Last post, I wrote about the LES Reading Group that we are conducting this July. When I read Smith, her voices echoes through the years, speaking to this moment both nationally and internationally. I often wonder, and I hope this will be part of the reading group conversation, how she would react to this moment. How she would engage with social media. How she would fight. Of course, I can’t answer these questions definitively. I can say, though, that we need her voice. We need her fire. We need her action. We need her insight. Today, I’m looking at why I chose the final two pieces for the reading group.

“The Right Way is Not The Moderate Way” 1956

I chose this speech specifically because it shows Smith’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Even if she was not on the front lines in Alabama, Mississippi, or elsewhere, she spoke to, encouraged, and supported those who were. Smith wrote this speech, even though someone else delivered it because of her cancer, in commemoration of the one year anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. After the event, the speech appeared alongside one by MArtin Luther King, Jr. in a pamphlet publication and in Atlanta University’s Phylon. Excerpts appeared in newspapers across the nation, including leading Black and Southern newspapers.

There is a lot within this speech, but there are a couple of things that really stand out to me each time I reread it. The first is Smith’s discussion of white’s losing their freedoms alongside Blacks. She tells the audience, “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.” She then proceeds to list the freedoms that whites give up due to their continued support of segregation.

This section caused a reporter to call Smith and ask her if she actually wrote what the speaker said. She asked the man to read the passage in question. He read it. She then asked him if it was not true. He said it was. What is important about this passage, and about most of Smith’s work, is that she highlights the effects of racism, xenophobia, and oppression on whites. Typically, we think of the oppressed. These things effect the oppressor as well, and the oppressor suffers too. Smith noted this and highlights in in this speech and elsewhere.

The other aspect of Smith’s speech that always stands out to me is her comparison of racism to the cancer she was battling. She wrote, “The tragic fact is, neither cancer nor segregation will go away while we close our eyes.” We cannot ignore these things. We can’t say, “If I don’t think about, it’s not there.” That just makes us blind to it. It doesn’t eliminate it. She continued, “Both are dangerous diseases that have to be handled quickly and skillfully because they spread, they metastasize throughout the organism.” Each seeps into the very being of an individual. Each extends its tendrils throughout the system. To stop the spread, we must eradicate the cancer and the racism at the root in order to cure the organism.

“Letter to Mr. Hartley” 1959

I have read numerous letters from Smith to various individuals, but this one always sticks out. I keep coming back to the letter Smith wrote to Mr. Hartley because it encapsulates her pedagogy and her thinking about education. She writes to the high school creative writing teacher about children and the ways that they learn. As I have told students throughout my years in the classroom, you learn more outside of the classroom than you do inside. Smith reiterates this when she tells talks about this as well in regard to high school and even college.

Along with this, Smith points out that an individual must be open to learning. If a person does not open themselves to the prospects fo knowledge, then they will stagnate. She tells Hartley, “education is a private matter between the person and the world of knowledge and experience and has only a little to do with school or college.” In so many ways, education involves self reflection, a turning inward to examine oneself and the world the individual inhabits. If education becomes merely a means to and end, a means of obtaining a degree that will open the door to wealth and prestige, then has the individual really gained knowledge? Or, has the individual merely learned to play the game, the rigged game, in order to succeed at the expense of others?

In conjunction with these aspects, Smith points out the ways that education and knowledge, when one is open to them, works to build bridges between people. She tells Hartley, “And then there is always what you learn when you build bridges to other people: to one, then to one more, and on and on.” For Smith, “all of life is learning,” and that learning involves making connections with individuals, building bridges. When one is open to this, then one is open to working towards equity for all.

Finally, Smith comments, as I do to students, that learning never ceases. We continue to learn throughout our lives, and when we stop, we stagnate and build a shell around our very beings. She concludes, with, “I don’t know when learning stops. But I know a writer never stops learning, not never–until she is dead as a creative being. When you stop leaning, stop listening, stop looking and asking questions, always new questions, then it is time to die: time to crawl into that small room and pull the cover over you.”

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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