Lewis, D’Orso, and Cox: 1998 Lillian Smith Book Award Winners
Vol. 20, No. 4, 1998 pp. 24-26
On November 6, 1998, the 1998 Lillian Smith Book Award for nonfiction was awarded to John Lewis and Michael D’Orso forWalking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998. In the category of fiction, the award went to Elizabeth Cox for her book Night Talk, Graywolf Press, 1998. Below are the remarks of Lillian Smith jury members Cleophus Thomas and Suzanne Jones who introduced Lewis and Cox respectively, and the remarks of the award winners. The awards are given annually by the Southern Regional Council.
Mr. Lewis’s affecting narrative is at once a coming of age tale as well as an account of a participant observer of recent American history.
Growing up in Alabama, John Lewis was one of ten children born to Eddie and Willie Mae Lewis, loving parents who referred to each other as Shorty and Sugarfoot. He grew up in a community filled with relatives: Uncle Rabbit, Uncle Goat and cousins by the dozens.
He was an unusual child with a philosophical bent. During the years his parents worked as sharecroppers he saw things this way: “Even a six-year-old could tell that this sharecropper’s life was nothing but a bottomless pit. I watched my father sink deeper and deeper in debt, and it broke my heart. ‘Gambling,’ I would proclaim. ‘This is nothing but gambling. We’re betting on getting ahead, but there ain’t no way. We’re gonna lose. We’re always gonna lose. The Bible says gambling is a sin, and that’s what we’re doing.”
His parents put up with his idiosyncracies. The notion of a truant is a common one. What do you call a child who runs away to school-an attendant, perhaps? As a boy, Lewis would be asked to stay home from school and help his family work the fields. He would hide and catch the bus and go on to school. This act of disobedience received verbal reprimands but never corporal punishment from his parents.
This ambitious boy wanted to attend Troy State University. He met with civil rights attorney Fred Gray and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy. They agreed to take up his cause. His parents’ concern about the community’s likely violent reaction to such a challenge to local custom caused Lewis to end this effort.
His mother found a college for him to attend. She brought home a brochure from her job doing laundry at a Baptist orphanage. The college was the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. It was from Nashville that Lewis got his start in what we now call the civil rights movement. He was a leader of the first wave of activists integrating lunch counters there. Indeed, the effort in Nashville predated the ultimately more famous lunch counter demonstration in Greensboro, North Carolina.
From Nashville, Lewis would go on to help found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and work hand in hand with Martin Luther King in the Selma to Montgomery march, the March on Washington and most every significant movement battle. In many of these encounters he was brutally beaten. Then and now he practiced the philosophy of nonviolence.
Unlike King, however, he would survive the movement to and enjoy success in electoral politics. Since 1987,
he has represented Georgia in Congress.
Lewis is in many ways your typical, striving, upwardly mobile American. As he goes back to his alma mater he compliments his classmate, Bernard Lafayette, who now serves as its president. Lewis says: “I don’t know if I’d have it in me to be the president of a small, struggling black college in the 1990s.” Clearly, his tolerance for sacrifice has waned over the years.
As well it should. For Walking with the Wind is about keeping the house on the ground. Being of this world and not morosely fixed on the next. Pursuing citizenship not martyrdom.
This book, Walking with the Wind, is not just my story. It is the story of countless individuals–black and white, young and old–who put their bodies on the line during a very difficult period in the history of our country. It is the story of faith and hope, of people believing and not giving up.
The story about the storm in rural Alabama during the ’40s is a true story. I will never forget it. Now most of you here wouldn’t know what a shotgun house is. You wouldn’t know. A shotgun house is a house with a tin top. You could fire a gun through the front door and the bullet would come out the back door, or you could throw a brick through the front door and the brick would come out the back door.
My Aunt Soneba lived in a shotgun house and you heard that we were outside playing, a few of my brothers and sisters and a few of my first cousins, about 15 of us. And this storm occurred and she suggested that we all come in. Rain, strong wind, thunder, lightning. She was terrified; we were terrified. She started crying; we started crying. We thought this house was going to blow away. She suggested that we hold hands and we held hands. And when one corner of the house appeared to be lifting from its foundation, we would walk to that corner trying to hold down that shotgun house with our tiny bodies. And when the other side of the house appeared to be lifting, we would walk to that side, trying to hold down this house, with our tiny bodies. So in a real sense, we were walking with the wind. We never left the house.
