Whenever I go to the Lillian E. Smith Center, I take time to look around, and inevitably, I always find something new that I’ve somehow missed in my previous trips. Usually, scan the numerous books that Smith has in her library, her bedroom, and elsewhere. During a recent trip, I picked up Bucklin Moon’s Primer for White Folks (1945), a book I’d picked up before and one that Moon inscribed to Smith. Primer for White Folks in an anthology, collecting writing from various authors filled with “writings by and about Negroes from slavery days to today’s struggle for a share in American Democracy.” Lillian Smith’s “Addressed to White Liberals” appears near the end of the collection, and her essay immediately follows Chester Himes’ “Democracy is for the Unafraid.” In a recent post, I wrote about the ways that James Baldwin, in “The Creative Process,” and Lillian Smith, in The Role of the Poet in a World of Demagogues,” approach the role of the artist in society, and I see Smith’s “Addressed to White Liberals” as a precursor, specifically to her 1965 speech.
Smith begins “Address to White Liberals” by writing, “We are facing a serious racial crisis in or American life today, a crisis that cannot be met in the old way or with the old answers if were are to avoid tragedy.” Here, Smith foreshadows her opening sentence in Killers of the Dream (1949), “Even its children knew that the South was in trouble,” and she lays bear the fact that we must pay attention because if we don’t, we will succumb to tragedy. Smith’s opening feels pertinent today as we face white supremacy and violence. We need only look at the ten African Americans murdered in Buffalo. We need only look at the backlash of the Summer of 2020.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Representative James Clyburn, when asked how we “legislate against hate,” answered, “You can only legislate a response to it. You never know what it is. It could be a severe enough punishment to be a deterrent. But if you don’t ever admit that it’s there, you can’t legislate it. No problem can be solved until you first admit that the problem exists. And we still refuse to admit that we have a race problem in this country. And it’s been there for over 400 years.” Rep. Clyburn’s comments sum up something I’ve been wrestling with a lot lately, namely how do we cure individuals of hate while also eradicating the disease of systemic racism. In order to do that, we must confront the problem head on, and that problem is one we have been facing for over 400 years.
Smith, throughout her work, talks about this as well. She elaborates on it some in “Addressed to Liberal Whites,” namely when she points out that we don’t need to refer to the problem as the “race problem” or the “Negro problem.” Instead, we need to do a “right-about-face and study the problem of the white man: the deep-rooted needs that have caused him to seek those strange, regressive satisfactions that are derived from worshiping his own skin color.” We need to look at our own reflection in the mirror and the problems that arose and continue to arise from that reflection because, as Smith puts it, “The white man himself is one of the world’s most urgent problems today,” and whites need to recognize this and “must learn to confess this.” That confession, though, requires self-reflection and work. Until one is willing to put in the work, to really delve into the “deep-rooted needs” that have led us to this point, nothing will happen.
This is what Rep. Clyburn points out. We can “legislate a response to” hate; however, that legislation merely serves as a response, or possibly as a deterrent to some. That does not cure the problem, the deep-seated, deep-rooted hatred and fear that stoke the hatred. As Smith puts it later, “Hard as it is to acknowledge, the simple truth is that the South’s and the nation’s racial problems cannot be solved by putting a loaf or bread, a book, and a ballot in everyone’s hands.” Those measures, while important as Smith notes, do not get to the core of the issue, the 400 plus year history that we, as whites, have failed and continue to fail to confront.
We have deep-seated emotions within us, emotions that highlight that individuals are “not an economic or political unit,” as Smith puts it. We are emotional beings who want to live, laugh, and love. When we act as if we can eradicate the deep-rooted hatred through economic and political means, we fail to eradicate the disease. We create a stop-gap measure. We’ve seen this. Look at the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and states moving to restrict voting. Look at the “trigger laws” already in play when and if Roe v. Wade gets overturned. Look at the move to control education and the history and literature that students encounter through book bans and laws against teaching “divisive concepts.” All of this points to the fact that while individuals may get cured the disease remains.
Rep. Clyburn concluded his interview by issuing a warning to the nation. He told The Washington Post, “The country is in danger of imploding. Democracy is in danger of disintegrating. And I don’t know why people feel that this country is insulated from the historical trends. These trends are just clear to me. This is clear to me from the day (Donald Trump) was sworn into office. His speech, if you can call it that, at the inauguration was very clear to me. But we chose to ignore it. Like we’re ignoring stuff now. This stuff is dangerous. But maybe autocracy is the future of the country.”
Unless we look at ourselves, and confront ourselves, the historical trends will continue. The attacks on democracy are all around us, and we see the move towards authoritarian or fascist control (whatever term you use) everywhere. We see a return to the states’ rights debates and the movement back to an iteration of Jim Crow type laws or mentality. We know that racism and hatred didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. People who screamed about students integrating schools, yelling racial epithets at them and throwing things at them, are still alive, with kids, grandkids, and more. Their thoughts and positions didn’t just disappear.
“To remain silent,” as Lillian Smith concludes her essay, “while the demagogues, the Negro haters, the racists, and the mentally ill, loudly reaffirm their faith in [white supremacy] and the spiritual lynching which their way of life inflicts is to be traitorous to everything that is good and creative and sane in human values.” We must take this moment and speak out and “we must take our stand” in order to combat the disease and cure the individual.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.