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Tell About the South:
Voices in Black & White

A film by Ross Spears
80 min.

Study Guide

About the Film

Pre-Viewing Activities

Part I: The Southern Renascence to World War II

Part II: Prophets & Poets

Part III: Let Freedom Ring

Part II
Prophets & Poets:
The History of Modern Southern Literature (1941-1962)

Part Two of the documentary, Prophets & Poets, examines the 1940s and ‘50s and explores the lives and works of Richard Wright, Lillian Smith, Eudora Welty, William Faulker, Robert Penn Warren, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, and many more, in the context of the South’s biracial culture and deep sense of place. It includes interviews with Pat Conroy, Stanley Crouch, Rita Dove, Sally Fitzgerald, Shelby Foote, Ernest Gaines, George Garrett, Nikki Giovanni, Andrew Lytle, Willie Morris, Albert Murray, Reynolds Price, Mary Lee Settle, Alice Walker, Margaret Walker, and Eudora Welty. Narrated by Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Rita Dove, Part II contains commentary by scholars Joseph Blotner, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Coles, Thadious Davis, John Egerton, John Hope Franklin, C. Erik Lincoln, and Louis Rubin.

General Discussion Questions

  • The documentary begins with a statement about how the South is "sharply differentiated from the rest of the American nation." What images does the filmmaker use to begin Tell About the South? What do they suggest about southern "singularity"?
  • What do the brief remarks by various writers at the beginning of the film convey about race relations in the 1940s and 1950s?
  • What has the filmmaker accomplished by comparing black and white writers of the American South? What story is the filmmaker telling about the South?
  • A documentary filmmaker carefully juxtaposes words and images and music. View one segment of the film again, such as the opening or another section elsewhere in the film, and analyze this juxtaposition, not only of words and images, but images and images, as well as images and music, explaining the effect.
  • What do the images used in the film reveal about the writers that the filmmaker examines, especially those who are examined in depth?
  • What is the effect of the way the film ends?

Mississippi Son/Richard Wright
Born in the backwoods of southern Mississippi in 1908 during a time when black men were lynched and black families most often made a living by sharecropping on white-owned farms, Richard Wright felt alienated from his region as a boy and left the South forever at age 19. First he went to Memphis, then on to Chicago, where he discovered a group of kindred spirits at the local Communist Party writers’ club, and he began to publish his poems in their magazine, New Masses. But Wright became disillusioned with the Communist Party’s position on Negroes and so moved to New York. There he won first prize in a writing contest sponsored by Story Magazine, which led to the publication of his first book, Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of four terrifying stories detailing the extremes of racial violence in the South. In 1940 Wright published his first novel, Native Son, which Ralph Ellison called "the first philosophical novel by an American Negro." The popular and critical success of Native Son was followed by a partly fictionalized account of his Mississippi childhood called Black Boy. By this time Wright realized that racism was endemic to American society, not just the South, so he moved his family to Paris and lived the rest of his life there.

Discussion Questions

  • What effect did Richard Wright’s life have on his work? Why did he keep moving, first from Mississippi to Chicago, then to New York, then to Paris?
  • Richard Wright says that he realized from reading H. L. Mencken’s essays that Mencken was "fighting with words." How does Wright fight with words?
  • What is naturalism? Why do you think Wright was attracted to works by white writers like Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Emile Zola?
  • Why was Wright attracted to Communist ideas?
  • The filmmaker frames his portrait of Richard Wright with two long anecdotes. John Egerton tells the first about Wright growing up in Memphis unable to check books out of the public library. Willie Morris tells the final anecdote about visiting Wright in Paris near the end of his life. Why did the filmmaker use these anecdotes?
  • Several other writers describe how Wright’s work affects them. Which description is the most memorable? Why?

