September 27, 2021

How the Word Is Passed: A Conversation with Clint Smith

Meteor Shower, a poem in Clint Smith’s 2017 book of poetry Counting Descent, speaks of our place in the universe, of how we, as human beings, are carriers of history, that we bring our stories with us as we travel through life. It ends with these lines:

…Even when we enter a new atmosphere,
become subsumed in flames, turn to dust,
Lose ourselves in the wind, and scatter
the surface of all that rests beneath us,
we bring a part of where we are from
to every place we go.

In a lot of ways, this sentiment is an undercurrent of Smith’s new book, How the Word is Passed, which is a deeply personal story about his relationship to his own past as a Black man in the United States, and also, as the subtitle states, "a reckoning with the history of slavery across America." The book is divided into eight chapters, each focusing on a single place—in addition to a final stop at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. At each stop, Smith takes his readers on a journey as he considers the role this history plays in our present understanding of who we are as Americans and emphasizes the weightiness that comes from listening to the stories presented at each of these places. It is a book that is relevant, accessible, and filled with needed moments of honesty.

An image of man sitting to the left of the photograph with his hands crossed in front of him, elbows leaning on a surface. The background is blurred out but looks to be a park with some trees in the background.

photo by: Carletta Girma

Poet and Author Clint Smith.

For Smith, the creation of this book began in May 2017 when, he says, “I watched the statutes of several Confederate monuments come down in my hometown [of] New Orleans. And [I was] thinking about what it meant that I grew up in a majority Black city in which there were more homages to its enslavers than there were to enslaved people. What are the implications of that? And so, I started thinking a lot about how different places have told the story of their relationship to American history and specifically slavery, [starting with my hometown], and then broadened it out to start thinking about how different places across the country and across the oceans thought about this history. And to what extent they were being honest about it. And to what extent they were running from it. And then to what extent they were maybe doing something in between.”

This summer, I had the privilege of talking with Smith about his book, the role of public historians, and the power of words as vehicles to tell the full American story. Below is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.

Priya Chhaya: Who did you write the book for, and how does that reflect the power of the places where the story is being told?

Clint Smith: The book is written by someone who did not begin this project as an expert on the history of slavery. It was a four-year project in which I was attempting to teach myself and learn about so many of the things that I wish I had learned about when I was 15. In many ways I had in mind that 15-year-old Clint. I've always known that I'm an experiential learner. Being somewhere, being in conversation with people, having my feet on the land, having my body in the room, it creates a different level of intimacy with the history.

When you stand in a slave cabin, hear the wood moaning under your feet, see the way that the sun creeps in through cracks in the wood planks, and think about how susceptible these families would have been to the elements, you are reminded of both our physical proximity to this history, but also our temporal proximity to it. I'm thinking specifically about the Whitney Plantation, where I was standing in a cabin in which formerly enslaved people lived. You're reminded that this history that we tell ourselves was a long time ago wasn't that long ago at all.

A view of one of the slave cabins, a vernacular structure made of brown boards and a small porch against the backdrop of a sunset.

photo by: Whitney Plantation

A view of one of the slave cabins on Whitney Plantation in Louisiana.

My grandfather's grandfather was enslaved. And so [when] my four 4-year- old son sits on my grandfather's lap, I think about my grandfather sitting on his grandfather's lap. I think about how when I was in elementary school, I was taught about slavery like it was something that happened in the Jurassic period, like it was dinosaurs and slavery and the Flintstones altogether, and being on that land, being in those rooms, being in the spaces reminds you that in the scope of human history, this was just yesterday.

The idea then that it would have nothing to do with what our contemporary landscape of inequality looks like is just both morally and intellectually disingenuous. Being in these places, you feel it in your bones, you feel it in your blood, you feel the space and the history pulsing through you in a way that I think just makes it a more dynamic and emotionally visceral experience.

Chhaya: One of the stops in the book takes the reader to Dakar, Senegal, specifically to Gorée Island, where enslaved people were held before being forced by—mostly white—enslavers across the Atlantic Ocean. After your visit, in a discussion about these sites and the histories and memories they hold, Louis Nelson, an architectural historian and vice provost at University of Virginia said, “If you are going to purport to tell the history of a place, you need to have relationships of trust in that place.” With that in mind, as you traveled to these places, did you have a sense of what to expect?

