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Killers of the Dream

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Published to wide controversy, it became the source (acknowledged or unacknowledged) of much of our thinking about race relations and was for many a catalyst for the civil rights movement. It remains the most courageous, insightful, and eloquent critique of the pre-1960s South.

"I began to see racism and its rituals of segregation as a symptom of a grave illness," Smith wrote. "When people think more of their skin color than of their souls, something has happened to them." Today, readers are rediscovering in Smith's writings a forceful analysis of the dynamics of racism, as well as her prophetic understanding of the connections between racial and sexual oppression.

272 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1949

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About the author

Lillian E. Smith

12 books55 followers
Lillian Smith was a writer and social critic of the Southern United States, known best for her best-selling novel Strange Fruit (1944). A white woman who openly embraced controversial positions on matters of race and gender equality, she was a southern liberal unafraid to criticize segregation and work toward the dismantling of Jim Crow laws, at a time when such actions almost guaranteed social ostracism.

Lillian Eugenia Smith was born on December 12, 1897 in the America before women's suffrage to a prominent family in Jasper, Florida, the eighth of ten children. Her life as the daughter of a middle class civic and business leader took an abrupt turn in 1915 when her father lost his turpentine mills. The family was not without resources however, and decided to relocate to their summer residence in the mountains of Clayton, Georgia, where her father had previously purchased property and operated the Laurel Falls Camp for Girls.

Now a young adult financially on her own, she was free to pursue her love of music and teaching for the next five years. She spent a year studying at Piedmont College in Demorest (1915–1916). She also had two stints at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in 1917 and 1919. She returned home and helped her parents manage a hotel and taught in two mountain schools before accepting a position to be director of music at a Methodist school for girls in Huzhou, (now Wuxing, Zhejiang), China. While she was not a churchgoer and did not consider herself religious, it follows that her youthful Christian principals were challenged by the oppression and injustice she would witness there, and that this laid the foundation of her later awareness as a social critic.

Her time in China was limited however by problems back home. Her father's health was declining and she was forced to return home to the States in 1925. Back in Georgia, she assumed the role of heading the Laurel Falls Camp, a position she would hold for the next twenty three years (1925–1948). Laurel Falls Camp soon became very popular as innovative educational institution known for its instruction in the arts, music, drama, and modern psychology. Her father died in 1930, and she was left with responsibility for the family business and the care of her ill mother. It was this period of creative control over the camp, her ability to use it as a place to discuss modern social issues, combined with the pressures of caring for her ailing parents that made her turn to writing as an emotional escape.

Lillian Smith soon formed a lifelong relationship with one of the camp's school counselors, Paula Snelling, of Pinehurst, Georgia, and the two began publishing a small, quarterly literary magazine, Pseudopodia, in 1936. The magazine encouraged writers, black or white, to offer honest assessments of modern southern life, to challenge for social and economic reform, and it criticized those who ignored the Old South's poverty and injustices. It quickly gained regional fame as a forum for liberal thought, undergoing two name changes to reflect its expanding scope. In 1937 it became the North Georgia Review, and in 1942 finally settling with South Today.

In 1949, she kept up her personal assault on racism with Killers of the Dream, a collection of essays that attempted to identify, challenge and dismantle the Old South's racist traditions, customs and beliefs, warning that segregation corrupted the soul. She also emphasized the negative implications on the minds of women and children. Written in a confessional and autobiographical style that was highly critical of southern moderates, it met with something of a cruel silence from book critics and the literary community.

In 1955, the civil rights movement grabbed the entire nation's attention with the Montgomery bus boycott. By this time she had been meeting or corresponding with many southern blacks and liberal whites for years and was well aware of blacks concerns. In response to Brown v. Board of Ed

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 62 reviews
Profile Image for Camryn.
Author 5 books794 followers
October 19, 2020
I had to read this for class. Maybe it would've been less frustrating if my professor had been less frustrating :P

Basically, this book has a lot of racism in it. Lillian Smith was against segregation and wanted more rights for Black people, but she also talked about "Black supremacy" and the idea that Black men rape white women like they were serious things. She also talks a lot about the South being wronged, about how the Freedman's Bureau came down to help the freed slaved but not any of the whites... It seemed like she was incapable of discussing the ways Black people were wronged without centering whiteness.

