Tag Archives: southern literature

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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Race and White Identity in Southern Fiction

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At the intersection of critical whiteness studies and southern literary studies, Duvall claims that cultural blackness has been performed by white writers and their white characters in a way that critiques the myth of southern whiteness. These are crises in representation and subjectivity that ask us to detach blackness from African Americans. Already we are in murky waters: what are the implications for problems of cultural appropriation, ethics, and Civil Rights? This was my constant unease reading this book, yet Duvall makes important inroads in arguing that in work by, for instance, Faulkner and Twain, cultural blackness may reattach itself to racial whiteness. That is, whiteness is not so much a race but a metaphysics of class privilege. Importantly, we are looking at the extent to which race is a cultural construct and attending notions of, for example, minstrelsy, the primitive, and purity, are circulated in culture. Faulkner’s use of primitive discourse, otherness, and “whiteface” poor southerners who are portrayed as inhabiting blackness is certainly problematic in a way that Duvall elides. His discussion of Toni Morrison’s work on white writers’ use and abuse of blackness and black characters is nuanced enough to suggest his understanding of cultural appropriation would be similarly worthwhile. This study would have been more useful if it discussed the ethics of white writers using whiteface and a de-essentialisation of whiteness that never fully repudiates white supremacy. The conflation of class and race in some southern fiction needed to be unknotted much more carefully. However, his ultimately complex exploration of that “powerful social function that is racial identity” makes this worth reading for anyone interested in southern fiction or race in literature.

The Female Tradition in Southern Literature

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An effort to redress the pre-90s pattern in southern studies that has excluded non-white male authors. As with all subdivisions of literary canons, women writers and writers of colour have been cast as inferior and special interest, but the canon of southern literature has been especially fraught. This is in part due to the renown of the so-called Southern Renaissance, the accepted wisdom that particular cultural, racial, and political themes marked the tensions of the South post-World War I and this resulted in a literature in which traditional ideas of “the South” were demystified. This collection of essays by women attempts to revive a “feminine tradition” that is hardly radical but offers a starting point for an exploration of the complexity of southern literature. Topics include nineteenth century women diarists, Zora Neale Hurston, orphans, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, interracial friendships between women, anti-abolitionist Caroline Hentz, Charleston poet Beatrice Ravenel, immigrant workers’ strikes, Zelda Fitzgerald, women’s writing as autobiography, and a very outdated heteronormative assessment of queer and genderqueer writer Carson McCullers’ philosophy of love. Unfortunately most of the essayists are white.