Clint Smith Takes Readers on a Journey to Reckon with the Nation’s History

by Anitra D. Brown

Clint Smith is on top of the world. No, of course, Smith is not actually sitting on the pinnacle of the celestial body we call earth. Still, in that metaphorical, abstract, feel-good sort of way, he is on top of the world. Last June, his book How the Word is Passed was on top of The New York Times Best Seller’s List – #1 in non-fiction. And in the literary world, that is pretty much the same thing.

He tells The New Orleans Tribune that the honor was “remarkable” and “beyond his wildest dreams”. But a June 9, 2021 social media post, in which he posted a picture of The New York Times Best Seller List, is probably a much better description of how he felt upon learning the news. He tweeted:

“Thank you to the scholars, public historians, descendants, guides, teachers, and incarcerated folks who told me their stories and who work to keep the memory of slavery alive. How the Word Is Passed is #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers List. Now excuse me while I go pass out.”

The writer, teacher, and New Orleans native apparently did not stay unconscious for too long. That is for sure because he has been crisscrossing the country on a book tour since early June 2021. There have been too many places to name—the Edelweiss Book Fest in Ann Arbor, Mich., Harvard Bookstore, the Nantucket Book Festival, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Schomburg Center Literary Festival,  Jewish Museum Milwaukee, Southern Center for Human Rights, National Constitution Center, Duke University, the University of Alabama, the University of Kansas, the PEN American Literary Awards and countless others.

Later this month and into mid-May, he has tour stops scheduled at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference at Weber State University, the Annapolis Book Festival, Texas Tech University,  The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Antiracist Book Festival, and the International African American Museum.

But earlier this month, he came home.

Smith was at New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University and held a lecture and book signing at Loyola University on March 11. Loyola is where The New Orleans Tribune caught up with him. In an amphitheater on the Uptown campus with Nola.com columnist Will Sutton moderating the conversation, Smith talked about his book and his journey.

The Seeds of Reckoning

Above: Nola.com columnist Will Sutton helps guides conversation with Clint Smith at Loyola University.
Below: Attendee gets her book signed by the author.

Coming home to discuss his How the Word is Passed journey was fitting because New Orleans is where the seeds of the book were planted, he says.

Recall 2017 — that was when New Orleans was in the throes of its heated debate over razing Confederate-era monuments. Should we take them down or leave them standing? Why are they there in the first place? What do they really mean? And if they come down, then what . . . what happens next? 

One side argued that we can’t and shouldn’t erase history. The other countered that we shouldn’t rewrite it either. It should be remembered accurately and that the men honored by those monuments were not heroes, but oppressors, treasonous traitors who took up arms against their own country to protect the institution of slavery.

There were contentious public meetings and even threats of violence. One monument came down in the cover of night and a national spotlight on the city. In the end, the statues came down, and New Orleans seems no worse for wear. Arguably, it’s no better either. 

At any rate, that is when and where the reader really first meets Smith in How the Word is Passed—standing on the banks of the Mississippi River with local historian Leon A. Waters some time after four monuments have been taken down. And while the statues that honored Jefferson Davis, P.T, Beauregard and Robert E. Lee along with the monument to the Battle at Liberty Place no longer littered New Orleans’ landscape, Waters and Smith stood at the riverfront and talked about the hundreds of other traces of slavery, racial oppression and various vestiges of the nation’s greatest crime that remained. Waters then took Smith on a tour of schools, buildings, and landmarks and down streets that still bore the name or shame of the past.

In his book, Smith writes “It was in May 2017—after the statue of Robert E. Lee near downtown New Orleans had been taken down from its sixty-foot pedestal—that I became obsessed with how slavery is remembered and a reckoned with, was teaching myself all of the things I wish someone had taught me long ago. Our country is at a moment, at an inflection point, in which there is a willingness to more fully grapple with the legacy of slavery and how it shapes the world we live in today. But it seems that the more purposefully some places have attempted to tell the truth about their proximity to slavery and it’s aftermath, the more staunchly other places have refused. I wanted to visit some of those places—those telling the truth, those running from it and those doing something in between—in order to understand this reckoning.”

History is No Sleeping Dog, It’s a Vicious Wolf

So he took his journey, traveling to eight places—Monticello Plantation, the home third U.S. president and slaveholder Thomas Jefferson; Whitney Plantation in Edgard, La., which has built its reputation on the claim that it tells the story of slavery through the eyes of the enslaved; Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, La., where another New Orleanian, Norris Henderson, joined him. Henderson, who is founder and executive director of Voice of the Experienced and its sister organization Voters Organized to Educate, spent nearly three decades incarcerated at Angola, which originally sat on an 8,000-acre plantation that bears the name of the African nation that was the homeland of the enslaved men and women who were forced to toil there. 

Today, wheat, corn, soybeans, and cotton are still grown at Angola, which has expanded to 18,000 acres since the prison first opened in 1880. And the nation’s post-emancipation slave labor—the incarcerated—work its fields.

When Smith asked Roger, the official guide on the Angola tour, to talk about the prison’s link to slavery, his response seemed at once somewhat reluctant and remorseless or, at the very least, oblivious. In part, Roger says “They housed slaves on this land, and I can’t change that . . . This 18,000 acres has seen more suffering than any 18,000-acre piece of property in the world probably—–when you look at it, it’s horrible. But when you go from that, and you go years and years and years, and you get where we are today with the redemption and change—then that’s what I like to talk about. Our history is our history, and I can’t change that.”

It wasn’t the response Smith wanted. He says that in the book.