I don't think this should've been assigned now, but since it was, it would've been really helpful to discuss what was deemed progressive back then versus what is progressive now (we didn't do that. It probably would've been great to compare this to like Black Boy by Richard Wright. But anyway.) There are parts that are really well written, especially as she talks about the patriarchy and ideas that govern the way young girls are raised in the South. But I just didn't feel interested in a white person talking about why racism is bad, especially now, especially with all the micro aggressions on almost every page.
Profile Image for Jenno.
102 reviews3 followers
September 8, 2010
This book offers perhaps the most profound and yet concise explanation of the origins of 'white supremacy' -- as a concept, a practice, and even a legal framework at one time in our country. She has taken an extremely complicated issue and presented it in a way that is easy to follow, makes a great deal of sense, and I think it should be national required reading, for ALL ages.
December 9, 2022
hey guys first review!!!!
just finished this book and it’s one of the best books i’ve read in a really long time. it’s an autobiographical account of Lillian Smith’s life. it was published in 1949, so even though America looked very different then, the core themes of the book are still prominent. she breaks down southern society, while touching on class, racial, and gender disparities during that time. it’s great insight into southern culture and how much it shaped her and her peers. hard truths are exposed during a time when opinions made you an outsider, especially from a woman. she does a great job of diving into segregation without portraying herself as a white savior. she goes even further to call upon “the good people” to get up and do something. this is still prevalent today and i’m certain will forever be. read it!
Profile Image for Allison.
197 reviews
June 21, 2020
Despite the fact that his book was originally published in 1949 -- and the version I read included a letter from the author to her publisher acknowledging a few updates and two new chapters added in 1963 -- it remains a remarkable and stark account of the twisted and conflicted psyche of the South and how that both permitted slavery, and following its abolition, the quick derailment of Reconstruction and establishment of the longstanding and thoroughly twisted Jim Crow "solution" to the "negro problem".

What dates the book is the Freudian, Cold War, Communist obsessed lens through which it was originally written and then added to during the Civil Rights/Cuba Missile crises of the early 60s. The white, Southern bred author is not without her own stereotypes regarding black people but overall these issues don't distract from her overall thesis that the South is morally broke and twisted and needed to stay that way--and in denial--in order to keep blacks "in their place." Quite an education for me in spite of these flaws.
Profile Image for Katie Fuller.
27 reviews
February 18, 2023
This book is brilliant, timeless, and forward thinking while also being dated, arrogant, and white. I gave it a four because the language is poetic, and Smith's insights are mostly radical. It reads like autoethnography, with Smith sometimes deeply embedded in the narrative and accountable in her proximity to slavery and its energetic aftermath. At other times, she removes herself and writes as if above the Other that she also vehemently rails against. It's confusing and, at times, offensive. The book has been reprinted four times since its original 1949 publication, so some of these essays may have been updated. I'm grateful to have read this book and wish other white people would read it. But we must also know when to shine a light on these damning critiques and reflect them back to the self.
Profile Image for Garrett Peace.
285 reviews6 followers
April 9, 2019
Just an amazing explication of the connections between segregation, Southern religion, and Southern identity. Gets a little too Freudian at times and becomes kind of a rallying cry near the end, in ways that made me feel like I was being talked down to. But I’m also not her specific audience of the time, and there are aspects of this book that are certainly of their time. The rest of it, though, feels incredibly relevant, both for an understanding of the South and an understanding of the United States. Highly recommended for those parts.
Profile Image for Aaron Gertler.
194 reviews70 followers
October 1, 2017
A very strange book -- strange in the way that only books written a long time ago, or very far away, can be strange. Smith's writing lets us deep inside her mind, into a world where the steady growth of Communism was an existential threat, and where Freudian theories could be spoken without irony or hesitance. I don't know how Smith's story of the South, and her explanation of the region's mindset, is propaganda, but she manages to remain fairly convincing even during her wildest flights of fancy. Much of the pleasure of reading comes from the style, and the rest is, as often happens with these old books, the interest factor of discovering long-forgotten facts and anecdotes (including plenty of bizarre quotes from early-20th-century Southern newspaper editorials).

