Lillian Smith: A Struggle for Wholeness

Lillian Smith: A Struggle for Wholeness


Vol. 21, No. 3, 1999 pp. 16-18

Internationally acclaimed as author of the controversial novel, Strange Fruit (1944), Lillian Smith was the most liberal and outspoken of white mid-twentieth century Southern writers on issues of social, and especially racial, injustice. When other Southern liberals such as Ralph McGill, Hodding Carter, Virginius Dabney, and Jonathan Daniels were charting a cautious course on racial change, Smith boldly and persistently called for an end to segregation. For such boldness she was often scorned by more moderate Southerners, threatened by arsonsists, and denied the critical attention she deserved as a writer. Yet she continued to write and speak for improved human relations and social justice throughout her life. Born December 12, 1897, Lillian Smith grew up in Jasper, Florida, the daughter of a prominent business and civic leader. Smith’s life as a daughter of upper-class whites in the small-town Deep South ended abruptly when her father lost his turpentine mills in 1915 and moved the family to their summer home in the mountains of Clayton, Georgia. Financially on her own, Smith’s plans were altered when her parents, in ill health, asked her to direct their summer camp for girls. Under her direction from 1925 through 1948, Laurel Falls Camp became an innovative educational institution. Encouraging emotional and psychological as well as physical development, Smith helped the daughters of white upper-class southerners question their world and begin to envision the possibility of change. Through the camp Smith also met Paula Snelling, and began the life-long relationship that encouraged and sustained her writing career. Smith and Snelling entered the public arena by publishing a small literary magazine they co-edited from 1936-1945. Publishing and reviewing the literary work and opinions of black and white women and men, the magazine addressed a wide range of political, social, and economic issues and quickly achieved acclaim as a forum for liberal ideas in the region. Smith also wrote and published six books between 1944 and 1964 with a perceptive analysis of the South and human understanding. These works include two autobiographical works through which Smith examined the South’s legacy of “sin, sex, and segregation” on its children and sought “an image of the human being I could be proud of.” Smith’s books also urged fast compliance with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. the Board of Education decision and to reveal her personal experiences with the young civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s. Although she rarely identified herself with any organization, Smith was deeply respected and sought after by those who actively worked for justice in the South. She supported, advised, and criticized the work of such national and regional organizations as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Congress of Racial Equality, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Southern Regional Council. Since 1968 the Southern Regional Council has sought, through an award in Lillian Smith’s name, to recognize and encourage writers and books that have literary merit, moral vision, and honestly represent the South-its people, problems, and promises. This year’s award ceremony, honoring J. Morgan Kousser and Leroy Davis, will be held at noon on November 6 at the Sheraton Colony Square Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. Call (404) 522-8764 for more details. .The following excerpt from Fred Hobson’s new book, But Now I See: The White Southern Racial Conversion Narrative, (Louisiana State University Press 1999) examines the motives and inspirations of Lillian Smith’s writings.

The great purpose of all of Lillian Smith’s work was to demolish barriers between people-and racism and sexism as well as distinctions of class and religion built those walls. Her crusade against racism, then, was really a part of a larger crusade, against needless separation of any kind. The overriding theme of her work was a struggle against fragmentation, for wholeness. “My literary aim,” she wrote an acquaintance in 1964, “has been to search and probe for the meaning of racism as a symptom of men’s fear of the future, a symptom, too, of their fear of evolving into a more complex thinking human being.”

Smith originally entitled her first novel “Walls”-a book, never published, based on her China experience-but “Walls” could also have served as the title of her most notable book, Killers of the Dream, her narrative of confession (for her family and region as well as herself) and of conversion. Originally published in 1949, and issued in a revised edition in 1961, Killers of the Dream was an impassioned plea for racial harmony as well as a harsh depiction of southern life, “a schizophrenic invention without parallel,” one reviewer wrote, “an insane dichotomy from the cradle to the grave.” Smith herself said her book could have been produced only “in a tight, closed culture:” “A German, reared as a child in the Nazi days,” might have

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written it. But she had written the book, she insisted, not to expose the South so much as to understand it-and herself. Her intent, “as was [that in] St. Augustine’s Confessions,” she explained, was “not to give answers but to find the big question s that I could and must live with in freedom.” Indeed, her book was ” a kind of existential confession: this is life in a segregated culture as I saw it, felt it, heard it, experienced it, and was shaped by it.” Or, as she commented another time, “I had to write this book. It was like a ghost flitting in and out of my mind until I did.” She “had to find out what life in a segregated culture” had done to her:” “I had to put down on paper these experiences so that I could see their meaning for me.”

