By Thadious Davis
From Southern Changes
Vol. 9, No. 5, 1987, pp. 33-34, 36
When Georgia author Lillian Smith died in 1966, the Southern Regional Council established an award not only to honor her work and her memory, but also to foster in others the spirit of her courageous struggle for human rights in the South. Smith's first novel, Strange Fruit (1944), explored the human tragedy resulting from racial segregation. That novel catapulted her to fame as a white Southerner with a social consciousness who spoke out against a major problem in her native region. With the publication of Killers of the Dream (1949), she provided both an intensive psychological analysis of the effects of segregation on whites and blacks and an uncompromising call for an end to a debilitating system. Her visionary writing was accompanied by social and political activism. Whether functioning with national organizations, local groups, or personal friends, Smith committed her energy to persuading others to work for social justice and racial equality under the law.
The Lillian Smith Book Awards have been presented since 1967 in recognition of outstanding writing concerned with the Southern region. Recipients have not been restricted to Southerners, but they have been expected to contribute understanding of social issues and human problems affecting Southerners and the South. In sponsoring the awards, the Southern Regional Council recognizes those writers who have translated Smith's "struggle into terms appropriate to our own lives" today, as SRC President Paul M. Gaston puts it. Gaston points out that the intent is "honor the authors not so much for their own sakes. . . but so that others will, because of the award, learn about and read their books."
This year the Lillian Smith Book Awards have been jointly awarded in the non-fiction category to Thomas L. Johnson and Phillip C. Dunn for A True Likeness: The Black South of Richard Samuel Roberts, 1920-1936 and to Pauli Murray, posthumously, for Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. The 1987 Smith Award in the fiction category is to Mary Hood for the collection of short stories And Venus Is Blue.
A True Likeness is a collection of the photographs of Richard Samuel Roberts, a black Floridian who in 1920 moved to Columbia, S. C., where he operated a photography business in the black commercial district until his death in 1936. Selected from some three thousand extant glass plates, Roberts's photographs document the lives of blacks in Columbia and the surrounding area. They make a unique contribution to the historical record of black communities in the urban South during the period between the world wars. Roberts provided a rare glimpse into the activities and culture of emergent middle-class towns people in the early decades of the modern South. He photographed people and the artifacts of their material culture: studio backdrops, city streets, public buildings and private homes; weddings, christenings and wakes; family groups, school children and individual portraits; prominent citizens, day laborers and community leaders.
Anthony Paul Dunbar, a member of the awards committee, observed that "Not only are the pictures artistically and technically excellent but they record a life that very few people knew existed. If you read the captions to the photographs you will see the civil rights movement emerging."
Published by two regional houses, Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Bruccoli Clark of Columbia, S.C., A True Likeness is the result of a collaboration between Roberts's surviving children (Wilhelmina Roberts Wynn, Gerald E., Beverly N. and Cornelius C. Roberts) and Phillip C. Dunn, an art professor at the University of South Carolina specializing in photography.
With the support and assistance of the South Caroliniana Library's field archival program, Dunn cleaned and restored the glass negative plates, developed contact prints from which he selected "the most powerful and significant," and made exhibit-quality prints. Dunn and his co-editor Thomas L. Johnson state that the true value of Roberts's work lies not merely in its "intrinsic aesthetic appeal as a photography collection of undeniable technical finesse and formal beauty," but in "it's revelation--its true representation--of a lost world of a people whose identity was lost not only upon the white world but also upon itself." Essentially, the recovered photographs of Richard Samuel Roberts attest to the vitality of a Southern black community and deposit a cultural legacy for the descendants of that community as well as for those of a white community that never knew of its existence. His pictures recapture for all an aspect of Southern life rarely seen by outsiders and nearly forgotten by insiders; in the process, they further an understanding of the multicultural South.