I don't know enough about the genre to suggest that this is a "classic" of U.S. integrationist literature, but Killers of the Dream does seem to give one of the most powerful accountings you're likely to see about how it felt to be, in those days, a wealthy white woman somewhere between 30 and 50 years ahead of her moral era. Race and money are inherent limiting factors here, as they so often are, but that shouldn't stop you from picking up the book.

As a bonus, my edition contained footnotes from 1961, 12 years after the book had been written, in the midst of the lunch-counter desegregation wars. The notes strike a decidedly more optimistic tone, and make me wonder what similar footnotes might look like, had they been added in 2017. (More confused than anything else, perhaps.)
Profile Image for Leiki Fae.
284 reviews5 followers
January 27, 2021
This isn't for everyone. I don't think many black people who are thoughtful about race will find anything new in here, and the dated language will probably be irritating. But I appreciated reading about a Southern white woman who was born and steeped in Southern tradition the same as her peers but was able to see the violence, hypocrisy, and toxic, debilitating racism for what it was, and then spoke out so freely and boldly about it. I always appreciate hearing from the voices that advocated wisdom and humanity even during the eras when the history books reassure us that no one deviated from the consensus. (Bartolomé de Las Casas and Thomas Morton are two more wise and sane voices from insane periods of the past who saw the humanity of enslaved people and Indigenous Americans, respectively.) When reading Killers of the Dream, I won't go so far as to say I started to feel any sympathy for white "victims" of Southern tradition, but I did gain a deeper appreciation for how the poisonous directives of white supremacy were in a different way also toxic for white southerners, who had to twist and tear their own minds and souls to make it make sense. An especially upsetting takeaway was how familiar some of the rhetoric about states' rights, individual liberty, and and white supremacy is today during these fraught times. Apparently Lillian Smith never made it onto the curriculum or the bookshelves of Southern "Christians".
Profile Image for dead letter office.
776 reviews29 followers
May 19, 2008
This is interesting mostly as a look at person who wrote it. I'd been mostly in the dark as to the activities of the vocal minority of anti-segregation white southerners of the 40's and 50's. It's powerfully dated in its fixation on Freud and Communism and in her insistent use of extravagant metaphor (she devotes an entire unreadable early chapter to an allegorical play allegedly put on at a summer camp by the world's most articulate, race-conscious, reflective, melodramatic, and generally Lilian Smith-like children I've ever encountered).

She has interesting ideas about the relationship between gender inequality, sexuality, and racial dynamics, and about the complicated and psychologically destructive process southern children (mostly white) underwent in learning the unwritten rules of the Jim Crow south. In the end, though, it's mostly interesting as a look into her own mind, since the activist, feminist, liberal southerner is kind of a neglected historical aside. I'm glad I read it.
Profile Image for Jim.
2,569 reviews137 followers
March 1, 2018
i always find it interesting and awfully sad that books written during/around the heights of the civil rights movement are still so damned spot-on about how incredibly racist America is... Smith's personal-slash-historical/factual rendering of life in the South under a racist government is appallingly real and still pertinent... nothing new or amazingly analytical, which in no way blunts her narrative... at times, white America has undervalued, even ignored, the personal/the memoir/the storytelling aspect of history/the past... and when the teller is black, it is often disregarded as unqualified or just bitter recriminations (what else would be fitting, i ask, considering slavery, etc.???) about white America... there is more to "what happened" than stats and polls and figures and textbooks, and this book is a beautifully crafted tale of lives rent by slavery's aftermath, but strengthened by family and community and belief...
Profile Image for Susan.
45 reviews1 follower
July 17, 2010
Best book ever to understand how politics in America came to be and is still hobbled by Southern States; not all the time, Clinton broke through. But Smith shows why the animosity and now, overt hatred to Obama. In hobbleling us, the south has even more grossly hobbled itself.
Profile Image for Shelley Anderson.
448 reviews4 followers
February 18, 2022
A collection of essays first published in 1949, and republished with updates in 1963, which looks at the cancer of racism. Smith was a Southern white writer, one of the few willing to criticize segregation. I was amazed at her analysis, which, for the most part, could have been written today, and at the insightful links she drew between sexism and anti-Black racism. She was one of the few whites willing to examine and speak out about how segregation and white supremacy affected white Southerners. Controversial, she was ostracized and faced threats from the Klan, but refused to back down. She put her beliefs into action.

