Periodically, I post some of the videos I have made for the Lillian E. Smith Center’s social media accounts. Today, I am sharing four videos, along with the scripts for three. The first video is one that I created for the 54th anniversary of Smith’s passing on September 28, 1966. In the video, she is reading the opening lines of The Journey (1954). I have always liked these lines because they speak to the beliefs and thoughts that we carry with us throughout our lives, the beliefs that follow us even as we try to eradicate them from our being in our striving for social equality and equity.

Hiroshima, Koko Kondo, and Lillian Smith

Koko Kondo was eight months old when American pilots dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 9, 1945, killing 70,000 people initially and between 90,000-160,000 in the aftermath. Kondo told NPR, “As a child, I thought if they never dropped the bomb, many children didn’t have to become orphans. So I said, someday when I’m grown up, I am going to [get] revenge.”  

Seven-thousand miles away, in Clayton, GA, campers at Laurel Falls reflected on the bombing, concluding that the children like Kondo had nothing to do with the war and that it didn’t “seem quite fair to children.” They thought about what would happen if people built bridges to one another instead of destroying the connections, and one girls said, “The man in the plane who dropped that bomb must have been glad they couldn’t see below them. Or maybe they’d never known a Japanese child, of maybe they just called them ‘yellow monkeys’ and that made it seem not to matter—like folks down here say Negroes don’t matter.”  

Another camper responded, “When I say I try not to think about it, I mean I’ve cut my bridges. Because if I did think, my conscience would hurt too much.”  

In 1955, Kondo’s father and Capt. Robert Lewis, the pilot of the Enola Gay, were on This is Your Life. After dropping the bomb, Capt. Lewis wrote in his log, “My God, what have we done.”  

Hearing this, Kondo became shocked and began to think, “He’s the same human being as me. If I hate, I should not hate this guy. I should hate the war itself, which we human beings caused.”  

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Lillian Smith and Clayton

In a Collier’s Weekly article from January 1950, Sam Grafton talks about Lillian Smith’s reception in her hometown of Clayton, GA, after the publications of Strange Fruit and Killers of the Dream. He talks about how whites in the town were friendly to her, but ultimately, they tried “to blank her out.” At a book club where participants spoke about Georgia writers, no one mentioned Smith. One woman said it was a strange evening and she “felt as if Lillian were a ghost.”

Smith wrote a letter to the Clayton Tribune in response to the Collier’s article. In it, she pointed out that white citizens of Clayton and Rabun County are always cordial to her, but they may not agree with everything she has said in her books. She notes, though, “that there are hundred, perhaps a thousand people in our county, who share many of these opinions and who want as much as I want it, to see all of our American children given an equal chance to grow and mature as human beings. I am not the ‘only one’ who is troubled about human rights.”

Smith knew, like Miss Maudie in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, that more people in the region wanted to end segregation and push for equity for all. However, they did not have the courage to speak out as Smith did. They feared for what they would lose. They feared how others would react. Smith wrote, “All I have done is simply to say aloud what many feel deep down in their hearts and minds.” 

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The Continued Influence of “Basic Lessons”

Individuals learn their childhood lessons well, and sometimes those “basic lessons,” as Lillian Smith puts it, “were woven of such dissonant strands” that they contradicted one another at every turn. Disentangling these strands involves hard work, sometimes excruciating work, even when one knows in their head what they do is morally right.

In Killers of the Dream, Smith talks about a dinner party that she hosted for Black and white women. One of the white women, even though “her conscience was serene,” became nauseous during the dinner. This went away once the meal ended. The woman “was too honest to attribute it to anything other than anxiety welling up from ‘the bottom of her personality,’ . . . creeping back from her childhood training.” Even though she knew what she was doing was right, loving her neighbor as herself, the “basic lessons” against integration that she learned as a child rose up within her.

George Yancy discusses this moment and points out that the lessons run deep. He writes, “This is an incredible example that demonstrates that having a serene conscience or having an epistemologically correct belief does not ipso facto militate against the impact of one’s white racism. In the white woman’s case, it was clear her conscience had a strong sense of integrity, but the opacity of the white racist self also seemed to have a strong degree of ‘realness’ that inevitably manifested itself in acute nausea.”

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What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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