Cliff, Michelle

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Michelle Cliff was born in Jamaica and grew up there and in the United States. She was educated in New York City and at the Warburg Institute at the University of London, where she completed a Ph.D. on the Italian Renaissance. She is the author of novels (Abeng, No Telephone To Heaven, and Free Enterprise), short stories (Bodies of Water), 'prose poetry' (The Land of Look Behind and Claiming and Identity They Taught Me to Despise), as well as numerous works of criticism. Her essays have appeared frequently in publications such as Ms. and The Village Voice. She is also the editor of a collection of the writings of the southern American social reformer Lillian Smith entitled The Winner Names the Age. Cliff now lives in Santa Cruz, California. Emory University - English Dept. (Retrieved November 20, 2009)

Lillian Smith was one of the first prominent white southerners to denounce racial segregation openly and to work actively against the entrenched and often brutally enforced world of Jim Crow. From as early as the 1930s, she argued that Jim Crow was evil ("Segregation is spiritual lynching," she said) and that it leads to social and moral retardation. Smith gained national recognition-and regional denunciation-by writing Strange Fruit (1944), a bold novel of illicit interracial love. Five years later she hurled another thunderbolt against racism in Killers of the Dream (1949), a brilliant psychological and autobiographical work warning that segregation corrupted the soul; removed any possibility of freedom and decency in the South; and had serious implications for women and children in particular in their developing views of sex, their bodies, and their innermost selves. From her home in Clayton, atop Old Screamer Mountain, she openly convened interracial meetings, and she toured the South, talking to people from all races and classes. She was unsparing in her criticisms of "liberals" and "moderates" like Atlanta's famed Ralph McGill and refused to join groups such as the Southern Regional Council until it could oppose segregation as well as racism. In her own psyche she struggled with intensely conflicting desires: to write creatively, following her heart's passions, or to respond to her stern conscience and the intellectual voice of duty. Smith's writings, her investigative tours of the South, and the interracial conferences were signs that intellectual and social change was brewing in the South. By the time the civil rights movement made its dramatic debut in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955, Smith had been meeting or corresponding with many southern blacks and concerned whites for years and was well informed about the conditions in which African Americans lived, and about their anger and frustration. How do they stand it day by day? she cried out to a friend. She corresponded with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and publicly admired his work. She remained unflinchingly dedicated to him until her death. Smith greeted the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation as "every child's Magna Charta." The following year she wrote Now Is the Time, a tract appealing for compliance with the high court's decision. Her other writings were diverse-from The Journey (1954), a book of autobiographical musings and social commentary based on a driving tour of coastal Georgia that she made in 1952, to One Hour (1959), an attack on McCarthyism thinly disguised as a novel. Lillian Eugenia Smith was born into a large, respectable, prosperous family in Jasper, Florida, on December 12, 1897. When the family business collapsed in 1915, her family moved to their cottage in Clayton, in Rabun County, and started Laurel Falls Girls Camp. Smith studied at Piedmont College in Demorest (1915-16) and then left to help run the family camp. Pursuing her great love of music, she also did two stints at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland (1917, 1919). In 1922 she went to China to offer musical instruction at a Methodist missionary school. When her parents' health began to fail in 1925, she came home and eventually took over the running of the camp, which in time she converted into a place for serious discussion of social issues. Her longtime partner, Paula Snelling, a school counselor, assisted her. In 1936 the two founded Pseudopodia, a small magazine meant to further their ideals and to give southern writers, including blacks, a forum. After several renamings, including South Today, Smith closed the successful magazine in 1945 to devote herself to writing. Unfortunately, none of her books achieved the emotional power of her controversial novel Strange Fruit or the intellectual and psychological depths of Killers of the Dream. She battled cancer from the early 1950s until her death in 1966, but to the end she remained devoted to her dream of a South liberated from the "ghosts" of southern traditions. Her last published work was Our Faces, Our Words (1964), which applauded nonviolence in the civil rights movement. By and large, Smith's neighbors were polite to her, but she knew what many southerners thought of her and could decipher the ugliness of the expression, uttered by Eugene Talmadge, that Strange Fruit was a "literary corncob." Fred Hobson has written that Lillian Smith "was not afraid to confront the darkness within Southern, and American, society-racially, sexually, and politically. She was, in the finest sense of that term, a moralist, an absolutist, one of the last of the all-or-nothing voices." Though her fame may have diminished since her death, she was an important early voice in the movement for civil rights in the American South, one of the first white southern writers to confront the evils of racism and injustice in a forthright, uncompromising manner. New Georgia Encyclopedia - Lillian Smith (1897-1966) (Retrieved November 20, 2009)

From the description of Michelle Cliff papers, 1982-1994. (University of Georgia). WorldCat record id: 467922247

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Hodges, Beth. Papers of Beth Hodges, 1972-1991 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Cliff, Michelle. Michelle Cliff papers, 1982-1994. University of Georgia, University of Georgia, Main Library
creatorOf Cliff, Michelle. Office files of The American Poetry Review, 1994-1995. University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Van Pelt Library
referencedIn Olsen, Tillie. Tillie Olsen papers, 1930-1990. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Rich, Adrienne Cecile. Papers, 1927-1999 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Hodges, Beth. person
associatedWith Olsen, Tillie. person
associatedWith Rich, Adrienne Cecile. person
associatedWith Smith, Lillian Eugenia, 1897-1966 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Women authors
Women authors, American--20th century


Birth 1946-11-02





Ark ID: w6321xwn

SNAC ID: 39404904