History · Nonfiction · Queer

White Lesbians on Race: Lillian Smith vs. Mab Segrest

Over the summer, I read several sets of books around the theme of Gender and Sexuality in the South as a directed readings course. The first pair were both specifically about feminist and queer theory, discussed here. This second pair — Killers of the Dream by Lillian Smith (1949/revised 1961) and Memoirs of a Race Traitor by Mab Segrest (1999) — are both memoirs about race, written by white Southern lesbians. It’s been a while now since I read these books, but I do want to highlight them here because they dialogue with each other in interesting ways and you may find you’d like to read one or both.

Lillian Smith and Commentary…

Killers of the Dream is part memoir of Lillian Smith’s early life, part social-political commentary and call to end segregation. Smith was one of the few white people actively working on this as early as the 40s, and I can only stand in awe of her bravery as an ostensibly-single white woman living on her own. (She was, by all modern appearances, lesbian and living with her partner, but she wasn’t out). She also talks about harmful religious attitudes toward masturbation and the female body, and how the ideas of “body is sinful and dirty” vs “white skin is your symbol of superiority” conflict with each other. Again, I have no idea how she managed to do all this, because her livelihood was a mountain camp for young girls in Georgia. Maybe scaremongering about “corrupting the children” is a more modern thing.

At any rate, it’s a remarkable book both historically and now. As a white Southern woman, I was totally right there with her, even 60 years later. I’m inclined to recommend this to outsiders as a way to understand some of our culture, but also not entirely sure it’ll make as much sense if you don’t already understand. I’d be happy to do more posts or some kind of discussion about this if there’s any demand, because I think it’s interesting.

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…vs. Mab Segrest and Memoir

Mab Segrest is a more modern figure, a political activist (since moved on to research) and openly lesbian. Memoirs of a Race Traitor is aptly named, more memoir and personal history than the kind of commentary-memoir we got from Smith. She’s also from North Carolina, which is still the South, but is not the Deep South. She narrates her early life as well as her most prominent activist stuff, against far-right racist organizations in the 80s and 90s. It’s interesting, but probably more so if you’re researching that history specifically.

For me, I felt like Smith’s book really took apart race as a systemic problem of power. Segrest’s was more personal, trying to deal with her own white guilt. That just didn’t have much to offer me, because I’m a horrible person who doesn’t really care about other people’s life journeys. I also don’t think guilt and responsibility are the same thing, so I feel like Smith’s is more objectively useful in an activist sense, but which is most meaningful will just depend on you and your preferences. Segrest also has more to say about modern activist structures and lesbian-feminism, so there may be more-accessible material here for non-Southern modern folks looking for explanations.

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Observations

Both books use history as a method of understanding, and as a potential push toward activism. In neither case would I be willing to say “Okay, I’ve read this book so I understand the Civil War,” but both shed light on how the war is perceived, which is the point when we’re talking modern Southern racism. They also both discuss how they were raised, their personal family histories, and how that affected their perceptions of racism.

A final point I found personally odd was the contrasts in identity — Smith didn’t identify as a lesbian when she basically was, I could put a “probably” but it’s really not necessary. Maybe she thought that would be the one thing her society couldn’t accept, or she was protecting her partner. Even so, they suffered threats and (as I recall) vandalism at the camp for their position on segregation. Then there’s Segrest, who talks at length about how she practically identifies as black, although not quite in such specific terms. These are just two drops in the ocean of identity politics, but they raised a lot of questions for me as a historian about how to parse an author’s identity and to what extent that affects the text.

In short, both these books come recommended, depending on what you want to get out of them. Smith’s was my favorite, but the two bring things out in each other that you wouldn’t get from one alone. Leave your thoughts in the comments as usual, and do let me know if I should be talking about Southern-ness more often!

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2 thoughts on “White Lesbians on Race: Lillian Smith vs. Mab Segrest

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