GENDERED POLITICS IN THE MODERN SOUTH: The Susan Smith Case. By Keira V. Williams. Louisiana State University Press. 272 pages. $39.95.
When I first learned about the Susan Smith case, I simply viewed it as involving a woman who blamed a black man after murdering her children. This was neither alarming nor surprising, though perhaps it should have been.
Set against the backdrop of Union, S.C., “Gendered Politics in the Modern South” examines the cultural and political dynamics at play from the early cotton-growing years to the present, which tinted the lens through which the town saw the Susan Smith story. It also provides a history lesson that focuses on the perception of women beginning in the 1950s, using Smith as a barometer. Before her story unraveled, Smith was portrayed as a good mother and loving wife whose sole mission was to take care of her children.
This is why it was so easy to believe Smith and her tall tale of a carjacking by a beastly black man. She was a suitable victim, Keira V. Williams argues. With that premise, Williams takes us back to the early days of Ida B. Wells and the “rape myth,” when white men avenged white women by lynching black men accused of rape. And it begs the question: Why in this day and age, when we are all supposed to equal, were people so quick to believe Smith? If her choice wasn’t racial, what was it?
In her chapter “A Hard Week to Be Black in Union,” Williams writes that after Smith’s accusation, local authorities were diligently looking for a suspect despite Smith’s changing description. The history of lynchings in Union county is discussed, which makes Smith’s assertion seem commonplace.
Throughout the book, Smith’s story is documented and analyzed in detail. Sexism is explored as Williams examines the hit to Smith’s reputation once it was discovered that she was separated from her husband and was in a relationship with her boss’ son.
The “boyfriend motive” was cited as the reason for her crime. Rarely did anyone consider that psychological issues might be at play. The options were painted starkly in black and white: Either she was an abusive mother or in desperate love. Williams rejects this simplistic point of view. Regardless of her reasons for claiming that a black man took her car and her children, and irrespective of the debate over her sexual activity, one hard fact remains: Susan Smith killed her children.
This book considers the case in a racial and feminist context, delving beneath the surface of reported events. Williams contacted Smith, but no answers were forthcoming. In the end, Williams relied on her own analysis of the way women and blacks are perceived and represented in the South without discovering why Smith did what she did.
Reviewer Doretha Walker is an adjunct professor of women and gender studies at the College of Charleston.