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  • Southern White Women’s Autobiographies: Social Equality and Social Change
  • Jeanne Perreault (bio)

While most claims for equality in the early twentieth century were recorded and urged by African Americans, a handful of white people also registered southern realities and undertook the “messy process by which consciousness changes” (Hall 112–113). My concern here is to examine the life writing of three white women who present themselves as root-bound, not just with family and money and domestic spaces, but with the multiply dimensioned values, beliefs, and unconscious climate of their world. In the lives of Belle Kearney, Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin, and Lillian Smith, the writers upon whom this essay focuses, social reality is circumscribed by the fundamental principle of southern life from Emancipation to the 1960s: the reality of social inequality based on race. How each of these writers treats the issue of racial “social equality” discloses something of a life and a community that seems both remote and at times disturbingly familiar. 1

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s argument that “life-story-telling—[is] a way of relatedness to others . . . a way of finding or refinding the world as a home . . . a therapy for displacement and world loss” (10) helps me to see that the writers I consider here are quite intentionally producing a kind of “biography” of their own time and place, in which their community [End Page 32] can function as a person or character they are struggling to understand and bring to life for the reader. Like Young-Bruehl’s life story-teller, these southern women are “crafting a self and conjuring a civilization into being” (36). For them, however, the material with which they must work has made extraordinary demands on them, through either huge historical changes or modest personal disturbances. Belle Kearney’s world as she and her family expected it to unfold was indeed lost to her with the emancipation of slaves. For her to “refind the world as a home,” she asserts the worldview that reduces anxiety to the greatest possible extent. Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin and Lillian Smith look to quite other powers of “conjuring” a civilization. Both were raised under the banner of the glorious Confederacy whose resistance to a crass and industrial federal government was central to a sense of southern selfhood. For them, having been children of the “Lost Cause” traditions of early twentieth century southern whites, the “potential ideal of a principled selfhood” that Young-Bruehl observes in the biographer is carried in their recognition and critique of the self their white supremacist society has constructed (2). The principled self, they seem to argue, can not find a home in a world characterized by the overt anxieties that dominated southern whites: in particular, the grievous threat represented by social equality between whites and blacks. Their writings bring into high relief the material and emotional realities of living out an ethics of equality, when even to imagine such a thing was indeed an act of conjuring.

When Booker T. Washington made his 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” address that earned him national respect and funding from whites, “social equality” was one of his central issues: he declared unequivocally that he and his followers had no interest in it, that whites and blacks would remain as “separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential” (136). To Washington, “the agitation of questions of social equality [was] the extremist folly” (137). Almost immediately, Washington was excoriated by African American intellectuals for this stand, but there is no question that he identified the key anxiety that infected white consciousness. Almost sixty years later, Ralph Ellison’s hapless Invisible Man and unnamed (or multiply named) narrator experiences the finely tuned antennae of apparently oblivious white men. Following the graphic description of the brutal Battle Royal, in which blindfolded young black men fight each other for the amusement of the white audience, the bloodied but undiscouraged young scholar is allowed to make his valedictory speech in [End Page 33] front of a boisterous group of drunken white men. They ignore or laughingly mock his earnest Booker T. Washingtonian oratory until

No doubt distracted by having to gulp down my blood...


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pp. 32-51
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