The Southern Regional Council never left the American house. We must never ever leave the house. The wind may blow, the lightning may flash, the thunder may roll, but we must never ever leave the house. We must stay together and hold the American house together and create one house, one family, the American family, the American house.
During the past few years, many members of this organization and others have been walking with the wind from Selma to Montgomery, to Atlanta, to Nashville, to Raleigh, to Durham, to Charlotte, to Richmond, to Washington. We’ve been walking with the wind and we must continue to walk with the wind and never leave the American house.
So I say that just maybe we all came to this great country in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now and we must hold this house together. This is our house. This is the only house we know as Americans. Here in the American South, we have come to that point where, I truly believe, we are in the process of laying down the burden of race. We will make this house the good house, the beloved house. We will make this house a house that we will be proud of for generations yet to come.
Thank you so much for this honor, this award named for Lillian Smith who was a brave and courageous woman. During the early ’60s I had an opportunity to meet Lillian Smith. Her writings, her words inspired us all to do better. Whatever we do in the days, the weeks, the months, the years to come, we must walk with the wind and let the spirit of history be our guide.
So keep the faith, don’t give up, don’t give in, don’t give out and we must never ever get lost in a sea of despair. We must never ever leave the house. Stay in the house.
Like the works of Lillian Smith, Elizabeth Cox’s Night Talk provides a strong moral vision and an honest representation of the South–its people, its problems, and its promise. Growing up in Tennessee, Elizabeth Cox witnessed intolerance at close range when she entered the University of Mississippi in the same semester that James Meredith integrated that university. This experience provoked her to speak out as a young woman. The same concerns inform her teaching and her writing. Night Talk is a novel about a black girl, Janey Louise, and a white girl, Evie, who grew up together in the 1950s in a small Georgia town.
When Evie’s father, a biologist, leaves his family to seek adventure in Mexico, her mother, Agnes, suggests that their black housekeeper Volusia and her daughter Janey Louise move into the spare room. The young girls plot to share Evie’s bedroom, and although at first their mothers object, Evie and Janey Louise eventually share not only a room, but night talk–their most intimate secrets and dearest dreams. As Newsday reviewer Allison Xantha Miller has noted, “Within the confines of the home, at least, segregation can be defied; in the dark, race and class differences can dissolve. But in public, racism strains their relationship…. Their relationship mirrors that of their mothers, who, despite mutual dependence and emotional
support, outwardly conform to expectations. “When Agnes’s white friends visit, Volusia becomes only her maid.
Evie’s narrative is retrospective, and her years growing up with Janey Louise in the 1950s are juxtaposed with their adult relationship in the 1970s, a relationship they have maintained through yearly holiday visits back to Georgia. A scene in which the two old friends go shopping for sexy nightgowns parallels an earlier event in their childhood when a clerk humiliated Janey Louise and made her leave a fancy department store. Cox shows that although much has changed the two women can now be friends in public–the legacy of racism lingers and still tests their friendship. The saleslady keeps checking on the two women, counting the nightgowns they take into the dressing room. Jane believes the saleslady is racist and decides to walk out without buying anything; Evie who has always left with Jane since that first episode twenty years before is tired of having to leave on principle and insists to Jane that the saleslady is not racist but simply rude, and rude to both of them. Elizabeth Cox leaves the truth of the saleslady’s motives ambiguous so that her readers will have to focus on the equally troubling truth of the causes and consequences of Jane’s and Evie’s different interpretations of the incident. Their friendship becomes strained; as Evie says, ‘We didn’t know how to be together anymore. I was afraid of saying something offensive, and no doubt she expected to be offended. We couldn’t laugh at anything. I wished we could just be us again. I wished we could just be us.”
Elizabeth Cox’s novel juxtaposes their early friendship with their adult struggles, both to fully understand the complexity of their childhood relationship and to forge a new intimacy. Night Talk demonstrates that for such understanding to occur, the two women must be honest with each other and they must see each other’s perspective. Elizabeth Cox helps readers, both black and white, do just this. As reviewer Colleen Kelly Warren writes in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Elizabeth Cox, who is white, “seems to have crawled inside the skin” of her black characters, “to have captured not only the cadences of speech but the essence of soul.”
