Pilgrimage to Old Screamer Mountain

This morning, I am heading to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains for a two-week writing retreat at a place I discovered quite by accident in 2011. I’d been searching online for an affordable writing residency when I stumbled upon the Lillian E. Smith Center in Clayton, Georgia. To find a place of solitude and beauty in the mountains of north Georgia was itself a source of great joy; to be on the very mountain where Lillian Smith wrote Strange Fruit (1944) and Killers of the Dream (1949) was more than I could have imagined.

I had grown up hearing stories about Lillian Smith and her groundbreaking work as a Southern white writer and activist dedicated to dismantling segregation and white supremacy. Her photograph hung in our family home and her name was spoken with reverence. When people asked if she was kin to us, my father answered, “Lillian Smith is a chosen ancestor; part of that great cloud of witnesses that helps us carry on.”

As they raised their four children, my parents often talked with gratitude about the people, books, and events that had awakened them, shaken them to their core, helped them critically examine their racist conditioning, and inspired their anti-racist activism. They often voiced a deep indebtedness to Lillian Smith. My father discovered her essays while in college in the late 1930s at Birmingham-Southern. Never had he encountered a white voice like hers, calling for a desegregated South. Thirty years later, when I was in high school, my father gave me Killers of the Dream and encouraged me to savor every word.

In preparation for my first trip to the Lillian Smith Center, I reread Killers of the Dream. For years, I have felt a primal, almost mystical, connection to Lillian Smith. Maybe because she displayed such brazen disloyalty to the ironclad norms of white womanhood. Maybe because she dared to bare her own soul in autobiographical writing, knowing that segregationist critics would dismiss it as “unscientific” and “narcissistic.” Maybe because she brilliantly enumerated the unholy alliance between white supremacy and white Christian churches. Maybe because she described with scalpel-like precision the shriveled up heart of whiteness. Maybe because Killers of the Dream was published the year I was born. 

In 1938, my mother was among a small group of students from Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, who spent a winter weekend with Lillian Smith and her partner, Paula Snelling, at their home on Old Screamer Mountain in northern Georgia. Those two and a half days proved to be an unforgettable turning point in my mother’s young life as she and the other students stayed up late listening to Lillian read from her manuscripts and talk about the horrific costs of white supremacy.

Eighty years after my mother’s sojourn to Old Screamer Mountain, I will be embarking on my fourth writing residency at the Lillian Smith Center of Piedmont College, grateful for the stories that led me there.

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