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How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery across…

de Clint Smith

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In a series of visits to public places with history associated with the slavery Clint Smith explores what is taught, obscured, avoided and misrepresented and unknowable about each of those places past. The scope and depth of the horrendous outrages of US slavery are presented more from a cerebral level than gut one, which makes this book hardly harrowing at all, which in itself made me somewhat uncomfortable. ( )
  quondame | Oct 11, 2021 |
This is a book that will be enlightening to some and certainly not others. It is also one sure to find itself in the cross-hairs of controversy, given the events of the past five plus years (okay, given the history of the past 300-400 hundred years...) Dr. Smith looked at "different historical sites [and how they] reckon with — or fail to reckon with — their relationship to the history of slavery": Monticello, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island, NYC ( the book), and Gorée Island. His writing is quite eloquent, literary Donna folded her brochure and used it to fan the back of her neck. Her silver hair took on a yellowish hue under the midsummer sun and was tied in a ponytail that fell past her shoulders. She rocked from side to side as we spoke, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, her black flip-flops squeaking softly under the changing pressure. Her voice was imbued with a gentle Texas lilt that stretched out her i’s and melted her l’s into the breeze. Grace’s voice, on the other hand, was higher and more hurried. Her short salt-and-pepper hair was only a few inches long and hugged her scalp. Her skin had become sun blotched from years spent living in Florida, even though, she told me, she was originally from Vermont.which should not soften the impact of his findings, but may just for those who are in denial. His calm amidst the storm - attending neo-confederate rally at Blandford? and interviewing some of the fan(atic)s? - is reflected in his narrative. Impressive. Even the most enlightened and educated on the subject might find something new. Now, if you are looking for flame, it's not here. Dr. Smith is reporting. It's what he does. And he's good at it. He considers his perspective :"As a graduate student I was trained largely by sociologists, and part of what that discipline demands is an engagement and interrogation of one’s positionality relative to the subject matter one is studying. So I am mindful that my experience at each of these places, and my conversations with all of the people who appear in these pages, are tied to various parts of my identity: being Black, being born and raised in the South, being a straight cisgendered man, and, at the time this book was being written and reported, being a doctoral student at an Ivy League university."

For the TLDR folk, Dr. Smith in his Epilogue, relates a bit of a conversation with his grandmother after a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture: "What about the parts that were specific to segregation?” I asked. “It just kind of made me go back to that time of life when I lived this. I kept saying, ‘I lived this.’ So it wasn’t anything new for me. For some people, it’s like, ‘Oh, really?’ No, it was for real, and I had lived it.” And this: "The year my grandfather was born, a gallon of gas was twenty cents and a loaf of bread was nine. Slavery had ended six decades ago, and twelve years later everyone would forget." And When my grandmother said, “I lived it,” what I heard was This museum is a mirror. When my grandmother said, “I lived it,” what I heard was My memories are an exhibit of their own. When my grandmother said, “I lived it,” what I heard was Always remember what this country did to us. When my grandmother said, “I lived it,” what I heard was Don’t let them tell you we didn’t fight back. When my grandmother said, “I lived it,” what I heard was I did not die. I have somehow made it here when so many did not. I escaped the jaws of a cruel thing and lived to tell this story. When my grandmother said, “I lived it,” what I heard was I am still alive.

Personal note: I finished this on a flight to Alaska 10 days ago and have to sift through my many notes now because reading on a plane is natural to me; writing, not so much.

Selected takeaways:
Dr. Smith quoted a Monticello guide, David Thorson:Just as he did during the Slavery at Monticello tour, David did not mince words. “There’s a chapter in Notes on the State of Virginia,” he said to the five of us, standing in front of the east wing of Jefferson’s manor, “that has some of the most racist things you might ever read, written by anyone, anywhere, anytime, in it. So sometimes I stop and ask myself, “If Gettysburg had gone the wrong way, would people be quoting the Declaration of Independence or Notes on the State of Virginia?” It’s the same guy writing.”I've noticed that even if people are familiar with the Preamble, they probably haven't read the full document. It isn't as elegant as the opening. And more from David:He told me that when you challenge people, specifically white people's conception of Jefferson, you’re in fact challenging their conception of themselves. “I’ve come to realize that there’s a difference between history and nostalgia, and somewhere between those two is memory,” he said. “I think that history is the story of the past, using all the available facts, and that nostalgia is a fantasy about the past using no facts, and somewhere in between is memory, which is kind of this blend of history and a little bit of emotion…I mean, history is kind of about what you need to know…but nostalgia is what you want to hear.”Using no facts. David is rather wise.

