Fifty Years After Her Death, We Can Still Learn From Lillian Smith
“This is the South I knew as a child. Swamp and palmettos and ‘sinks’ and endless stretches of pines slashed and dripping their richness into little tin cups that glint like bright money. . . . All this is the South we remember, curving gently and more and more steeply until stopped by mountains. Beyond the mountains was the North: the Land of Damyankees, where live People Who Cause All of Our Trouble; and at the end of the North was Wall Street, that fabulous crooked canyon of evil winding endlessly through the southern mind which was like the dark race, secretly visited by those who talked loudest against it.”
—Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream (1949)
The enervated English sun crept through the high windows of the Bodleian Library as I sat in a hard oak chair, three towers of books in front of me, trying to understand the American South. What was with the South and sex? And race? And death? Why did we live there? (Why do we live at all?) I was four thousand miles from home, writing a dissertation on William Faulkner and trying to untangle in my mind the knot we’d made of our past and present.
I’d left the South in 1981, five years earlier—the same year the Klan lynched a young black man named Michael Donald, hanging him from a tree on a quiet street in Mobile, Alabama. I wasn’t taking a stand by getting out of Tallahassee: I’d won a scholarship to Oxford, free money to do a degree in English literature in the place I, child of an old-time Southern Anglophile family, had been raised to regard as the Mother Country, at a university about as lofty and famous as they come. I thought I’d somehow become Oxonian—not that I was clear on what that meant—or at least lose my North Florida accent.
It didn’t happen. Oh, I could “pass” in the English class system, mastering the esoteric shadings of a social order in which the word “toilet” was not to be uttered (it’s called the “loo”), the decanter of port must be passed to the left (never the right), and only the hopelessly vulgar put milk in the cup before tea. Nonetheless my fellow students asked relentless questions: Was there still segregation in America? Did my family once own slaves? Why were we so obsessed with the Civil War? What did Ronald Reagan mean when he said the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been “humiliating” to white Southerners, or when he went to Neshoba County, Mississippi, and said, “I believe in states’ rights”? By birth, I was irrevocably Southern. At the same time, I felt a little like Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, that crazy, depressed boy who just couldn’t square the South’s twin demons—the obsession with purity and the sin of slavery—with being a gentleman, and swore he didn’t hate the place. Maybe I did hate the South, a little.
I finished my B.A. and decided to stick around for my doctorate. Oxford was cheaper than Yale, and I preferred Margaret Thatcher’s Britain to Ronald Reagan’s America. Every inch of my home seemed shadowed by terrible history—towns named for the architects of secession, inventors of Jim Crow and racial terror: Jackson, Calhoun, Forrest. Even though a few months before I arrived in the country there’d been street demonstrations against racist police in South London, some of which got ugly, Oxford seemed serenely untouched, untroubled by racism, unmarked by hatred. There were black and brown faces at Oxford Union debates and in Junior Common Rooms and on New Quad lawn, playing croquet. If those students were mostly the children of princes and moguls, products of expensive private schools, well, at the time I didn’t let that bother me. If you’d asked me then, I’d say that I wasn’t homesick; I was never homesick. Sitting there day after day, reading books from my stack, The Burden of Southern History by C. Vann Woodward and The Crucible of Race by Joel Williamson, explorations of the South’s Original Sins and continuing injustices, I felt a sense of relief. Still, I knew that by living in beautiful, progressive Oxford, I was avoiding the most painful confrontations with my home: three hundred years of history in which my people madly insisted that black flesh and white flesh must never touch, denying that any person of African descent could be a human being same as them.