Lillian Smith
No southern writer was more deeply engaged in the issue of racial injustice than Lillian Smith. Born and raised in the deep South, she lived most of her adult life with her companion Paula Snelling on a mountain top in North Georgia, where they ran a summer girl’s camp, published a literary magazine called South Today, and spoke out brilliantly and often on the problems of race, gender, and class in the South. In 1944 Smith published her most famous work of fiction, Strange Fruit, a novel dealing with the effects of segregation on both races in a small southern town. In 1949 Lillian Smith wrote perhaps her finest work, Killers of the Dream, in which she asked the question, "Why has the white man dreamed so fabulous a dream of freedom and human dignity, and again and again tried to kill his own dream." Not long afterwards, much of her house was destroyed by arson, leaving her dazed, but undeterred.

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think the filmmaker chose to place the segment on Lillian Smith after the one on Richard Wright? What did she have in common with Wright? What are the differences?
  • Why did Lillian Smith stay in the South?
  • This segment opens with the photograph of a lynching. Why do you think the filmmaker lingers on the photograph longer than on most?
  • Smith’s novel about an interracial love affair in rural Georgia was banned in Boston. In a documentary about southern literature, why do you think the filmmaker included that fact?
  • Lillian Smith said that "segregation is a way of life so wounding, so hideous in its effect upon the spirit of black and white that it is without any redeeming feature." Compare and contrast the ways it wounded both races.
  • Smith also said "white southerners split their lives in a way shockingly akin to those sick people we call schizophrenics." What do you think she meant?
  • Both scholars who talk about Lillian Smith refer to her as a prophet. Why?

Eudora Welty
Eudora Welty grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, the oldest of three children. She briefly attended the Mississippi Sate College for Women, then left home to attend the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University. The death of her father in 1931 forced Welty to return home to help support her family, and eventually she landed a position with the Works Progress Administration, a job that changed her life. She reported on the various WPA projects for the county newspapers. She wrote feature articles, took photographs, and listened to people, both black and white—thereby gathering material for the stories she would write, becoming interested in the importance of place in fiction, attuning her ear to the rhythms of southern speech, and training herself in the art of seeing life. Her first collection of stories, A Curtain of Green, appeared in 1937 with an introduction by her mentor Katherine Anne Porter. During the next fifteen years she published a steady stream of prize-winning stories and novels until forced to cut back her writing in order to care for her ailing mother and brothers. She ended the decade of the 1940s with the publication of her finest work, The Golden Apples, a cycle of inter-related stories about a small Mississippi town. Welty’s first novel, Delta Wedding, was inspired by her memories of growing up; her most recent work is a memoir about her development as a writer, One Writer’s Beginnings.

Discussion Questions

  • Because Eudora Welty is the only living writer that Tell About the South: Part II covers, Welty is the only writer the filmmaker was able to interview. Does the interview make this segment of the film feel different for the viewer?
  • The segment begins with two introductions to Eudora Welty: one filmed with Susan Shreve introducing Welty at the Folger Library in Washington , D.C., where she received the PEN/Malamud Award for Lifetime Achievement in writing short fiction; the other described by Willie Morris with a photograph of the Jackson, Mississippi, grocery store, the Jitney Jungle. What effect do you imagine the filmmaker was trying to achieve by this double introduction?
  • In her memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, Welty wrote, "I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well." What did she mean by this paradoxical statement? How do the photographs and the interview underscore this point?
  • During the Depression in the 1930s, Welty traveled around the state publicizing the WPA by writing stories and taking pictures for the county newspapers. The film includes a montage of her photographs. How would you categorize them?
  • In the interview, Welty makes a distinction between editorializing or preaching and writing honest fiction. Explain. How would you categorize her writing?
  • What aspect of writing fiction interests Welty the most? Compare what she says about her writing to one of her stories you have read.