PAULI MURRAY'S Song in a Weary Throat, published by Harper and Row, is memoir of self and society by a woman who insisted on her full humanity as a person of color and as a female. It recounts with unusual clarity, passion, and compassion Murray's journey toward achievement in the face of racial and sexual discrimination. Murray chose her title from a verse in her book of poetry, Dark Testament and Other Poems: "Hope is a song in a weary throat." Hope is the keynote that sustained her through long years of commitment to civil rights and moral justice. Robert J. Norrell, chairman of the awards committee, termed it a "powerful statement of one person's challenge to a world that put a lot of obstacles before her but that she would not let daunt her."
Murray chronicles her life as "An American Pilgrimage" which took her from early childhood in Baltimore to formative years in the black South of Durham, N.C. She presents her youthful ambitions and dreams along with the nearly devastating effects of discriminatory practices upon them. She recounts her efforts to become a lawyer during a period when both her race and sex limited her opportunities for professional education. The University of North Carolina would not admit her because of her race; Harvard University would not admit her because of her sex.
Murray not only became a civil rights attorney and legal scholar, but she also was a founding member of the National Organization for Women. From the 1930s through the 1980s, she remained a tireless teacher-activist for the advancement of blacks and women, a cause that she understood as necessary for the advancement of all Americans. In 1973, she entered the seminary and in 1977 became the first black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest. She ends her pilgrimage with an account of the celebration of her first Holy Eucharist, a communion service at the Episcopal Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, N.C., where her white and black ancestors had worshipped for generations and where she herself felt all the strands of her life as a poet, lawyer, teacher, friend, and minister come together in "the spirit of love and reconcilation [sic] drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness." Murray died in 1985 while completing Song in a Weary Throat; the book is a fitting tribute to her quest for wholeness--for herself and all Americans.
MARY HOOD'S And Venus is Blue is a collection of seven stories and title novella. Published by Ticknor and Fields, the work is about white Southerners in the contemporary world of change and transition. In these accomplished stories of physical and psychological survival, Hood shatters stereotypical views of the South. Though incorporating details of cultural reality not restricted to the South (Harlequin books, Datsun cars, etc.), she treats rural people with the expansive perception of one who recognizes the quiet valor of their determination to remain fully human in dehumanizing times. One female character envisions the world as "untrammeling. . . widening in ripples about her," and sees herself as "the stone at the center that sets things moving."
Without condescension or caricature, Hood captures the often hidden meaning of ordinary life, distills it with compassion, and renders it for others to share. Her special gift is for articulating the often unspoken conflicts of the heart among the working-class poor. A rural family man, for instance, struggles against the limits of his existence:
There was a little air stirring. The pines on tomorrow's cutting were tall against the first stars. Up toward Hammermill the sky was lighter. Cheney could see, after his eyes got sharper, the glint of the mayonnaise jar he had brought his tea in for lunch....He picked it up. the lid was missing. Cheney tossed it--it hit on something and smashed I'm so goddamn tired of being poor, he said.
His voice may not be eloquent, but the scene encompasses with accuracy and authority the contrast between the potential of the natural world and the reality of the unending human effort to create an inhabitable space within that world.
Hood lives in Georgia, whose northern foothills and mountain areas provide settings for her stories. Her fiction has evoked, for some readers, comparisons with Flannery O'Connor, another Georgian and master of the short story form. However, according to awards committee member Mary Frances Deriner, Hood's people and landscapes are neither O'Connoresque nor grotesque, but are instead the "essence of the modern South."
As of this writing in 1987, Thadious Davis was teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was a member of the committee which selected this year's Lillian Smith prize winners. Other committee members were Robert J. Norrell, Center for the Study of Southern History and Culture, University of Alabama; Mary Frances Derfner, Charleston, S.C.; and Anthony P. Dunbar, New Orleans, La. In making its selections, the committee reviewed approximately forty strong entries in fiction, history, and autobiography/memoir published between July 1, 1986, and June 30, 1987.