Last post, I started looking at my thoughts after I reread Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit for a virtual book club. I discussed the issues that i still have with the novel, but I also pointed out that, after reading more of Smith’s work, my thoughts about the novel have shifted some, and I see what Smith wanted to accomplish with it. I see the artistic elements of the novel because I read it slower than I did the first time. I see the connections to the modernist movement, specifically writers such as William Faulkner. I see how she was working through her thoughts about memory and the ways that we construct memory way before The Journey (1954). I see how her life influenced characters in the novel such as Tom Harris, Jane, and more. Most of all, for all of my complaints about Nonnie, I see how Smith’s reading and active engagement with Black intellectual thought influenced the novel and helped her examine her own existence and cultural upbringing. One of those influences is W.E.B. DuBois’ double consciousness, and today, I want to look at the ways that this appears throughout Strange Fruit.
At multiple points in the novel, we see references to characters donning masks in specific situations, typically the masks that Black characters equip during their interactions with whites. After Ed kills Tracy, Sam, the doctor, and Bess, Nonnie’s sister, get into an argument about Nonnie, respectability politics, and more. Bess tells Sam, “Nonnie has never in her life admitted to herself that she is Negro.” Throughout the novel, it appears that Nonnie doesn’t think of herself as Black. She doesn’t think about the ways that others view her, and she does not realize the masks that she dons in order to navigate College Street and white society within Maxwell. Perhaps, Sam tells Bess, “Maybe she hasn’t thought about it one way or the other.”
Bess retorts that Nonnie has to have thought about it because every day someone rubs it in their faces. However, Nonnie, over the course of the novel, does not appear to recognize this. We see Tracy deal with through his thoughts about Nonnie’s humanity and his struggles to extract himself from basing his actions and decisions on the social constructions of race. Sam replies by telling Bess, “There’s more to life than color.” What Sam does not acknowledge, though, is that while he is ostensibly right, College Street will not allow him to forget he is a Black man and, according to them, inferior. His respectability politics, the idea that if he keeps his down and achieves success, will not save him from the perceptions of those on College Street. This becomes clear to Sam near the end of the novel when he talks with his white “friend” Tom Harris and Harris continually belittles him.
Bess tells Sam, “[Y]ou know inside you, you want something more. You’d like to be natural and easy and simple. It would be so simple, Sam, to be white. I’m so tired of being two people! Sometimes I get mixed up myself . . . and forget which one is me–Mrs. Stephenson’s Bess, or mine.” Bess encapsulates DuBois’ double consciousness, the feeling of twoness, of the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Bess cannot be herself in front of the Stephenson’s the white family that she works for as a domestic. She must suppress herself and adhere to their perceptions, thus dividing herself into two separate people, her true self and her outward self.
All Bess wants to do is display her true identity, her true self, but white supremacy and the views of College Street will not allow her to do that. Even at the end of the novel, this image of double consciousness, the placing on of masks, concludes the novel. The novel ends the day after whites lynch and murder Henry, the innocent Black man whom whites kill in order to release the repressed feelings housed within their psyches as a result of their culture. The final chapter shows Nonnie, Bess, and Dessie, Henry’s lover, waking up the morning following Henry’s lynching. As they awaken, they prepare to get ready for the day.
They will not mourn publicly for Henry. They will not march for Henry. They will not mount any protest against the white mob that killed Henry. Rather, they get dressed in their uniforms to go and work for the white families that participated in the lynching. “Like an automaton” they rise and partake of their morning routines. They do not talk. They go about their business, mechanically dressing and preparing as they have done for years. They know what lingers between them. They don’t have to say it.
Everyone in the town would go back to “normal” as if nothing happened. “Everything would be the same,” the narrator says, “as it always was.” The women must put on the mask, the mask that hides, as Paul Laurence Dunbar writes, their “torn and bleeding hearts.” The women must smile and go back to their positions because if they don’t then College Street would crush them. They may be next. Any misstep and they could be hung from a tree.
Tom Harris, Tut Deen, and the whites on College Street don’t have wear the mask, They don’t have to hide their true self from the outside. If they don’t agree with the ways that someone perceives them, whatever. They will not encounter violence if they step out of line. Instead, they will, while maybe not being accepted, continue to live and thrive. Nonnie, Bess, and Dessie, however, do not have that luxury. If they push back, they could get murdered. The masks protects them, and as long as they adhere to what College Street expects, then they will not face retribution.
Smith highlights, throughout Strange Fruit, this feeling of double consciousness. She points out the ways that the mask denies one’s self, and the ways that the mask serves as some protection against white supremacy. In the next post, I’ll discuss some more aspects of Smith’s novel that stood out this time. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.