Strange Fruit (novel)
Cover of a paperback version of Strange Fruit
|Original title||Jordan is so Chilly|
Strange Fruit is a 1944 bestselling novel debut by American author Lillian Smith that dealt with the then-forbidden and controversial theme of interracial romance. The title was originally Jordan is so Chilly, with Smith later changing the title to Strange Fruit. In her autobiography, singer Billie Holiday wrote that Smith chose to name the book after her song "Strange Fruit", which was about the lynching and racism against African-Americans, although Smith maintained that the book's title referred to the "damaged, twisted people (both black and white) who are the products or results of our racist culture.
After the book's release, the book was banned in Boston and Detroit for "lewdness" and crude language. Strange Fruit was also banned from being mailed through the U.S. Postal Service, with the ban against the book being lifted by President Roosevelt after his wife Eleanor Roosevelt requested it of him.
Strange Fruit takes place in a Georgia town in the 1920s and focuses on the relationship between Tracy Deen, son of some prominent white townspeople, and Nonnie, a beautiful and intelligent young black woman that he once rescued from being attacked by a group of white boys. The two had been holding a secret affair, with Nonnie becoming pregnant with Tracy's child, only for Tracy to at one point plan for her to marry 'Big Henry', a man she despises. Tracy himself had originally planned to marry another white townsperson, but changed his mind after a conversation with one of the local preachers and intends on making his relationship with Nonnie public. He instead goes to Nonnie's house and tells her of his original intent to have her wed to Big Henry, having paid him money to do so. Despite this change of heart, Nonnie's brother overhears Big Henry telling of Tracy's payment and Big Henry's impending wedding to Nonnie and why. This prompts Nonnie's brother to go after Tracy and when Tracy's body is discovered later by Big Henry, Big Henry is accused of murdering a white man and is lynched.
Strange Fruit was banned in Boston and Detroit for charges of lewdness and language on March 20, 1944, only months after its release, making the book the first "#1 Bestseller" to be banned in Boston. Cambridge Police Chief Timothy J. O'Leary and the Boston Bookseller's Association both endorsed the book's banning, also asking for Smith to censor her work, removing "three lines of "sexual phraseology."" A letter in the Harvard Crimson criticized the banning of the book in Boston and the allegations of obscenity, saying that the usage of "an objectionable word" in Strange Fruit occurred during a scene when Nonnie is overcome by the "cruelty of her situation" and the memories of the "brutalities she has ever known", causing the book to be "the reverse of obscene".
The novel was also temporarily banned for shipping from state to state via the United States Postal System in May 1944. The ban through the Postal System only lasted three days, as publisher Curtice Hitchcock successfully appealed to then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to urge her husband to lift the ban.
The ban in Detroit was overturned after the United Auto Workers and Detroit Public Library worked together to appeal the ban. An attempt was made to overturn the ban in Boston by the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union and Bernard DeVoto. DeVoto made a public purchase of Strange Fruit in the Harvard Law Book Exchange, which resulted in charges being laid against the Book Exchange. The store owner was found guilty of selling the book, which was seen as obscene material, and was fined $200. The judge presiding over the trial, District Court Judge Arthur P. Stone, remarked that the book was "obscene, tending to corrupt the morals of youth". The case was appealed to the Superior Court, which was unsuccessful, causing the book to "technically" remain banned in Boston as of 1990. The city did allow a stage production of Strange Fruit to tour the city in 1945, but only after a censored version of the play was approved by a city official.
Of the book's banning, Smith commented that "These people fear a book like Strange Fruit with a profound dread; and will seize on any pretext, however silly, to keep others and themselves, from having access to it."
In 1945 Smith adapted Strange Fruit into a stage play, directed by José Ferrer with Jane White starring as Nonnie and Mel Ferrer as Tracy. The play was Ferrer's first production, with him choosing to have Smith adapt the play as he "didn't quite see how another playwright could capture so authentic and so personal a flavor as she already had". Smith wrote the majority of the play over the course of 1945, presenting a second draft to Ferrer in June of that year. A Baptist minister in Philadelphia initially sought to have the play banned in the city, citing the play would contribute towards a "depraved society". For its run in Boston, the city required that the play have several parts omitted before it was allowed to open in the city.
The play premiered in Montreal on October 13, 1945, with the play moving to New York later that winter. Reception for the play was predominantly negative, with the New York Times remarking that although Smith had the "best of intentions", her inexperience with playwriting kept Strange Fruit from being satisfactory. The Baltimore Afro-American wrote that the veteran actors kept the play from "falling apart" but that the overall drama was "sprawling, cluttered and clumsy". Paul Robeson voiced his support for the play, saying that he wished "every American could see 'Strange Fruit'".
