Last post, I shared some of the brief videos I have made for Twitter. These videos are for the Lillian E. Smith Center’s profile, and each video focuses on some aspect of Smith’s work, usually connecting it to other authors and artists. Today, I want to share a few more of these videos. I will include the scripts I wrote and the videos. Make sure to follow the center @LES_Center.

Ernest Gaines’ Of Love and Dust and Lillian Smith

On November 5th, Ernest J. Gaines passed away at his home in South Louisiana. Today, I want to highlight my favorite Gaines novel, 1967’s Of Love and Dust, and its connection to Lillian Smith. Throughout his writing, Gaines emphasized the social constructions of race, using the locale of South Louisiana as his backdrop. Along with this, he explored interracial intimacy and how the myths and unwritten societal rules denied any such public acknowledgement of this intimacy.

Of Love and Dust tells the story of two interconnected relationships: the first between Bonbon, the Cajun overseer on Hebert’s Plantation, and Pauline, a Black woman in the quarters, and the second between Marcus, a Black man who Hebert bonded out of jail to work on the plantation, and Bonbon’s wife Louise. Both relationships start violently, but each becomes intimate. Marcus and Louise plan to run away together with Louise and Bonbon’s daughter Tite. They do not make it, though, because Bonbon finds out about the plan and murders Marcus.

In Killers of the Dream, Lillian E. Smith points out three ghost relationships/stories that haunt the psyche of the South’s white residents: “white man and colored woman, white father and colored children, white child and his beloved colored nurse.” Each of these relationships affect the mind and the lingering myths that settle over the Southern landscape like fog on a chilly October morning. Smith writes, “These ghosts relationships still haunt the southern mind to such an extent that many of today’s most urgent problems cannot be dealt with rationally, even though the outcome of the world’s crisis may depend largely on how they are solved. They are ghosts that must be laid. Perhaps the only way to do it is to uncover them and see for ourselves the dusty nothingness beneath their masks.”

Gaines’ Of Love and Dust lays these ghosts bare in so many ways, and he even describes Louise as a ghost like specter walking the earth.  Julie Rand asks the narrator, ““Yo think there will ever be a time? . . .  When [Bonbon] and Pauline will be able to live together like they want. . . . [G]o an come like they want?” Ultimately, the ghosts harm both relationships, denying either any true existence. 

Lillian Smith’s Our Faces, Our Words and Ernest Gaines’ “The Sky is Gray”

Lillian Smith’s Our Faces, Our Words appeared in 1964. It is a collection of nine dramatic monologues and an essay. Writing to Phyllis L. Meras, Smith said that she hoped the book “might reveal some of the complexity, conflict, ambivalence, courage, suffering, and satisfaction these young civil rights workers are experiencing.” In “The Search for Excellence Takes Us to Strange Places,” a young white woman talks about her decision to stand up and participate in the civil rights movement. After being imprisoned for her activism, she thinks,

I am from a Methodist family. Pretty soon I was singing old Sunday School songs. Funny, how deep-down they go in you. I was humming Wash Me and I Shall be Whiter than Snow, thinking of those old days—sin sin sin—everything, nearly, was a sin except segregation. Whiter than snow, that means we are pure; dark, that means they are impure—how asinine can the human mind get!

Here, the speaker questions not just her faith but also the very basis of language and the ways it constructs meaning. This is an important interrogation, one that multiple writers and artists confront. Ernest Gaines’ short story “The Sky is Gray” is one such work. In the story, the student in the dentist’s waiting room tells a woman grass is black. She tells him it’s green, and he responds, “You don’t know it’s green. You believe it’s green because someone told you it was green. If someone had told you it was black you’d believe it was black.” The continue and the student asks the woman to prove to him that grass is green. He tells her, “Words mean nothing. One means no more than the other.” Here, he points out the connotations we bring to words, the baggage that rolls along them. The student, like the woman in Smith’s dramatic monologue, questions the language we use to convey meaning. He proclaims, “Words mean nothing. Action is the only thing. Doing. That’s the only thing.” The student and Smith’s young woman act, working to break apart the tangled connections that latch on to the words we use every day.  

Lonnie King, Lillian Smith, and Eugene Talmadge

On multiple occasions, Civil Rights activist Lonnie King spoke about learning about racism when he found a campaign leaflet for Eugene Talmadge’s 1942 Georgia gubernatorial campaign that had been dropped from a plane. He read the pamphlet and one word caught his attention because he did not know what it meant. He went to his grandfather and asked him, “What is a n” Why do we need to keep a n in its place?”

King’s grandfather brought him over and told him about Talmadge and racism. He told him, “You know, we’re still in a form of slavery. The difference is that we can go home at night. We don’t have anybody that is an assigned overseer. But for all practical purposes, the system that we’re in is one that is oppressive.”

That system does not just include physical oppression. It includes psychological oppression as well. Lillian Smith, like King and his grandfather, knew all too well the effects of language on the psyche of individuals, Black and White. Writing to the board of directors of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare during Talmadge’s reelection campaign in 1946, she stated,

Lately, I have been thinking of children. Of white and colored children, sitting at radios hearing his words, reading them in the paper, listening to their elders talk. White children swelling with arrogance over having a white skin; colored children shamed to the bone over being “colored.” White children overhearing “n” jokes . . . colored children overhearing bitter reactions from their folks. It is not a good thing to think about.  

Both King and Smith understood the psychological effects of language and racism on children, and the ways that we need to combat it, by calling it out and affirming shared humanity.

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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2 Comments on “LES Center Videos: II

  1. Pingback: LES Center Videos: III | Interminable Rambling

  2. Pingback: Haunting in Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s “Incognegro” – Interminable Rambling

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