Strange Fruit – Lillian Smith

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Banned to the hilt and consequently a bestseller, a book set in 1920s smalltown Georgia. It is often billed as a tale of interracial love, between Tracy Deen, a young white man from a wealthy family, and Nonnie Anderson, a young black woman who is a college graduate and is now working as a maid. But it is certainly no “forbidden romance” in the genre of “Romeo and Juliet” – this is a story of white supremacy, the misogyny at the heart of heterosexual coupledom, the objectification and trafficking of black women by white men, and the damage done by “well-meaning” progressives. Thankfully, there is no construction of a pre-existing force of romantic love that clashes with cruel social forces and ends in tragedy. Smith therefore gets at something far more insightful than many “feel-good” narratives that simply aim to tell us that, after all, love is love, and offer very little understanding of the violence done by inscriptions of normativity. The novel skips between characters almost dizzily, taking us into the heads of many townspeople who reflect on the Tracy and Nonnie, a murder that takes place, and a lynching. We see how white supremacy is reproduced and how it shores up the identity of white citizens, including those liberals who espouse social justice. Towards the end of the novel, the psychic fragmentation experienced by some characters is depicted in exhilarating modernist prose. There are many reflections of the 1940s white supremacist culture Smith herself wrote out of, representations of black characters that are jarring to a twenty-first century reader. But her striving for representation of this white supremacy, her vivid and daring representation of queerness, sexuality, and desire, as well as the racist and sexist violence that pervades the novel, is a reminder of what we still need from radical writers today.

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