After the play completed its tour, Smith decided against allowing any further productions of the play to be performed, calling it a "bitter and terrible fiasco".
In 1978 a short film adaptation of Strange Fruit was filmed, with the movie being produced and directed by Seth Pinsker and the screenplay being written by Stephen Katz. The short was released in 1979 and was nominated for an Academy Award at the 51st Academy Awards for Best Live Action Short, but lost to Taylor Hackford's Teenage Father.
The film is very loosely adapted from Smith's book and the Holiday song, with the focus of the story changing from an interracial romance to center on Henry, who has been made into an African-American painter. The film's time period is shifted to 1948 and portrays Henry as he is reluctantly persuaded to participate in an upcoming election. As a result Henry is lynched, prompting his community into action. Strange Fruit was shot on 16 mm film.
Themes in Strange Fruit include racism, interracial romance, and how racism affected the people and community around it. Of the book, Ellen Goldner wrote that "In Smith's hands, then, "strange fruit" refers not to black bodies swaying in the summer breeze ... but to the damaged, "split", primarily white people raised in a culture of deep racial, sexual, and class-based taboos and conflict. For Smith, racism worked as an ambient, often disembodied, but vicious and relentless pressure on a culture, both white and black, all too frequently too weak to fight it". Gary Richards wrote that there were hints of same-sex attraction between Tracy's sister Laura and their mother Alma, with one of the goals of the book being to "facilitate both racial and sexual tolerance". Grace Elizabeth Hale argued that the book targeted positive images of the "gallant South", comparing regional politics to "contemporary global and national movements".
The book also deals with the issue of the sexual exploitation of African-American females. Signs' Cheryl Johnson remarks that in one scene Smith depicts an attack on a six-year-old Nonnie by several white boys, who only stop once Tracy intervenes. They're initially confused by his actions, but eventually assume that Tracy stopped them because she "belongs" to him, as they did not see the molestation of an African-American girl as being wrong or anything to be punished for.
Initial reception to the book was met with controversy over the book's depiction of interracial romance and sex, with the book being banned from several locations including the United States Postal Service. A Georgia newspaper complained that the relationship in the book made "courtship between Negroes and whites appear attractive" and Smith worried that the focus on the romance in the book would detract from its political message. A reviewer for the Milwaukee Journal called the book a "great opera" and "indicts the thing called 'white supremacy'". A 1944 review from the Rotarian praised the novel, calling it "absorbingly dramatic" and citing its realism as a highlight. Johnson remarks that Smith refrained from portraying Nonnie in any of the then typical "racist stereotypes of black women as either mammies or Jezebels", making her "closer to images of the 'ideal' white woman: beautiful, kind, compassionate, and loving. For Smith, Nonnie simply happens to be black". Johnson further wrote that Nonnie was not written to be ashamed of her blackness, nor written to be an "honorary white woman".
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- Billboard. Apr 1, 1944. p. 3.
- Goldner, Ellen (2001). Racing and (E)Racing Language: Living With the Color of Our Words. Syracuse Univ Pr. pp. 100–105. ISBN 0815628927.
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- "'STRANGE FRUIT' APPROVED; Barred as a Book, Boston Censor Allows It as a Play". New York Times. October 18, 1945. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
- "Strange Fruit' Company Is Here To Begin Premiere Rehearsals". Montreal Gazette. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
- Ferrer, Jose (October 10, 1945). "Jose Ferrer Speaks for Himself on the Subject of 'Strange Fruit'". The Montreal Gazette. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
- "Pastor Seeks Ban on Play; Says 'Attack on Church'". Miami News. November 18, 1945. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
- "'Strange Fruit' will open here prior to going to New York". The Montreal Gazette. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
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- "Strange Fruit Lacking As Drama, Reeks With Epithets...". Baltimore Afro-American. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
- "Robeson Terms "Strange Fruit" Prophetic Play". The Afro-American. December 15, 1945. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
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- Richards, Gary (2007). Lovers and Beloveds: Sexual Otherness in Southern Fiction, 1936-1961. Louisiana State University Press. p. 97. ISBN 0807132462.
- Duck, Leigh (2009). The Nation's Region: Southern Modernism, Segregation, and U.S. Nationalism. University of Georgia Press. p. 195. ISBN 0820334189.
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