Killers of the Dream had been a long time in the making; much of what Smith had thought and written over the previous fifteen years prepared her for it. In 1936 she and her longtime companion, Paula Snelling, had begun a magazine, eventually called South Today, in which she had pondered the sins of white southerners. Repeatedly she had written of the “racial fear and hatred” among southerners, the “profound guilt for our treatment of the Negro,” and “the rationalizations by which the white man eases his guilt.” Her own culpability she had proclaimed as freely as the seventeenth-century Puritans had confessed their sinfulness, declaring in an editorial entitled “Act of Penance”: “We in the South who feel so much shame are not without sin….We can now perform the ancient rites of handwashing…but we shall not be free of guilt until we rid our region of inertia and ignorance and poverty.” She was well aware of her evangelical tone, remarking in a letter in 1939, “we sound like missionaries with a powerful solemn purpose.” As she went about the business of converting others, Smith was also intent upon transforming herself. Even the writing of her novel Strange Fruit in the early 1940s had been “therapy” that “removed a long amnesia about my hometown.” Smith “wrote down some things I did not know were true until I saw them staring back at me on the page.”

Smith later said that in writing Killers of the Dream she explored “layers of [her] nature” she had never touched before, that “my beliefs changed as I wrote them down.” Killers, thus, was not only a book about her racial conversion; the writing process was part of the conversion, part of the shedding of old beliefs, the transformation.

Smith later maintained that her book, though a “personal memoir,” was also “Every Southerner’s memoir,” and writing in 1949 she seems to assume that every white Southerner feels as she does about the “haunted” past:

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We defend the sins and sorrows of three hundred years as if each sin had been committed by us alone and each sorrow had cut across our heart….We have known guilt without understanding it….We southerners have identified with the long sorrowful past on such deep levels of love and hate and guilt that we do not know how to break old bonds without pulling our lives down.

In the mid and late 1950s, in speeches and in essays, Smith continued to pursue the demon, segregation. In her 1955 treatise Now Is the Time, she hailed the 1954 Supreme Court decision-which, she maintained, had “freed whites”-and urged southern leaders to end segregation immediately; her words met with publicly respectful but condescending remarks from Ralph McGill, Hodding Carter, and Howard Odum. Racial segregation, she asserted, was “a symbol of the deep pervasive illness in our culture that has dehumanized us all”; it represented “that estrangement from God which oppresses modern man; it subsumes all the fragmentations of modern times.” Racial guilt continued to be Smith’s central theme: “To stem our guilt, we began to defend the indefensible: we declared that God had made the white race superior to other races.” The emerging Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, gave her great hope: “By the reiteration of those powerful words love, compassion, redemption, grace, [it] is compelling us to search for truth, that of our region and of ourselves.”

Smith’s concluding chapter in the 1961 Killers of the Dream, then, transcended race; it moved further and further into the realm of the spiritual, into a reflection on brokenness and healing and on man as a creature in a “dangerous state of flux,” “only partially evolved,” and in need of redemption. Transcendence and redemption were again Smith’s themes the following year in Our Faces, Our Words, also a tribute to the Civil Rights Movement and a work that is, in many ways, an extension of Killers of the Dream. After telling the stories of several civil rights workers and sympathizers-including a white minister, plagued by conscience, who has determined that “some of us whites may need to die for our collective sins”-Smith speaks in the final chapter in her own voice. “Redemption,” she affirms, was the goal of the early Civil Rights Movement: “There was a surge of joy, of adventure, yes; of courage….It was beautiful to see. Perhaps never in American history has there been a movement of such gayety and intellectual richness.” Those associated with the movement were engaged in a “search for the good life which they hunger to substitute for the hollow thing-obsessed life too many of us have lived. And all of it streaked with a fine sense of humor and humility they express in prayer.”