The World Within: Lillian Smith’s Global Journey of Rediscovery

(Based on a lecture presented at Reinhardt University on June 27, 2019)

Lillian Smith is certainly not the most recognizable writer from the South, and now the light from her star is practically imperceptible in a literary sky illuminated by the likes of Faulkner, O’Connor, and Welty. I have written about her life as a writer and civil rights advocate in a previous post. During her lifetime Lillian Smith was a highly acclaimed author, successful businesswoman, a creative educator, and one of the most effective champions of human rights of her generation. She is probably best known for her controversial psychological memoir, Killers of the Dream, a 1949 publication that is still in print and occasionally featured in anthologies of women’s studies, southern literature, and civil rights history. Today, Lillian Smith is generally regarded as a respectable novelist who was among a handful of white liberals fighting racial discrimination in the South during the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s. But it is a mistake to limit Smith’s interests, passions, concerns, and influence solely to these parameters. With brutal honesty she exposed and fought injustice everywhere she witnessed it, while maintaining her characteristic Southern manners and eloquence. I would argue that there is no writer from mid-20th-century America whose work is more germane to the crises we face in 2019 around the world than Lillian Smith.

Lillian Smith, 1963; photo by Joan Titus
Lillian Smith, 1963; photo by Joan Titus

Like most people of the South in the early 20th century, and even the nation at large, Lillian Smith grew up in a racially segregated society. She was well schooled in the paradox that characterized Christian teaching of her region and her time, including the Methodist denomination in which she was reared. Jesus loved all the children of the world, but white children were inherently superior to black children. White children played with white children and black children with their own kind. There were white churches and black churches, just as God had intended it to be. These were among the unquestionable manners that made the post-bellum South tolerable to its white citizens who insisted on perpetuating a caste system 25 years after Reconstruction had made their earth tremble. These “truths” were accepted by Lillian’s Smith’s parents, both of whom had descended from slave-owning families.

In her early twenties, Smith studied music intermittently at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, but she ultimately accepted the disappointing reality that her talent was insufficient for her dream of becoming a concert pianist. However, her training at Peabody prepared her for an opportunity that would change Lillian Smith’s perspective on almost everything and challenge all her preconceptions about her homeland. In 1922 at the age of 24, Lillian moved to China where she would remain for the next three years working as a piano teacher at Virginia School, a Methodist mission for girls from wealthy families in the city of Huchow. She was one of about a dozen westerners in a city of 250,000 in what was then a remote part of the country.

While working at Virginia School, Smith reported to a female principal who was liberal in her philosophy and had a deep appreciation for China’s rich culture and resources. Lillian immersed herself in that culture, learning from her students, their families, and from the people of Huchow. She read extensively during this time, exploring Chinese poetry and philosophy. She wandered through Buddhist temples and began to contemplate faith traditions other than Christianity. She also became familiar with the history and current events of India and South Africa. “Suddenly, the whole earth opened to me,” she wrote, “and I saw us as one people, as human beings, all aching for freedom, all longing for knowledge and understanding, all reaching toward the light of truth, all wanting to love and be loved.”

The 1920s were a turbulent time in China. The hopes and aspirations that inspired the Revolution of 1911 and the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty had been crushed shortly after the establishment of the Republic of China. The provisional government became a puppet of strong military leaders and ultimately disintegrated. By the time Smith arrived in 1922, the tenuous government was under a military regime. Ruthless provincial warlords were in command of much of the region, spreading terror as they mounted revolutions and counterrevolutions, exploiting rich and poor alike. Smith learned about the country’s turmoil from people who were intimately involved in the transitions of power. She met the sister-in-law of the President of the provisional government, a woman named Soong Mei-ling, but we are more familiar with the name she adopted after she was married: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, First Lady of the Republic of China.

It was in this environment that Lillian Smith began to see injustice and affronts to human dignity with fresh eyes. She was horrified by the effects of war on the Chinese people, specifically the lowest class of unskilled laborers, the coolies. She witnessed them being treated no better than slaves by soldiers who came through Huchow. She also recognized that some of the worst indignities were at the hands of Christians, even the people she worked with, who seemed to tolerate blatant abuse. In a letter to her father dated February 23, 1925, Lillian wrote, “All of it makes one wonder how Christians can sit by and say: ‘Of course war is wrong – but’. There is no ‘but’ to it.”

In her letters, essays, and articles, Lillian Smith would return over and over to these painful memories of China. She also had some wonderful memories of the country. During the early 1930s, she worked on a novel about China under the title, And the Waters Flow On, where she was exploring the connection between racism and sexual attitudes in a Chinese setting. Tragically, the manuscript for this novel was later lost in a fire at her home in Clayton. Like other southern writers, Lillian Smith made the connection between sexual attitudes and racism, but she did so with unusual fervor and explicitness. These connections were likely formed in her mind during the China years.

