Lillian Smith (1897-1966) wrote about the ritual dance of the Southern Tradition, the precise steps dictated by the “White” and “colored” signs, the silent taboos of places you go and places you don’t go. A few tiny graces glimmer across the South that she conjures up in “Killers of the Dream” (1949). A certain kind of friendship across the color line, lasting from childhood to death, enriched the individuals involved and sometimes restrained mob violence. She recalls the “flashes of sanity” taught in Southern homes like hers, instructions from a father to honor the humanity in every individual, to shun hatred, and to pay back the earth in labor with pleasure. But such small virtues are overwhelmed by the pathology she finds in the South’s religion, sexual repression, and racial anxiety. Even the best friendships between white and black were “lopsided” and “belittled.” Against this, three powerful black “ghosts” haunt the white imagination with guilt and loathing: the possessed slave, the secret mulatto offspring, and the black mammy. The problem, to Smith, runs deeper than “that old treadmill route that the tortured Southern liberal knows so well.” She probes inward and downward, into the physical body and the childhood of white Southerners. Using a poetic, literary version of Freudian analysis, she diagnoses segregation as a symptom of a fatal fracture in the psyche, working its way “from the conscious mind down deep into muscles and glands and on into that region where mature ideals rarely find entrance.” This sickness was taught by “the unfinished sentence method” of mothers, enforced by an occasional lynching, and preserved by the carefully developed silence of newspapers on such matters.
“Miss Lillian” emerged in the 1940s at the forefront of the Southern debate on segregation, where she was at least a decade ahead of other white liberals and stood virtually alone in calling for an immediate end to segregation’s laws and practices. She had come to this debate through a lesser-known journalism of the South, “little magazines.” In 1935, she and companion Paula Snelling had started a literary magazine called Pseudopodia in the small town of Clayton, Georgia. With little money, an obscure title that meant “fake feet” in Greek, and no experience, the two women seemed to be courting failure. But it was an exciting time for a couple of aspiring writers in the rustic mountains of North Georgia. The literary movement known as the Southern Renascence was flowering, inspired by William Faulkner in Mississippi, the conservative poetry-oriented Fugitive Agrarians around Vanderbilt University, and the liberal sociology-oriented regionalists at the University of North Carolina. Smith and Snelling reviewed and ran works by black writers, which gave them greater access to black intellectuals than almost any other white Southern journalist at the time. Smith moved increasingly toward reporting and editorial comment, interviewing labor organizers and other reformers. Meanwhile, she was developing her fiction-writing. She made a splash nationally in 1944 with her first published novel, “Strange Fruit,” about a secret interracial affair and offspring in a small town in Georgia. The book sold well, but was controversial and banned in Boston for its implicit sex.
333 Hershey Lane
Clayton Georgia 30525
Reproduced with the kind permission of writer / journalist / professor Doug Cummins, Associate Professor of Journalism & Mass Communications at Washington and Lee University, Lexington,Virginia.
Smith was sensitive, to a painful degree, to the inner life of others, and her own. She refined this sensitivity as a teacher of young girls at two mountain schools, as director of music at a Methodist missionary school in China, and from 1925 until 1948, as director of Laurel Falls Camp outside Clayton. The camp, started by her father near the family’s second home in the mountains, became her laboratory for teaching the daughters of genteel Southern families new ideas through creative dramatics, modern psychology, sex education, and other progressive classes. Smith herself was raised to be a genteel Southern lady, and never lost some of the courtesies and outward appearances that she learned. Her father had been a prosperous businessman in Jasper, Florida, until his turpentine mills failed in 1915 and the large family moved to their vacation home in the Georgia mountains. Hers was a sweet, privileged childhood, but for her sensitivity to “the old guilt I had felt as a child."
Teach us to listen to sounds larger than our own heartbeat; that endure longer than our own weeping in the dark.
From a CBS Television Interview in the 1950s