But in Fred Hobson’s Tell About the South, he writes of a well-to-do white writer named Lillian Smith, born in Jasper, Florida, a mere eighty miles from my home in the hills of Leon County. I had never heard of her. Unlike her contemporaries W. J. Cash, author of The Mind of the South, and Clarence Cason, author of 90° in the Shade, Smith did not go the full Quentin Compson and commit suicide after publishing a poetic, guilt-laden jeremiad—but instead authored book after book laying bare the South’s transgressions. She was fearless, a rabble-rouser and rebel who integrated her life and art. She never married; she slept with whomever she wished, male or female. Her most enduring relationship was with Paula Snelling, a teacher with whom she lived for years. Together, they integrated Rabun County, Georgia, entertaining black artists and activists in their house on Old Screamer Mountain. Lillian Smith befriended Paul Robeson, Pauli Murray, and Martin Luther King Jr. while picking fights with the Agrarian poets and white “moderates” such as Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill (who called her “a prisoner in the monastery of her own mind”). She was a Christian radical: anticolonialist, antiwar. Never taken in by the moonlight-and-magnolias nostalgia complex, Smith put the South’s shit in the street and demanded we do something about it.
“But nowhere else, perhaps, have the rich seedbeds of Western homes found such a growing climate for guilt as is produced in the South by the combination of a warm moist evangelism and racial segregation.”
I soon got hold of Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream, published in 1949—a fiery sermon on how the white South betrays the future by teaching its children, particularly its female children, to revere their history without challenging it, to hate their bodies, and to fear black men. Smith sardonically exposed the South’s power structure, especially the ways in which the upper classes convinced poor whites to aid in the crucial work of segregation: “Jim Crow was Mr. Rich White’s idea but Mr. Poor White made it work. Mr. Poor White put his mind on it and his time, for he had plenty of time when he didn’t have a job . . . He had ways. Lynching was a good way, and so was flogging.”
Smith was not the first to see that the Southern landowners (later the mill owners, their lawyers, the Chamber of Commerce, and the White Citizens’ Councils) maintained their political and economic dominance by dividing the white working class and the black working class. The NAACP, the National Textile Workers Union (famous for their 1929 strike in Gastonia, North Carolina), and the short-lived Alabama Sharecroppers Union, among others, had each argued that if workers of all races joined in solidarity against the bosses, the South would be pushed toward equal treatment for all. But Smith’s critique was all the more powerful for coming from the oppressor class who “segregated southern money from Mr. Poor White and they segregated southern mores from Mr. Rich White and they segregated southern churches from Christianity, and they segregated southern minds from honest thinking, and they segregated the Negro from everything.” She was a traitor to her class and proud of it. I found that exciting. A writer could have the power to smash the porcelain complacency of her own kind and challenge her society’s deepest fixations.
As I read Smith’s essays and arguments, the stone towers and cool grassy quadrangles of Oxford melted away, turning in my mind to red dirt hot as new-baked cake, fat-leaved pecan trees, and the green roar of cicadas, the South of my late-1960s childhood. In my mind, I heard my grandmother explaining that even though Frankie, her “help,” sat with my brother and me in the kitchen, Booster, Frankie’s son and Grandmama’s “yard man,” had to eat his lunch on a TV table under the porte cochere. This was just how things worked, how they’d always worked. I often brought Booster his chicken and greens on the stray china plate kept especially for his use. After he finished, Frankie washed and dried the plate, knife, and fork, then put them back into the cupboard, away from dishes the rest of us used. By the 1980s some things had changed. The last “White” and “Colored” signs had disappeared from public water fountains; African-American judges sat on the bench; African-American doctors worked in the hospitals; African-American cops and bankers and members of Congress served in integrated circles. Yet I recognized the world Smith conjures in Killers, what she calls the “haunted childhood” of the white Southerner. I recognized my family’s world and, with more discomfort than I think I’d ever felt before, could no longer gesture to my white Southernness with sarcasm, smugly considering myself part of the solution. Nobody in the 1980s called it “white privilege”—Lillian Smith didn’t call it that, either—but that’s what she was writing about, forcing Southerners like me to acknowledge that even though we were certain we weren’t, couldn’t be, racist ourselves, we nevertheless belonged to a system that denied full humanity to people because of the color of their skin, many of whom we claimed we loved as though they were, we said, “part of the family.”
