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Lillian Smith discusses her books; part 3

BROADCAST: Nov. 11, 1961 | DURATION: 00:29:04


Content Warning: This conversation includes racially and/or culturally derogatory language and/or negative depictions of Black and Indigenous people of color, women, and LGBTQI+ individuals. Rather than remove this content, we present it in the context of twentieth-century social history to acknowledge and learn from its impact and to inspire awareness and discussion. Lillian's Smith first book was "Strange Fruit." Smith said people that were reading that book covered up the book jacket so no one could see the title of the book. Smith explained that her 2nd book, "One Hour," sold at the dime store for five dollars a book. In the last part of this interview, Smith reads from her book, "Killers of a Dream.'


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Lillian Eugenia Smith And, and all that we are thinking about today is in that chapter.

Studs Terkel Again, the very fact you mention this again recalls to me a word you used earlier in reference to your childhood in the South and Mr. Thomas's reference to his parents and his pacifism and, the--"ritual," this word occurs to me again and again, and I can't get it out of my mind, it's like a cannonball rolling--

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes.

Studs Terkel And I wonder if it isn't ritual to which we are enslaved, and ritual is a simple thing to break, really.

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes.

Studs Terkel This ritual--

Lillian Eugenia Smith It is

Studs Terkel And that keeps us schizophrenics.

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes, and I think that this has happened to us.

Studs Terkel The "we" and the "they" of the international situation, for

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes, that's right. And you see, we sometimes will pick out a few phrases and make an idol of them, begin to worship them, and then we create a ritual around them. The phrase "white supremacy" is, is a, is a kind of religion, is an idolatrous religion. We make an idol of whiteness, of white skin color. And then what do, do we do? We create rituals, you see, to keep us genuflecting to these idols, you know, and the psychoanalyst Freud--no, no, not Freud, Fromm, has written some excellent things. He has a very earthy wisdom I think, very practical way of saying things. And in talking about God and religion, he said this: "We may not ever know God, how could a human being? We may not ever even be sure we've gotten anywhere near, but one thing we can be absolutely su--certain of, is whether we are worshipping an idol." And I thought that was wonderful. No, really wonderful. And I think that we, so many of us have, oh, I think the Russians are worshipping political idols and I think we have for a long time in this country spent a great deal of our energy and thought worshipping idols of all sorts. This book, you know, I always sound so serious when I speak about it, but actually, when I go back and pull out these incidents of my childhood, some of them are enormously funny, you know, of the, the way the little children felt during a religious revival when the old-fashioned revivalists talk so much, you know, about hell, and how the children felt about these things. And I have the feeling that that most people identify with that chapter of, of my generation anyway, perhaps not yours quite so much. But mine, and many people read this with great laughter, because it's a kind of releasing laughter, you see, they can see the terror that they felt when they were small

Studs Terkel The terror of James Joyce that he used in the "Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man" when he first heard the sermon--

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes.

Studs Terkel About sin and hell.

Lillian Eugenia Smith Oh, yes.

Studs Terkel The same terror he felt. You have a chapter I notice called "Three Ghost Stories".

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes.

Studs Terkel What's the inference there?

Lillian Eugenia Smith By the way, I've written a new book about ghosts called "Don't Take a Ghost Along Unless", and the unless means don't take a ghost along unless you know where to keep him. And, it's a lighter book than most of mine and I enjoyed, you know--

Studs Terkel Have you written, by the way, this is your first light work? Is your first work in

Lillian Eugenia Smith Well, yes, although I think that, that both of my novels, "Strange Fruit" and "One Hour", have a great deal of laughter in them. Oh, it's often laughter, you know, that hurts a little bit, but it's, it's laughter. This, this little book that I've just done, is, I think funny. No? People differ about what they think. It's funny, but to me--

Studs Terkel They have a wry humor.

