Strange Fruit tells the tragic story of Nonnie Anderson, an accomplished young black woman in the Georgia of the Jim Crow days, and of the young white man, Tracy Deen, by whom she becomes pregnant.
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Strange Fruit tells the tragic story of Nonnie Anderson, an accomplished young black woman in the Georgia of the Jim Crow days, and of the young white man, Tracy Deen, by whom she becomes pregnant. Strange Fruit is the best-known work of the liberal Southern writer, Lillian Smith, who lived between 1897 and 1966. Published in 1944, it is a critique of segregation and racism during the years of the Jim Crow laws. The name comes, ultimately, from a piece of work by the white, Jewish, high school teacher, Abel Meeropol. He wrote a poem called Bitter Fruit which was a protest against lynching, inspired by a photograph of the lynching of two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, in 1930. Meeropol set the poem to music and called the song Strange Fruit. The “fruit” referred to is the dead bodies hanging from trees. Although several people sang the song in NYC in the late 1930's it was made famous by Billie Holiday; her 1939 recording won a Grammy.
Nonnie Anderson is an exceptionally beautiful, bright, and talented, young, black young woman living in Maxwell, Georgia. Her mother, now dead, insisted that all of her children go to college. Nonnie and her older sister, Bess, received degrees from Spelman College; her older brother, Ed, received a degree from Atlanta University. They went to college when most Maxwell residents, white or black, never even considered going to College. Ed, who has always hated Maxwell, moved to Washington, DC, where he has a good job. He is back in Maxwell for a specific purpose – to take Nonnie back with him to Washington, DC. Even during his short visit, everything he experiences about Maxwell reinforces his hatred. He cannot understand why a woman as beautiful and accomplished as Noonie would want to remain there. Worse, still, she works as a servant.
Nonnie makes it very clear that she does not want to move away from Maxwell.
When she tells Ed that she happy as she is, Ed says “But how can you be, living like this? Country slums, that's what it is, taking orders all day long from crackers – dirt–“
“Nonnie smiled into his angry face. ‘I've always been happy, Ed, all my life. You never were – or not often – you and Bess. You're ambitious. I'm not. Sometimes I don't think contented people ever are.'”
Part of the reason that Nonnie does not want to leave Maxwell is a white fellow, Tracy Deen, with whom she is in love. When Nonnie was six, she was attacked by an older white boy. “Nat pulled up her dress, pulled at her underpants…she had jerked away from him but more from the look on his sallow face, new to six-year-old eyes. His words already old. Words scrawled on circus posters, on privies, on fences, said with a giggle…” Tracy stopped him, and has been Nonnie's hero every since. Tracy and Nonnie have been having an affair and Nonnie has become pregnant.
Nonnie tells Tracy that she is happy – that she wants to keep her baby. Of course, Tracy is not happy to hear this.
Tracy's family is quite prosperous. His father Tutweiler [“Tut”] Dean is a dedicated physician. He also owns other businesses including the town's drug store. He would be happy to help Tracy get a start in life, but Tracy has always been a disappointment to his family and, especially, to his mother. He failed out of college [failed every course!] and cannot keep a job, even the job his father gives him running the drug store. His parents are hoping that marriage to the right girl, i.e., Dorothy Pusey, who lives across the street, will straighten Tracy out. They don't know, or don't want to know, about Tracy's relationship with Nonnie.
One of Tracy's best friends is Henry, who is the same age as Tracy and with whom he grew up. Henry, who is black, stayed at the Deen home when his parents moved away for a better opportunity. His mother had been a servant in the Deen household for many years. Henry lives in the cabin, in the Deen's backyard, in which his family had lived.
Tracy is in quite a quandary because he has, finally, succumbed to all the pressure in town, from his parents, the preacher, and all the neighbors, to ask Dorothy to marry him. But, now, what to do about Nonnie? He comes up with the scheme of paying Henry to marry her. Henry has been besotted with Nonnie all his life. Combined with the money that Tracy has received from his mother [he doesn't tell her why he needs $300., but she gives it to him anyway] this is an offer that Henry cannot refuse. But, of course, Nonnie doesn't like the idea at all!
Eventually, Nonnie's family finds out that she is pregnant, that she wants to keep the baby, and that Tracy is the father. Her brother, Ed, becomes enraged and shoots Tracy, killing him. Sam, a life-long family friend of the Anderson's, who is a physician and who owns a car, drives Ed, in the middle of the night, to Macon, where he catches a train to NYC. The idea is that Ed will spend some time in NYC with friends and will, eventually, move back to Washington, DC. Ed is still hoping that Nonnie will join him there. Apparently, nobody in Maxwell suspects Ed of Tracy's killing; everybody knows that he was just visiting for a short time so it doesn't seem odd that he has left town.
However, they need a suspect and they would like that suspect to be a black man. Although Henry has an alibi [he spent the whole night with a woman named Dessie], several people in town – “the riffraff” – catch him, and burn him to death.
Bess thinks “…Nonnie wanted her baby, she had said, and with those few words great obstacles had been thrown across their future as casually as an earthquake or storm does its work.”
“Everything would be the same – as it always was.”
Best part of story, including ending:
I liked the story because, I believe, it was a true description of the racism in the Old South and because it was evocative of the sights and sounds of the era.
Best scene in story:
In my favorite scene Ed goes with Sam as Sam makes house calls to his patients; Ed is truly impressed by Sam's dedication and by the difficulty of the job.
Opinion about the main character:
I like Nonnie Anderson because she is kind, loving, and considerate to her family and friends, and because she is hard-working, having obtained a college degree when that was very unusual for a black, man or woman, in small town Georgia at the time.