Race rules every aspect of Southern life—race and sex—from how you worship to your politics to your understanding of beauty and love. Smith pitilessly lays out her own white privilege for examination in a way I had never encountered before. In Killers of the Dream, she writes:
I do not remember how or when, but by the time I had learned that God is love, that Jesus is His Son and came to give us more abundant life, that all men are brothers with a common Father, I also knew that I was better than a Negro, that all black folks have their place and must be kept in it, that sex has its place and must be kept in it, that a terrifying disaster would befall the South if I ever treated a Negro as my social equal and as terrifying a disaster would befall my family if I were to have a baby outside marriage.
Smith wanted no part of acting like “the South’s Palladium, this Southern woman—the shield-bearing Athena gleaming whitely in the clouds, the standard for its rallying, the mystic symbol of its nationality in the face of the foe,” as W. J. Cash characterized the white lady. By accounting for her own story, her own culpability, she slices through the honeysuckle thicket that masks the dehumanizing of blacks coupled with the debilitating fear of female sexuality. As she puts it in Killers, white women “listened to the round words of men’s tribute to Sacred Womanhood and believed, thinking no doubt that if they were not sacred then what under God’s heaven was the matter with them! . . . Sex was pushed out through the back door as a shameful thing never to be mentioned.”
Smith’s work changed how I read Faulkner, how I read Southern history, how I looked at my culture. Through her, I could see how Faulkner, always touted as the South’s great iconoclast, nevertheless punishes young women for daring to be sexual. He banishes The Sound and the Fury’s Caddy Compson from her own story because she owns her desire. He travesties the civil rights reformer Joanna Burden in Light in August as a hypocrite who secretly wants to play rape games with a black man. Smith couldn’t stand Faulkner: “There is no future in [his] books,” she said. “He never wrote about his equals. He has created no decent women; he loathes females and it shows in his work.”
I didn’t agree with Smith that Faulkner “loathes” women, though he’s certainly conflicted over white women’s sexual desire. I could not help being seduced by his artistry and exhilarated by the way he subverts the South’s racial logic. Where Smith differs from Faulkner is that her work, though often beautiful, has an overtly political purpose; she writes to free everybody from the Plantation: to release the white woman from the Big House where she’d been, as Smith writes in Killers, “corseting her feelings and those of her children in an effort to be ‘pure.’” She writes to release the black man, always in danger of committing some supposed transgression against a white woman and being lynched. And black women who, as scholar Minrose Gwin puts it, were forced “into the dark corners of the Big House to be used as vessels of sexual pleasure.” Smith even wants white men liberated from their patriarchal roles as guardians of chastity and enforcers of racial deference. She attacks the myths surrounding white female virtue, supposed black male potency, and Protestant guilt, calling it the “race-sex-sin spiral.” Smith recounts how she was taught that “parts of your body are segregated areas which you must stay away from and keep others away from. These areas you touch only when necessary.” Then she illustrates the ridiculousness of the race-sex-sin spiral by proclaiming that one of the South’s central creeds was “masturbation is wrong and segregation is right.”
She revealed to me the long tradition of Southern liberals, which hadn’t started with Students for a Democratic Society and Black Student Unions blossoming on Southern campuses, but reached back to labor organizers in the 1920s; the Commission on Interracial Cooperation; and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. Smith got me to see that I would always belong to the South, that it would never leave me, no matter how many thousands of miles away I traveled. Her work showed that there was a way to live in the South and push back against the paradigm, to become part of the resistance, refusing to acquiesce in our unthinking religiosity and conservatism.
“The human heart dares not stay away too long from that which hurt it most.”
Lillian Smith was the eighth of Calvin and Annie Smith’s ten children, born in 1897, the same year as Faulkner. Her family was well-off, cultivated, and curious about the world. Various Smiths became professors, sinologists, artists, engineers, ministers. Their sixteen-room house in Jasper included a library. But the First World War naval embargo wrecked her father’s turpentine business. In 1915, the family sold up and moved to what had been their summer place, a lodge in the North Georgia mountains. To make a living, Smith’s parents had turned their compound near Clayton into a sometime hotel and summer camp for girls called Laurel Falls. Lillian and her youngest sister, Esther, cleaned and waited tables.