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes, to me, it's funny. There's a, there's a little something like biting into a persimmon maybe, you know, and feeling--

Studs Terkel A

Lillian Eugenia Smith Wry, wry is right. The ghost stories, I insist that our politicians, at least, and their henchman not only in the South, but all over the country. I was in Kalamazoo this week, and I heard people talking there the way we used to talk in Georgia. And I said to them, "Do you know one thing I'm certain of? White Southerners have been marvelous missionaries when they come North, because you're saying the same things here in Kalamazoo, some of you, you know, that I heard in Georgia when I was even a child. But, I, I, these three ghost stories are the experiences of the South. They have to do with the more intimate relationships between men and women. And, and I tell these stories and I say they're just ghost stories, if we could let them go they wouldn't haunt us anymore.

Studs Terkel There's something I want to ask you. I don't recall If I asked you this during our last conversation or not. Your status in the community, which you--you still live in this small Georgia town?

Lillian Eugenia Smith I live in a North Georgia town up in the mountains, and I've been through all kinds of things. "Strange Fruit" shocked people, they weren't--they had known me as my father's daughter. That was a sum--there is a summer resort. We used to go there from North Florida. I was born in a town where there were more Negroes than whites in the real Deep South. Then, this was our summer home. My father and mother settled there in their old age and I had account there. So people knew us that way. Then suddenly, you see, I wrote "Strange Fruit", and I'd always been rather quiet, and, and never, um, shocked people for the fun of shocking them. I've always been a dissenter, but I've always said that I dissented about rather big things and didn't bother too much, you know, about the little ones too often, and then this book came out and just scared people to death! And they went around reading it and and lending it to each other, and they'd put it in brown paper sacks. You know, nobody dared take "Strange Fruit", open. It was just as if something naked or something and they couldn't do it. But, now let me

Studs Terkel tell It

Lillian Eugenia Smith Well, let me tell you what happened to "One Hour". You know, I was on this, this program two years ago.

Studs Terkel It was your second book, "One Hour", you were

Lillian Eugenia Smith No, no, that was my fifth

Studs Terkel Oh, it was your fifth? I'm behind times.

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yeah, you're behind times. "Killers of the Dream" is my second book, which is being brought

Studs Terkel I see. Now I [follow it?].

Lillian Eugenia Smith Then I did "The Journey", which is a totally different kind of book. And then I did "Now Is the Time", which is a little book about segregation. But "The Journey" is not. Then I did "One Hour", which had to do with a young scientist, a young priest, a young modern dancer, and their relationships with each other. And I was halfway through the book before I realized that it was the church and art and science, you know, coming in, in conflict with each other. And then the little eight-year-old girl who accused the scientist of having sexually molested her. And that is quite a story, that book is. Well, anyway, where "Strange Fruit" scared everyone to death in this small mountain town of 1300, "One Hour" sold at the 10-cent store at five dollars a copy. One hundred and ten copies.

Studs Terkel In your town.

Lillian Eugenia Smith In a town of 1300. And everybody read it, and everybody loved it, and they read all of my books now. So the feeling, you see, has changed. It went through extreme shock, then there was a certain amount of hostility. And then people began to say, "Well, you know, she may have something. Let's really see what it is that, is that's she so concerned with." And then they began to read my book seriously. And they do now, they, they take everything I do quite seriously and with great friendliness,

Studs Terkel This is interesting. Has the town--

Lillian Eugenia Smith Isn't

Studs Terkel Itself altered to some extent?

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes, it had. Two years ago we decided in Georgia that we had to persuade Governor Vandiver that the people of Georgia did not want their schools closed if integration came, and so I decided that I'd ask the women of the town if they would be willing to do something. And I knew I was sort of stepping out on a limb, because they had read my books, I had talked with them, but, you know, now I was really trying to make them take a position. So I thought, "Well, we'll get 25 women to sign the telegram, send, send it to Vandiver, and tell him that we want our schools kept open even though they're integrated. Well, I got 25 in about half an hour, and they all seemed so happy to sign the telegram. And they, some of them said, "We have been wondering what we could do." So then I thought, "Well, I'll try 50." Within two hours I had 50, and I fin--ended up with 150 of the most prominent women of the town, who sent this telegram to the governor. And it might interest you to know that while we--I was doing this, other women in other towns had thought of the same idea, and we finally got 14,000 women in the state.

