Lillian E. Smith published Memory of Large Christmas in 1962. The book, essentially, is a collection of humorous and memorable anecdotes about the large, bountiful Smith family Christmases. In the back of the book, Smith includes recopies for turkey dressing, pork salad, ambrosia, and more. Today, I want to look at one of the scenes that Smith relates in the book. The scene occurs at the end and involves a speech that her father, Calvin, gave after a Christmas dinner in 1918.
Smith’s family moved permanently to their summer home in Clayton, GA, in 1915 after their father’s lumber and naval stores in Jasper, FL, failed during World War I. Calvin presented the move to his family as a great adventure, and he left “like an explorer setting out for an unknown continent.” He told his family about the mountains and created a vivid image in their minds, engaging them in the benefits of moving from the swamps of Jasper to the mountains of Clayton.
In 1918, the war had caused the Smith’s financial status to dwindle, and they had to downsize. As Smith writes, “We were not alone in being poor. Times were hard in the South–much harder for most than for us, our father often reminded us.” That year, Calvin “invited the chain gang to have Christmas dinner” with his family. The 48 men were working on state roads and residing in “two shabby red railroad cars.” When Calvin approached the gang’s foreman, the man asked if Calvin wanted to invite all of the men to dinner, and Calvin replied, “We couldn’t hardly leave any of the boys out, could we?”
On Christmas day, the 48 men came up the mountain. The men were incarcerated for various crimes–murder, rape, arson, bank robbery. Calvin greeted them on the porch, read the Christmas story, then invited them into the house. He mingled with each man, asking them about themselves and their families and telling them about his own. When the dinner was ready, Calvin asked on of “the killers” to go help his wife with the food. At that, two other men, “one in for raping and another for robbing a bank,” stood up to offer assistance. At this, two of the guards approached the door to block the men’s exit to the kitchen. To this, Calvin stated, “The boys will be all right.” They went to the kitchen and returned with the pots and pans, setting them on the serving table.
After the men left, Calvin read a letter from his daughter in China and started to look over some books. This did not last long and he looked at his children and said,
“We’ve been through some pretty hard times, lately, and I’ve been proud of my family. Some folks can take prosperity and can’t take poverty; some can take being poor and lose their heads when money comes. I want my children to accept it all: the good and the bad, for that is what life is. It can’t be wholly good; it won’t be wholly bad.” He looked to our mother, sitting there, tired but gently involved. “Those men, today—they’ve made mistakes. Sure. But I have too. Bigger ones maybe than theirs. And you will. You are not likely to commit a crime but you may become blind and refuse to see what you should look at, and that can be worse than a crime. Don’t forget that. Never look down on a man. Never. If you can’t look him straight in the eyes, then what’s wrong is with you.” He glanced at the letter from the eldest sister [in China]. “The world is changing fast. Folks get hurt and make terrible mistakes at such times. But the one I hope you won’t make is to cling to my generation’s sins. You’ll have plenty of your own, remember. Changing things is mighty risky, but not changing things is worse—that is, if you can think of something better to change to. . . .”
Calvin’s words remained with Smith. Throughout her life, she spoke up against injustice, being vocal about numerous issues. She looked at people as people, not as inferior. She recognized the past, specifically the mythologized Southern and American past, for what it was, a false narrative constructed to maintain white supremacy. She knew the world was changing, and she knew that if she did not change the things that needed to be changed, she would never be able to live with herself.
These are the same ideas she conveyed to the campers when she directed Laurel Falls Camp from 1925-1948. Speaking with one of the campers in Killers of the Dream, Smith wrote, “You have to remember . . . that the trouble we are in started long ago. Your parents didn’t make it, nor I. We were born into it.” This is what her father told her, and she continues by pointing out that generations have become blind to the Jim Crow signs that sit above the doors; they “find it hard to question that has been here since they were born.”
Smith precedes to tell the young camper about the long history of racism in America, and at the end, the girl asks her,
But how can a person like me do anything! No matter how wrong you think it is, laws are against you, custom is against you, your own family is against you. Hod do you begin? I guess . . . if you hated your family, it would be easier to fight for what is right, down here. It be easier if you didn’t care how much you hurt them.
The young girl’s question is one that I think about a lot. Is it hate if you call out the white supremacist and racist actions of those you love? Or, is it love? Is it an act of love that you want to educate those close to you about the systems that oppress others and possibly even themselves? Which is it? I would say it’s the latter. If we don’t speak out or act, then we just perpetuate these things, and that perpetuation continues the cycle, over and over and over and over and . . .
Calvin saw the white and black men in the chain gang for what they were, men and individuals. He treated them, no matter their skin color or sentences, as men. He listened to them. He treated them as people, not looking down at them but looking them in the eye. If we don’t speak up, then we are not looking those close to us in the eyes. We are not looking at them at all. We are erecting walls between us.
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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