Smith’s post–high school education was wide-ranging, sometimes haphazard. She qualified as a teacher at the age of seventeen and studied for a year at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia. Urged to pursue her music by a violinist she met in Florida—an older man with whom she had what she called her “first and most intense love affair”—she managed two stints (interrupted by a year as the principal of a tiny rural school in Tiger, Georgia) at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, studying piano. The violinist didn’t last—turns out he was married—but Baltimore was crucial in giving Smith her progressive politics. She read widely, especially in Freudian theory, went to exhibitions, and attended the symphony when she could afford it. Sometimes she was so low on cash she lived on coffee and Hershey’s bars. She earned a little money teaching music in the slums, playing piano for YMCA gym classes and at the Bethlehem Steel Works, and addressing envelopes for the Democratic Party. Still, she understood that her temporary deprivations were not of the same order as the poverty of her pupils or the factory workers of Baltimore. No doubt she caused a sensation amongst the homefolks when she returned to North Georgia, hair bobbed, hemlines raised, as she described herself as a “bohemian, arty art, reaching out for everything avant garde and liberal.”
Alas, there wasn’t much for an avant-gardist to do on top of a Georgia mountain. In 1922, Smith decided to accept an invitation to teach at a Methodist girls’ school in China. Though she had a strong sense of duty (she called that side of her personality “Martha” and the artistic side “Mary”) and loved her parents, she feared getting stuck with them, as often happened at the time with unmarried daughters. Moreover, she probably wanted to put several continents between her and a man she’d been seeing. She said the affair “had turned into something of more sex than love, of shadowy excitement not based on a sharing of real interests” and confessed, “I loved a man without admiring his mind or respecting his hopes and ideals, or feeling the least interest in his small ambitions.” She stayed in China until 1925, when her parents pressured her to come home and run the camp. She was reluctant to commit, so she directed the camp during the summer but lived part-time in Fort Pierce, Florida, to help her widowed brother Austin care for his toddler daughter, and part-time in New York, where she enrolled for a semester at Columbia Teachers College. Then she went back to the camp: “My life actually did not seem my own; I was just carrying out other people’s directives.”
Smith decided to buy the camp from her family in 1928. A few years before, she had cleaned house, firing most of the counselors. She retained Paula Snelling, however, a Georgia native with a master’s from Columbia who was a whiz at swimming, riding, and tennis. Smith made Snelling assistant director of Laurel Falls, and the two of them grew increasingly close. According to Smith scholar Margaret Rose Gladney, when Calvin Smith died in 1930, it was both a great loss to Smith and a kind of psychic liberation. The erudite Snelling encouraged her to channel the creativity she once expended on music into writing. She started a story about the nearby black community of Ivy Hill, but realized she didn’t know enough about the people there and gave it up. She finished a novel set in China about white Southern female missionaries, a book she described in autobiographical notes to her friend, journalist and civil rights activist Margaret Long, as “warm, passionate, vivid, naked, honest [and] lyrical.” She sent it around to New York publishers in 1934, but nobody, as she said, “would dare publish this book.” With Snelling as a helpful reader, Smith persisted in developing her craft, somehow carrying on despite what Smith called the “mean” year of 1935. (In the space of nine months her mother suffered a heart attack and became an invalid; a nineteen-year-old former camper, a great favorite of Smith’s, shot herself to death; and Snelling nearly died in a riding accident.) Smith and Snelling started a literary magazine, Pseudopodia (later South Today), which was dedicated to that New South promised since Appomattox but never quite manifested, and became seriously political, hosting biracial dinner parties and using the camp to advocate for change in the region.
Laurel Falls offered its well-to-do girls the usual riding, swimming, and tennis, but campers also made sculpture and wrote poetry. They were encouraged to express themselves in a forthright way most unusual for girls or boys (or, really, anyone in the South) and to ask difficult questions about forbidden topics: Jim Crow, politics, lynching, religion, bodily pleasure. Campers were taught to address black men and women as “Mr.” and “Mrs.,” a subversion of the culture in which a sixty-year-old black man would often be addressed as “Boy.” At least one camper’s father threatened to never allow his daughter back to Laurel Falls because of it.
