Many Americans take cold comfort in a sort of historical vacuum, where what happened yesterday should somehow have no bearing on what happens today. Entire states, making a big, bad boogeyman out of “critical race theory,” are insisting that school lesson plans downplay the role of racism and slavery in teaching history.
“The Past is never dead,” William Faulkner famously wrote in “Requiem for a Nun.” “It’s not even past.” This wisdom could work as the credo for Clint Smith’s new book, “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America” (Little, Brown and Company, 352 pp., ★★★1/2 out of four). By traveling to former plantations, cemeteries and beach communities and dealing with Confederate monuments, prison conditions and Lost Cause nostalgia, Smith, a staff writer at The Atlantic, aims to show how what happened scarcely over 150 years ago can’t help but cast a shadow on what’s going on now, especially not when for the price of a bus ticket you can be taken back to the scenes of the crime.
“How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America,” by Clint Smith. (Photo: Little, Brown and Company)
Smith, who made his travels in the months before the pandemic made such a journey impossible, begins his tour at Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia, reminding us that Jefferson’s palatial home was, in fact, a plantation. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence wasn’t just a slaveholder (he owned more than 600 slaves throughout his life), but a rather cutthroat one who was quick to separate families, especially if the income helped him pay his many financial debts. An enlightened man in many respects, this Founding Father had moral blind spots you could drive a tractor through. The same could be said for the country he helped start.
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Smith encounters fair-minded guides at Monticello willing to confront the realities and ambiguities of Jefferson and his inextricable links to slavery. He encounters much the same at the Whitney Plantation in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana (not far from where Smith grew up in New Orleans). But the tone shifts by the time he gets to Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola.
The sprawling prison facility was once home to a plantation, a fact nobody working there really wants to discuss. Indeed, they’re more interested in playing up the allegedly humane practices of a historically inhumane institution, which, after slavery, was a hub of the infamous convict leasing system, in which Black people were arrested for crimes such as loitering and loaned out for hard, often lethal labor.
Author Clint Smith. (Photo: Carletta Girma)
How, Smith wonders, could such a practice not impact the culture of the prison itself, as it exists now? Such denial reaches its apex when Smith visits Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia, burial ground to “roughly thirty thousand Confederate soldiers, one of the largest mass graves of Confederate servicemen in the South.” Here Smith attends a Memorial Day event hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, members of which explain to Smith that the Civil War was not fought over slavery.
Smith’s purpose is never to put anyone on the spot. This isn’t “Borat.” What he does, quite successfully, is show that we whitewash our history at our own risk. That history is literally still here, taking up acres of space, memorializing the past, and teaching us how we got to be where we are, and the way we are. Bury it now and it will only come calling later.
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