View of  Gorée Island in Senegal with an expanse of water from the Atlantic Ocean in front. The buildings on the island are a coral color while the sky and water are a deep dark blue.

photo by: ljubar via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

View of Gorée Island in Dakar, Senegal from the Atlantic Ocean.

Smith: I definitely did not know what I was going to encounter when I went to any of these places. Part of what I loved about this book was the serendipity and the spontaneity and the surprise of what I encountered at each place. Even for the places that I intended to go to, like Monticello, for example, I had no idea [what I would find].

It was less about trust than it was about curiosity. I was motivated by so many of the public historians who I think are exemplars of finding this balance between extending grace and generosity and understanding while also recognizing that there's a need for accountability and responsibility. Which is to say there has been a systemic failure and a structural failure in our education systems about how people understand the history of slavery and the extent to which people don't understand the history of slavery in any way that is commensurate with the actual impact that it had on this country.

There's a recognition by public historians that you'd have to meet people where they are, but at the same time, you don't hold back, and you don't water down the reality of what American history looks like and what the people went through. The book itself is attempting to capture that same ethos. [At each stop, public historians and I] want to bring you into this history, but we are not going to hold your hand through it and make you feel good about what happened. You have to do the work within yourself of being willing to deal with the hard truths.

Chhaya: Let’s take a moment and talk about the title, How the Word is Passed, which is a phrase that comes from one of the interviews with a descendant of Monticello’s enslaved people as part of their Getting Word oral history project. While the book is very much about place, it is also about the stories that are told in those spaces, and how those words are spread and shared throughout the country.

Smith: For many people, history is not about empirical evidence. It is not about primary source documents. It is about a story that they have been told. And it is a story that they tell, it is an heirloom that is passed down across generations, across family, across community.

When I went to the [Confederate] Blandford Cemetery, I remember speaking to a guy, Jeff, who was a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and hearing how he talked about how he used to sit in this gazebo in the middle of this cemetery filled with the remains of 30,000 Confederate soldiers. And that his grandfather would share with him songs about Dixie and tell him the stories about these brave men who fought this war against Northern aggression and protected their families and communities and their way of life.

These memories are deeply entangled in his sense of self, in part, because they are entangled in his sense of who his grandfather is and the stories of what he believes and understands that relationship to be.

It is not just a question of accepting new information. It is a question of having to re-situate who you believe yourself to be in the world. And I think that's hard for a lot of people. That's not to say that that's an excuse; people get new information and must recalibrate and unlearn so much of what they've learned all the time.

For many people, history is not about empirical evidence. It is not about primary source documents. It is about a story that they have been told. And it is a story that they tell, it is an heirloom that is passed down across generations, across family, across community.

I think that's part of what it means to be a human. But for a lot of people, that is difficult to the point where they're more committed to sitting with and stewing in a sort of mythology and a nostalgia, even when it's not true, if it allows them to tell a certain story about themselves and their family that gives them a certain sense of purpose, sense of identity, sense of value, sense of meaning. As David [the interpreter] put it at Monticello, “There's history, there's a nostalgia, and somewhere in between is memory.” All these different places represent different ends of that spectrum.

Chhaya: I was struck by something you asked at the end of the chapter. You write: “I’m left wondering if we are just patchworks of the stories we’ve been told. What would it take—what does it take—for you to confront a false history even if it means shattering the stories you have been told throughout your life?” That question really reverberated with me as we turn the page from Blandford Cemetery to Galveston Island for their annual Juneteenth Celebration. I know in real life those two trips occurred very close together. How does the new federal designation impact your memory of that experience?

Smith: In many ways, I'm glad that I went before Juneteenth in 2019, before it became [more widely recognized]. It was in 2020 after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others who have been killed that all these companies and organizations and states and different government entities began talking about and thinking about and recognizing Juneteenth. There was always a tension between the performative nature of it and what the holiday is meant to stand for.

Three people stand in front of the mural to equality in Galveston, Texas. One holds a selfie stick.

photo by: Juneteenth Legacy Project

In 2021, the Juneteenth Legacy Project unveiled the Absolute Equality mural in Galveston, Texas. In his book Clint Smith visits Galveston as part of his journey.