And yet the epilogue, set in 1991, is a chilly and powerful reminder of what it takes to maintain the “beloved community” that John Lewis fought for and describes so passionately and poignantly in Walking With the Wind. Evie contrasts her deep friendship with Jane to the shallow relationship of their 12 year-old daughters, who see each other once a year at Thanksgiving: “they know how to tolerate each other with politeness learned from schools and politicians. They speak guardedly about their feelings, because they have been told that words can start a riot. They do not yet believe that love can stop one.” Jane’s and Evie’s daughters do not know how to argue or laugh at each other because they have never really experienced life together. But Elizabeth Cox does not conclude this novel until Jane and Evie put their daughters in a position to do just that.
When I began writing Night Talk, I did not know the story was going to be about issues of race. The book in its early stages was about a girl whose father had left home. When the black characters–Volusia, Janey Louise, Joe Sugar, Albert–entered the story, they became alive in my mind and took over the book. I struggled with the obvious problem that I knew too little about the perspective of these characters, but each time the fear stopped me, I thought: I’m writing about human intolerance–frailty and need–the ways we love and betray each other. In Night Talk, Evie, the white girl, and Janey Louise, the black girl, live in the same house and even share the same room for a period of eight years. Their talk at night is more honest, more intimate, than anything that happens to them in the daytime. Over the years they build a floor of love that is stronger than the ways they eventually fail each other.
When Lillian Smith speaks of the rivers, the red clay of Clayton, Georgia, the smells of pies baking, of body sweat, of “dried petals in the blue bowl in the parlor,” I am reminded of my own childhood. I can remember the cruel perplexities that made my grandmother pay a black child to play with my brother. At five years of age my brother thought he had a friend–I’m sure both children felt that way–until the payments stopped and they couldn’t play again. I remember the whispers of moral rectitude from nice people that could mold a child’s mind into conformity.
Lillian Smith claims that she became different because she wrote about social and political inequities. She explored layers of her psyche that she had never touched before. I know that while writing my novel, I thought–with great arrogance–that I could move into a better understanding of the black experience. I had a hard time finishing the book, until I realized that Evie would never understand what Jane had gone through, and she would never understand how much had to be forgiven–something I hoped my reader would come to see.
This book has spawned several “conversations between the races”–in North Carolina, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. One wonderful thing about the Lillian Smith Award is that it may allow me to create more opportunities for these conversations.
I heard a speaker in Cambridge, Massachusetts–a man named Richard Wright–say that very often such dialogues end up with whites going home “feeling good about themselves” and blacks feeling “on display.” In
order to prevent that dynamic an action needs to follow the night of conversation. In that spirit, I urged my audience to consider what action could be taken. At the very least (and maybe the best step) would be further conversations, and visits into each other’s homes.
At the first conversation in North Carolina, an African-American woman began by saying to me: “I saw this book in the library and read the flap copy and thought This sounds interesting,’ then I turned to the back cover and saw your face, and said to myself, ‘Right. What does she know?’ I took the book home,” she went on to say, “and thought I might glance through it, but didn’t expect to like it.” Then, she said, to her surprise, she began to identify with many of the experiences described. She used the experiences in the book to talk about her own life. The conversation began in earnest. Blacks spoke of their anger, whites listened, grew defensive, admitted their frustration–one white woman said, “It seems like I’m always doing the wrong thing.” We did some honest talking.
In Minnesota, the first speaker was an African-American woman, a professor of psychology at the university there. After I had read a portion of the novel, she said, “I never come to these things, and I thought the reason I didn’t come was because I was past all that. Now, I realize the reason I don’t come is because this talk dredges up too much pain.
“Man is a broken creature,” Lillian Smith says in Killers of the Dream. “Yes it is his nature as a human being to be so; but it is also his nature to create relationships that can span the brokenness–to put behind us that persistent blindness that has hurt us all.”
An African-American minister in Cambridge, Jeffrey Brown, told me–“Politics will follow the will of the people.” After each of these conversations–people planned to meet again–they left disturbed and excited. The conversations had been honest, angry, awkward, curious, and finally intimate. I hope this award will give me a chance to hold conversations in other places.
Maybe that’s why I wrote this book.