Lillian Smith: The Winner Names the Age
By Rose Gladney
Vol. 1, No. 10, 1979 pp. 11-13
The Winner Names the Age: A Collection of Writings by Lillian Smith. Edited by Michelle Cliff. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1978.
Lillian Smith was a conscious regionalist. From 1936 to 1945 in her home in north Georgia’ she and her friend Paula Snelling co-edited the most liberal journal in the South. (The name of the magazine changed from Pseudopodia to North Georgia Review and finally to South Today.) During that time Smith traveled extensively in the South and began to speak about the profound evil of segregation as a way of life and how it injured the quality of Southern culture. After the publica-
tion of her bestseller Strange Fruit (1944), she received thousands of invitations to speak all over the country. She continued to be a very popular speaker, especially on college campuses, even though after Killers of the Dream (1949) she and her books were rarely mentioned in the press.
The publication of this new collection of her essays and speeches should mark the beginning of a much needed reassessment of the significance of Lillian Smith’s life and her contribution to the study of human values in American culture. Paula Snelling’s Preface provides the biographical context within which Smith worked as a social critic and as an artist. Michelle Cliff’s arrangement of the essays thematically and chronologically illustrates the evolution of Smith’s ideas over some thirty years as a published writer. To those who do not know Lillian Smith the volume as a whole provides an excellent introduction to her life and work. For those who are already familiar with, any or all of her seven published books, The Winner Names the Age will provide a new perspective from which to appreciate her total impact as a writer and a spokesperson for our age.
In the title essay, which was the commencement address at Atlanta University, June 3, 1957, Lillian Smith said: “An age is named for its triumphs, for the big ideas that add stature to the human being …. We cannot name our age, the winner will do that. What we can do is pick the winner.” For Smith, the process of picking the winner meant giving support to the ideas which encourage human growth and freedom. Her conscious struggle with the forces of dehumanization in the South led her, in the best of regionalism, to create a larger vision and to encourage the ideas which in the distant future would cause our century to be named “the age of human relationships.
As a Southerner and a woman Lillian Smith struggled with limitations- and hostilities which everywhere seemed to separate individuals from each other and from knowledge of the world around them. Refusing to be defined by the circumstances of her time and place, she dared to break the silence which her culture for so long imposed on the subjects of race and sex. Lillian Smith viewed segregation in any form as symbolic and symptomatic of a fundamental split which had to be bridged if human beings were to realize themselves fully. In her words:
We as human beings are broken and fragmented and it is our nature to be so: upon being born we are torn from certainties, separated from so much we long to unite with …. But it is also at the essence of the human condition that we relate ourselves to what we are broken away from. We cannot merge, we cannot mingle, but we can relate. And it is by
means of this relating, this bridging of chasms that we become new beings and learn to create a new life.
Seeking to convey this larger dimension of her views on race and sex, she said: “I have written of people split off from their future and sometimes from their own childhood. I have written of broken relationships, of torn integrities, of invisible walls against which we destroy ourselves.”
As school systems throughout the country continue to struggle in the courts and in the classrooms with the effects of a racially segregated society, Smith’s advice in 1944 remains useful:
Although segregation has made human relationships most difficult, nothing but human relationships can break down segregation …. The two processes of’ breaking down segregation and building up human relations must go on simultaneously. Neither has priority over the other.
Smith’s emphasis on human relationships as the key to effecting social change grew out of her earliest questions as a child in a small Southern town at the beginning of the twentieth century. She wanted to know why she was forbidden to show love for her Black nurse or to play with a friend whom adults said was a Negro. The whys of her childhood grew to encompass the far reaching questions of her adulthood: Why do we live ‘in a segregated society? Why do we have wars? What is the meaning of human life on this planet? Thus, in many of her speeches and essays, the subject of racial segregation became a point of departure for discussion of a wide range of other issues. Smith saw the failure of American society to do away with racism as a symptom of a grave illness suffered by the whole of Western culture: the loss of a sense of human relatedness. That loss of human purpose, in her view, also could be seen in modern society’s “over esteem of technology and our pathetic craving for proof.” Writing in 1960 during the height of. the bomb shelter scare, Smith asserted that nuclear war was not humanity’s number one enemy, but rather “the terminal symptom” of “the creeping, persisting, ever widening dehumanization of man.”
In a 1941 essay “Man Born of Woman,” Smith proposed that the search for an understanding of the causes of war in human society must consider the significance of the nature of male/female relationships, specifically the place of women in men’s eyes. She wrote:
If man dared to thrust into the open his unending secret enmity against women, there might be less of nation warring with nation; less need for him to merge his longing for superiority into a great mass-lust for power, less need for him to find outlet for his hate-drives which so complicate the more simple and rational needs of people.
Yet, to alter the effect on society of the ancient enmity between the sexes, Smith seemed to suggest that women would have to do most of the changing. In both “Man Born of Woman” and the 1963 speech “Woman Born of Man” she called upon women to resist the limitations of “man’s valuation” of themselves and to assert their own life affirming qualities to create a new society; but she concluded, “man’s dreams of himself will never change.”
The profound significance of women’s lack of self-definition was developed further in the speech “Autobiography as Dialogue between King and Corpse” in which Smith declared the writing of autobiographies to be essential to the modern age. She felt the models of individual lives could offset the forces of mass technology by reminding us of the significance of individuals and that “differences are to be cherished for they are important to the individual and the self.” Yet, she observed, women have not written great autobiographies because they have lacked awareness of themselves as persons and “they dare not tell the truth about themselves for it might radically change male psychology.”
Throughout her life Lillian Smith personally confronted the obstacles that stand in the way of women seeking to realize themselves. She also knew that those barriers affect both men and women. In the words of Paula Snelling’s Preface, “She knew the sharp two edgedness of swords that separate, she had seen that men no less than women, Whites no less than Blacks are deformed and stunted by arbitrary exclusions of the other from full human status.”
The presence of The Winner Names The Age should mark an end to the critical silence surrounding Lillian Smith. The effect of this new collection of her writing is the creation of a new awareness, not only of the life and work of the author, but more importantly, of the larger vision of her regional consciousness: a perspective which continues to challenge the values of American culture as a whole.
Rose Gladney is an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.