John C. Inscoe is the Albert B. Saye Professor of History and University Professor at the University of Georgia, the Secretary Treasurer of the Southern Historical Association, and editor of The New Georgia Encyclopedia. He has published several works, Mountain Masters, and The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Race, Ware and Remembrance in the Appalachian South. But the book which attracted the attention of our jurors is Writing the South through the Self: Explorations in Southern Autobiography.
In a time when people tend to discount the regional authenticity of the South, Dr. Inscoe has let Southerners, African, Native, and European Americans speak for themselves. In the process they define themselves as being from distinct Southern regions and cultures. And who better to tell about who and what those are. This endeavor relates so well to Lillian Smith’s quest to be heard as a Southern woman and human person. As each writer strives to give voice to self and region, we have to acknowledge Dr. Inscoe’s contributions to interethnic relationships and their importance in an ever-expanding world.
In highlighting the autobiographers’ establishing their voices and identities, Dr. Inscoe makes an important addition to showing the many faces of an identifiable South. Teaching a course with this volume as textbook, one would move well beyond the duality of WEB DuBois’ dictum of 1903. Through the writings of the present authors, we gain the knowledge to move ahead in the changing South. And contemporary America which is exactly what Lillian Smith wanted us to do. In accepting the Lillian Smith Book Award, Professor Inscoe shared the following observations:
This book grows out of a course that I have long taught at UGA on Southern Autobiography as Southern History. Both the book and the course are based on the premise that autobiographers are or can be among the most astute chroniclers of the South, in part because Southerners are, I believe more so than most Americans, intrinsically linked to place and region, and they find their identity in both. Lillian Smith certainly epitomizes that linkage more fully than most. Her classic Killers of the Dream, first published in 1948, s hardly a conventional memoir as such. In fact, what makes it so compelling and so teachable is that she had such a flair for metaphor, for analogy, for parables, anecdotes, and other forms of literary expression, including references to her own childhood and adolescence, but used all of it to probe the Southern psyche - even as she so heartily condemned the region’s institutions and social practices at the time she was writing, to an extent that no other white Southerner in the mid-century was willing to do to the ex ent that she was. And she did it all with such great insight, passion, emotional fervor and often anger. And yet there was also a human humane dimension to her work that continues to make it so relevant and teachable.
But Smith is hardly alone in writing the South through the self. Dozens of writers, black, white and both — I have a whole chapter on mixed-race identity and the struggles that authors have in identifying themselves with one race or another – together they found that they could make themselves and their identities better understood by setting their experience in the broader context of place – whether that meant the South as a whole, or more often through the particularities of households, families and communities. Thus, to read Southerners’ life stories is to find ourselves in churches, courtrooms and country stores, in classrooms, playgrounds, locker rooms, college campuses, in cotton, tobacco fields, plantation porches and slave quarters, tenant shacks, mountain cabins, trailer parks, and urban slums. We hear not only an author’s own voice; we also hear those of his or her parents, the grandparents, siblings, teachers, professors, employees, co-workers, both benefactors and oppressors.
Friends and foes, are brought vividly to life in the most skillfully constructed of these narratives. And through this cacophony of voices and viewpoints, we are exposed to a range of temperaments and perspectives well beyond those of the writer himself. We can learn a great deal about white rationales for slavery or Jim Crow from the viewpoint of black authors who lived under those regimes. Poor whites often come to life through the words and deeds of their socio-economic betters. And women can tell us an awful lot about men, whether they raise them, marry them, exploit them or support them. I’m not sure that men do as well with women.
The other key factor that makes these works so accessible and so memorable is that Southerners tend to privilege storytelling, dramatic turning points, and cathartic and revelatory moments and pack them with meaning, insight and feeling, sometimes well beyond anything intended by the authors. As Flannery O’Connor once noted, “The Southerner knows he can do more justice to reality by telling a story than he can by discussing problems or proposing abstractions. It’s actually his way of reasoning and dealing with experience.” And again, no one did so more deftly or to fuller effect than Lillian Smith, who used her story-telling skills to fuse self with South in such creative and often startling ways.
But many others have done so as well, and I try to use their writings to get at a variety of subtle and not so subtle truths about the region and the society that they claimed as their own.
Just a few examples: Where else except through autobiography could we get Pat Conroy’s account of how his black students at Beaufort, South Carolina, High School all but attacked him in expressing their grief and anger over the news or Martin Luther King’s assassination in April, 1968?
Or of Dianne McWhorter’s discovery that her father was a Klansman in Birmingham who may well have been involved in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 that killed four young girls attending Sunday school?