I spent a rainy afternoon in Tallahassee talking with Nancy Smith Fichter, daughter of Lillian Smith’s oldest brother. She uncannily resembles her aunt: the strong bones, the aquiline nose, the voice cello-timbre. Fichter spent her summers at Laurel Falls, not realizing she was receiving a progressive education. “We weren’t really aware how famous these people that showed up every year were,” she said. “Graham dancers from Bennington, the actor José Ferrer—so many fascinating artists, talking to teenagers.”
She recalled her aunt blasting Prokofiev from the mountaintop on her Victrola, musing that the composer was “trying to do with sound what Martha Graham was doing in dance.” Nancy Smith Fichter was first exposed to Graham’s work at Laurel Falls. Later, she became a Martha Graham dancer herself, a choreographer, and founder of the school of dance at Florida State University.
I asked how the Smith family felt about “Miss Lil” (as her campers called her) inviting black artists and activists to parties, and living with another woman. Fichter made it clear that Miss Lil was not “out”—not in the contemporary sense. The Smith family spoke of Lillian’s relationship with Paula as one of those “profound Jane Austen friendships.”
“My mother’s line on it,” said Fichter, “was that the only way you’d really know is if you were in the bed or under it.”
Fichter then recalled a play the campers put on one year (also discussed in Killers of the Dream)—an improvised adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, in which one girl took the role of the star-journeying prince and the others created “traveling companions” such as Conscience, Science, Religion, and Southern Tradition. The Prince wanted to play with all the children of the planet, even “colored children,” and asked Conscience if she might. Conscience replied, “When race is the issue I always refer you to Southern Tradition.” Southern Tradition said, “If you try it, we will hurt you.”
“I once asked Lil, ‘How did you get that way?’” continued Fichter. “And Lillian said, ‘Well, I thought about it.’ Thinking and feeling. That’s what her life was about and that’s what camp was about.”
“I’m that which splits a mind from its reason, that splits a people from humanity. I’m the seed of hate and fear and greed. You are its strange fruit . . .”
In February 1944, Lillian Smith was known—to the extent she was known at all—as writer of provocative essays, proprietor of Laurel Falls, and publisher-editor, along with Snelling, of their “little magazine,” South Today. By March of that year, she was notorious as the author of Strange Fruit, a provocative novel about sex, interracial love, and lynching.
In the novel, the accomplished (and light-skinned) Nonnie Anderson, after graduating from Spelman College, returns to her hometown of Maxwell, Georgia (based on Jasper, Florida). She’s in love with Tracy Deen, scion of a prominent white family, who once rescued her from a pack of boys—white boys—who threatened to rape her. Nonnie eventually becomes pregnant with Tracy’s child. For a while, Tracy intends to defy his mother, perhaps by running off to France with Nonnie, rather than marrying the dull virgin next door. But that’s not how twentieth-century cross-racial love stories worked, not in the South.
Nonnie’s sister Bess reminds her of the sacrifices their mother endured so the two of them, and their brother Ed, could be educated. She also reminds Nonnie of the long history of white men sexually exploiting black women: “Just look at our skin! What does it mean to you, that color—just a pretty shade? You know what it meant to the women back of us—you’ve got to know, Non! Shame and degradation and heartbreak.”
Nonnie refuses to allow the past to govern her life: “Race is something—made up, to me. Not real. I don’t—have to believe in it. Social position—ambition—seem made up, too.”
But under Jim Crow, race is not only reality. It’s destiny. Tracy’s rigid mother, Alma, a woman who has convinced herself she enjoys standing on her white-lady pedestal, works on Tracy’s sense of propriety—his family’s position—convincing him to see Nonnie as just another “nigger girl” and their relationship as a sin. Tracy decides to give Henry, the son of the old family housekeeper, $300 to marry Nonnie. He thinks this is a great solution: the child gets an official father, and, in the white girl next door, Tracy gets a “respectable” wife with money. He can have Nonnie on the side. The honor of the Deens is preserved.
