Sometimes, a book, for whatever reason, does not grab you on the first read through. This was definitely the case with Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit (1944). The first time I read Smith’s bestselling novel, I found it lacking, for a myriad of reasons. I think part of this feeling stemmed from all of the novels I have read, by Black authors, about interracial intimacy, sexual exploitation, and more. I thought about Ernest Gaines’ Of Love and Dust, Alice Childress’ The Wedding Band, Frank Yerby’s Speak Now, and more as I read Strange Fruit for the first time. As I thought about these novels in relation to Strange Fruit, I couldn’t see what Smith was doing with her first novel. Now, after diving further into Smith’s work and reading the novel again for a book club event, I have a different opinion of Strange Fruit. Now, while I still have some issues with the novel, I’ve come to view it in a more favorable light.
Even before rereading Strange Fruit, I’d tell people to read Smith’s Killers of the Dream (1949) first. This is something I did not do initially, and I feel that if I had done that my initial perceptions of the novel would have been vastly different. Each of these books tackle the psychological effects of racist systemic oppression on everyone with a community, the oppressors as well as the oppressed. However, one is a novel, weaving a narrative of Maxwell, Georgia, through its pages, and the other is a memoir where Smith expressly explores her own psyche in relation to the cultural and religious teachings that have informed her life. Even with this stylistic difference, the two books correspond with one another, and under the guise of fiction, Strange Fruit serves as, in many ways, a memoiresque text where Smith delves into the depths of herself and her culture in the same way that she does in Killers of the Dream and her other works.
My main issue with Strange Fruit during my first read through had to do with the relationship between the white Tracy Deen and the Black Nonnie Anderson at the center of the novel. I focused on Nonnie, and her depiction lacked gravitas and character. I thought about Pauline in Gaines’ Of Love and Dust or Julia Augstine in Childress’ The Wedding Band or Dana Franklin in Octavia Butler’s Kindred. These women had agency and a clear indication of their intimacy with the men they loved. Nonnie, though, lacks this. She fawns over Tracy, following him around, initially, like a puppy after he stops a group of white boys from assaulting her when she is six. Nonnie goes to Spelman and returns to Maxwell, working as a nurse for a white family. Throughout, she defers to Tracy and, essentially, continues to fawn over him without question.
For his part, Tracy struggles to see Nonnie as anything more than a sexual plaything that he can take whenever and wherever he pleases. Tracy’s psychological wrestling with his feelings for Nonnie, whether she is a woman or merely an “n,” as he thinks at numerous points, serves as the real emotional conflict within the relationship for the reader. We don’t see Nonnie psychologically struggling with the ways that Tracy views her. This is a problem; yet, thinking about the chapter “The Three Ghosts” in Smith’s Killers of the Dream, this framing makes sense. In that chapter, Smith details the psychological effects of white men treading paths to the quarters to rape Black women, the abandoning of the children that resulted from these assaults, and the effects of being raised by Black women, like Mamie in the novel, on the relationships between sons and mothers.
This realization, though, does not mean that I can give Smith a pass on her depiction of Nonnie, especially after she exceeds in many ways where the majority of white writers fail in depicting non-stereotypical, well-rounded Black characters. She presents readers with a wide-range of Black and white characters from all classes, educational backgrounds, and more. She details the interiority of Bess in great detail and Bess’s thoughts about her husband Jack, a pullman porter. She details the interiority of Sam, the Black doctor, and his examination of his own position and ideas about respectability politics. She details the interiority of Dessie, a Black country girl who plays a pivotal role in the novel. Smith provides each of these characters, and more, with motivation, conflict, and a depth that Faulkner did not do with his Black characters.
Yet, while we do inside Nonnie’s mind, I do not find the same interiority that Smith presents for the other characters. As a result, even though I feel sympathy for Nonnie, I do not, as a reader, feel the same amount of sympathy for her as I do for Sam, Bess, Dessie, Ed, or others. Maybe that is the point. If Smith wants us to think about the paths to the quarters, then the women at the end of the paths, the ones that Tracy Deen and the white men of Maxwell assault before they go straight and marry women like Dorothy Pusey, don’t really exist within the minds of Maxwell. People know what occurs, but the women, if they exist at all as individuals within the community psyche of College Street, exist as nothing more that receptacles for the white men of Maxwell and as a release. They are not humans. They are things.
In this way, Smith’s depiction of Nonnie makes sense. However, I do not think that is what occurs in the novel. Instead, the focus of the relationship rests on Tracy and his thoughts about Nonnie, his struggles to see her as human because Maxwell and the white supremacy culture continually tell him she isn’t human. They tell him she is a thing for him to enjoy then move on with his life. Brother Dunwoodie, the preacher in town for the revival, even tells him as much. As a white Southern woman working through her own cultural upbringing, this makes sense. It makes sense that the focus on the relationship would be Tracy’s coming to terms with all of this. But, this does not explain Smith’s detail to other Black characters.
I can’t say why Nonnie still feels off to me, and I’m not sure why Smith does not provide her the same agency and interiority as she does her other Black characters. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.
In the next post, I’ll look some at a few things that stood out to me as I thought about Smith’s body of work while rereading Strange Fruit. Make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.