William Faulkner and the Nobel Prize
The Southern Literary Renascence which had its beginnings with the writings of the Fugitive poets came to full flower with William Faulkner's fiction. He created a fictional place, Yoknapatawpha County, modeled after his own home territory of Oxford, Mississippi. Taken together Faulkner's novels set in this mythical place are one long quarrel with white southern bigotry, complacency, and provincialism. Throughout his life, Faulkner left Oxford briefly--at the beginning of his career he went to New Orleans to write, in the middle he went to Hollywood to make money writing film scripts, and late in life he was a writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia—but he made his home in Mississippi because the tales he heard there were the lifeblood of his fiction. Faulkner's experimental fiction, though difficult to read, captures the complexity of life in the South from many perspectives: black and white, aristocrat and sharecropper. Faulkner had been America’s most adventurous writer from the publication of The Sound and the Fury in 1929 to the appearance of Go Down, Moses in 1942 (see Part I of Tell About the South), but money problems, domestic unhappiness, and a restrictive Hollywood contract smothered his literary goals until the publication of Intruder in the Dust in 1948. Although the novel is short, it is a milestone on the subject of race relations in the United States. In 1950 William Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the highest honor that a writer can receive.

Discussion Questions

  • Shelby Foote comments that not enough attention has been paid to the fact that Faulkner was "one of the great communicators of sensation." How does the documentary highlight this talent?
  • Albert Murray says that "nobody was more aware of the intrinsically mulatto dimension of the American culture than Faulkner." What does he mean? What have you learned about the "mulatto dimension of American culture" by viewing Tell About the South?
  • George Garrett reminds viewers that Faulkner experimented with choosing fictional forms that best expressed the meaning of his various novels. What form did the filmmaker use to summarize the novel Intruder in the Dust? How does this form emphasize the novel’s focus on race relations?
  • John Egerton says that Faulkner was making a point about honor in Intruder in the Dust. What is the difference between the old Confederate honor and the new type of honor based on conscience that Faulkner is interested in? How would race relations be affected by choosing one code of honor over the other?
  • Why do you think the filmmaker chose to end the segment on Faulkner with Willie Morris’s anecdote about Faulkner’s niece?

Southern Men of Letters/Warren and Ellison
Throughout the film, black and white writers are juxtaposed, but in this segment the filmmaker interweaves the life stories of Robert Penn Warren and Ralph Ellison. The stories of these two writers who both left the South for the North, but who both found their subject matter to be rooted in the South suggest many similarities. But the juxtaposition also reveals differences based in part on race. Robert Penn Warren and Ralph Ellison were friends and fellow writers who dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to the craft of writing and who, together, won every literary honor but the Nobel Prize. Both were cosmopolitan men, erudite and earthy and energetic, who wrote in several genres. Both used history in their fiction, believing that the more conscious people are of their personal, cultural, and national history, the freer they will be.

Discussion Questions

  • What do you think was the filmmaker’s purpose in interweaving the stories of Warren’s and Ellison’s lives and works? What is revealed by this technique?
  • What similarities and differences are revealed in Warren’s and Ellison’s lives and works? Does race have anything to do with the differences?
  • How does the filmmaker suggest that Robert Penn Warren’s and Ralph Ellison’s lives affected their works?
  • Poet Rita Dove says that Invisible Man expresses black history and psychology while writer Albert Murray stresses the novel’s universality. How can a book be both particular and universal?
  • In Part I of Tell About the South Pat Conroy says that he feels "edited" when in the South, that the "South could do this thing of love you to death—of smother you." He thinks some southern writers leave the South so that they "can look back and write about the South accurately and with distance." From what you learned from the film about Warren and Ellison, speculate about what stories they told about the South from a distance that they might not have been able to see or might not have wanted to tell while still living in the communities they grew up in.

Georgia Prophet/Flannery O’Connor
For Flannery O’Connor, the South was both a prison and an inspiration. She grew up in Milledgeville, Georgia, the only child in an Irish-Catholic family surrounded by the solidly Protestant South. She was deeply religious and wryly funny and looked forward to leaving her small town to join the world of writers in the North. After a stint in the famous writing program at the University of Iowa, where she studied under Robert Lowell, she found her way to the Connecticut home of Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, two equally devout Catholic writers. Her first published work, Wise Blood, remains her best-known novel, but as a write, she is perhaps best known for her short stories, which were collected in The Complete Short Stories in 1971, a volume that won the National Book Award for Fiction. Unfortunately O’Connor did not live to receive this award. Diagnosed with lupus in the early 1950s, she died in 1964. During the last decade of her life she lived with her mother on the family dairy farm in Middledgeville. Despite the debilitating effects of her illness, she raised peacocks, entertained guests, and devoted three hours each morning to writing her exquisite short stories—stories that baffled critics, but dazzled a host of admirers.

