A Road Trip, Northeast: Clayton, Georgia

When it comes to our common myths and narratives about social justice movements in the South, the writer Lillian Smith stands as an enigma for many. Foremost among her enigmatic qualities are that she was a white woman from a well-to-do family and that her most significant contributions predated the modern Civil Rights movement.  Smith was a hard-nosed example of what mid-20th century white liberalism could be, and she defies the current negative conception of that cultural phenomenon, which often gets questioned today for a  slow-going, accommodationist approach to racial issues.

les center Lillian Smith

Among the monuments to her legacy is the Lillian E. Smith Center in Clayton, Georgia. Now operated by Piedmont University, the center stands on the site of the Smith family’s Laurel Falls Camp for Girls on Screamer Mountain, offering cottages for writers’ and artists’ retreats. I’d been there two times previously and decided to spend my spring break this year on the mountain, working on various projects.

The only problem with the Lillian E. Smith Center – that I can see – is that anyone living on its western side has to pass through Atlanta to get there. Though its two-million-plus residents must have good reasons for spending their limited time on Earth in a daily series of tree-lined traffic jams, I’d be a happier human being if I could avoid it. The South’s largest city, sometimes called “Hot-lanta,” gained mythic status when it was burned by General William Tecumseh Sherman during the Civil War. Nearly a century later, local leaders created a new transcendent mythology with the “City Too Busy to Hate” campaign during the Civil Rights movement. These days, Atlanta is probably best known for its airport, purported to be the busiest in the world. Growing up, I associated Atlanta with Ted Turner, the Braves, and Lewis Grizzard. Today, the central feature in my narrative is traffic.

Thankfully, what’s on the eastern side is worth it. Moving into the foothills of the Appalachians, the hills gets bigger and bigger as the roads pass Gainesville up toward Demorest. Rolling up Highway 23, I can’t pass by the signs for Dawsonville without thinking about “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville,” and along the way are signs for Toccoa, where singer James Brown was born. After passing Tallulah Falls and the aptly named Mountain City, Clayton finally appears.

Just prior to arriving in Clayton, one will find an array of small operations along the waterways that offer camping, hiking, kayaking, and canoeing. Of course, this is Rabun County, where 1972’s Deliverance was filmed. Of all the myths and narratives about the South, that film created one of the most disturbing and, unfortunately, enduring: the fearful notion of being accosted and raped by people who live in the backwoods. While it may be funny to some to quip, Paddle faster! I hear banjo music!, the joke is based on insidious myths that mountain people are ignorant and depraved to the point of these inhuman levels of cruelty. Realistically, most people who live in the rural areas of northeastern Georgia probably have no desire to commit homosexual rape while goading the victim to make animal noises.

In fact, Clayton is a nice little town. On the busy four-lane strip of highway, the Chick-Fil-A, the Quality Inn, and the Ingle’s grocery store keep the CVS and the Wendy’s company. Up the hill, a modernized downtown has local businesses, boutiques for tourists, and a smattering of restaurants. The proprietor of Wander North Georgia  was all smiles when I went in to buy a few gifts, and across the street at Outdoor 76, a tall hiker with a long grey beard was selling boots, t-shirts, and fresh wool socks, as well as local craft beers from a row of taps behind the counter. At the Universal Joint, which appears to be housed in a converted service station, I had a Highland Brewing Gaelic Ale and a good bacon cheeseburger on the patio. The downtown even has brick-paver crosswalks and a state law says that cars have to stop for pedestrians.

les center sunset

Up on Screamer Mountain, everything was cool, except for mid-week when a storm ripped through. The sturdy cottages are older than my parents – former bunkhouses for the girls at Laurel Falls Camp – so I didn’t worry much and slept through most of it. I spent a lot of my time pecking away at my keyboard, re-reading a paragraph, or double-checking a source. When I reached those points when I just couldn’t sit at a desk anymore, I would amble around in the woods or just take a pensive moment on the porch to be reminded of Lillian Smith’s life and works.

I read Smith’s two most famous works, the 1944 novel Strange Fruit and the 1949 nonfiction work Killers of the Dream, in the 2000s, and the latter is among the more influential books I’ve ever read. Published half-a-decade before Brown v. Board, the lynching of Emmet Till, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Killers of the Dream offers a vastly different narrative of 20th-century Southern culture, specifically with respect to the psychological roots and effects of racism and sexism. Smith discusses openly what it meant to be taught the myths and beliefs of patriarchal white supremacy, only to encounter the conflicting realities in the outside world. She also makes clear her perspective that genteel Southern white women contributed to the problems with their habit of politely looking the other way. Matthew Teutsch, director of the center (whose essay “Blood in the Pool” is included here in Nobody’s Home), put it this way in Bitter Southerner:

When I read Smith’s Strange Fruit (1944) and Killers of the Dream (1949), I saw how she was illuminating the triptych forces of sin, sex, and segregation that unleashed themselves amongst the masses.

Thus, the power of her assertions led her to be vilified in many circles. It also led the Southern Regional Council (now in partnership with the University of Georgia libraries) to give out the Lillian Smith Book Award to “books that are outstanding creative achievements, worthy of recognition because of their literary merit, moral vision, and honest representation of the South, its people, problems, and promises.” The first of these annual awards was given in 1968, shortly after Smith’s death in 1966.

After a week of near-constant writing work punctuated by brief trips down the mountain or a quick hike among the wild rhododendrons, it was time to come home to Montgomery. There was ATL to face again – it hadn’t gone away or changed – and I was left to wonder on the return trip too how people could manage to clog six to eight lanes of interstate all at once. But they do, and thankfully I only had to deal with it for about an hour. I’m a backroads guy after all, and whatever the next trip is, that’s how I’ll be handling the road work of it.

Read more from the editor’s blog Groundwork.

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