Review by Brian Tanguay
As the controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments and tumult over critical race theory makes evident, American history is contentious and unsettled, with nostalgia and myth more often than not obscuring documented fact. That the Lost Cause narrative still resonates more than a century and a half after the Civil War, representing for many Americans a tale of pride, identity, and honor, is evidence of the persistence of myths. The notion that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights and the predations of an overreaching federal government rather than the perpetuation and expansion of chattel slavery remains potent, an article of faith. The Lost Cause narrative accounts for the canonization of confederate general Robert E. Lee — a slave owner and believer in the inherent and immutable inferiority of African Americans — as a noble figure rather than a traitor and rebel; streets and schools in cities and towns across America still bear Lee’s name.
In How The Word Is Passed, Clint Smith makes a pilgrimage to places that testify to how fundamentally the institution of slavery has shaped American history. Smith, a staff writer for The Atlantic and author of Counting Descent, an award-winning poetry collection, traveled extensively for nearly three years, conducting interviews and researching primary sources. From Galveston, Texas, to Gorée Island off the coast of Senegal, Louisiana to New York City, Smith followed the path of enslaved Africans, not with an axe to grind or blame to assign, but in search of truth and understanding. Such is Smith’s narrative prowess that I felt I was beside him every step of the way. His voice is measured and poetic, rarely judgmental. For Smith, confronting the past, no matter how uncomfortable it may make us feel, is necessary if we are ever to reconcile our history rather than allowing it to define us in the present. Like many black children, Smith grew up in a social setting that never tired of telling him how he was deficient, without bothering to examine the reasons why so many black children are reared in communities plagued by poverty and calculated neglect. Smith is an intrepid seeker of root causes and fundamental truths. The American history he learned — that most American children learn — only skimmed the surface. The truth lies deeper and effort is required to unearth it.
In constructing his narrative Smith had to make numerous choices, but one of the more interesting is where he chose to begin, at Monticello, the mountain-top plantation in Virginia owned by Thomas Jefferson. He could have begun off the coast of Senegal, at the place where thousands of Africans were loaded aboard ships bound for a life of forced labor in the Americas or the Caribbean. But Smith’s choice works because it anchors the story with the man who penned the words in the Declaration of Independence that created the great American contradiction: all men are created equal. There was, of course, a disconnect between Jefferson’s soaring rhetoric and reality. Jefferson owned slaves and fathered children with an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings. As Smith writes, “There is no story of Monticello — there is no story of Thomas Jefferson — without understanding Sally Hemings.” The life Jefferson enjoyed when he was at Monticello was made possible by the people he owned, who ploughed, cultivated, harvested, repaired, cooked and scrubbed.
What matters to Smith are the lives of people, living and passed, and their ties to the places he visited and studied. If there’s no clear understanding of Jefferson and Monticello without acknowledging Sally Hemings, there can be no understanding of the Louisiana State Prison, better known as Angola, without acknowledging that Angola began as a plantation that ran on slave labor. Angola’s incarnation as a prison after Reconstruction coincided with the advent of convict leasing, the method devised by Louisiana and other states of the confederacy to circumvent the Thirteenth Amendment which outlawed involuntary servitude except in criminal convictions. State legislatures in the South constantly manipulated laws to make it easier to convict black people of crimes. The legislatures knew what they were doing, and state courts provided the necessary legal imprimatur. Once imprisoned, often by less than unanimous jury verdicts, black convicts were rented out to companies and individuals who needed laborers to clear land, harvest crops, and build roads and levees. In this way one form of slavery was replaced by another.
We’re adept at deflecting our history of slavery and racism, as Smith illustrates throughout the book. But the history, he writes, is in our soil as well as our public policies, and it’s not a relic of some prehistoric age, so distant and remote that it can’t possibly affect the present. Smith’s visit to Galveston Island, where each year a ceremony is held to commemorate June 19, 1865, the day the enslaved people of Texas were informed that slavery was over and they were free, is illustrative. The announcement in Galveston came nearly two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It would take another century before Texas created a state holiday to commemorate black emancipation. In June 2021, a century and a half after the Civil War, President Biden issued a proclamation making Juneteenth a federal holiday. On the one hand it’s astonishing that it took that long, but it also demonstrates how reluctant we’ve been to acknowledge our history.
Reconciling our past is a collective endeavor that demands collective will, courage, and clear-eyed thinking. As Smith notes, it’s a project that will not happen on its own or without discomfort, but it’s as necessary now as it has ever been and the only way to make Jefferson’s words ring true. How The Word Is Passed is provocative, timely and poignant. Clint Smith deserves a place at the table with the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Charles M. Blow, Isabel Wilkerson, and Ibram X. Kendi.