We Need a Reckoning: Clint Smith on Slavery and the Truth About America’s History

By Joshua Adams Jun 07, 2021

Writer, scholar, journalist and artist Clint Smith has a new book, “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America” (Little, Brown, and Company), which shows the history of slavery through Smith’s journey to different historical sites around the country. Starting off with Monticello, the plantation and estate of Thomas Jefferson, Smith also travels to places such as the Whitney Plantation and Angola Prison in Louisiana, a maximum-security prison born from a plantation. Next, he goes on a New York tour that highlights the often overlooked history of slavery in the North, and exposes the dichotomies between how different Americans see the Civil War; spending time with both Juneteenth celebrators in Galveston and the Sons of the Confederate Veterans at the Blanford Cemetery, on Memorial Day. Smith’s last stop is Gorée Island and the historic Slave House in Senegal.

By experiencing these places and collecting these stories, Smith ultimately wants Americans to understand how “echoes of enslavement” shape contemporary society. Smith implies that without being clear about what happened in the past, we can’t solve many of the social problems of the present and future. 

In this interview with Colorlines, Smith discussed why he started the book with Monticello, his nuanced feelings on the importance of visiting plantations, and how we managed his self-care amidst deep research into the painful topic of slavery. 

This interview has been edited for both length and clarity.

Why did you begin the book with your tour of Monticello?

I wanted to go to Monticello because I think that Jefferson is a microcosm of the way we have been taught, or failed to be taught, about America. He is the person who wrote the Declaration of Independence, one of the most important documents in the history of the Western world; and also he enslaved over 600 people over the course of his lifetime, including four of his own children that he had by his enslaved sister-in-law, Sally Hemings. He wrote in one document “All men are created equal” and wrote in another that Black people are inferior to whites. He’s someone who helped create the philosophical bedrock on which this nation was founded and he also had narrow conceptions about who should benefit from the project he was creating. And so I wanted to see and show how a place like Monticello could show the full story of who a person is in ways that don’t shy away from the parts of his legacy that have been largely pushed aside. Monticello has a lot to say about how this country thinks about itself and talks about itself. 

What level of importance do you place on people going to plantations to confront these difficult spaces?

I think it depends. The nature of how plantations are curated today depends on which one you go to. If you go to a place like Monticello, they are actively working to tell a fuller story than they had just a few, 5, 10 years ago. The Whitney Plantation is so unique because it’s one of the only plantations in the country that is singularly focused on the life of the enslaved, but it surrounded the larger constellation of plantations where people continue to hold weddings, or take Instagram selfies in slave cabins. I remember going on field trips in Louisiana where you’re walking around a plantation and the only conversation being had is about the type of dinnerware the plantation owners used, or what type of wood they used to construct the home. I do think the potential of these places as sites of reflection and meditation on what has happened to Black people in this country is important. But we should also be mindful of the ways that these places can be traumatic as well.

Your book  arrived in  an atmosphere where there’s a push to teach more “patriotic education” and where “wokeness” and “critical race theory” are demonized. These discourses strike us as having a similar root as the “good slave master” and “happy slaves” tropes we often see when slavery gets discussed, but what are your thoughts on these attacks against more accurate tellings of history?

We have an entire political party in which the sustainability of that party’s future is predicated on creating fear; in this case fear about the world their children are going to grow up in. We see that in the context of attacks on young trans people, The 1619 project, critical race theory (even though none of these folks actually know what critical race theory is). They are making a caricature of an effort to recognize that we can’t understand the contemporary American society without understanding how it has been shaped by history, and that every element of social, cultural, political and economic infrastructure is informed by a history of white supremacy and indigenous genocide. All of these things we are taught growing up – the Founding Fathers, “manifest destiny” – if our young people don’t understand what undergirds these things that are seemingly reflective of the greatness of America, then we are doing them a disservice. 

But part of the insidiousness of white supremacy, is attempts to turn empirical statements into ideological ones. If I say “The Confederacy was a treasonous army predicated on preserving and expanding the institution of slavery,” people perceive that as a political statement rather than one grounded in primary source documents and evidence. We have to tell a full and honest story about this country in order to understand why the country looks the way it does because otherwise you look around and misdiagnose the reasons why some communities are saturated with poverty, violence, disparities in health, income and wealth, and fall into the trap of believing its the fault of the people in the community and not what has happened to them generation after generation. I’m inspired by the young people and teachers who are pushing back against fear-mongering. The Republican Party can feel that the sensibilities and understandings around these issues for millions of people are shifting, and they know that if they shift, it undermines so much of the false story we have been taught about America. 

Could you speak about the tensions between history and nostalgia; what we want to be versus what we actually are?

I’m really struck by a tour guide I met at Monticello, David Thurston. He had a really great quote around this, saying “History is what you need to know, nostalgia is what you want to hear.” I think we see this most profoundly in the context of the Confederacy. When I went to Blanford, one of the largest Confederate cemeteries in the country, and I spent Memorial Day with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, what became clear to me is that it doesn’t matter what history book, article, scholarship I place in front of them, their understanding of history is not something based on or could be changed by actual primary source documents. It’s a story that has been told to them. It is history as lineage and identity, history as eulogy, history where loyalty often takes precedence over truth. Unraveling these stories is really hard, and a lot of people don’t want to do that.

Conducting research about slavery, going to various  plantations and having a number of  heavy experiences must have been taxing. How did you emotionally prepare for it before or during, and did you need to do any self-care afterwards? 

Part of it was trying to create routines like running that allowed me to decompress and step out of the work a little bit. But the bigger part was, I was writing this book around the time I became a new father. The last four years of writing coincided with being a parent to my son and daughter. You come back from these places and (laughs) it’s kind of not up to me. When I’m with my kids, I have to be present, I have to be there. It forced me to create emotional demarcations – to the extent that one can – between reporting at plantations and prisons and different sites, and the father and husband I was when I got home. Who I am as a writer requires something different than being a parent of a young child who runs into your arms when you get home and wants to tell you a story they made up about dragons and wants to eat macaroni and cheese with you. In some ways, I feel really fortunate that I didn’t come home and stew in the experiences. 

“How the Word is Passed” readers will have different perspectives, backgrounds, levels of knowledge, etc. But what do you generally hope people take away from the book?

I hope that people understand how recent slavery was. The woman who rang the bell at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2015 was the daughter of an enslaved person. The last Confederate widow died just months ago. My grandfather’s grandfather was born into slavery. It helps put it in perspective that the idea that slavery has not shaped our contemporary landscape of inequality, is both morally and intellectually disingenuous. 

Joshua Adams is a Staff Writer for Colorlines. He’s a writer,  journalist and educator from the south side of Chicago. You can follow him @JournoJoshua