Studs Terkel And the schools were not closed.

Lillian Eugenia Smith And the schools stayed open in Atlanta. Don't you see? And we believe that now since Atlanta has done it, the rest of us can do

Studs Terkel Well, here is a very point. I mean, you have proved it dramatically in life. The point that an individual can, that is, the very nature of what you did, did alter a situation.

Lillian Eugenia Smith It

Studs Terkel For the better.

Lillian Eugenia Smith I think, actually--

Studs Terkel Well, there's an obvious moral

Lillian Eugenia Smith And I, just in that small town, I think, for instance, Southerners often say "Killers of the Dream" waked us up. Many people didn't like it, you see, because people like to sleep, but it waked them up. And, and although many people got angry at this book, when it first came out, no one said that it was not true. Isn't that interesting? They all, they all said, "This is our life. The way we've lived it." But it hurts to see your life, you know, just open up before you sometimes. But this time we have the feeling that people are not, people are going to like to read it this time, and they're not going to be shocked the way they were 12 years ago.

Studs Terkel But there's been some revision in this since the time you last wrote this.

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes.

Studs Terkel Since the time

Lillian Eugenia Smith To bring it up to, to bring it up through '61, so that I'm talking in this about in the last chapter I had mentioned things that are happening in Russia, in Germany today. What is happening with the African nations, and also I've talked about the sit-in students, and is a great deal in here about the sit-in students. But, you know, there's one chapter in here that I like very much. And, you know, people often wonder which of their chapters they would always like to hold on to if anything happened. I don't know that I can find it quickly, but it's two men and a bargain, and I think perhaps in some ways it's the most concentrated and succinct statement that I've ever made about economics. You see, I tend to write about the human being, all of the human being: his imagination, his mind, his heart, his feelings, what he believes, what he thinks, and so on. And I don't just write about economics because actually, in a sense, you know, that isn't my field at all, I'm a writer. Therefore, the human being is my field. But I did write this thing years ago as a little folk, uh, almost like a folk ballad, only it's in words, and I won't read much of it, but--

Studs Terkel Oh, please do.

Lillian Eugenia Smith I would love to read just a bit. "Once upon a time down South, Mr. Rich White made a bargain with Mr. Poor White. He studied about it a long time before he made it, for it had to be a bargain Mr. Poor White would want to keep forever. It's not easy to make a bargain another man would want to keep forever. And Mr. Rich White knew this, so he looked around for something to put in it that Mr. Poor White would never want to take out. He looked around and his eyes fell on the Negro. 'I've got it,' he whispered. He called in Mr. Poor White and said, 'I've been thinking a lot about you and me lately, how hard it is first to make a living down here with no money and the rest of the country against us. To keep my farm and mill going the way I want them to, making big profit out of little capital I have to keep wages low. You can see that; it's the only way I can make as much as I want to, make as quickly as I want to make it, and folks coming in from the North have to keep wages low, too, for that's our Southern tradition. It's a good way for us rich folks, and it's not bad for you, either, for you're smart enough to see that any job is better than no job at all. And you know, too, that whatever is wrong with the South isn't my fault or your fault, but it's bound to be the Yankees' fault, or the fault of those freight rates and foreigners, for instance, the nigger. You don't need me to tell you that ever since the damn Yankee freed him, the nigger's been scrounging you, pushing you off your land, out of your job, jostling you on the sidewalks, all-time biggity. If he hadn't been freed, he'd never bothered you, for I could have kept him on the farm and bossed him, like I bossed him for years. But the damn Yankees always know better, don't they? Here I am visiting my mill with no time to boss him, and here he is pushing, causing a lot of trouble. Thing I can't forget is, your skin's the color of my skin, we are both made in God's image. We're white men, and white men can't let a nigger push them. There are two jobs down here that need doing: somebody's got to tend to the living, and somebody's got to tend to the nigger. Now I've learned a few things about making a living you too no-count to learn, because if you could, you'd be making money same way I'm making it: things about jobs and credit, prices, hours, wages, [folks?] and so on. But one thing you can learn easy, any white man can: is how to handle the Black man. Suppose now you take over the thing you can do and let me take over the thing I can do. You boss the nigger and I'll boss the money. How about it?'" And then it goes on, he tells him all about it. And then he says, "If you ever get restless when you don't have a job or your roof leaks or the children look puny and shoulder blades stick out more than natural, all you need do is remember you're a sight better than the Black man, and remember this too: there's nothing so good for folks to do, as to go to church on Sundays. To show you I believe this, I'll build you all the churches down at the mill and on the farm you want. Just say the word. But if you don't have much to do and begin to get worried it inside and mad with folks, and you think it'd make you feel a little better to lynch a nigger occasionally, that's okay by me, too. And I'll fix it with the sheriff in the Georgia, in the court and our newspapers so you won't have any trouble afterward. But don't expect me to come to the lynching, for I won't be there." The white man as he's working out his bargain with the poor white man. And then it goes on and on and on, as a Negro begins to say, "But I don't have a bargain." And then he went to the Supreme Court to find out. It's a little ballad type