Some of her concerns in hindsight appear outdated, and occasionally somewhat patronizing, and I found a few sections downright confusing. Smith was a queer woman and in a long-time partnership with Paula Snelling, another educator with whom she produced a pioneering magazine. Yet some passages in this book reflect a homophobic attitude towards women who reject the southern construction of femininity, while at the same time revealing the costs and cracks in this same construction.

But her insights remain, and her inspiration. "I believe every creative act, every poem, every painting, every honest question or honest dissent, every gesture of courage and faith and mercy and concern will count...."
Profile Image for Terry NeSmith.
49 reviews3 followers
February 11, 2021
After years of studying Southern and African American literature, it was not until Finding Lorraine that I heard of Lillian Smith.

Yes. She is white. She does give a theory about how the South became such a confusing place and how “long held traditions” were never questioned and why those questions could not be asked.

She speaks of the “bargain” between Mr. Rich White and Mr. Poor White. The bargain: Rich will take care of Poor as long as he never sided with Mr. Black. (My liberty to name Mr. Black) Though Poor share crops right along side the Black and is just as poor, he can rest assured that he’s better off because he’s white.

Let’s be clear. Mr. Rich White knows he’s got all the power. He manipulates newspapers, writers, artists and any other creative people in any way that suits him which scars everyone but him. Poor even bargains with Mr. Black but the terms are most clear: segregation stays and rewards come in Heaven.

I question if Lillian Smith is a lost voice. She writes all this from mid 1940’s to 1963, much too progressive for her time. She clearly exposes Southern culture for the mess and myth that it is. She provided me some personal clarity as well.

Thanks to Lorraine Hansberry for being a Lillian Smith promoter.
Profile Image for channel alli.
53 reviews
September 13, 2022
Lillian Smith was incredibly ahead of her time; much of her criticisms have not been replicated even in the current day. Though some of her comments on communism were inaccurate (referring instead to Soviet totalitarianism rather than definitional "communism"), her statements on race, religion, and sex remain salient.

I genuinely enjoyed reading Killers of the Dream; Smith's voice is reminiscent of an old teacher, or perhaps a wise relative we haven't seen in years. Rarely does she lecture at the audience, but instead she asks the audience to ponder the questions present within the book. As a Southerner, I related to the author in many ways, despite the discrepancies between our two times.

