The year my grandfather was born, twenty-one people were lynched and no one heard a sound. The trees died and the soil turned over and the leaves baptized all that was left behind. (273)
The fact that Clint Smith is also a poet does not make his recent book an easy read. How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America was a New York Times Top 10 Book of 2021, partly because of the beauty of Smith’s prose. But the subject matter is painful.
It’s no secret that the Heartlands site has a special affection for books that give attention to the role of place in shaping human lives and institutions. So the premise of Smith’s book was engaging—he was going to visit sites associated with slavery to see how that history was being remembered. “The history of slavery is the history of the United States,” he says. “It was not peripheral to our founding; it was central to it. It is not irrelevant to our contemporary society; it created it. This history is in our soil, it is in our policies, and it must, too, be in our memories.”(289)
As an African-American with roots in New Orleans, Smith brings his own personal history with him as well and he becomes a figure in this work of landscape journalism. As he tours Monticello plantation he wonders how different the tour sounds when there are no Black visitors to hear. At a Memorial Day ceremony at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia sponsored by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans he feels all eyes on him and he notes his own irritation as a speaker compares activists trying to tear down Confederate monuments with ISIS. “Every syllable of [his] words were cigarette embers being pushed onto my skin.” (142)
But Smith avoids the trap of falling into polemics. He faithfully records the words of those he interacts with, transcribing from his digital recorder. At times I wished for a little more editing, but the effect of the unvarnished conversations is to make the moment and the people more present.
He also presents the magnitude of the slavery enterprise and its devastating effects in a slow drip process and always with context. He notes in passing that Monticello was a mostly Black locale for most of its existence as a plantation with 130 enslaved persons dwarfing the number of Jefferson family members.
He gives us eye-popping statistics on the effect of enslavement on Black families: “In Soul by Soul, historian Walter Johnson writes, ‘Of the two thirds of a million interstate sales made by the traders in the decades before the Civil War, twenty-five percent involved the destruction of a first marriage and fifty percent destroyed a nuclear family.’” (15) But he also turns a critical eye to attempts to remember slavery, noting, in his visit to Gorée Island, Senegal, that the infamous Door of No Return probably didn’t see nearly the numbers claimed passing through it into transatlantic slavery. He supplements this by noting that, though that number may be only in the tens of thousands, it doesn’t diminish the scale of the cruelty since millions were sold into the slave trade at many locations.
Other sites Smith visits include the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, (which is trying to tell a more honest story about the slave experience), Angola Prison, New York City, (which had its own bustling slave market), and Galveston Island. At each stop he learns and deepens the story he is trying to tell.
The final stop is the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Touring it with his grandparents it unlocks stories from them that he had not heard:
I do not misunderstand the language of progress. Though I realize that I do not yet have all the words to discuss a crime that is still unfolding. But I do know that spending the day with my grandparents in a museum documenting the systemic and interpersonal violence they witnessed—the hand that beat them and the laws that said it was okay—reminded me that in the long arc of the universe, even the most explicit manifestations of racism happened a short time ago. (289)
And the scars are still visible if we take the time to see. I’m grateful for Smith’s patient eye and gifted pen to do that careful observation.