At The Whitney Plantation, the director of operations Yvonne Holden observed of the Federal Writer's Project's documentation in the 1930s of the slavery experience:There are so many tragedies embedded in this history,” she said. “But for me, one of the most profound ones is [that] people couldn’t record their own histories. And so these narratives that we have from the 1930s are the only things that we really have to give us insight outside of, of course, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, and the like.This is saddening. And more on the deliberate suppression:Historian Walter Johnson aptly notes that the “language of ‘dehumanization’ is misleading because slavery depended upon the human capacities of enslaved people. It depended upon their reproduction. It depended upon their labor. And it depended upon their sentience. Enslaved people could be taught: their intelligence made them valuable. [...] And they could be tortured: beaten, starved, raped, humiliated, degraded. It is these last that are conventionally understood to be the most ‘inhuman’ of slaveholders’ actions and those that most ‘dehumanized’ enslaved people.Ms. Holden says of the visitors to the Whitney, "Most of our visitors are self-selecting. We don’t get many people who come to our site not knowing where they’re coming. Which is to say, no one is coming to the Whitney thinking they’re only coming to admire the architecture of the Big House. We get people who consider themselves fairly versed in this history. But ultimately they come from the same education system we all have." I think this is true enough for those who are only a product of that deficient system, but also true for those of us who have read more and learned more. There is always more history to be gleaned from the nostalgia, because so many paradigms have to be shifted. For example, on the two surviving slave cabins at the Whitney, Ms. Holden says, "I’m getting our visitors to understand that we have very specific ideas of what comfort is, what food is—and those things don’t apply here,” Yvonne said as we stood inside. "This is how also we link this history to the present,” Yvonne said. “Because this cabin, inhabited by enslaved people, continued to be inhabited by their descendants until the year of 1975.”And that is crushing. I had relatives in rural Florida who still used outhouses in the early 1970s, but they at least had walls without holes. Dr. Smith characterizes the Whitney as "It is a place asking the question How do you tell a story that has been told the wrong way for so long?" His italics.

The dehumanization at Angloa is numbing and ongoing: "But what stood out most in the gift shop, sitting on a shelf at the far end of the store, was a white mug with the silhouette of a guard sitting in a watchtower surrounded by fencing. Above the picture it said ANGOLA, and beneath the picture it read A GATED COMMUNITY." Seriously, that is almost as bad as 6MWE.

Blandford Cemetery was new to me. I may have heard of it long ago, but so long as to have forgotten everything. And everything about it except its function as a cemetery is infuriating. The sign carved into the stone entrance proclaims "OUR CONFEDERATE HEROES". Dr. Smith's asked his guide Ken, "Was it okay to talk only about the [stained glassed Confederate iconography of the church] windows and not to say anything about the Confederate cause they were built to honor?:"Very simple," Ken responded, "As they say, "You're not from around here.' I am not a Southerner."Ken said he didn't have Southern upbringing (his word... I could editorialize something else, which I suppose I just did by saying that), calling the Civil War by the wrong terms "War of Northern Aggression", or "state's rights war". Ken said the omission was most likely tied to the demographic of the visitors. Ken's boss Martha started talking to Dr. Smith "about how preservation was different from celebration, an idea that made sense to me in the abstract." Martha thought that monuments should be kept, but with context. Dr. Smith quotes an 1869 letter from R.E. Lee that suggests "he would likely not have advocated for Confederate monuments to be erected":“I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.” But don't deify the slave-owner for a marginal wisdom.

