Killers of the Dream is considered to be one of the most significant pre-Civil Rights era works by a white writer. As early as the 1940s, Smith persistently called for an end to segregation. In her foreward to the 1961 edition of this mixed genre text, Smith comments on the southernness of her text, as identified by her editor: “only one who feels deep in the bone the cruel perplexities and paradoxes of our way of life” could have written the book (13). Smith says that it is the “apathy of white southerners which disturbs me” (20), and it is against this apathy which she writes.
The text is divided into four parts: “The Dreamers,” “The White Man’s Burden,” “Giants in the Earth,” and “The Dream and its Killers.” In the first section, she reflects on growing up in the South, the palpable trouble of racism which even children could sense as a haunting presence. Smith identifies the heart of this trouble, which she describes as being taught “to split my conscience from my acts and Christianity from southern tradition” (27). She relates the story of a little white girl who was “living with a Negro family in a broken-down shack” (35). After Smith’s family takes her in, it is discovered that “Janie is a little colored girl” (36). This early experience taught Smith the arbitrariness of race. After similar childhood recollections, she ends this section with a list of clippings of quotes from southern leaders, to show the kind of racist teachings all southern children grew up with.
In the second section, Smith looks more closely at the ways in which Christianity is implicated in the perpetuation of racism in the South. In this way, she anticipates Flannery O’Connor’s idea of a Christ-haunted South, when she notes that, “Stories about haunted houses on the edges of town…merely took our minds off our own haunted lives and gave us reasons for our fears. We gratefully accepted the ghosts because they gave names to our fears” (112). It is in this section as well that Smith addresses the particularly southern peculiar relationship between white children and their black caretakers, as well as the effect it had on their white mothers. This is a very Freudian section, directly blame to these twisted mother-child relationships for a multitude of “perversions”: “we know now that these women, forced by their culture and their heartbreak, did a thorough job of closing the path to mature geniality for many of their sons and daughters, and an equally good job of leaving little cleared detours that led downhill to homosexual and infantile green pastures, and on to alcoholism, neuroses, divorce, to race-hate and brutality, and to a tight inflexible mind that could not question itself” (153).
This Freudian mode is continued in section three, where she seems to blame the South’s lack of education and rurality for its backwards beliefs. She does identify how poor whites in the South have been, because of this lack of education, taught to hate non-whites and to blame them for their own poverty. In this section she uses parables to more fully explain how these dynamics of hatred have been used by those in power to maintain racist hegemonic structures and institutions. In the final section, she points to both the hope and the tragedy in the then-recent past. Most interesting in this section is her indictment of the Agrarians in their complicity in maintaining the racist status quo:
there was a group of writers…who should have been on the side of change but were not. No writers in literary history have failed their region as completely as these did. They called themselves Fugitives; some preferred the name, Agrarians. The were not so opposed to change, if I read them accurately, as opposed to what we were changing into. With soft stinging denunciations, they took their stand against a future which they equated with the machine and industrial clatter; they felt the answer was to return to some sort of medieval pattern. (223)
After further discussion of the Fugitives failings and the problematic ways in which these ideas were inherent in New Criticism, Smith cogently summarizes their problem:
The basic weakness of the Fugitives’ stand, as I see it, lay in their failure to recognize the massive dehumanization which had resulted from slavery and its progeny, sharecropping and segregation, and the values that permitted these brutalities of spirit. They did not see that the dehumanization they feared the machine and science would bring was a fait accompli in their own agrarian region. (225).
And to me, this is one of the greatest strengths of the book, one which I don’t think is emphasized enough. People still situate the Agrarians as a seminal point of southern studies, and I think it needs to be emphasized that Smith early on was pointing out the similarities between their ideas and Hitler’s. I know that many find her mixed genre form to be distracting, but the ideas are important enough that they should continue to be remembered.