The Winner Names the Age: A Collection of Writings by Lillian Smith, Edited by Michelle Cliff

Lillian Smith (1897-1966) was a writer of extraordinary power and an activist who refused the roles pushed on women of her time. Raised in Florida, she lived the rest of her life, aside from school in Baltimore and three years teaching in China, in rural Georgia. In her novels, essays, and lectures, she dissected her Southern culture and with clarity and passion laid bare the effects of segregation on both black and white. Her most famous novel is Strange Fruit inspired by Billie Holliday's rendition of that song. It raised a storm of protest on both sides of the issue and inspired future Civil Rights workers.

This collection of magazine articles, speeches, and letters from 1942 to her death is arranged in three parts. The first part specifically addresses the South and segregation, both her recommendations for change and her analysis of their necessity. The second part moves beyond the South, extending discussions of discrimination and racism to wider, related issues about what it mean to live together in a postwar world that is becoming more global even as it feels the new threat of nuclear obliteration. The pieces collected in the third part tackle gender issues, men's and women's roles and the cultural myths behind them.

I first heard of Lillian Smith 44 years ago when I met her sister, Esther Smith, then a college professor. Fresh from the riots following Martin Luther King's murder and working for change through the Civil Rights movement, I tore through Lillian Smith's books and have carried them with me ever since. I hesitated to read this collection, though these pieces were new to me, because I was afraid they would seem dated and, driven by her opposition to segregation, irrelevant in a time when integration is the law.

How wrong I was! These pieces speak directly to today, to the racism that may have been driven out of the buses and schools and lunch counters, but thrives in code words and hate-mongering rants on internet and television. Speaking of ideas fundamental to our civilization, such as that “every one in the community has a right to be protected from violence” and that each person has a right to speak freely and hold different beliefs (if they do not harm others), she says:

When men stop believing in these great ideas, when they silence their conscience and trample their reason, when they make their own image their god—or their economic or political beliefs their god—then we are in for trouble. For then, they hold even constitutional law cheap. They sneer at the high courts of their government; indeed, they say they obey only the laws they want to.

When this happens, the free people with their limitless potential for growth and for good will metamorphose into the mob.

I have rarely read a more cogent diagnosis of what is wrong with the U.S. today. She also says: “War is the human race's Number Two enemy. Number One enemy is the creeping, persisting, ever-widening dehumanization of man. This is the disease of which nuclear war may be the terminal symptom.”

And amid the current news stories of scandalous attempts to prevent people from voting, drug tests for welfare applicants, and the tide of testing that is drowning our schools, what could be more relevant than this reaction to the use of IQ tests as poll tests?

But the real answer to this talk of valid and invalid tests is that it simply does not matter. If you are morally civilized you treat people right regardless of their intelligence or their looks or their weakness or strength. You don't keep a crippled man from voting or riding the bus; you don't bar a poet from a restaurant because he is a genius and the rest of us are not; you don't cheat a child who can't count his money.

I have written about my dismay at seeing the old myth of Eve destroying Adam's paradise updated, so I was particularly interested in Smith's examination of the history of women's roles: from the fear of Eve's discerning gaze to the dichotomy of Madonna/bitch, Goddess of Mercy/Kali the Destroyer, Beatrice/witch. She suggests that in the age of reason, the dichotomy in the way women were viewed persisted but in the context of race. Also during the 19th century, she points out, came the new role that Ibsen wrote of: “the little girl, the woman who never grew up (and therefore could never dominate a man), the doll who lived in the doll house.” She writes movingly of the generation of women, more educated and skilled than any previous generation, who after World War II gave up their jobs and allowed themselves to be shut up in suburban boxes.

Certainly another reason why this book is so readable is Cliff's careful editing. The chronology within the subject groupings and the deletions to avoid redundancy enable the reader to follow the progress of Smith's thinking and feel the power of her arguments. These exhortations to treat one another humanely are directed at our reason. They may not convince the mob, but if we are morally civilized we will listen.

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