Book Review: ‘How the Word Is Passed,’ by Clint Smith

A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America
By Clint Smith

Where are we, exactly, in the great American slavery reckoning? Like a poorly written series watched only on random weeknights, it’s beginning to lose coherence, even — or maybe even especially — when you pay attention. In one episode, protesters are tearing down Confederate statues and the nation is on the cusp of reparations; by the next, the federal government has condemned basic education about slavery as a form of totalitarian brainwashing. The Harriet Tubman 20 flutters from season to season like an unresolved subplot. Are we in the backlash, the whitelash, or the backlash to the whitelash, and when will white liberals lose interest? It’s enough to give anybody whiplash, especially those of us who, as descendants of the enslaved, can’t safely stop watching the interminable show.

Perhaps the only way to get a clearer picture is to visit individual communities, where the national culture war yields to quieter yet no less monumental struggles over the meaning of particular historic sites. A growing number of books feature such analyses — “Denmark Vesey’s Garden,” by Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, for instance, focuses on Charleston, S.C. — but none have attempted an appraisal quite so expansive or intimate as “How the Word Is Passed,” a cross-country survey of slavery remembrance by the poet and Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith. Gregarious, learned and engagingly open-minded, the book meets America where it is on the subject — which is to say, all over the place. Beginning in his hometown, New Orleans, Smith visits nine places that memorialize or distort their link to the legacy of slavery, from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan. He skillfully braids interviews with scholarship and personal observation, asking, “How different might our country look if all of us fully understood what had happened here?”

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of June. See the full list. ]

The result is a tour of tours and a reckoning with reckonings, which sketches an impressive and deeply affecting human cartography of America’s historical conscience. The book’s standout quality is the range and sincerity of its encounters. Smith walks with tourists, guides, teachers, scholars, ex-convicts, local historians and heritage zealots, managing to catch nearly everyone in a moment of unscripted candor. His ease with strangers is charmingly apparent. After a tour at Monticello focused on Jefferson’s slaveholding, one conservative Southerner says, “This really took the shine off the guy.” In the chapel of Blandford Cemetery, in Petersburg, Va., which honors each rebel state with a Tiffany stained-glass memorial, a nervous docent admits that “we try and fall back on the beauty of the windows” whenever the topic of slavery arises. Later, Smith attends a Memorial Day event at the cemetery organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, where a member earnestly tries to convince him that Black men served as officers in the Confederacy.

Never getting lost in his story’s many thickets, Smith confidently interleaves the history of American slavery with his subjects’ varied relationships to the institution’s evolving legacy. (We learn, for instance, that the myth of Black Confederate officers originated in the 1970s, as part of a propaganda campaign to safeguard the S.C.V.’s reputation.) At Monticello, Niya Bates, then the site’s director of African American history, tells him that she decided to enter her field after identifying relatives in a photo of the servants at another local plantation that she visited on a school trip and realizing that Black Virginians had been excluded from decisions about the exhibition of their own heritage. She also tells Smith that in the early 20th century, when Monticello first opened to the public, many of the guides were Black men dressed in servant livery, several of whom were direct descendants of people enslaved by Jefferson.

Smith finds an even more macabre genre of re-enactment when he accompanies a former convict on a visit to Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a former plantation where inmates pick cotton under the supervision of correctional officers on horseback. “There was no need for metaphor,” he writes; in its early days, the prison’s warden still lived in an antebellum-style big house with his family. Smith visits the Angola gift shop, where inmate-manufactured memorabilia is on offer; tours death row — where the prisoners’ lack of privacy gives him a “rancid” feeling of complicity — and reflects on a horrifying episode from the 1990s, when the prison tricked inmates into building a new death bed for the execution chamber. Despite the painfully obvious lineage, the prison tour entirely omits its plantation past. Convicts, though, have often drawn the parallels themselves in their prison journal, The Angolite.

Smith offers a more encouraging portrait of Galveston, Texas, visiting a Juneteenth celebration at the spot where it is widely believed that Union forces entering the state announced Emancipation. There he meets Al Edwards, a Black state legislator who spearheaded the holiday’s official recognition in 1979. Another success is the House of Slaves on Gorée Island in Senegal, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, which Smith frames as a counterpoint to America’s miseducation. At a local boarding school, he interviews girls who demonstrate impressive knowledge of the slave trade, and who roll their eyes at the mention of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who infamously excluded Africa from the concept of history.

Yet the triumph of remembrance poses its own dilemmas of truth and falsehood. Smith confronts the House of Slaves’ curator about Senegalese tourism officials’ long exaggeration of the number of individuals shipped from the site. After visiting a small holding cell and the famous Door of No Return, which looks out over the Atlantic, he wonders: “Did it matter whether enslaved people had actually been held there or did it matter that my sense of what bondage meant for millions of people had been irreversibly heightened? Can a place that misstates a certain set of facts still be a site of memory for a larger truth?” Similar questions about artifice arise at Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation, the first such site devoted to the memory of the enslaved in the United States; the founder, a white trial attorney named John Cummings, controversially augmented the original complex with historic buildings relocated from elsewhere.

In New York City, by contrast, vestiges of slavery are everywhere present yet scarcely marked. On a tour of the financial district — where offices were nearly built over the segregated colonial cemetery that is now the African Burial Ground National Monument — we learn that enslaved workers helped to clear land for the construction of Broadway, and that the Statue of Liberty may well have been intended by Édouard René de Laboulaye as a celebration not of immigration but of abolition. The link between past and present struggles is highlighted by a plaque marking the site of a former slave market at the corner of Wall and Water Streets, which was installed after a campaign by an Occupy-affiliated artist. Smith’s buddy on the tour, a young German visitor with whom he extensively discusses Bundesliga soccer, has never heard anything about slavery in New York.

Smith has a penchant for evoking people and places, and occasionally garlands his text with descriptions of voices, landscapes and curricula vitae that distract from the substance of his research. His generosity of spirit also leads him to affirm some instances of remembrance that might deserve more scrutiny. When I visited the Whitney Plantation in 2018, I was taken aback by its uncritical memorial to the 1811 German Coast Uprising, which Smith uses to open a chapter. It “honors” participants in the slave rebellion by displaying them just as their murderers did, as heads on pikes.

But it’s surely a sign of strength when even a book’s shortcomings vindicate its larger project. Smith’s unapologetically subjective map of American memory is an extraordinary contribution to the way we understand ourselves. As the great Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot once wrote, “The inability to step outside of history in order to write or rewrite it applies to all actors and narrators.” Statues, curriculums, bank notes and symbols matter deeply, but all we have, in the end, is the sum of our reckonings.

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