Lillian Smith and her ‘Killers of the Dream’
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 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.
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.”
Her intense brief against segregation put her at odds with the “gradualists,” those Southern liberal editors like Ralph McGill and Harry Ashmore who at the time sought to improve race relations and extend voting and other rights to blacks without upending segregation. McGill, who was then editor of the Atlanta Constitution and writing daily columns, conceded that “Killers of the Dream” was honest and eloquent, but dismissed the writer as too soaked in emotions and Freudian psychology. The year before, the New York Times had run a long letter from Smith blasting Southern liberals for not taking a stand against segregation and charging that Georgia’s newspapers refused to run her letters or quote her. She suggested that this timidity was a mark of the South’s own form of totalitarianism, which she said had a lot in common with that of the Soviet Union. Ten years later, she refused to review another “journalistic piece of writing of ephemeral worth” such as Ashmore’s “Epitaph for Dixie,” as she wrote to an editor at the New Republic who asked if she would review the book. Editors like Ashmore and McGill “are not writing important books about the white people’s attitude toward darkness and Negroes, etc. They are defending their public positions.”
“Killers of the Dream” is arguably a more interesting and original work than her better-known novel “Strange Fruit,” which sold more than three million copies in her lifetime and became a Broadway play. The “dream” is the idea “flung across the stars” of man’s individual sanctity and freedom. The “killers” are fear, taboo, white supremacy, male domination, lynching, and civilized silence, all doing their most effective work when the dream is most vulnerable—in the mind of a child. “The white man’s burden is his own childhood. Every southerner knows this.” Smith mixes forms. She uses confession, parable, narrative, and polemic tumbling one after another, in pursuit of a running urgency that no rhetorical choice can quite catch up with. Even the polemic is often worth quoting. “There have been excellent books written on southern waste of soil and manpower and forest and minerals, but the wasting away of the nature of man has been the South’s greatest loss.” Something about a segregated white college “reminds me too much of a mental hospital, for the people inside are shut away from communication with the rest of America’s people—not because they are ill, but because the culture outside has lost its health.” And the zest of the new regionalists for measuring social conditions in South? It was “a poor substitute for fantasy, this new diet of facts, but gradually we accepted it, though for a long time the word ‘sociology,’ said with a southern accent, made a hissing sound of scorn in our ears.”
Smith’s emotional antennae hurt her, but gave her an extraordinary literary power. It also gave her a special clairvoyance about the youth-led civil rights movement that was coming, but seemed to catch the other white liberals by surprise. In a letter of 1957 to the editor of a black scholarly magazine that W.E.B. Du Bois had started, Smith expressed her desire for a new kind of movement to shake up the old black guard and old white liberals. “Something younger, more vital, more risky, full of fun and ardor. We need to get the youngsters involved; they haven’t got sense enough to know there is danger, so they’ll go ahead and do what even you and I would gulp over. But we’ve got to let them try.” When the black student protest started in 1960, Smith was delighted, calling it “the first movement in the South that I have ever had a sense of excitement about.”
Editor’s note: This is from a book due out in July, “The Southern Press: Literary Legacies and the Challenge of Modernity,” published by Northwestern University Press as part of a paperback series in the Medill imprint, “Visions of the American Press.”