On December 5, 1956, the Montgomery Improvement Association hosted the Institute on Non-Violence and Social Change commemorating the one year anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott. They asked Lillian Smith to speak; however, she could not attend due to ill health. Rufus Lewis read Lillian’s speech, “The Right Way is Not a Moderate Way,” to the audience. Virginia Durr, who was in the crowd, wrote to Smith, “It was the most wonderful speech and so full of love and truth and at the end when you thanked them for what they were doing to free the South and the white people of the South from their fear and prejudice, you could hear a deep sigh go all over the audience.”
Throughout the speech, Smith points out the ways that racism and hate maim and kill not just the oppressed but the oppressor as well. As she dealt with the cancer that attacked her own body, she drew a metaphor between the deadly disease and the deadly disease of racism: “The tragic fact is, neither cancer nor segregation will go away while we close our eyes. Both are dangerous diseases that have to be handled quickly and skillfully because they spread, they metastasize throughout the organism.” They seep deep into the body, latching on to every muscle, fiber, and bone, killing from within.
Smith constantly pointed out the damage that racism had on the white psyche, and especially the ways that it causes whites to wall off their selves from others, creating a prison within themselves, stifling their freedom to discover their own true humanity and the humanity of others. Later in the speech, she wrote,
In order to maintain the status quo, to maintain segregation as long as possible, even though the Supreme Court has spoken, in order to drive in the middle of the road, the white people of the South are giving up their freedoms. What freedoms?
Smith continues by saying whites lose the freedom to do right, to obey the law, “to speak out, to write, to teach what one believes is true and just,” and they are “losing [their] freedom from fear.”
A reporter who was at the event called Smith at her home in Clayton, and he asked her if she had actually written that “white people had lost their freedom” or if Lewis may have added it. She told him to read the part to her, he did, all over long distance. Then, she asked him, “It is true, isn’t it?” Over the line, he repsonded, “Yes’m, in a way, yes it is.”
Smith’s assertion that whites have lost their freedoms as well is something that Tim Kasher explores on “Barricades,” a song from Cursive’s latest album Get Fixed (2019). Writing about the album, Kasher states,
Also, sure, the absolutely fucking bonkers fist fuck this world has been getting with its pathetic, greedy rise of nationalism; yeah, that’s been driving me to put pen to paper as well. You feel like you’re getting pushed around, you want to push back. Not that we’re driven solely by political frustrations, not in the least. But as to the excess of songs as of late? Current events have certainly left their grimy fingerprints on some of the music we’ve written these last few years.
Those “grimy fingerprints” leave an indelible mark on “Barricades,” a song that directly confronts the ways that racism and hatred craft prisons within the oppressors’ minds.
The entire song focuses on the ways that racism and racist policies have formed our society, and I could do a whole post on each verse. For this discussion, though, I want to focus on the last section of the song. The constant segregation, surveillance, and racist oppression cause whites to be “locked in our own minds,” a process that leads to denial in a manufactured, nonexistent “bliss” perpetuated by fear.
At the end of the song, the speaker points out his lack of knowledge about these systems of oppression and his complicity within them, As a result, he chooses to no longer ignore the systemic subjugation but to confront it and speak out. Kasher sings,
I was a middle class kid from the middle west
I was the quintessential, sheltered innocent
I didn’t know what segregation meant —
I didn’t have to know — the world I knew
Was white as snow
And so I look back now at these severed towns
All the hate they spread, simply not spreading out
Fuck this denial, fuck their ignorant bliss
In order to free ourselves, we must look into the mirror and confront our own positionality within these structures. If we don’t the barricades will remain and those barricades work to keep people out, but they also work to imprison and keep people inside. Until we remove the barricades that we have erected, all in the name of “safety” and “stability,” we will continue to deny ourselves any semblance of freedom. We will continue to deny ourselves any knowledge of our true selves because our past and the tendrils of history will continually pull at our clothes, dragging us backwards behind the barricades, imprisoning us.
All of this reminds me of the opening of Lillian Smith’s The Journey, a passage I have written about before. There, Smith writes,
There is no going alone on a journey. Whether one explores strange lands or Main Street or one’s own back yard, always invisible traveling companions are close by: the giants and pygmies of memory, of belief, pulling you this way and that, not letting you see the world life-size but insisting that you measure it by their own height and weight.
No matter where we go, across the globe or to the corner store, “giants and pygmies of memory” follow. They tug, pull, and drag. They sever, cleave, and separate. They linger, deep within the fabric of our society. They cling, settling upon our skin and seeping into our muscles, bones, brain, heart. They poison, from the inside.
The mirror shows us where they have grown. The mirror provides the mechanism to trace them, to follow them, to the source. The mirror provides the beginnings of extraction. The mirror does not provide the cure, but it provides the consultation. Continual trips to the mirror working in tandem with other remedies will rid us of the giants and pygmies of history that drag us behind the barricades.
Next post, I’m going to continue this discussion by looking at a few passages from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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