“[T]HE highway was lined with yellow wildflowers that danced from their roots every time a car drove by. Smoke seeped up into the sky from the refineries in the distance. Birds that had flown south from an unpredictable winter rose and fell together, beating their dark wings along the endless sky,” Clint Smith wrote in his award-winning book How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America (Little, Brown and Company, 2021).
The poetic and evocative passages, found throughout, seem deliberate facades designed to lure readers inside Smith’s disturbing, but masterfully written, travelogue that offers indisputable testimony that America — all of America — is riven by the legacy of white supremacy. It began with the arrival of European colonialists in the 17th century and continues well into this 21st century as evinced recently by the despicable shipping of asylum-seeking Latino migrants by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to Washington, DC, and by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
Smith spoke last week at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the city’s flagship public library. How the Word Is Passed was chosen by the staff of the DC Reads program, which each year selects one book to encourage the entire city to read during one month — “One City. One Book. One Great Read.” A series of lectures, discussion groups and forums kicked off with a Q&A with Smith at the National Book Festival.
“I really pushed for this book,” David Quick, director of DC Reads, told me during an interview earlier this month. He said How the Word Is Passed engages the city in a “conversation around what is happening at a national level.” Moreover, the author has a strong “personal voice, and Clint was available. We made that a top priority.”
The pandemic forced the library to pause DC Reads. But it’s back now. The DC Library Foundation has given away at least 400 copies of the book. A library spokesperson said as many as 1,100 copies of the book were checked out in September alone.
“What stood out most for us,” continued Quick, “was Clint’s focus on names and places.” Many of them, like Thomas Jefferson, are familiar to District residents.
In America’s colonial beginnings, native peoples already on this continent were slaughtered or forcefully removed from their lands and communities. Africans were cargo in a transatlantic slave trade driven by desires to establish a financial and political empire, regardless of the human price or potential for centuries-long suffering of its victims and their progeny.
Still, the founders of the republic that came to be called the United States of America had the audacity to assert themselves champions of liberty. That contradiction and hypocrisy are laid bare by Smith in his first work of nonfiction, which probes some of the same racist history captured in Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent and The New York Times’ The 1619 Project.
Smith’s book may be considered much more personal because he spent hours and hours at seven key sites, discovering the truth within their soils and their stories, listening to researchers and historical enactors, and questioning ordinary people about their beliefs — beliefs that in several instances were out-of-step with those he held and with the experiences of his family members including his “grandfather’s grandfather [who] was enslaved.”
A poet, scholar and writer for The Atlantic magazine, Smith was born and raised in New Orleans, which is also my hometown. In the book, he quotes Leon Waters, a leader in an anti-white supremacist movement who argued that “The whole city [of New Orleans] is a memorial to slavery.”
Smith wrote that he “came to realize that I knew relatively little about my hometown’s relationship to the centuries of bondage rooted in the city’s soft earth, in the statues I had walked past daily, the names of the streets I had lived on, the schools I had attended, and the buildings that had once been nothing more to me than the remnants of colonial architecture.
“It was all right in front of me, even when I didn’t know to look for it,” continued Smith.
The country’s deep-seated racial history is in plain sight. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin prompted a national uprising that included calls to demolish certain memorials as well as to change the names of institutions and buildings. In choosing Smith’s book for its annual communal reading project, the DC Public Library made clear it wasn’t advocating for or against such action — although its director, Richard Reyes-Gavlin, sat on a DC commission established to consider renaming local facilities.
Quick said he and others at DCPL were “more interested in providing the opportunity to get together and talk about the issues raised in the book.” Among the questions that arise: “How do we actually tell American history? And who gets to tell the story?
“How do we understand how things happened in the city we live in and the streets where we walk around?” he added.
That last part certainly makes sense, especially since Smith began his journey before Floyd’s death while wandering around the Crescent City. The tours he writes about in the book were conducted between October 2017 and February 2020. He traveled to Goree Island in West Africa, the place where many — though not all — Africans began their trips to America in captivity. He went to the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana; it was purchased, renovated and operated by New Orleans trial attorney John Cummings but is now held by a nonprofit. Smith also visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary two hours away on the grounds of the former Angola plantation, which seemed to retain the mentality of such, using Black men to perform uncompensated work during their incarceration.
Smith toured Blandford Cemetery, a much-celebrated burial ground of white Confederate soldiers, where folks still sing aloud or hum softly Dixie: “I wish I was in the land of cotton; old times there are not forgotten…”
He traveled to Galveston, Texas, where slaves received late word of the Union Army’s victory over the Confederacy and their emancipation via President Abraham Lincoln, who once wanted to send them and other slaves back to Africa. Were it not for the intervention of abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, that might have been the end of the story.