This nugget is one of the reasons I have flat teeth: A 2018 report by Smithsonian magazine and the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund (now Type Investigations) found that over the previous ten years, US taxpayers had directed at least forty million dollars to Confederate monuments, including statues, homes, museums, and cemeteries, as well as Confederate heritage groups. Read that again. United States taxpayers continue to pay for treasonous insurrectionists?

Jackie Bostic, the great-granddaughter of Jack Yates, leader of the movement to purchase and found Emancipation Park in Houston, says "I think my generation, many getting killed, and beaten, and spit on, and dogs, and hoses, did not understand that you have to keep telling the story in order for people to understand."

And on New York's erased history (chapter title: "We were the good guys, right?"), Dr. Smith: "So I think part of why I’m interested in this kind of thing is because history is so important, because in this country we don’t think about or talk about our history nearly enough,” I said. Pierre [a "young man in his early twenties visiting from Hamburg] nodded again. “Yes, I think that is a big problem. You don’t talk for real, about the real problems.”The world sees what we don't. Or won't. Dr. Smith quotes a guide, Damaras Obi ("daughter of a Nigerian father and a Dominican mother"): "Race is a by-product of racism. In fact, race doesn’t exist." which Smith says echoes the work of "Barbara Fields and Karen Fields, whose book Racecraft outlines that race and racism are separate, distinct social entities." Something to think about.

There's a discrepancy in numbers from scholars and the story that had long been told at the House of Slaves on Gorée Island (millions as told or 33,000 as more likely?). “The number of slaves is not important when you talk about memory,” [curator and site manager] Eloi said. “When we talk about memory, we have to stand in the principles. One slave is too much.”

When Araujo first came to the US from Brazil, she was struck by how the homes of presidents like Washington and Jefferson were privately owned and operated rather than being run by the National Park Service. From her perspective, this makes it difficult for the US to tell a cohesive story about its past, as each place can situate itself in the past in its own way. “In other words, they can tell the story they want,” she said. “And I think that from this point of view, we have no grounds to judge what is being done elsewhere.”Again, the world sees what we don't. Dr. Aranjo said "This is the problem of the memory of slavery, that we have all these gaps." Dr. Smith notes, "There are the gaps that Blandford Cemetery fills with fiction, and flags from an army who fought a war to keep millions of people in chains. It is a place less interested in what truth looks like than in avoiding how such truth might implicate their loved ones buried in the soil." Fills with fiction. Yep. ( )
  Razinha | Oct 5, 2021 |
This book explores the impact of slavery in eight long essays, each exploring a different place, and looking at the history of slavery there and how people view that history. He starts with a tour of Monticello, and has really interesting conversations with the tour guide, and with two women on the tour. He also visits the Whitney Plantation; Angola Prison, Galveston, Blandford Cemetery; New York; and Goree Island, Senegal.

Smith centers his writing on the humanity of enslaved persons, but, since it's focused on current travels, the horrors are a bit removed, which makes it easier to read and think about. He also gives information on how slavery was part of a global economic system; and also the relationship between slavery and racism. He points out that Europeans used the ideas of racism in order to justify the way that African slaves were treated.

Definitely recommending this book. ( )
  banjo123 | Sep 11, 2021 |
Summer 2021 (July);

After falling head over heels in love with Clint Smith, first after listening to him give an hour-long speech, and then after teaching his first poetry collection, [b:Counting Descent|29599121|Counting Descent|Clint Smith||49936361], last fall, I knew I would get my hands on this as soon as I could. I was not mistaken at thinking I would end up loving this, as well.

This whole book was done masterfully, as Smith reckons with several locations across America (and one outside of it) and how they themselves are (or are not in some cases) reckoning with the history of slavery in their pasts. I was incredibly surprised to learn so much more than I knew was happening currently at plantations and prisons. I had wide-eyed moments of shock when it spoke about details of Texas history, in Galveston's chapter, that I'd never been taught.