Studs Terkel of It's

Lillian Eugenia Smith You see, a sort of fable, and it goes on and on, and then finally oh, he tries all kinds of things. "And Mr. Rich, Rich White, seeing these things that were happening, would remember. He would remember that Jim Crow is important to everybody. And he'd tell his newspaper man and his preacher and his teacher and his children and the poor whites' children who worked for him and all the others, that they must remember not to talk about human dignity and love and brotherhood, for talk like that stirs up trouble. They must remember the bargain and hush. Hush their talking, hush their mind from its questions, hush their hearts from feeling human. If Mr. Poor White broke the bargain, if he talked too much about unions, or tried to organize new unions where there hadn't ever been unions or tried to get Negroes into unions, then the other poor whites fixed him. Most times it was Mr. Rich White's idea, sometimes the poor whites, but they fixed him. They flogged him or feathered and tarred him or ran him out of town, or shot him down like you would a hound dog, and they knew they could do it and nothing would happen. They knew they were free to lynch and flog, to burn and threaten each other. And nothing would happen, for they had a bargain. They had a bargain with Mr. Rich White, and he'd fix the police and the papers and the court and the judge and the jury and the preacher so nothing would happen. Mr. Poor White felt his power and he used it. He raised hell with Negroes on buses and streetcars and day coaches whenever he felt the need to raise hell. He threw books out of libraries and tore up magazines whenever he didn't like what was in them, and sometimes just because he could not read or write, he had fun tearing them up. He decided when something could or couldn't be taught whenever he wanted to. He decided on folks' morals: when they could drink liquor and when they couldn't, how they must treat their wives, what they could say about sex and God and science and country and the Negro, and how they could say it and the manners they could use toward other people." And it goes on and on and on and on.

Studs Terkel Oh boy, what a powerful fable

Lillian Eugenia Smith You know, it is a nice fable. I wrote this for my magaz--

Studs Terkel The truths that it, that it, in there--

Lillian Eugenia Smith I wrote it for the magazine in 1942. That's a long time ago. And when it was sent, when I sent the magazine to Atlanta--

Studs Terkel This is your magazine.

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes, my magazine, "South Today". And when it was sent to Atlanta to be printed, the printers refused. Not the printers, but the man who owned the printing shop.

