Over the years, I have thought about the reasons why individuals continue to cling tightly to their beliefs, beliefs based in fear that spawn hatred. I’ve struggled to come to grips with this aspect of humanity and to untangle its roots. What I have come to realize is that change and growth cannot occur until one decides to come face to face with themselves. This act of looking at ourselves in the mirror, our entire selves, is the first step in uprooting the racism, hate, and white supremacy that continue to nourish the soil beneath our feat. While the confronting of self is the first step, it is also the hardest because it causes us to question some of our deepest held beliefs, beliefs that we may not even realize exist with the walls of our psyche. Lillian Smith details the barrier of self-confrontation throughout her work, most notably in Killers of the Dream when she talks about a camper who speaks with her about the harm that Smith has done to the campers by telling them the truth about Jim Crow and racism.
The camper approaches Smith after some of the other campers perform a play based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry The Little Prince. In their version of the play, the girls have the prince travel to other planets, accompanied by various traveling companions. Conscience, Religion, Science, and Southern Tradition travel with the Prince, telling the Prince what to look at, what to avoid, and how to react to various things. When the Prince wants to interact with all the children of the world, regardless of race or ethnicity, Southern Tradition hinders such action. Talking about this, the girl who played the Prince told the campers, “the Prince in our play wants to do right. We know it is right to feel this way.” However, the power of Southern Tradition squashed conscience, religion, and science. It cleaved the spirit in two, causing it to lean, on one side, on the teachings of Christ and on the other to lean on the strictures of Southern Tradition. The latter overpowering the former.
Even though the campers knew the Prince was right, they saw the power of tradition. Later that night, a camper came to Smith and tells her that she has done a great disservice to the children at the camp because “[y]ou made us think of ourselves as no better than other people. You shouldn’t have done that.” The camper knows that this is right; however, the vice-like grip of tradition keeps her from acting upon it. The fear of repercussions causes her to revert back to what she knows, not the possibilities of what lies ahead. The campers continued, “But I almost hate you tonight, for letting us fall in love with beliefs that I see now we can’t possibly live.” What brought about this “hate” from the camper? Was it the egalitarian ideals that Smith and the play espoused? No. The “hate” stems from the realization that Southern Tradition has lied and once realizing that lie the camper fears how to act upon the egalitarian ideals while staring down Southern Tradition in her family, friends, and community back home.
Standing in front of the mirror, all of the unconscious actions that the camper did became conscious. She saw what the signs above the doors meant. She saw what the glares meant. She saw what having some people come through the front door and some through the back door meant. She saw the obvious, but she also saw the other things, the use of language, the wages, the hypocrisy, and everything else. This scared her because in the process she had to question herself and specifically her parents. She told Smith, “It was as if somebody had swung a bright mirror in front of us. The whole thing opened up!” That “opening up” made her face herself but also made her thing about what the new knowledge would do to her life once she returned from camp.
“How would it be,” the camper began, “if we tried to live the way we have learned to want to live. Can’t you imagine our town” if I asked a Black girl to Sunday school? to join my sorority? to eat with me at the drugstore? All of this, as the camper points out, would cause her to break the law, the law put in place to maintain segregation. This aspect, along with her father’s thoughts, make the camper scared. She says, “I’m saying these things because I’m scared–at what I’m looking at in me.” This is the key. As she faces herself, she becomes scared because what she sees reflected back at her scares her, not just the racism and white supremacy within in but also what will happen when she worked to eradicate that racism and white supremacy from her very being.
Because of this fear, the camper tells Smith that when she has children she won’t teach them about any of this. She’ll keep them in the dark, indirectly learning the lessons as she had done, because if she does not teach them all of this they won’t “be hypocrites” like her, knowing what is right and choosing not to act because of fear. To this, Smith replies, “In other words, you would make little Nazis out of them.” Smith knows the generational effects of such actions, the inaction of knowing but suppressing the truth does not just harm the individual. It harms the individual’s children. It harms their children. And their children. It harms the communities for generations to come. This is the danger of rejecting the reflection that stares back at us, the reflection that illuminates our deepest held conscience and unconscious biases. This rejection affects many more that just ourselves.
The camper bases her decision to not tell her future children about these things as honesty, and Smith tells her that “honesty doesn’t have much to do with it,” the campers has let her feelings overcome reality and the truth. To this, the camper whispers to Smith, “I’m scared. . . . I don’t like the future. It doesn’t seem to belong to us.” Through her fear and inaction, the camper sabotages the future because she says she will continue to perpetuate the things that she learned. She becomes like Jack Marshall in Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men who kicks the can down the road, placing the problems off on future generations. Through this, she will do long-lasting harm to society and to the ones that she loves. If we waited on comfort to be our guide, we would never move forward. We must act, even amidst our fear. We must act, no matter what others might say. We must act , to provide a better future for our offspring and the generations to come.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.