Her experiences in the Far East changed her at a deep level, which as it turns out, was not an unusual phenomenon for Smith’s generation of white southern liberals. Morton Sosna speaks to this pattern in his 1977 book, In Search of the Silent South: Southern Liberals and the Race Issue, published by Columbia University Press. Sosna writes, “An important influence upon Southern liberals was their experiences outside the South.  Even when they returned home, they found that residence elsewhere had added new dimensions to their views about the South’s racial situation.” For Lillian Smith, the parallels between the discrimination on opposites sides of the globe were crystal clear. Sosna continues, “Lillian Smith was shocked by white foreigners, including the missionaries, who established enclaves in China that excluded Chinese. She drew an immediate connection between what was occurring in China and life in her own native South.”

Many years after her return to the states, Lillian Smith continued to express her deep concerns publicly about social injustice, in her native South and elsewhere. She made references to the evils of white supremacy and imperialism in China but also in Russia, Burma, Java, and on the continents of Africa and South America. She stressed that people from around the globe were searching for a democracy that works, one they could trust. In a time where Americans believed their most valuable export was democracy, Lillian Smith said they had to prove they really believed in it by using a language the whole world understands: the democratic act.

She witnessed on the world stage in real time the tragic results of systematic race-based hatred. “It is just possible that the white man is no longer the center of the universe,” she wrote. “It is just possible that even German Nazis, British imperialists, and white southerners will have to accept a fact that has been old news to the rest of the world for a long, long time.” Lillian Smith recognized that the South, by passing and enforcing Jim Crow laws, was trying to buy its future with a figurative currency that no longer existed: Confederate money. She expanded that metaphor when she wrote, “The new world will be found only when the people dream about it. . . .  And when we find it, we must buy it. Not with old Confederate bills of race slavery and prejudice and frustration; no. Not with the imperialistic British pound of arrogant exploitation; nor with blocked marks of madness and hate; nor with violence and death. But with the democracy of the human spirit, with intelligence, with creative understanding, with love, with life itself.”

In his article, “Lillian Smith, Racial Segregation, Civil Rights and American Democracy,” published in the Moravian Journal of Literature and Film in the Fall of 2011, Constante Gonzalez Groba notes that Lillian Smith adopted Gandhi’s view of the negative effect of segregation on the oppressed and the oppressors, a premise that she would return to many times during the struggle for civil rights in the South. According to Groba, Lillian Smith “was one of the first to see the transnational dimensions of the cultural and racial practices of her region, and one of the first to characterize the white dominance of the South as a colonial relationship.”

The outbreak of World War II and the unavoidable involvement of the United States in the global conflict was of great concern to Lillian Smith as it was to most people of her generation. She was not as repulsed by the physical part of war as she was the more permanent effects it had on minds and emotions. To her way of thinking, war was an extreme example of human segregation. She was convinced that the threat from abroad made it even more important for the races in America to understand each other. In a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt from April 7, 1942, Smith wrote, “There is something heartbreakingly valiant about the young of the Negro race, so eager to prove to white America their willingness to die for a country which has given them only the scraps from the white folks’ democracy. There is resentment also; a quiet, strong resentment, running like a deep stream through their minds and hearts; something I think few white Americans are aware of, or want to face.”

Following the war, Lillian Smith made two trips to India. During the summer of 1946, she traveled as a member of Britain’s Famine Commission, an initiative to gain American support for India’s famine victims. Her second trip to the subcontinent in 1954-55 was much more substantive – a six-month visit with financial support from the U.S. State Department to gather material for a book comparing India and China. She had the opportunity to meet Prime Minister Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and a number of other dignitaries, artists, and writers. The book project never materialized, but it is clear from her correspondence after returning from this second trip that Smith had immersed herself in the culture of India, especially the arts.

Given her work in advancing the cause of civil rights, it would be natural to assume that activism was Smith’s greatest passion, but that’s not the case. She expressed on numerous occasions how she disliked struggling against injustice, even racial discrimination. The idea of fighting for a “cause” was rather unappealing to her. She was much more interested in literature, poetry, painting, and music. Her humanitarian efforts were not as much a passion as they were a deep, moral obligation. In a letter to Richard Wright from June 12, 1944, she wrote, “I am not in the least interested in political movements or in being any kind of a reformer or political leader. Hence, I find myself avoiding – too much, I suppose – organizations. I simply want to say what I believe and say it my own way. I have an idea that you feel much the same about this. Because you do, I believe we together might be able to work out some suggestions for other writers that might encourage them to do more creative thinking and writing about our cultural problems, and yet leave them free of any ideological ties.”