Studs Terkel The moral of the fable is

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes, and he wouldn't do it. Wasn't that lovely? I liked that so much. And then, then at the last, it was a strange thing. I put it in the book, and then I always felt the last three pages were wrong, and I didn't know why. I couldn't think of a, an ending. This is telling you a writer's troubles. And then this last fa--spring, when I was redoing this, and the bargain was breaking and unions were coming South and the rich man's children were speaking up, as I was a child, you know, of a rich mill owner, and all of this was happening and people didn't know--everybody was very disturbed. Oh, it came to me that the ending was something like this: "And that Mr. Rich White was asking Mr. Poor White why did even his own children take the position he was taking? Mr. Poor White, of course, didn't know. And then a voice said to them, 'None but the weak,' said a voice, 'Crave to be better than. Strong men are satisfied with their own strength. There's another way to make bargains.' But Mr. Rich White and the poor white did not understand the words. 'Must be a communist talking,' said Mr. Rich White, 'Or somebody un-American.' 'Yeah,' said Mr. Poor White. 'Must be one of them folks. What'd you think, nigger?' And Mr. Negro said, 'Yassuh.' Then he chuckled. Then he began laughing, and he laughed and laughed and laughed. He just couldn't stop laughing. 'What's the matter with him?' said Mr. Rich White. 'Sounds like he's tickled,' said Mr. Poor White."

Studs Terkel You know the play "Purlie Victorious"?

Lillian Eugenia Smith I haven't seen it yet.

Studs Terkel But the theme apparently of--

Lillian Eugenia Smith I'm very anxious to see

Studs Terkel sitting stereotype.

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel This beautiful. I thought of that and I thought of, because Ossie Davis, the young actor--

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes.

Studs Terkel Has done--apparently, your fable is, say, more than a fable. It's a fable, of course, based on a overwhelming truth. The way you, of course, I must say that your reading and your style both are mentioned here by, by Pearl Buck, who writes of your book, of Lillian Smith's book, "Killers of the Dream": "Keen and clean as a polished sword." I thought of that as you were reading the fable. "Every word speaks because it reveals," I think the key word here is it reveals. "This is the most telling book that has yet been written on the frightful handicap of race prejudice. A handicap that this book proves infinitely," writes Pearl Buck of the book, "More severe for those who harbor the prejudice than those against whom it works in the prison. Of the white is in the prison. Even more, the bars are thicker than those."

Lillian Eugenia Smith And now, today we see in the world context, don't we, and we realize that that we, the Western people, the white people of the world, have gotten ourselves into a awful trap. It's very hard to be wise enough, isn't it, to figure a way out for us.

Studs Terkel At the very beginning--and by the way, I should point out that this is Norton, Norton Press, "Killers of the Dream" republished by Lillian Smith, our guest this morning. At the very beginning I asked what made you tick. And you told about your childhood, and to some extent did Mr. Thomas, too. And where does this leave us today? Now, you continue. You had your difficulties in many ways, I know, facing a community, not fully accepted. And you, you had physical troubles and you have seemed to overcome. And I suppose--I don't want to use the cliche word "spirit" or "will," but nonetheless, I suppose it has to be used. There.

Lillian Eugenia Smith Well, we don't know quite what spirit is, do we? But we do know that it's important to us. No, as I see this whole business of this ritual of segregation, this, which I think all comes back to the question, "Who am I?" I think people who are sure that they are human beings and are certain that they are persons never bother about racial prejudice or of religious

Studs Terkel You know how I shall end this program? By asking you a question, Lillian Smith. I asked this question of James Baldwin, who wrote--

Lillian Eugenia Smith Such a nice

Studs Terkel "Nobody Knows My Name". And the question I asked him was this: and you give me the cue. As we say goodbye right now, Lillian Smith. Who are you?

Lillian Eugenia Smith Yes, and we're asking it all of our lives and we're creating that "Who," aren't we?

Studs Terkel Well, tell me.

Lillian Eugenia Smith Who am I?

Studs Terkel Who are you?

Lillian Eugenia Smith A questioner.

Studs Terkel I think that, that, that is about the best answer I've heard. [For now?]. A questioner. James Baldwin, said, "I'm trying to be a writer and as honest as I can and pray for rain." And Lillian Smith says--

Lillian Eugenia Smith Lovely.

