Lillian Smith’s 1949 memoir about her Southern upbringing, Killers of the Dream, has been difficult for me to write about. This is because it’s such a mixed bag of styles and genres, but also because it’s so richly and intricately insightful about the damage done to children by training them into whiteness.
Lillian Smith was a fighter, and some of this book consists of lengthy, rather dated tirades, on such topics as communism, which Smith considered “evil”; The Bomb, which deeply frightened nearly everyone at the time (it’s strange, when you think of it, how accustomed we’ve become to the ever-present threat of complete annihilation); and the places of Southern whites and blacks within overly broad contexts, including American and world history, the future of humanity, and even the entire universe. Instead of offering an overview of the entire book, I’d like to focus on Smith’s groundbreaking conception and analysis of white identity, as something inflicted on children as a form of psychological and emotional abuse.
It may be easy for today’s white readers to distance themselves from the sickness of the collective white Southern mind, which had to find ways to justify slavery, and then when that legally ended, lynching, racial apartheid, the widespread rape of black women, and communal terrorism. However, the real value of Smith’s portrait of the damaged white Southern psyche, and of the lies it had to convince itself that it believed, is the parallels that can be found in today’s collective white consciousness.
In 1897, Lillian Smith was born into a large, prosperous family in Jasper, Florida. When she was seventeen, her father’s turpentine mills failed and the family moved to Georgia, where Smith worked as a counselor at another business of her father’s, the Laurel Falls Camp for Girls. She pursued an interest in music, which she briefly taught at a girl’s school in China. When she returned to work at the camp in
Although Strange Fruit sold well, Smith felt slighted by some racially progressive Southern reviewers who generally snubbed it, perhaps in fear of its incendiary message. As much a radical social critic as a novelist, Smith may have been spurred by critical rejection into using her next book, Killers of the Dream, to burrow deep into the white Southern mind, exposing its pain, sickness, and misery. For Smith, who was heavily invested in the general Freudian conception of human development, the Southern white consciousness was largely informed by its subconscious (or in Freudian terms the unconscious), which in turn was largely developed by significant relationships and events in early childhood.
In the South, these early formative experiences consisted of an intense mix of sex, religion, and racial obsession, all lorded over by the looming ghosts of Southern history. “Even its children knew the South was in trouble,” Smith writes in the book’s opening lines. “No one had to tell them; no words were said aloud.” Smith graphically depicts a process white children still go through (though in most cases, perhaps, to a milder degree), that of being trained by the white community into splitting their psyches. One side had natural curiosities, affections, and desires, and another was formed when they learned that so many of those natural feelings were “wrong.”
For many white Southerners, a more specific emotional split came from being raised by what amounted to two mothers, one black and one white. Regarding her own black one, Smith writes,
I knew that my old nurse who had cared for me through long months of illness, who had given me refuge when a little sister took my place as the baby of the family, who soothed, fed me, delighted me with her stories and games, let me fall asleep on her deep warm breast, was not worthy of the passionate love I felt for her but must be given instead a half-smiled-at affection similar to that which one feels for one’s dog.
I knew but I never believed it, that the deep respect I felt for her, the tenderness, the love, was a childish thing which every normal child outgrows, that such love begins with one’s toys and is discarded with them, and that somehow—though it seemed impossible to my agonized heart—I too, must outgrow these feelings. I learned to use a soft voice to oil my words of superiority. I learned to cheapen with tears and sentimental talk of “my old mammy” one of the profound relationships of my life. I learned the bitterest thing a child can learn: that the human relations I valued most were held cheap by the world I lived in.
Smith goes on to examine the damaging psychic effects of such relationships on white girls, and on white mothers and wives, in a time and place “that values color more than children.” As for boys and men, as other writers have since explained (including perhaps most vividly, James Baldwin, in a short story about a lynching called “Going to Meet the Man”), being suckled and raised by a mammy instilled a life-long confusion about sexual desire. Heterosexual white male desire became torn between forbidden, and thus exciting, black women and exalted, and thus undesirable, white women.