Discussion Questions

  • Flannery O’Connor’s biographer Sally Fitzgerald says readers find O’Connor’s stories "unsettling." She says, "Lots of people don’t like them at all, but they don’t forget them." Given what you know of O’Connor’s short fiction, do you think Fitzgerald is right?
  • Alice Walker contrasts the writing of O’Connor and Faulkner, her "freshness" to his "mugginess." What does her metaphor suggest about the differences in both the content and form of their writing?
  • The anecdote of the rattlesnake in the clothes dryer that George Garrett tells in this segment is longer than most anecdotes the filmmaker uses in the documentary. What is its purpose?
  • What do you think Flannery O’Connor meant when she said that "while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted"?


  • Tell About the South uses film clips or dramatizes scenes from several works of literature: Wright’s Native Son, Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, Warren’s All the King’s Men, Ellison’s Invisible Man. How do these dramatizations cause you to think about any of these works you have read? In filming novels, the filmmaker could only choose one scene. What did his choice reveal about the filmmaker’s perception of that work? If you read the work after viewing the film, how did the film affect your reading?

  • Have your students listen to a blues song by Robert Johnson or another blues singer, such as Son House, Charlie Patton, or Muddy Waters, and answer these questions: What is the subject matter of the lyrics? How would you describe the music? Then have them read a story by Richard Wright from Uncle Tom’s Children. Ask them how Wright’s stories compare to the blues songs.

  • In reacting to critics who charged that Welty should have been writing more directly about racial injustice during the civil rights movement, poet Rita Dove says, "To write without self-consciousness about a character, imbuing that character with all the complexities of human beings, even when the rest of the world only thinks of that character as a type. That’s protest too." Choose a story by Welty and explain how she has taken a character that could have been a type, beyond stereotype.

  • Play the jazz piece "Circus" by Lester Young and Band, which begins the documentary. Have students research the history of jazz and/or the influence of jazz on the writing of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray.

  • Have your students find other examples of racial and cultural hybridity in popular culture, for example, rock music. The first part of the PBS series on the History of Rock and Roll is an excellent example of racial and cultural hybridity in the South, where rock and roll originated during the time period Tell About the South, Part II covers.

  • In the segment on Flannery O’Connor, Ross Spears uses excerpts from several of her short stories. Read one or more of these stories and speculate about why he chose that excerpt.

  • In making the documentary Ross Spears used clips from several major motion pictures that were based on novels. Have your students read a novel mentioned in the documentary and then view the movie made from it. Have them analyze the differences and the effects of the differences on readers/viewers.

  • Have your students chose a book mentioned in the film and then compare book reviews published in southern newspapers with those published in other regions of the country.

  • Several of the writers wrote memoirs or autobiographies, Wright’s Black Boy, Smith’s Killers of the Dream, Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings. Have your students choose one and read it in conjunction with a fictional work by that writer.

  • The documentary comments briefly on a number of other southern writers. Have your students choose one writer who most intrigues them and read some of the literature. Then have each student either write an essay suggesting why that writer deserved more than a minor role in the film or an essay planning how he or she would convey the writer’s life and work on film?

  • Near the end of the documentary several writers suggest what the southern sense of place means to them. What does that place you live in or grew up in mean to you? How would you define it or describe it?

Study Guide prepared by Suzanne Jones, University of Richmond, 1998

Funding for the series Tell About the South was provided by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional funding was provided by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Other funding was provided by grants from the humanities councils of Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, as well as grants from the Southern Humanities Media Fund, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the Anne and Erlo Von Waveren Foundation.

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