Studs Terkel Lillian says, "Who am I? A questioner."

Lillian Eugenia Smith One who--I feel very happy if I can take a small question, write a book and turn it into a large question.

Studs Terkel Thank you very much. Lillian Smith.

Lillian Eugenia Smith Well, I, I think I could remember a whole book full of memories of the large Chris, Christmases that the Smith children had together. There were nine of us, mother and dad and Big Grandma and Little Grandma and all the cousins who lived with us, and then many of our Negro friends who were truly friends, because we were then too young to know, you know, how to ah, discriminate, and I'm glad we were too young, but one memory that stays in my mind, a great deal. We were a big family, we lived in a house that I always say never ended, and we, we had perhaps more than our share of money when we grew up, and more than our share of, of, the rich advantages of life. But during the first World War, we lost everything in the world that we had. Our big home was gone and my father's mills were gone and everything was gone. And we had only the summer cottage up in the mountains where I now live. So we moved up there. I was ready for college, I couldn't go. My younger sister was ready for college, she couldn't go, and we didn't quite know what our future was. We later worked our way through school, but at that moment we didn't know what we could do, and we were scared. We kids were scared, and I think Mother and Dad were frightened, too. But they were very calm and very quiet. And we made do in a way that we had never had to. We lived almost like pioneers that year. And we happened to have a few apple trees on the place, so we had apples to eat, and my father raised a few pigs and mother raised some hens, and they had a cow, so we had milk and butter, and we were wondering how we were going to get through Christmas. The three younger ones were there, the six older ones were gone all over the world, scattered, and I thought, "Well, we'll, we'll just make like it isn't Christmas, and, and then it will be all right." But I had forgotten my father. He was very big, generous, warmhearted, a man who always thought of other people's troubles a great deal more than he thought of his own. And there were convicts up there building a road. And my father, as was his way, because he really was a strange mixture of hard-boiled businessman and good neighbor. He had gone to see these convicts, and he was just appalled by the way they lived, their living quarters and so on. So he came home, he told my mother about it, and after he finished telling her, he said, "Mama, don't you think it would be fine to have the convicts for Christmas dinner?" My mother couldn't reply for a moment, but then she said, "Yes, Papa. If that is what you would like, we will do it." So Dad invited 48 convicts and their guards to eat Christmas dinner with us. And mother, the pork that she had to use all winter, you know, she used most of it that day, cooking the dinner, and she made her coconut custard pies and sweet potato pies and everything. She just used up everything that she had garnered and collected for the whole winter. And we had this big Christmas dinner, and then, oh, the guard said to my father, "You don't want all of the men, do you?" Meaning, "You don't want the Negroes," And my father said, "Why, of course we wouldn't leave any of the boys at home, would we?" And so they all came, Black and white, marching up the hill to our house, and there they were with the guards and they were sitting out in front on the grass, and, and my father brought out the Bible. And as he had done every Christmas of our lives, he read "And it came to pass," the, I think it's the third chapter of Luke, and oh, he had always--anyway, the chapter where, where Mary and Joseph were going, you see, to pay their taxes and the Baby was born and that chapter we had always had on at Christmas morning. So Dad picked up the Bible and went out and read it to all these convicts. Some of them were killers, some of them were rapists, some of them had robbed banks. They were all there. And so after Dad had talked to them, he asked one of the murderers, would he go in and help my mother get things ready to bring out. And the murderer said, "Oh, yes, he'd be real glad to. And he went in, and two other murderers said they'd go in, too, and help bring out the food. And the guard, you know, stepped up to sort of go in, too, and my father said, "Now, you don't have to go in there. Those boys are all right. You just leave them alone now. They'll be all right." And so here they came with the food and all of these people--the rapist was very sweet and very gentle to my mother, and he was helping. Everybody was fantastic, you know? And here my father was treating them all like human beings, like wonderful guys. And they loved it, you know? They responded. And I loved it, too. I was just 19 years old, and I thought it was a marvelous story.