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.
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.