The more I read Lillian Smith, the more her voice resonates with the current moment. I do searches through the journal she edited with her life-long partner Paula Snelling, and each issues contains articles that, while published in the 1930s or 1940s, As well, the more I speak with people about Smith, I realize that people do not know her, at least they do not know the extent of her work and legacy. This, of course, is to be expected. Unless someone works extensively on an individual author, then people will not know a lot of what that author wrote. With that in mind, I decided to host a Lillian E. Smith reading group this July where participants will read five articles/speeches by Smith and meet to discuss there later in the month. Today, I want to talk about the reading group and why I chose the selections that I did.

LES Reading Group Description

We decided to start an LES Reading Group to introduce people to Smith’s work, specifically work that they may not have read from her. As such, the reading group consists of five pieces that Smith wrote spanning 1942-1959, covering issues of race, the Lost Cause, pedagogy, and more.These texts do not encompass everything that Smith wrote and thought about; however, they are important insights into her work and into the continued relevance of her voice in our current moment.

Readings

“Buying a New World With Confederate Bills” South Today, Winter 1942-43

I chose this essay for a few reasons. The first has to be because Smith wrote this piece in the early 1940s, years before Killers of the Dream and almost twenty years before the followup, “Are We Still Buying A New World With Old Confederate Bills?” which she delivered to SNCC members at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1960. The other main reason I chose this piece is because of the section “I Am As Good As Anybody.” I’ve written about this section before, specifically in relation to the 1619 Project. In this section, Smith lays out the ways that the institution of slavery, then Jim Crow, affects society. She also points out the ways that whiteness becomes flattened.

Along with these aspects, I chose this reading because it shows Smith’s desire to display the South’s mentality for readers. Her and Snelling do this throughout the journal, providing questionnaires to individuals and then printing their responses. In this piece, they ask questions about how whites address Blacks, about school integration, and about other issues. Of this sections, Smith writes, “Old doubts are hard to hush in Southern minds. But gather up a handful of people from any spot on the map that you choose. Take each man or woman alone where answers are made without fear, and to your questions . . . you will get almost as many different answers as you have people toe question.”

“There Are Things to Do” South Today, Winter 1942-43

“There Are Things to Do” appears in the same issue as the previous piece, and it provides tangible things that people can do to be anti-racist. This piece is important because while some the things that Smith talks about specifically relate to Jim Crow laws, everything she mentions can be done today. For example, she writes, “Pay your cook more. Shorten her hours. Treat her with more consideration. She is not your slave.” For me, I change “domestic” and “cook” to retail, food service, and essential workers. Too often, especially during the pandemic, white customers berate workers for trying to keep themselves and other customers safe, all while making a non-livable wage. If we want equity and change, then Smith’s point to not treat workers as enslaved individuals needs to be heeded.

Along with this, she points out things that individuals should be doing more of at all times. Notably, she continually points out that people should listen and learn from those who are not like them, in this case whites listening to, reading, and conversing with Blacks. She talks about reading Black authors. Inviting Black speaks. Subscribing to Black publications. All of this is still needed. Personally, I am not knowledgeable about Arab and Muslim experiences, so I am reading and learning more. I am not as knowledgeable as I would like to be about Latinx experiences, so I am reading and learning more. These are things that everyone can do, and they are things that we should all be doing anyways, no matter the time period or situation.

“The White Christian and His Conscience” 1945

Again, there are a lot of reasons why I chose this piece, but all of it goes back to the opening line where Smith writes, “Ever since the first white Christian enslaved the first black man, the conscience of America has been hurting.” This line embodies so much history and so much of what Smith explored in her writing. It points to the history of slavery, connected intricately with the church (multiple denominations) and the effects that that history has had on the psyche of white Americans.

Along with this, the piece reminds me of current discussions. Specifically Louie Giglio’s changing “white privilege” to “white blessings” and the Lincoln Parish School Board’s superintendent’s comments denying systemic racism and invoking Jesus as someone who “was not a revolutionary” and “did not become involved in dismantling elements of society.” Smith dives in to the ways that racism affects the conscience of white Christians, comparing their lulled consciences to the ways that Hitler lulled the consciences of Germans during World War II, paving the way for teh Holocaust and other atrocities. She writes,

I think sometimes that perhaps we hate the Nazis ever more than otherwise because we know that their conscience hurt so little while ours has ached and pained us for 300 years! And nowhere has it hurt us more than in the Deep South where we have lynched, burned and segregated human beings simply because their skin was darker than ours. And nowhere is hatred of the German Nazi worse than in the Deep South . . .

In the next post, I will finish up by looking at the last two pieces I chose for the reading group and a bonus piece. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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