The honor of the Andersons is, however, affronted. Nonnie’s brother kills Tracy in a rage and escapes north. White townsfolk, determined to make an example of somebody black—anybody black—lynch the innocent Henry. And thus the “Southern Way of Life,” that phrase used to encompass the whole project of Southern white supremacy, prevails.
Strange Fruit exploded like a Roman candle onto the American scene, a succès de scandale igniting fascination and outrage from Manhattan to Rabun County. Nancy Smith Fichter says people in Clayton would pass the novel around in brown paper bags. The United States Postal Service declared it “lewd” and refused to send it through the mail. Eleanor Roosevelt, a fan, had to convince her husband, FDR, to overrule his postmaster general. The novel was banned in Boston and Detroit—the word “fucking” appears several times. Massachusetts District Judge Arthur P. Stone found the novel “obscene, tending to corrupt the morals of youth”—a bona fide dirty book. Appalled by such provincialism, Harper’s columnist and provocateur Bernard DeVoto marched into the Harvard Law bookstore and bought a copy in full view of the local constabulary, who duly arrested both DeVoto and the bookseller. The Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts got on the case, and Lillian Smith got on the top of the best-seller list. Strange Fruit sold 140,000 copies by the end of April 1944.
Smith always resisted the suggestion that she took the title of Strange Fruit from the song written by Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday. The “strange fruit” of the South was not only, according to Smith, the “black body swinging in the Southern breeze,” but the toxic produce of segregation and hatred. It is the poison apple of white supremacy, which she called “a symptom of an emptiness in our lives.” Smith’s novel attacks the sclerotic heart of racism and-, while she’s at it, takes some hard swings at repression, hypocrisy, and homophobia. For example, Laura, Tracy’s sister, shows no interest in “eligible” young men, but is in love with an older single woman named Jane, a love she will have to repress. One day, Alma Deen, taking refuge from her husband’s “masculinity” in her daughter’s maidenly bedroom, finds a clay sculpture of an anatomically correct nude female torso, wrapped in a wet cloth in her dresser: “A man, a boy—you could understand men being dirty like that—men seemed made that way. But your own daughter . . .” Alma destroys the little sculpture, smashing it into a formless lump, and throws it in the trash.
Despite all her liberal ideas, Smith’s writing is subject to some of the binary stereotyping she disapproved of politically. Nonnie, the black protagonist, is uninhibited, unafraid of her sexuality; Dottie, the white girl Tracy should marry, represents Puritanism: “All the white women in the world. Yeah . . . they tie their love around you like a little thin wire and pull, keep pulling until they cut you in two, they’re asleep now, stretched out on their beds asleep, ruling the town. White goddesses. Pure as snow—dole out a little of their body to you—just a little—see—it’s poison—you can’t take but a few drops—”
Many reviewers, especially progressives, applauded the novel. In the New York Times Book Review, W. E. B. Du Bois lauded Strange Fruit’s “explicit depiction of the tragedy of the South” and the complex prejudices “that only evolution can untangle or revolution break.” Diana Trilling of the Nation wrote, “In her hands the Negro problem turns out to be not only the problem of the whole South but, by implication, of all modern society.”
Not everybody loved it. Malcolm Cowley compared Smith to Faulkner, declaring him the greater stylist, finding her lacking in literary talent and suggesting the novel wasn’t her form. Below Mr. Mason and Mr. Dixon’s psychic line, Strange Fruit garnered some praise—and precipitated some hissy fits—from both whites and blacks. The president of Spelman barred Smith from speaking on campus because she had “disgraced” the college by making Nonnie an alumna. White segregationists hated it even more. The Hapeville Statesman, a paper controlled by the prominent Talmadge family, hollered from its front page that the “romantic affair between a white Georgia boy and a negro girl” was portrayed “in such glamour that will make such courtships between negroes and whites attractive.”
The book’s success allowed Smith to pay off her mortgage and treat herself to stays at the Plaza in New York, and to nice wine and garlic olives, a great delicacy. Fichter recalled that her aunt bought an exquisite black dress by the couturier Adrian with some of her royalties. Nevertheless, Lillian Smith understood the curse of her fame, writing: “You are called bitch and saint, whore and heroine, you are praised for your courage and sneered at for your obscenity; you are made into stereotypes, no one sees you as a person, not even those who admire your book most.” Still, she signed a contract to adapt Strange Fruit for the stage. José Ferrer would direct.
