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Lillian Smith Studies: Author of Strange Fruit Shares Her Mail

Strange Fruit Covers

Piece in UGA Student Newspaper

May 1944 NY Herald on Banning

Introduction

Published on February 29, 1944, Strange Fruit was an instant success. It was translated into fifteen languages, banned in Boston, MA, and caused both praise and condemnation from readers. The book sold between 25,000 and 30,000 copies per week, making it a bestseller. The novel tells multiple stories, but the central narrative revolves around the interracial romance between Tracy Dean and Nonnie Anderson in post-World War I Maxwell, Georgia. 

A week before its release, Smith wrote to Edwin Embree about the book’s intended audience and why she did not want her campers reading it. She wrote, 

I have written my camp patrons each a personal letter, explaining why I wrote the book, why it will perhaps be wise for the little campers not to read it . . . and I have tried to tell them too what I want the book to do. I was deeply shaken to the roots when letters began pouring in saying that the campers had ordered the book and that one teacher in Macon was going to read it to her class of little boys and girls. 

Some of the campers’ parents read Strange Fruit and condemned Smith, pulling their daughters out of the camp and telling them to never mention Smith’s name again. 

Boston immediately banned the distribution of the novel and the postal service refused to send it via mail. They banned the book for the one occurrence of a “four letter word,” to which Smith responded, “Since there were many four-letter words in books I felt something else was bothering them too.” First lady Eleanor Roosevelt got the postal ban lifted, but the book remained banned in Boston till 1990. 

Possible Activities

1. Boston banned Strange Fruit yet it was not banned in Clayton, Smith’s hometown, or even at the University of Georgia. Looking at the newspaper articles, one from the New York Herald and another from UGA’s student newspaper The Red and Black. Research and present on either Boston’s or UGA’s history with race and segregation.

2. A southerner on the waves prophesied, “After the war there will be race trouble in the South. There will be bloodshed and confusion and the reiteration of the age-old doctrine of white supremacy.” Research and present on what happened in regard to race relations after World War II into the 1960s and then to today. Discuss whether or not “[i]t is a problem without a solution” and whether or not we have achieved that solution or if we are still looking for it.   

3. Many people connect the term “Strange Fruit” with Billie Holiday’s song of the same name. Holiday’s song is about lynching, and Smith claimed that “Strange Fruit,” for her, was the twisted braches of the South’s children and the strange fruit those branches bore. The phrase has even made its way into fashion as evidenced by designer Kristen Haskins-Simms. Even if there was no connection between the two, they still become read together and influence others. Choose a song that has influenced you and write a short story, poem, play, or other creative project such as a fashion line, comic book, short film, or something else connecting the themes of the song to your creative project.

Smith Speaking About Strange Fruit

Questions

  1. In her preface to the mail she received, Smith writes, “A few Negro women, educated Negro women, have resented the portraits of Bess and Nonnie, because they could not bear to see in print the heartbreaking truth about job opportunities and human relations which they know exists.” Both Bess and Nonnie both graduated from Spelman College, and they work as domestics in Maxwell, GA. Looking at some of the mail and Frank Yerby’s “White Magnolias” (below), discuss the different perspectives on educational opportunities for Black women in the South during the mid-1900s.
  2. The editors point out that “[t]he most tender, the most touching, and the most honest letters have come from ministers--North and South; and from service men, white and colored.” Look at some of the letters from service men. How do they relate or counter the current appropriation of military symbolism that Nate Powell writes about in About Face?
  3. Smith begins “What they Have Written” with a letter from an anonymous person who tells Smith, “You are far from a lily--you are a thorn.” The person continues, stating that he or she did not read the book yet still finds it revolting. What is the rhetorical purpose of Smith starting with this letter and published negative reactions to Strange Fruit? Discuss whether or not you think this an effective practice. 
  4. few of the letters that Smith prints talk about how Strange Fruit changed the perspective of some of its readers. Looking at these letters and your own experience, what role, if any, does art play in changing the minds and attitudes of the audience?
  5. Boston banned Strange Fruit, supposedly, because of one four-letter word, but the responses that Smith prints focus much more directly on the central themes of the book. This gets to issues of free speech and censorship. Based on the piece, why do you think some readers disapproved of the book and didn’t want others to read it?