed to dismantle white supremacists systems? What would have occurred? We can ask the same questions today. Are there still systems that subjugate individuals and deny them their basic human rights? If we don’t push back “everything WILL be the same–as it always was.”
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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