He writes: “If in Germany today there were a prison built on top of a former concentration camp, and that prison disproportionately incarcerated Jewish people, it would rightfully provoke outrage throughout the world. I imagine there would be international summits on closing such an egregious institution. And yet in the United States, such collective outrage at this plantation turned prison is relatively muted.”

Smith wants more—more from Roger, more from Angola and, perhaps, more from the rest of us.

He writes, “I wanted the prison to create a sign at the entrance naming that it had been a plantation. I wanted markers erected in the places where incarcerated people had died and for the first and last sentence of every tour to begin with the word “slavery”. I wanted Angola, where 71 percent of the people are serving life sentences and three quarters of the population is Black, to not pretend as if that was a coincidence. What I wanted more than anything was for this prison to not be here, holding these people on this land with this history.”

To Roger’s point, it is history and unchangeable. And the very argument Smith is making through How the Word is Passed, is that it is also undeniable, so let’s tell the truth about it and reckon with how that history affects us now. 

In the book, Smith references a 1990 book by Patsy Dreher, who grew up the daughter of an Angola captain guard who lived on the grounds. Smith references how she wrote “nostalgically” about growing up at Angola, about eating the crops that the prisoners picked and even having prison labor for her family’s personal use as “cooks, yard boys and house boys.” 

Smith mentions to Henderson his concern about how the history of Angola, though well known, often goes overlooked, whitewashed.

“Sometimes people want to let sleeping dogs lie,” Henderson says in response.

But history is no sleeping dog. It’s more like a vicious wolf that destroys everything that follows it when that history is not honestly assessed and its wrongs are not righted.

Perhaps no one knows that better than Henderson, who, when prodded with a question from Smith about what stood out most in his own memories of Angola, quickly responded, “Picking cotton.”

“Man it’s like knowing your history, knowing what our folks went through and all of a sudden having one of these cotton sacks in your hand.” 

Smith writes that Henderson “cupped his hand and then closed his fingers around the back we were imagining in his grasp. His knuckles were dark and cracked and when he opened his hand he rubbed the inside of his palms with his thumb. 

Henderson continues, “I think that’s the biggest challenge, more than anything, not the work, but just the mindset of being there and knowing you’re kind of reliving history in a sense. I’m going through the very same thing that folks fought and died for, so I wouldn’t have to go through it; and here it is all over again.”

It’s Not Always Going to Be Perfect

Smith also visited Blanford Cemetery in Petersburg, Va., the mass gravesite of 30,000 Confederate soldiers killed in the Siege of Petersburg during the Civil War. It is also the site of a Sons of Confederate Veterans commemoration and celebration. Smith went back to Blanford for that event and talked with participants, perhaps hoping to better understand their point of view and to share his with them. 

He also visited Galveston Island, where enslaved Texans celebrated the arrival of Union soldiers that carried delayed news of the Emancipation Proclamation. Galveston Island is home to an annual Juneteenth commemoration that Smith attended while researching his book.

Smith also traveled to New York City, where he toured landmarks that are a part of that city’s connection to the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses enslaved individuals used to make their ways to free states and Canada.

And he went to Gorée Island in Dakar, Senegal, where The House of Slaves memorializes the final place where enslaved Africans were held before being loaded on ships and transported across the Atlantic. He went inside one of the rooms where enslaved Africans that resisted were kept. In the book he tells of that experience.

“I turned on my phone’s flashlight, bent down, and scooted inside. The stone seemed to absorb the light so it still felt like dark inside the shallow cavern. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. They did not. I hug my knees close to my chest as I sat inside. The joints in my knees and ankles cracked. Dirt fell from the wall where I touched it. It was impossible to feel as if the walls won’t closing in on me. I thought of people being held here, how they might barely have been able to see their hands in front of their faces.”

Although he is satisfied with the final product that is How the Word Is Passed, Smith says he wishes he would have had the opportunity to visit California and include some places there, as well.

“People don’t often consider the west coast’s relationship to slavery,” he says. 

To be sure, Southern slaveholders were among the 300,000 people who headed west between 1848 and 1855 in search of fortune. And when they did, many brought their enslaved workers with them, forcing the nation to confront the issue of slavery, considering that California entered the union as a “free state”. Despite that fact, slavery existed in California, with officials there largely unwilling to challenge the slaveholders who brought enslaved workers with them.

Today, Smith says he believes that the focus and even the efforts to remove some monuments—places and spaces where the past is remembered, albeit differently, depending on who is doing the recollecting—has made an impact on society.

“I do think there has been a real shift, and these monuments have been a part of that, contributing to an honest conversation about the history of the country,” he says, adding that it has never been about monuments alone, but rather how conversations and even protests can served as a point of entry for change.

And even though it might seem as though not enough has changed, Smith sees that as a part of the journey, too.

“It’s never linear. It’s two steps forward, three steps back,” he says. “It’s different in every community, and it’s not always going to be perfect.

Smith hopes that his book and the conversation it is sparking, like the one sparked by those monuments that came down in New Orleans and in other cities across the South leads Americans to consider “their own proximity to their history and their ancestors,” whether those ancestors enslaved, slaveholders, slave catchers, or later benefited from institutional racism and racist public policy.

More than anything, as the war rages about topics such as critical race theory, Smith hopes How the Word is Passed inspires those who believe in a teaching and sharing a “full, honest, nuanced American History to raise there voices as much or more than those who don’t” want to see that happen.

“This is about being honest about our history,” he says. “And we are not going to let you distort that.” 

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