The play previewed in Montreal to enthusiastic notices, then opened on Broadway on November 29, 1945. Reviews were decidedly mixed, many praising Smith’s courage and honesty while also deploring its excessive episodes, complex staging, and oversize cast. Eleanor Roosevelt let it be known that she loved it. The New York Post critic did not, sniffing, “Mr. Ferrer, as director, seems to be more of a traffic control officer than anything else.”
Smith was never satisfied with the dramatic version of Strange Fruit; she thought it overemphasized lynching, and she blamed segregationists, leftists, and communists for diminishing audiences. She was, however, proud of the makeup of the cast, with half white actors, half black, half from the North, half from the South, including Jane White, daughter of NAACP head Walter White, playing Nonnie. She said, “Imagine that mixture!”
“But our leaders were, for the most part, hotheaded, uninformed, defensive, greedy men, unwilling to accept criticism. Or else they were so tortured and ambivalent that they found it impossible to make important decisions quickly enough. So the South walked backward into its future.”
Smith closed her camp in 1949, though not because of controversy over Strange Fruit—only four campers were withdrawn by shocked parents, and many others lined up to take their places. She had decided to write full time, devoting herself not only to the topic of civil rights but also gender and sexuality. “Julia,” a fragment of a novel, testifies to her struggle over the place of women in the world and the power of female desire. The Journey, a kind of spiritual autobiography, came out in 1954. Her anti-McCarthyism novel One Hour was published in 1959, and Our Faces, Our Words, a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction celebrating the civil rights movement and nonviolence, came out in 1964. Meanwhile, she was diagnosed with cancer and had a radical mastectomy. Smith was supposed to be on her deathbed several times, but, as Fichter said, her aunt was surprisingly tough: “She just kept recovering.”
During the 1950s and early 1960s, she continued to battle the “moderates” who thought they were doing the right thing by pushing for gradual change in the South. In 1956, she gave a speech for the Montgomery Improvement Association and dismissed their efforts: “It would be difficult to imagine Jesus as a ‘moderate.’ Difficult to imagine Leonardo da Vinci as a moderate. Imagine Gandhi as a moderate.”
She corresponded with Martin Luther King Jr.—she was, in fact, in the car with him in 1962 when he got arrested in Atlanta. She praised the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee but worried about increasing militancy among young African Americans who were growing impatient with nonviolent civil obedience, seeing it as too slow. She lived to see the Freedom Summer of 1964, as well as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. As Fichter told me, she was “hopeful about the direction America was going in, but not naïve.”
I don’t know how hopeful she would have been if she could see how the promise of equal rights has still not been fulfilled. I left England in 1990 for a job at the University of Alabama, trying, as I told myself (and everybody else), to put my money where my mouth is, to teach in the South instead of some nice, safe, ivy-insulated campus in the North. Even during Bill Clinton’s New South administration, Old Southery would burst forth every now and then like stubborn weeds on a velvety lawn. At the University of Alabama, a cross was burned on the lawn of the student newspaper office. Every spring, young men in Confederate uniforms escorted young women in hoopskirts to a party celebrating the plantation past. (I’m picking on Alabama, but it was the same at colleges in Florida or Georgia or Mississippi.) I published my first book on Southern women, race, class, and the fierce undertow of history always dragging us backward, no matter how strongly we fight for the shore. I was awarded tenure and silently thanked the gods and Lillian Smith. Much of my political sensibility was taken from her; her anger gave me a vocabulary to express mine.
I recently called up Rose Gladney, distinguished Lillian Smith scholar and my former University of Alabama colleague. We talked about the Current Unpleasantness of the presidential race. “Lillian Smith could tell us exactly why people, especially people in the South, like Donald Trump,” Gladney said. “And she could tell you exactly why Donald Trump likes dictators, too.”
