In early December, I shared two posts with some of the weekly videos that I have been creating for the LES Center. Since then, I have created more videos, and I wanted to take a moment to share some of them with you today. These videos focus on talks she had with campers at Laurel Falls about racism, the ways that Smith connected her battle with cancer to racism, and the FBI’s file on her.

Frank Discussions at Laurel Falls Camp

Writing to campers’ parents in 1946, Lillian Smith told them about the events occurring at the camp and their discussions and campers’ questions after hearing about the lynching of two married couples in Monroe, GA. At the end, she wrote about some of the campers’ responses when she asked what the word “personality” meant to them. One camper said it means feelings about others and work. She said for her father, “work means everything.” If that went away, it “would take a big piece out of his personality.”

Smith concluded this section by writing, “I have always thought most grown people belittle children’s ability to express themselves on fundamental matters. If we give them a chance, they usually say interesting and sometimes wise things.”

Smith’s words, and her work at Laurel Falls Camp, makes me think about Nalo Hopkinson’s introduction to John Ira Jennings and Damian Duffy’s adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Writing about Lauren Olamina, Hopkinson states, “One of the central frustrations of youth is being able to clearly see what the world is doing wrong while chafing at adults’ apparent unwillingness to fix it. One of the capitulations of adulthood is the recognition that social change toward equitable communities is difficult and almost never see in the course of one’s lifetime. Lauren, a teenager on the verge of adulthood, stands on the cusp of both states.”

Lauren is an empath. She acutely feels what those around her feel, and she empathizes with them in pain or joy. This connection is what children feel. The campers at Laurel Falls, after hearing about the murder of the couples in Monroe, asked how these events will affect the couples’ children. Like Lauren, they felt empathy. Like Lauren, they chafed at adults who allowed such atrocities to occur. Lauren takes the feelings that she experiences and channels them into action, Earthseed: The Books of the Living. One of her verses sums up what the campers expressed:

All struggles are essentially power struggles. Who will rule. Who will lead. Who will define, refine, confine, design, who will dominate. All struggles are essentially power struggles, and most are no more intellectual than two rams knocking their heads together.

The Metastasizing Cancer of Racism

In the final chapter of How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi talks about his wife’s and his own battles with cancer over the past few years. Kendi links cancer and racism, writing that “[i]n the United States, the metastatic (meta-static) cancer has been spreading, contracting, and threatening to kill the American body as it nearly did before its birth, as it nearly did during the Civil War.”

Similar to Kendi, Smith drew a connection between cancer and racism. Writing to Lewis Gannett in December 1953, Smith expressed her fear of having cancer. She wrote, “Cancer is the only big fear I had ever had. Always I had felt I could take anything but that.”

In “The Right Way is Not the Moderate Way,” the speech she could not deliver herself at the one year anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she wrote about the connections between cancer and 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.”

Kendi and Smith both call upon us to open our eyes to the diseases that infect our very beings. Kendi tells us to look “inside the body of [our] nations’”, neighborhoods’, occupations’, and institutions’ racial inequalities.” Until we do this, we will not defeat racism. Like Smith, Kendi is hopeful. He concludes by pointing out that the power constructs of race and racism are young by historical standards. He writes, “Racism is not even six hundred years old. It’s a cancer we’ve caught early.” It is fast spreading, Kendi notes, but we must hope and work for the cure. When we stop hoping, we will lose.

Lillian Smith and the FBI

On May 31, 1944 R.A. Guerin from the Detroit FBI office wrote to J. Edgar Hoover about Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit. The agent wrote that “the language used and thoughts conveyed by the author of this book are of a questionable and obscene nature and may possibly come within the Federal Obscene Literature Statute.” The Detroit Public Library allowed patrons to check out the book, refusing to remove it from their shelves. This, along with a bookstore selling Strange Fruit, caused Agent Guerin to echo Sergeant Case’s opinion that the language in the novel would “aggravate a serious juvenile delinquency problem which is of our utmost interest at the present time.”

The agents used the cover of language, and specifically one word, as their argument for trying to ban the book. Boston did ban the sale of Strange Fruit because of “the word,” and when someone asked Smith about this, she replied that Boston did not ban the book solely because of “the word” that “every school child and grown-up in the United States knows.” Rather, she writes, “The real motive can more surely be found in the reactions of the anti-Negro forces in Boston. The forces in Boston who banned the book are the same forces that fight democracy on all of its levels: anti-Negro, anti-Semitic, anti-union, anti-freedom of the press, etc.”   

In May 1944, the student newspaper at the University of Georgia wrote to its audience that a copy of Strange Fruit was now sitting in the library. They prefaced this news by facetiously stating, “We don’t want this item to be a cause of a riot. In fact, we’re in favor of peace on the campus. We’d hate to think that anything we might print would start students running into a building on the campus, glancing wildly about them for something which Southern publications have denounced as ‘vulgar’ and Northern publications praised as ‘extremely sensitive, beautiful.’ Even Boston policemen, however, can’t get it.”

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