Time and time again, this man is a masterful storyteller, while owning that this was his personal journey, what it brought to him, made him think about, and learn, in turn passing off to all of us, to give us that next step to where we all see ourselves, our pasts, our present, and our future in this relation to slavery as well. Are we sharing and being honest about it, are we leaving room at the table for memory, or are we breezing past the questions we might ask or others might ask us of it.

I'm left with so many things from this book, but especially one line from the tour guide in New York;

"Don't believe anything that makes you feel comfortable." ( )
  wanderlustlover | Aug 21, 2021 |
I don’t think I’ve read any of the author’s poems before but as soon as I saw the cover of this book for the first time last year, I knew I had to read it. And while I went in not knowing much about what the book was going to be - expect that it was related to the history of slavery - I was totally floored by the way the author approached this painful past.

I have visited one plantation in the US till now, which is Mt. Vernon - but this was a few years ago and I hadn’t yet started reading up on American politics or it’s history - so I didn’t even realize that the place symbolized more than just being George Washington’s estate, it was also built and maintained by hundreds of people he had enslaved. I have come to regret my trip a lot, now that I know a bit more about the estate’s history, but the author here brought more light onto the lives of the enslaved people by visiting Jefferson’s Monticello plantation and also the privately owned Whitney plantation. As I was listening to the audiobook narrated by the author himself, it was pretty evident how the author was feeling during these research visits of his.

While the author comes to know a bit about the work both the plantations are doing to recognize and present their true history without whitewashing the slavery part of the story, it is still not enough. The tour guides and administrators also mention how difficult it is to tell the true history of the place while not being completely negative about it, because there are always white visitors who are not ready to confront the ugly truths about their historical heroes. This felt like a small microcosm of our current reality where more and more Republican politicians and voters want to curb the teaching of the country’s racist history, while also being completely ignorant (or maybe willfully so) about what CRT entails but using it as a scapegoat to pass censorship laws.

But these chapters were probably the easiest to listen to. Because once the author changed his location to the Angola maximum security prison in Louisiana and Blandford cemetery in Virginia, it was very tough to continue to listen to how the administrators of these places try so hard to whitewash their horrific past, especially in Angola prison whose history of extreme violence towards numerous prisoners in solitary confinement is unimaginable. And the caretakers of the biggest mass grave of confederate soldiers in Blandford just want to continue to perpetuate the lost cause myth and how the civil war was about state’s rights - not that they ever try to complete that sentence and say that it was about “state’s rights to keep slaves”.

I however, felt inspired by the story of Galveston and Juneteenth (it was particularly poignant coz it’s 2 days away) and how the declaration of the end of slavery was such a significant event - even if ultimately, it didn’t pan out that way in reality. While it took many many decades of violence by white supremacists and activism of courageous Black people to achieve some semblance of civil rights legislation, we are only now realizing how it’s extremely important not to forget all that history, because forgetting what happened will only result in history repeating itself.

But ultimately it was the chapter about New York City’s history that was eye opening. Because while the north maybe praised as a paragon of liberalism, NYC itself is full of forgotten markers of its own racist past - like being a major trading hub for all the raw materials that were produced by the enslaved people in the southern plantations; being the headquarters for all the major banks which used to accept enslaved people as collateral just like any property; or even how the beautiful Central Park is built upon land owned by free Black people who were forced out of their homes by the NYC government using eminent domain to build the park. And all this business created by the toil of the enslaved people is what built the economy of the country - not that anyone seems to want to acknowledge that while teaching history.

With this brilliant book full of visits to historical places, interviews with scholars and references to primary sources, and also stories told by his own grandparents whose grandparents were themselves enslaved, the author tries to give us a new approach of understanding history. It is painful and emotional to listen to, but it is also unflinching in its honesty, and in its earnestness that we should examine our own biases and not be defensive when confronted with uncomfortable truths. It is a huge responsibility to reckon with the country’s past and but only when we acknowledge it that we can move forward and strive for a better future, and make sure that the history will never repeat again. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic, but I particularly think this would be a good resource for students, despite its tough material. ( )
  ksahitya1987 | Aug 20, 2021 |
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