I think I got to experience it in a moment where it belonged to those residents of Galveston, belonged to those descendants. It belonged to the people in that community, in that room, who had been celebrating it for decades and who were celebrating it before it was popular to do so, before it was in our collective public consciousness.

It was also a powerful trip because I went to Galveston just three weeks after I went to the Blandford Cemetery, and it was an incredibly restorative experience. [Galveston] was where descendants of people who have been free by General Order No. 3 from a General Granger in 1865 , where we're celebrating the end of one of the worst things this country has ever done.

Chhaya: I have to share these words from that chapter. When those assembled in Galveston start singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” you write, “around me was a tapestry of sunlight and song, pain and catharsis, moving through the air.” That entire passage was incredibly moving.

Smith: For those folks, it was not an abstraction. It was not just a symbol. It was real, it was visceral. It was like it's part of their lineage, it's in their bones. They were singing with every voice, and in that moment, I was like, oh, for these people, General Order No. 3 is not just a piece of history. It is the thing that actually made their lives possible, and they feel that and resonate with it in a different way. So it was an extraordinary experience to spend time with them. And I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to do so.

Chhaya: Was there any place in the book that surprised you?

Smith: Yeah, I was definitely surprised by [my visit to] Angola Prison. I think I knew a lot about it in the abstract, and I've worked in prisons for the past seven years, so I was familiar with the nature of carceral spaces. But I was not prepared for what it meant for the largest maximum-security prison in the country, where the vast majority of people are Black men serving life sentences, to have also once been a plantation. And to see the Black men working in those fields [today].

Chhaya: You write at that moment that “There was no need for metaphor. The land made it literal.”

Smith: I don't think I was emotionally prepared for that. And also to see that that place had a gift shop where they sold coffee mugs and shot glasses and t-shirts, and had mugs that say “Angola, a Gated Community.” It was deeply unsettling, and in ways that I don't know that I ever could have been prepared for. I was surprised by how bizarre that situation was. Tone deaf doesn't even feel like it captures just how utterly absurd it is that this prison would have a place like that right next to it.

View of the interior of the National Museum of African American Culture in D.C. On the concrete wall to the right are the words to Lift Every Voice while visitors sit on benches before screens showing the March on Washington.

photo by: Alan Karchmer

Interior of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Chhaya: You start with places, specifically your hometown of New Orleans, but you end with people, where you interview your grandparents about their own stories. Can you tell me about the experience of talking to them about their past?

Smith: As I was working on the book and I was having these conversations, I was asking strangers all of these intimate questions about their lives and their life stories, and I had a moment where I realized that I'd never been nearly as intentional with members of my own family, in terms of asking them about different parts of their own lives.

I think that, especially with my grandparents getting older, so many of my conversations with them these days are at Thanksgiving when I'm trying to prevent a 2-year-old from throwing macaroni across the room. So, I had gone to the National Museum of African American History and Culture with them, and I was pushing my grandfather in the wheelchair and my grandmother was walking ahead of us. And I was thinking about how so much of this history that was documented in the museum, so much of the violence that was documented, were things that they experienced firsthand.

When I spoke to my grandmother later about it, she had this refrain. She was like, "I lived it. I lived it. I lived it." And speaking to them and considering the places they were born—my grandfather in 1930 Mississippi, and my grandmother in 1939 Florida—their grandparents were people who were enslaved. That's a reminder that there are people alive today who were loved by and in community with and were raised by people who were born into intergenerational child slavery. And that also sometimes the best primary sources are not things that we have to search for in the Library of Congress, but they are the people who are right next to us.

Chhaya: What do you want readers to take with them with them after they finish the book?

Smith: I hope that people think about how there are historical sites and museums and monuments that have a profound relationship to the history of slavery all across America and in their own communities. I hope the book serves as a catalyst to get people to visit some of the places in the book, but also the tens of thousands of other places across every state in this nation that have a relationship, large or small, to this history. It ultimately, as I mentioned before, reminds us of our proximity to this history. That it wasn't that long ago, and that it shapes our social, economic, and political infrastructure in ways that continue to impact us to this day.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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