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Lillian Smith Studies: "Three Ghost Stories"

Killers of the Dream Cover

Elizabeth Key


“Three Ghost Stories” is a chapter from Lillian Smith’s 1949 book, Killers of the Dream

Killers of the Dream, published in 1949 to no small amount of criticism, both positive and negative. For some like Ralph McGill, Killers of the Dream was "A woefully unsound book" and that "Miss Smith is a prisoner in the monastery of her own mind." For others like Joshua Logan, though, "It was as though you had a private window somewhere under my shoulder blade where you could look inside of me.” As for its content, Killers of the Dream is a deep-dive into the psychological and moral costs of racism and segregation. Using her memories of life in the South, Smith explores the deep contradictions that existed (and, arguably, still exist) in Southern society. Of particular note is her focus on Taboos, which served to intricately lace together the “moral” imperatives that served to maintain a system of white supremacy.

“Three Ghost Stories” serves to illustrate a key, recurring concept that Smith weaves throughout Killers of the Dream and often revisits throughout her many works and speeches: that the psyche of the white southerner, especially those born to privilege, is haunted by three spirits that arose out of slavery and segregation. These three ghosts are the “back-yard temptation” or the race-sex spirit, the rejected mixed-race children of the South, and the Black “Mammy” or nurse. Lillian explores the impacts of each of these “ghosts” in great detail, from the complex interaction and cultural implications of white sexual predation of Black women to the social and psychic ramifications of Black women serving as substitutes for White mothers. This often resulted in a consecration of Whiteness, especially White Womanhood and White Motherhood, and denied people the ability to properly mature into full human beings, resulting in various neuroses and the codification of oppressive relationships.

Smith begins "Three Ghost Stories" by writing that Southern children learned "lessons taught him as a Christian, as a white man, and American, [and] a puritan," and that these lessons eventually "began to contradict each other." Over the course of "Three Ghost Stories,” Smith expands upon this, noting that these work at the intersection of “race-sex-sin." This intersection consists of "trails the white man made to back-yard cabins." Keeping this intersection of "race-sex-sin" in mind as you read "Three Ghost Stories" will help illuminate the ways that Smith examines the ways that the intersections affects individuals and society. 

Possible Activities

  1. Throughout the course of "Three Ghost Stories," Lillian Smith details various stereotypes. Have students look through Smith's chapter and identify the stereotypes. Then, have students look at Laura Green's "Stereotypes: Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Towards African-Americans." Once they have looked over these, have them do some more research then write an essay on how stereotypes impact individuals. As well, have them contextualize stereotypes within the current moment by drawing connections between the past and the present and the way the stereotypes become reconfigured. 
  2. In the summer of 1968, months following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer delivered her speech "What Have We to Hail?" to a predominantly white audience. Have students look at her speech and think about it in relation to Lillian Smith's "Three Ghost Stories." Have students complete a compare/contrast sheet or construct a Venn diagram looking at the two texts. Further, have them think about the texts in relation to the present and their own experiences. 
  3. Have students look at Loving v Virginia (1967). They can listen to the oral arguments and read the Supreme Court's decision. After doing this, have students create a timeline, starting with Elizabeth Key, both before and after Loving tracing laws and actions that prohibited interracial intimacy. Two examples are Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell in Louisiana in 2009 and Rep. Mike Braun's comments in 2022. Have students look at the timeline and connect it with "The Three Ghosts."


  1. How might Smith's discussion of motherhood be contextualized by historical expectations of mothers in the United States?
  2. Ralph McGill claims Smith only looks at herself while Joshua Logan says Smith impacted him as if she had a "private window" into his soul. Both speak to the ways that Smith explores the ways that racism affects an individual psychologically and emotionally. Looking at "Three Ghost Stories," discuss whether Smith's solely focuses on herself or works to illuminate the ways that these issues affect others. As well, think about her rhetorical maneuvers throughout the course of the chapter.
  3. Near the end of "Three Ghost Stories," Smith writes that the three ghosts "had a great deal to do with high interest at the bank and low wages in the mills and gullied fields and lynchings and Ku Klux Klan and segregation and sacred womanhood and revivals, and Prohibition." How do the three ghosts affect the economic and social aspects of the community?
  4. The eponymous "Three Ghosts" are said to be the Black nurse, the mixed-race child, and the rape of Black women by white men. Having read "Three Ghost Stories", describe how these three aspects of southern life continue to impact society.
  5. How does the cover of Killers of the Dream relate to the "Three Ghost Stories"?
  6. While Smith focuses on the southern United States in many of her analyses, they can be applied elsewhere. How might the three ghosts have impacted society elsewhere, even abroad?