Saturday, March 5, 2016

Pat Conroy Receives Lillian Smith Book Award for 1981

Pat Conroy, whose loss we mourn today, received a Lillian Smith Book Award in 1981 for "The Lords of Discipline." In accepting this award, he observed as follows:

I know well what the life and spirit of Lillian Smith represents--the transcendence of the artist over the unspeakable atrocities of her time. She was the word made fire. She was the writer who possessed the indissoluble courage to say "no." She was the artist who loved the South with all her heart, but knew in her heart that the South was both glorious and completely wrong. She was the kind of Southern writer I tried to learn from and emulate--the kind who would throw up if they wrote Gone With The Wind.

I never cared that Scarlett O'Hara went hungry in the Civil War, in fact, I was glad. Because Scarlett O'Hara, and those fierce, abiding citizens like her, came out of that War and created the South to which I was born. Scarlett was true to her promise and rebuilt Tara and never went hungry again. Nor did she give a damn that millions of Southerners, black and white, would be hungry from the time they were born until the time they died. Give me Lillian Smith; let who will take Margaret Mitchell. Give me Nat Turner over Rhett Butler. Let me walk the long miles with Harriet Tubman instead of listening to Uncle Remus. Let me write love letters to the Grimke sisters of Charleston and say thanks to Abraham Lincoln. Allow me to tell General Lee that I'm delighted he lost the war and that I loathe any man, no matter how refined or cultured, who kills other men in defense of slavery. Thank General Sherman for me, for burning Atlanta, the city of my birth, the city I love, because slavery could only end in a blaze of horror and fire. Put a rose on the grave of Martin Luther King for me. Apologize for me that I once hated his guts and called him nigger. I was a white boy raised in the South and he will understand. Tell him it was people like him, people like Medgar Evers, Julian Bond, John Lewis, Will Campbell, Courtney and Elizabeth Siceloff and hundreds of others who made me look in the mirror.

When I looked in the mirror I saw Bull Connor, George Wallace, Birmingham, Selma, separate drinking fountains, fire hoses, and blood in the streets. I saw the whole bruised tragic history of the South in those Southern blue eyes. In the mirror I was seeing myself for the first time as an enemy of the family of man. When I was a teenager the South was at war again, but the most splendid and magnificent warriors in the history of America carried no weapons into battle. They carried only a single word, "Freedom," and all the guns of the South, all the troops and all the sheriffs, all the governors and fine Senators, all the armies of the Klan and the death squads from the Virginias to Mississippi learned something of the magic and the grandeur of the English language. They were defeated by that one glorious word. I wish I had been old enough or wise enough to have used that word in my childhood, but Scarlett O'Hara and I were at the country club working on our tans when the horses stormed across the Selma Bridge.

I grew up in the South and I hated niggers and Jews--in fact, I think I hated everybody. I brought remarkable skills to the art of hating. But I was granted a gift when I was taught the alphabet at Sacred Heart School on Courtland Street in Atlanta in 1950. I was taught to read and I learned to listen to the language. The learning of the alphabet began a slow revolution in my soul. I could hate niggers until Eugene Norris, a white English teacher in Beaufort, S.C., made me read Richard Wright and James Weldon Johnson and Countee Cullen and James Baldwin. I could hate Jews until the same teacher made me read The Diary of Anne Frank. I could hate everyone until synagogues were bombed, black girls were killed in church, and men and women were firehosed and bitten by dogs, beaten and clubbed at bus stations, and murdered and buried in levees in Mississippi. They taught me how to feel. Then they taught me to write and I learned that all writing is worthless without feeling; all writing is worthless without passion and faith.

In the late Sixties I became one of those tiresome Southern white changelings. You know the type. Blacks grew weary of the type very quickly, but I was irrepressible in those quickstepping days and my calling to the priesthood of civil rights, as I saw it, was to make my white brothers and sisters understand the spiritually crippling malady of racial prejudice. Always fear the convert--and at the same time I was one of the most zealously obnoxious converts to the cause of civil rights I ever encountered. I'm sure I did much accidental harm to the movement. I was perfectly ridiculous. It was at this moment in history I volunteered to teach on Daufuskie Island off the coast of South Carolina during the first year of teacher integration. This was 1969 and it now seems a thousand years ago. I had once argued persuasively with yankee classmates that the South had separate but equal school systems and still rather believed it on the day I reached the island. On the first day of school I learned that not one child in grades five through eight knew what country they lived in and my education as a Southerner was complete. I have never heard one Southern politician from Strom Thurmond to George Wallace to Herman Talmadge admit that they were monstrous, unconscionable liars when they claimed the separate but equal doctrine. They were all liars. I loathe them to this day because I once believed them. And they never had the grace to recant. They never even had the common decency to say they were wrong.

In closing, I want to tell you that the Great American South will never exist and it will always be waiting to be born. Dreams are almost never born; they are gently urged along. The Southern Regional Council has done much of this quiet gentle urging. You are desperately needed; you are required. Because of President Reagan and his administration the Southern poor and the American poor will suffer grievously. There will be hunger and sadness in the land again, in the world again.

Fight them.

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