- The Even Stranger Career of Jim Crow:Sin, Sex, and Segregation in Lillian Smith’s Silent South
So now she knew I knew she knew I knew, and I wondered how we would play out the Proust bit.—Samuel R. Delany, “Aye, and Gomorrah . . .” (1967)1
Over the last twenty-five years, the life’s work of the writer and civil rights activist Lillian Smith has proven to be a generative object of study for scholars of twentieth-century Southern literature and culture, particularly as these fields relate to ideology,2 liberalism,3 racial conversion narratives,4 temporality,5 the grotesque,6 and same-sex desire.7 For the most part, this critical interest has tended to focus on Smith’s two major works of the 1940s, her first novel Strange Fruit (1944) and her first memoir Killers of the Dream (1949). Even in those cases where her later texts—composed in a variety of genres, ranging from occasional essays, fiction, and lyrical memoirs to documentary writing and new journalism—come into consideration, these works have often been treated in isolation from, or in pointed contrast to, her earlier writings. My aim here is to use Strange Fruit’s legal troubles with obscenity in the 1940s as an occasion for suggesting how Smith’s writerly output might be re-conceived as a unified whole that is variously stimulated, provoked, disgusted, and haunted by the unmanageable appeals that words can conceivably make on bodies—appeals that seemingly thwart the efforts of reformers like herself to persuade others that their modes of organizing life and their very lives themselves must change. As they develop between the 1930s and 1960s, Smith’s responses to the power of certain “obscene” words to do rather than to merely mean come not only to influence her later shift in attention from region to cosmos (and [End Page 191] from racialist race to the human race) but also to highlight her specific contributions as a significant transitional figure in the history of twentieth-century Southern liberalism.
In what follows, then, I will contend that Smith’s essays and fiction of the 1930s and 1940s consistently represent the Jim Crow South as a region organized by obscene words that enact racial difference through the dangers said to be presented by particular forms of sexual desire. Just as certain body parts were off-limits to Southern youth, so too were certain groups of people, and Smith’s work from this period comprises an attempt to account for the ways in which sin, sex, and segregation mutually reproduced and overdetermined the efficacy of the social, cultural, and political institutions of the region. In fact, in Commonwealth v. Isenstadt (1945) the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts criticized Strange Fruit because of its artful capacity to make such linkages not only known but also overwhelmingly felt by its readers. According to the opinions in Isenstadt, whether panderingly attractive or unduly repellent, words in the novel do in fact move beyond the limits of what language ought to do to people.8 Far from being the biased observations of a group of robed censors, however, these complementary perspectives on the effectiveness of Smith’s language are shrewdly attentive to the quasi-performative functions her texts emphatically ascribe to words. In Strange Fruit in particular, Smith seeks to demonstrate how segregation turned the early twentieth-century South into the nation’s closet, whereby symptomatic inconsistencies and incoherence in a community’s knowledge could act as a guarantor for discriminating laws, behaviors, and folkways that trumped any rational appeals that a reformer might hope to make to her community. Segregation is thus obscene in Smith’s work insofar as segregationist rituals, customs, and habits are able to be followed, adopted, and embodied by means of the obscene speech acts that characterize so much segregationist discourse. It is precisely in this way that obscenity becomes understood by Smith early on as a way of representing and living race bodily.
This impasse never goes away in Smith’s writing and thinking, but it does undergo a momentous re-casting in her work of the 1950s and 1960s, when she attempts to overcome its...