Smith's works are critical reading for anyone interested in the advancement of humanity, and the ongoing progress of compassion for the human race we belong to.
Profile Image for Josephine Ensign.
Author 4 books41 followers
August 13, 2018
A fascinating and disturbing read about the (continuing) consequences of white supremacy and other legacies of the American South. A few favorite quotes: "...for nearly two centuries, white supremacy and Christian asceticism of a crude naive kind combined with isolation and poverty to destroy the vast talent that was dormant..." p. 217 And, "Even now, much of our best talent goes into what F. L. Lucas calls 'stained-glass writing,' which shuts out the glare of the turmoil in man's soul and his world, seducing the feelings with its wondrous little patterns of words that block off insight carefully and graciously." p. 215
18 reviews
January 5, 2021
this was written in 1949 by a white southern queer woman. her writing on whiteness, especially in the first chapter, is deeply insightful. her (relatively sparse) writing about black people and people of color needs work. I wish she would simply have stayed in her lane, and written only about white people. in her day to day life, she was doing the work of racial justice, particularly dismantling segregation and internalized superiority of white southern children, long before us of the current moment. I think as white people, we need recognize our movement elders, and try to learn from them and their flaws.
Profile Image for Georgia Gietzen.
31 reviews2 followers
January 14, 2021
Originally published in 1949. A very brave book that is a still relevant deep dive into the “south”. Sin, sex and segregation were (and continue to be) driving forces of what the author so descriptively describes as “Southern Tradition”, weaving themselves through all aspects of southern culture. Highly recommended reading for anyone wanting to dig a bit deeper to understand why many of these people still insist on flying the confederate flag, vote against their own best interests, and in general ... seem to want to hold tight to a tradition whose time has ended, as it needs to and should.
Profile Image for Dana G.
49 reviews
August 6, 2018
This book offers an insightful and sometimes astounding look at the factors that contribute to segregation and racism. Smith probes the painful questions about WHY someone could function as a decent, compassionate, and 'good' person in many regards, yet either condone or quietly ignore horrible injustices. She shines an uncomfortable light on the damage caused by the taboo against speaking up or questioning tradition.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
398 reviews4 followers
March 5, 2023
This is a civil rights issues book written by a white woman during the 40s and edited at 1960 I think.
Some of the language is problematic.
I appreciate the ideas she wrote about.
I read this for Black History Month as part of a group of books.
Racism was bad for white people too. The energy put into hate and war and segregation could have been used differently.
Today I watched the movie 42 and saw many of these issues played out there to0.
Profile Image for Angel.
47 reviews
January 10, 2018
Phenomenal. Lillian Smith probes with sharp criticism the pre-1960s southern way of life. This book is at times soulful diary, at times insightful diatribe. With masterful introspection, she looks beyond her own identity to explore the link between sexual and racial discrimination. Really, this is simply beautiful writing explaining a thoughtful analysis of human behavior. Recommend to everyone.
5 reviews
August 10, 2018
This book was one of the first that I read when I was trying to understand the complicated world of racism and how I fit into it. Written so long ago, it’s one of the most honest looks at racism as a white person. Lillian is one of the original anti racists. Such an important read for every white person.
32 reviews
August 10, 2019
This book should be read in every school in the South (the Country in fact). It is as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1949 when it was published. Having lived in the South most of my life; it put into words so many feelings I've had - mostly trying to understand people in my life who were so loving to me, but could be so excepting of hatred and ugliness around them.
Profile Image for Alex C..
114 reviews
October 2, 2019
The only book I believe I’ve ever read that addresses SYSTEMIC racism and oppression on African Americans, women and colonies alike.
ALSO the only book the calls out the American interpretation of religion and politicians’ bullshit.
That being said, the writing can be too ramble-y and metaphorical at times...to the point that I would wonder what the author’s point was.
Profile Image for Leo Rain.
70 reviews1 follower
February 27, 2018
Interesting story from a women who grew up in the segregated south. I’ve never heard a story of reasons and roots of White Supremacy like this. Beautiful language at the beginning. Little bit rambling at the end.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
1 review
September 17, 2018
Excellent read on the experience of a white southern child and development though the time of Jim Crow Laws at its height of enforcement.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
45 reviews
September 12, 2018
Beautiful book, many things reminded me of the politics we are in today. Kind of slow and confusing at parts but a worthy read
92 reviews1 follower
June 1, 2019
I learned history I did not know. Like her message, her writing style is compelling.
November 3, 2020
"something was wrong with a world that tells you that love is good & people are important and then forces you to deny love & to humiliate people"
Profile Image for Madison Hildenbrand.
92 reviews1 follower
January 3, 2021
Really enjoyed this book, especially the part with the comparison of the play and "The Little Prince", but found it a bit long
1 review1 follower
February 16, 2021
The best book I've ever read on the American South. Lucid, insightful, brutal. I kept looking at the publication date (1949) in wonder because it reads like an instant analysis of Trumplandia.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 62 reviews

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