Or of Morris Dees, who tells of his attempt, only one week after that, to lead a prayer for the souls of those little girls I n his home church in Montgomery, Alabama, which led to a massive walk-out by most of that congregation?
In the descriptions by Maya Angelou, by Jimmy Carter, by Russell Baker, of local African American celebrations of radio broadcasts of Joe Louis 1930s victories over white opponents, as they witnessed them in Plains, Georgia, Stamps, Arkansas, and Baltimore, respectively?
Anne Moody, John Lewis, Virginia Spencer, William Morris and others have recounted how traumatized they were as adolescents to the news of the brutal lynching of fourteen year old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955, and yet no two of their responses were remotely alike. Lillian Smith, who was hardly an adolescent in 1955, in some ways had the most unique response to that crime, at least that I know if.
Where else could we see Seventh Grader Charles March on the first day of the 1970 school year in Laurel Mississippi as his junior high school integrated for the first time, wearing his most fully-padded winter coat to guard against the attacks he anticipated from his new black classmates, and the reasons he found out that he didn’t have to bundle up on the second day?
Or see sharecropper Mae Bertha Carter collapse on her bed and pray every day for several weeks as she sent several of her children off on a school bus to enroll as the only black students in the white schools of Sunflower County, Mississippi in 1965, and only come to life again as she counted all seven as they got off that bus at the end of the day, as she related to Connie Curry in Silver Rights, her classic account of that ordeal?
Or to hear Henry Louis Gates admit that there are aspects of segregation that he and his family missed when it ended, most notably the sense of security and camaraderie and even cuisine, that the Jim Crow railroad cars offered, where they freely ate the sumptuous picnics they brought, played cards, sang and socialized, all of which was lost when they gained the privilege of sharing that space with white passengers?
Or to read Walter White’s harrowing account of being caught up in downtown Atlanta at age thirteen with his postman father as the infamous 1906 race riot broke out, and of their preparations to defend their home as the white mob moved into their neighborhood the following day?
Or Catherine Dupree Lumpkin’s admission of ambivalent feelings, including sheer exhilaration, upon seeing the Birth of a Nation while a student at Breneau College in Gainesville?
Or the intrepid Delaney Sisters, Sadie and Bessie who, at over 100 years of age, recall their own participation in NAACP protests over that same film’s re-release n New York City in the 1930s?
Or to walk with Charlayne Hunter-Gault through the Arch at the University of Georgia on that January day in 1961, and follow with her the highs and lows of her first few days and those of Hamilton Holmes as they became the first African Americans to attend the State’s flagship university?
Or hear Ralph McGill admit that the two most effective though decidedly unofficial mentors he knew during his freshman year at Vanderbilt in the late 1940s were black men, one the janitor in his dormitory, and the other a part of a road crew with whom McGill worked on a summer job in Chattanooga?
Or Rick Bragg’s revelation in covering the Susan Smith story in South Carolina that his mother realized well before he the journalist did that no mother would abandon her two small children to a black man ordering her out of her car, as Smith claimed before the truth ultimately came out that she killed them herself, and all for a chance to move up a bit in the social strata of a sleepy mill town?
Or to see the impact of Katrina brought home through Natasha Trethewey’s beautifully rendered account of her Gulfport-based brother and grandmother, and the very different trials and tribulations it inflicted on each of them?
Each of these episodes makes for eminently teachable moments, both individually and collectively, and they never fail to engage students and generate lively classroom discussions about race, class, kinship, place, justice and injustice. As a genre, memoir and autobiography alone can render so much of our shared history as Southerners in such personal, intimate, and ultimately profound ways.
I’ll let Lillian Smith have the last word here. In response to critics who suggested that she was too passionate in her analysis of Southern society, she wrote to her publisher regarding the revised edition of Killers of the Dream in 1961: “Too much feeling,” she wrote, “perhaps. I could strip off a little of the pain, rub out a few words, but no, let’s leave it. For this may be the most real part of the book.” There is, indeed, the most real part of many of these narratives, in large part because they can face so fully what Richard Wright once called his “crossed up feelings,” his “psychic pain.” Or what Fred Hopson has so aptly termed “the Southern rage to explain.” It is the emotional resonance, the psychological subtext and, again, the sheer humanity that pervades these self-told narratives that allows for levels of empathy, sympathy and understanding on the part of students in ways that no textbook or scholarly monograph can duplicate. I always hope that, through their exposure to a wide range of these works, students will come to see and appreciate the South and its past in far richer and more compelling ways. It is what I also hope that readers will take from this book.