By the late 1950s, Smith’s views about democracy and colonialism were reflecting over 35 years of reading and writing about world events and the shifting international political landscape. In the introduction to the 2nd edition of Killers of the Dream from 1961, she observed that Asian and African colonists thirsted for independence but not necessarily Democracy as the U.S. assumed. They wanted equality and would “trample the earth to get it.” They wanted their human rights and their recognition by the United Nations. What they hated and feared more than death were the symbols of oppression: segregation, apartheid, and colonialism. Smith urged Americans to listen to the desires of these young nations, whose leaders she feared may be driven to overcome their hurt dignity with racial supremacy, just as white Southerners embraced White Supremacy during Restoration in mutual hostility toward people of color. “African and Asian nationalists may harness the hatred of tribal hostilities” she said, “and turn it into hatred of whites who continue so stubbornly to think of themselves as superior.”

Lillian Smith boldly spoke out against the injustices of her day, even those occurring in other countries. The most obvious abuse and that which was closest to home for her as a southerner was racial discrimination. She combined her talents as a creative writer and her keen sense of observation to publish persuasive books and articles about the growing civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. Her fiction reflected her sensitivity to prejudice and injustice. Her travels abroad filled Lillian Smith with wonder and excitement, but she also let the experiences mold her conscience as well as her consciousness. She had a more inward view of the words of her contemporary, T. S. Eliot, who in his “Four Quartets” reminded us that after our explorations are over, we arrive back where we started and know the place for the first time. Lillian Smith’s version goes like this: “I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.”

Book Reviews: Two by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me. Some readers will criticize him for his lack of attention to a few basic grammatical rules. Okay, he needs to brush up on the mechanics, as many journalists do. Others may not like his style — the book takes the form of a long message to his son about what it means to be a black man in America. I think it is the perfect approach for his subject, making the book personal, emotional, and thoughtful. It reminds me of the innovation with narrative that the white civil-rights advocate Lillian Smith used in books like Killers of the Dream and Our Faces, Our Words. Coates could do a whole lot worse than follow Smith’s example. In our deeply divided society, this book will be rejected by many readers who have lost patience with what they perceive as a hypersensitive generation coddled by American universities where almost everyone is a victim of mistreatment and therefore has an excuse for irresponsibility. I don’t think Coates has fallen into that trap, either real or imagined. I highly recommend this title to anyone who wants some insights into the struggles of what an African-American colleague described once as “waking up everyday, looking in the mirror, and knowing you are wearing black skin.”

We Were Eight Years In Power
We Were Eight Years In Power

Coates is one of the most powerful voices in the country on identity politics and its ill effects on social justice, most especially for African-Americans. In interviews, Coates has made it clear that he sees little hope for conditions in America to improve with regard to the plight of African-Americans. We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy is a collection of essays, many appearing previously in The Atlantic, that reaffirms that opinion. His vision is definitely pessimistic and perhaps depressing. It would be easy to dismiss Coates as a man made bitter by his own struggles to be heard and to overcome the legacy of bondage that characterizes the black experience in America. But, his analysis is careful and calculating, and to some degree even objective. He is relentless in shining the scorching light on white supremacy and how it has systematically crushed the spirit of African-Americans, even during the Obama administration. Coates now sees white supremacy back on full exhibit, in the open, and he dubs Donald Trump as the “first white president.” The election of Barack Obama clearly set a standard and was perceived by his supporters to alter the course of American history. However, many white Americans distorted that monumental watermark into perversion: “If a black man can be president, then any white man — no matter how fallen — can be president.”

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon

In his Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, historian Douglas Blackmon brings to light one of the most shameful chapters in American history—an “Age of Neoslavery” that thrived from the aftermath of the Civil War through the dawn of World War II.  Having been raised in the Southeast where these atrocities flourished in the decades leading up to the time I was born in 1960, reading this exposé was both painful and illuminating for me — it is one of the best works of nonfiction I have read in many years.

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Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African- Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. Thousands of other African-Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of “free” black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.

This book is a moving, sobering account of a little-known crime against African-Americans, and the insidious legacy of racism that reverberates today.  In light of events involving law enforcement and the legal system with regard to black people over the past year, this book is extremely relevant.  It should be required reading in most southern history college courses, and it should be considered strongly for most advanced American history courses. It is well researched, thoroughly documented, and extremely compelling.  Blackmon is such a good writer.