Gladney and Piedmont College professor Lisa Hodgens have put together A Lillian Smith Reader, out this September from the University of Georgia Press to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Smith’s death. It’s a compendium of her work from the 1930s to the 1960s, showing “how the camp, the magazine, and the writing all connect,” Gladney says, a reminder of why Smith is such an important writer. She was the first white Southern woman who lived in the South and told the truth about the lynchings and the racial hatred and the crippling class and gender regime.
As Gladney puts it, “She showed how you can stay and resist. And not compromise.” In the nineteenth century, Sarah and Angelina Grimké escaped the horrors that their South Carolina planter family inflicted on the people they enslaved and fled north to advocate for abolition. Diarist Fanny Kemble divorced her plantation master husband and lived out her life in London, critiquing the South from afar. Harper Lee attacked Jim Crow Alabama in To Kill a Mockingbird, but she lived much of her adult life in New York.
Smith, in contrast, said: “I want my mind to cover the earth, but I want my mythic roots to stay there, the roots in the imagination, to be on home ground.” She could have gone to Manhattan to live amongst the drawing-room progressives who admired her, or found a home on some congenial campus, like many of the Agrarian poets. Instead she insisted on staying where she could “keep the wound open.” The “Southern Way of Life” may no longer mean institutionalized segregation, but it still implies backward attitudes and violence toward women, people of color—anyone and anything deemed “foreign.”
I can imagine Lillian Smith’s would-be exasperation with the ways in which Americans today have resegregated ourselves into communities based on color, religion, sexuality, class, language, and political party. How we use guns to “discipline” those we think threaten us. I can imagine her horror at the possibility of our sending to the White House a demagogue—a man who calls Mexicans “rapists and murderers” and who warns against the ruin of American culture in the same way old-time racists whipped voters into a frenzy over the destruction of Christianity and the “mongrelization” of the South.
“I prefer that my family do not watch it as I am laid into the grave. They will close it swiftly and spread flowers over the ground. That afternoon, there will be a memorial service to which will be invited friends from all over the world who care. All the Ivy Hill colored community will be invited. . . . There will be Bach played while they are gathering. Very short service.”
—How Am I to Be Heard? Letters of Lillian Smith, edited by Margaret Rose Gladney (1993)
In 1966, it was clear that Lillian Smith was dying. She now lived alone, with Paula Snelling in the next cabin over. They had dinner every night. Smith often had to use oxygen and made many trips to Atlanta for treatments at Emory Hospital. Still, she kept writing, kept agitating. In an eloquent piece for the Atlanta Constitution, she protested the Georgia General Assembly’s refusal to admit Julian Bond, former communications director of SNCC, who had been elected to a seat. (The paper’s former editor, Ralph McGill, would have had nothing to do with Smith, but Eugene Patterson, who at that point ran the place, was glad to publish her.) She protested when the Congress on Racial Equality backed down from nonviolence as an exclusive policy for change, claiming it had been “infiltrated by adventurers and by nihilists, Black Nationalists, and plain old fashioned haters.” She resigned from its advisory board. When the time came, she designed her own funeral and wrote letters saying good-bye to those she loved: “No tears,” she wrote.
No tears, but a celebration of her life and work. Smith’s greatest contribution to the American project is that she showed us how to be an advocate for social justice, to be a person of conscience in communities that talk often about morality while exhibiting very little of its most basic sense. She taught me, and thousands of others, to love the South by resisting the South. And her legacy lives on in Clayton. In 2013, the Lillian E. Smith Center was established as an educational center and artist retreat on the site of Laurel Falls.
In the Big House of Southern Fantasy—built by slaves, splendidly furnished with myth and nonsense, haunted by rape, lynching, war, poverty, and ignorance—white women of status were supposed to labor quietly in the kitchen or sit in the parlor, ankles crossed, embroidering. Smith wasn’t having it. Born and raised in the Big House, she exposed its rotting foundation, its leaky roof, its broken windows. She didn’t want to fix it up. She wanted to take a hammer to the china cabinet, smash the crystal, set Miss Ellen’s portieres on fire, and burn the damned place down.
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