As Smith writes of white boyhood,
Because white mother has always set up right and wrong, has with authority established the “do” and the “don’t” of behavior, his conscience, as it grows in him, ties its allegiance to her and to the white culture and authority which she and his father represent. But to colored mother, persuasive in her relaxed attitude toward “sin,” easy and warm in her physical ministrations, generous with her petting, he ties his pleasure feelings. . . .
A separation has begun, a crack that extends deep into his personality. . . . He feels deep tenderness for his colored nurse and pleasure in being with her, but he begins to admire more and more the lovely lady who is his “real” mother.
As a result of these and other fundamentally confusing lessons, Southern white men were often rendered emotionally impotent, and they responded by taking their repression-induced frustrations out on themselves, their families, and on black people. Smith doesn’t flinch from pulling the curtain back on these shame-ridden areas, including the most horrific results of the Southern dedication to whiteness, rape, mob violence, and sexually obsessive lynchings, where the private parts of male victims were commonly cut into pieces and distributed as souvenirs.
Smith’s greatest talent lies in conveying the tortured contortions that the minds of such children learned to perform in response to harsh, yet barely spoken commands about race, sex, religion, and their own bodies. These are the kinds of scripted behaviors that become habits in adulthood:
We believed certain acts were so wrong that they must never be committed and then we committed them and denied to ourselves that we had done so. Our minds were split: hardly more than a crack at first, but we began in those early years a two-leveled existence which we have since managed quite smoothly.
The acts which we later learned were “bad” never seemed really “bad” to us; at least we could find excuses for them. But those we learned were “bad” before we were five years old were CRIMES that we could not excuse; we could only forget. Though many a southerner has lived a tough hardened life since the days his mother rocked him until his eyes were glazed with sleep, his anxiety is, even now, concerned largely with the moral junk pile which he wandered around in when a little child.
Now, though your body is a thing of shame and mystery, and curiosity about it is not good, your skin is your glory and the source of your strength and pride. It is white. And, as you have heard, whiteness is a symbol of purity and excellence. Remember this: Your white skin proves that you are better than all other people on this earth. Yes, it does that.
Smith goes on to remark, well ahead of her time, that it wasn’t until adulthood that she learned that “no one had thought much about skin color until three or four centuries ago when white folks set out from Europe to explore the earth.” As her memoir shows, and as the manifestations of today’s racial trainings continue to show, the significance placed on fictional differences in skin color since then is incredibly persistent, and in many ways, simply astonishing.
One especially strange feature of the dominant group’s racial identity is a certain blankness that results in defining itself in terms of purity, in terms, that is, of what it is not, as much as what it is. White people don’t like to think as deeply as Smith asks them to about what it means to be white, perhaps because, “most of all, we dread to confront the emptiness that is revealed at the center of our peoples’ lives.”
While Killers of the Dream sold poorly and faded from view as Smith went on to produce other works of fiction and non-fiction, she published a revised edition in 1961, and its insight found an appreciative audience among fighters of the Civil Rights Movement. As John Inscoe writes, “The black college students who staged the first sit-in in
I find Smith’s book so compelling today because what she describes as “the training given white children” still happens. Of course, very few white children have black “nurses,” and such things as legalized racial segregation and organized lynchings are things of the past. Thus, the training itself is different. But it still happens.
If, for instance, it’s fairly common knowledge that non-white children continue to struggle with a false, socially induced sense of inferiority, then don’t many white children also enjoy the opposite? As I’ve written before, white children do generally enjoy a sense of superiority, and it’s just one of the many lessons imparted by the white community’s ongoing efforts to teach their children to act white.
But while this sense of superiority is usually life-enhancing in material and other ways, it's also delusional, and it's just one of many delusions about life in America that are inflicted on white children. Their inability to really see and understand their own racial membership, and its significance to their own lives, to the degree that black children quickly do, is another one, and so is the consequent and false sense of themselves as mere individuals, instead of as people affected in innumerable ways by their racial status. Being rendered delusional, then, is one general form of racial abuse inflicted on white children, and it's only one of several others forms.
What we could use today is another Lillian Smith, a deep-diver who can show us how the white community continues to inflict emotional and psychic abuse on the hearts and minds of its own children.