As part of the Crimson Conversations series, poet and journalist Clint Smith spoke to members of the MBS community on Monday night, April 11 via Zoom about his New York Times bestseller How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. The discussion was moderated by MBS Head Librarian Erinn Salge.
Mr. Smith’s award-winning book examines the legacy of slavery in America and how both history and memory continue to shape our everyday lives. The book begins in Smith’s hometown, New Orleans, and 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. His narrative combines interviews with scholarship and personal observation, asking, “How different might our country look if all of us fully understood what had happened here?”
While growing up in New Orleans, Smith would walk past Confederate monuments on the way to school every day, yet he knew very little about the presence of slavery in his hometown. “The history of slavery was absent in my own education,” he said. “In some ways, this book was written to a 16 year-old version of myself — to give me the language and the tool kit to understand why my city, my state, and my country looked the way it did.”
In the discussion, Smith touched on some of the most memorable chapters — from his visit to Monticello (“where Jefferson wrote on of the most important documents in the history of the Western world and also enslaved more than 600 people over the course of his lifetime”) to his tour of Angola – the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a former plantation where inmates now work the field under the supervision of correctional officers on horseback. He also recalled a poignant moment when he visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture with his grandparents, and was looking at the exhibits when his grandmother remarked, “I lived it.”
“The history wasn’t that long ago,” said Smith. “If I could wave a magic wand, I would have every history or social studies teacher ask their students to do an oral history of their family. We have so much to learn about ourselves and the history of our country by speaking with the people who are sitting right next to us.”
Mr. Smith concluded his talk by emphasizing the importance of education and embracing a fuller, honest and more robust picture of history.
“For me, it’s about telling the full story of this country. There’s a lot of good and there’s a lot of stuff that’s not good. We have to lean into the complexity and the messiness and be more honest with each other about this place that we all call home,” he said.