The Winner Names the Age

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1667

Lillian Smith was in her late forties when she achieved nationwide attention for her novel Strange Fruit (1944), in which she told the story of love shared by a black woman and a white man. Attention at first was on the quality of the book, but it quickly changed to...

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Lillian Smith was in her late forties when she achieved nationwide attention for her novel Strange Fruit (1944), in which she told the story of love shared by a black woman and a white man. Attention at first was on the quality of the book, but it quickly changed to focus on the fact that the author, a white woman of Southern birth and upbringing, had dared to pull aside the curtain (some would say conspiracy) of silence which her region had maintained on the subject of segregation. The present volume is an important addition to her published writings because it reveals for a general audience how Strange Fruit was but one phase of Lillian Smith’s decades-long work to help bring about desegregation in her native region.

In a talk given on April 27, 1961, to the Students Colloqium of Emory University, Lillian Smith told her audience, young Southerners enrolled at a Southern university, that one of the most important existential questions of their time was the question of segregation. She told the young people how she, like all Southerners, had been hurt by segregation, beginning in early childhood, when she learned that she could not choose her friends from among the black people, that she had to give them the back-door treatment which humiliated herself as well as those on whom it was imposed. The second way in which she was hurt, she said, was when she felt the split in her mind caused by racial segregation. She learned that it is difficult to believe in segregation and freedom at the same time. She came to see that talk of human dignity and the brotherhood of man did not square with talk of white supremacy. The third way in which segregation hurt her was through her recognition of how it shamed and hurt black people inwardly. Smith also reported that it was years later, when she was a teacher in China and saw a white policeman beat a Chinese coolie, that she realized segregation was brutalizing people. She saw that segregation was based on a mob mentality which, without control imposed by reason, compassionate love, conscience, and knowledge, can easily destroy us by leading us to commit destructive actions against what we fear.

Part I of The Winner Names the Age consists of writings in which Lillian Smith speaks to her fellow Southerners, such as her talk to the students at Emory University. The editor has arranged these eight selections in chronological order so that they give a record of Smith’s opposition to segregation from 1942 until her death in 1966. Some of the writings appeared earlier in print. For example, the first selection, “Are We Not All Confused,” appeared in 1942, shortly after the country’s plunge into World War II, in the little magazine South Today. The magazine was founded by Lillian Smith in 1936 and was published until 1945 under her direction, growing from twelve pages and twenty-seven subscribers to 110 pages and 10,000 subscribers. In her Preface to The Winner Names the Age, Paula Snelling states that South Today was an early and important stimulus for both whites and blacks in the South who questioned and even confronted the status quo of segregation.

In a way, the entire book speaks, of course, to the South, but the materials included in Part I do not have the significance for a wider audience that the materials in the second and third parts do. Certain specific points are noted over and over again in these writings as hurts for all people, but especially for children. Segregation kept all children, white as well as black, from achieving their possibilities of growth. Lillian Smith also states many times that she sees the mob as a three-part phenomenon: the obvious mob of the Ku Klux Klan, the mob which operates from behind the scenes and sustains the first mob with its economic and cultural leadership; and the mob which exists in men’s minds. But perhaps the most important point which Lillian Smith reiterated over the years was that the South was not monolithic in its support of segregation; contrary to the stereotype, there were tens of thousands of Southerners, especially among young people and women, who were willing and ready for change. Smith had enormous faith in human possibilities, in men’s ability to collaborate as human beings in the search for human ends, as she herself had worked throughout her adult life.

Part II of this volume is entitled “Words That Chain Us and Words That Set Us Free.” The editor includes in this portion of the book a series of writings and speeches in which Smith spoke about issues with a wider range and scope than the social and political struggle against segregation in the American South, although that struggle against racism is the point of departure in each of the selections. After a brief selection taken from a speech at a Washington, D.C., rally in 1951, the title essay of the collection appears. “The Winner Names the Age” was originally presented as a commencement address at Atlanta University in June, 1957. Smith begins by reminding the graduating seniors that somehow they have all been painting pictures for themselves of the human experience, and then looks at the age in which she and those graduates were living more than two decades ago. She suggests that in any age the winning ideas, the triumphant technics and attitudes are what in the long run the age is named for and remembered by.

Three new ideas faced the age, as she saw it in 1957, ideas which had potential for good or evil, were concerned with forms of power, and were new in the world. One of those forces was the new power of world opinion in a world that has instantaneous communication. The second was the presence of atomic energy and the need to control it. The third force, or ordeal, was the presence of two and a half billion people who were politically free and had political power in their hands. It was this third force which most excited Smith’s interest, since she believed that those billions of people had the capacity to destroy civilization if they were not controlled by the democratic procedures of constitutional law, the individual conscience, and human reason. The latter two, found within the individual, had to be nourished, she thought, on such great ideas as the right of every child to grow, the right of each person to be free from violence, the need for a continuing search for truth, and the concept that means are as important as ends. As she put it herself, “Here is the crux of the matter: In a democracy, enlightened, civilized public opinion must prevail; not mob opinion, but the opinion of millions of individuals who have held on to their reason and conscience, and their belief in a free, growing human being.” Her admonition then to the graduating seniors before her was that each of them, as well as she, had a responsibility to combine their efforts to insure that the great ideas would be the winners of their age.

Throughout the seven selections of this second section, the emphasis is on how human beings use and misuse language. Smith examines the power of language toward both good and evil; she examines the moral uses of language and the power of the mythic mind to produce symbols and to manipulate them; and she discusses the need for using symbols to help produce a historic reality. The final selection in Part II, an acceptance speech for the occasion of her being awarded the first Queen Esther Scroll by the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress in 1965, is “The Role of the Poet in a World of Demagogues,” a speech she was unable to deliver in person because of her battle with cancer. In that message, Smith said that the writers of our age have not come to grips with their responsibilities to mankind. By turning small issues into large ones, by distortion, she wrote, writers, too, have become demagogues. The real role of the writer, in her view, was “to see around the unknown curve, to make of a handful of slivers something whole and alive, to guess by means of intuitive wisdom what the unborn thing we call our future will grow into.”

The third part of the book, “Of Women, Men, and Autobiography,” is about a human problem different from segregation and racism: these selections concern the problems of women. The first essay, which appeared in the early 1940’s in South Today, was written in collaboration with Paula Snelling, long-time friend of the author and coeditor of the magazine for the decade of its existence. Although this selection begins as an examination into the causes of war, it moves on to view the need for new ways of looking at women and the need for men and women to be partners in civilization. The other selections also look at the problems of women, for in contemplating herself, her life, and her work, Smith was brought face to face with the belief that she as a woman had been a deprived and lesser person, just as a black during segregation had been a lesser person. Writing for the generation of women who were young in the 1950’s, she warned of the dangers of putting themselves into the mold of housewife and mother. Like the blacks, she wrote, women must break out of the mold into which they have been cast. The section concludes with three letters, two to contemporary literary critics and one to an unknown recipient, in which Smith writes of her work, of herself as a writer, and of herself as a person. The letters reveal her sensitivity to the disregard which came to be her lot. She has come to see herself as a forgotten writer, one who has slipped behind a kind of curtain, one who has become the victim of an intended, purposeful collective amnesia.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 24

Booklist. LXXV, November 1, 1978, p. 450.

Kirkus Reviews. XLVI, August 1, 1978, p. 869.

Library Journal. CIII, October 15, 1978, p. 2115.

Progressive. XLII, November, 1978, p. 59.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXIV, July 24, 1978, p. 90.

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