Intent on disabusing readers of the notion that slavery was some singularly Southern experience, Smith visited New York City, where he learned about its racist history, including the enslavement of thousands of Blacks and the murder of still others, including children. Capitalism, Wall Street and much of the country’s financial wealth are directly linked to slavery and white supremacy.
Actually, Yvonne Holden, director of operations for the Whitney, exposed that reality, telling Smith why the plantation’s tours are critical: “[This] gives us the insight into the larger economy of slavery, and the fact that a lot of the sugar [produced] here didn’t stay in Louisiana. It was sent up north to granulation facilities. … That gives us an opportunity to talk about the textile industry and the rise of industrialization. And the North — where were they getting that cotton from?”
Smith could have written about the District of Columbia, too. Blacks were bought and sold in DC. The main slave market was at what is now 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Ironically, the building currently on that site is owned by the National Council of Negro Women. The infamous Yellow House, privately owned by slave dealer William H. Williams, was located only a few blocks away. Enslavers sometimes rented cages there to hold the people they had bought. Slave-catchers also used it after rounding up Blacks to return to plantations down south; some of their captives, like Solomon Northup, were actually free.
The slave trade in DC wasn’t outlawed until 1850. Blacks weren’t actually emancipated until April 1862 when the government bought their freedom at $300 per head. (That fact is at the root of my utter disgust with Emancipation Day in DC. No benevolence drove that action; it was a practical political transaction.) Consider Barry Farm’s origins and namesake: Julie Barry sold part of her plantation to the Freedmen’s Bureau, which resold it as plots to free Blacks to build their first homes. The Jesuit Catholic priests and other founders of Georgetown University bought and sold slaves, as did the Methodists who established American University.
You get the point.
Smith’s up-close and personal examination of white supremacy begins at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson; he was, by turns, a writer of the Declaration of Independence, president, unrepentant slaveholder, and father of the children of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman bonded to him and his plantation.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” wrote Jefferson along with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston.
Of course, they did not mean someone like me: a Black woman. Hemings provides ample testimony. Jefferson’s hypocrisy — not unlike that of many of the so-called founding fathers, including first president George Washington, who were mostly murderous colonizers — is spectacular.
You may already know the tale of two Jeffersons but most Americans don’t. Smith recounts the reactions of two women he observed during a tour at Monticello and his subsequent conversations with them: “You grow up and it’s basic American history from fourth grade … He’s a great man, and he did all this,” one of the women told Smith. “And granted he achieved things. But we were just saying, this really took the shine off the guy.”
“Yes … That’s a good word,” the other woman said.
Smith drills deep into Monticello, including Jefferson’s psyche and actions. He notes that Jefferson separated slaves from their families. He even gave children away as gifts to his family members. He maintained a long-term relationship with Hemings but refused to emancipate their children.
The connection between Jefferson and his slaves is captured in one short vignette Smith tells: The former president lay dying “when no one else could understand his mumbled, near lifeless words, it was another of his enslaved attendants who, knowing that he was asking to have his pillow repositioned, raised Jefferson’s head.”
“Only a short time after, Jefferson passed away,” wrote Smith.
It has to be made clear that Monticello can’t just be defined by Jefferson, said Smith. There were families there, who “built a community there that spanned generations.” Those people remained on the property during Jefferson’s many years away. “Their lives are worthy of remembrance, and commemoration,” added Smith.
That sentiment was echoed by tour guide David Thorson, who noted that Sally Hemings’ brother James “got beat here. Not in a book … Right here is where that happened.” When 100 enslaved people at Monticello were auctioned, it was “right there in the west lawn behind us … It happened right there.”
I reflected on those words as I finished reading How the Word Is Passed. I don’t share every one of Smith’s viewpoints about the history he has covered. For example, he seems unwilling to accept the views of the whites who perceive their ancestors as honorable people although they fought for the Confederates during the Civil War. I, on the other hand, question whether we should completely lambaste them as traitors, particularly when the argument over states’ rights is at least partially legitimate. I wonder, too, whether the telling of history without providing a roadmap forward is healthy — does it perpetuate divisions and hatred?
Smith, like the authors of Caste and 1619, makes clear that white supremacy and deep racism permeate America’s foundation. I wondered whether the Native American ritual of “smudging” could be deployed to cleanse the entire country. Even now, a cleansing is needed.
My generation or Smith’s generation may not be able to perform that feat. It may be left to his children or his children’s children — just as his grandfather’s grandfather’s story and that of untold numbers of Blacks and enslaved people was left for him to tell.
This article was first published on TheDCLine.org