Photograph by Carletta Girma; Illustrations by Simone Massoni
How the Word Is Passed
Excerpts from Clint Smith's New York Times bestselling, PEN-nominated exploration of the history and legacy of slavery across America
In May 2017, after the statue of Robert E. Lee was taken down in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith, Ed.M.'17, Ph.D.'20, realized he knew little about his city’s relationship with slavery, including the hundreds of parks, schools, and statues named after Confederate figures and local slaveholders. Even the street where his parents still live, he came to understand, was named after a man who owned more than 150 slaves during his lifetime.
Soon after, Smith became “obsessed” with how slavery is remembered and reckoned with, and for nearly three years, he traveled around the world, visiting museums, plantations, cemeteries, prisons, and historical landmarks to learn how different places — and the people who run or visit those places — confront, or fail to confront, the legacy of slavery. It was also a journey to fill in his own gaps.
Smith turned those visits — what the New York Times called his “cross-country survey of slavery remembrance” — into a book that came out in June 2021, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. He was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air and made the cover of Poets & Writers magazine. The book debuted at No. 1 on the Times bestsellers list and was nominated for a National Book Award.
This summer, we caught up with Smith, who was on a whirlwind author’s tour. (By the end of July, he had already done 120 interviews.) As interview 121, we talked to him about storytelling, what didn’t make it into the book (which we’ve excerpted by location on the following pages), and how his former English students at Parkdale High School in Maryland are now DMing him.
I looked around the lawn and imagined what Monticello would have been like two centuries ago. It belonged to Jefferson, yes, but it was not his home alone. It was the home of thousands of enslaved people, including several large families. Some families were enslaved at Monticello for three generations or more. There were the Gillettes, the Herns, the Fossetts, the Grangers, the Hubbards, the Hemingses.
I scanned the landscape and imagined the Gillette children running between the horses as the animals were groomed and fed, their adolescent voices swirling in the mountain air. I thought of David and Isabel Hern, how, despite marriage between enslaved people being illegal in Virginia, they were wed and remained so until Isabel’s death. I imagined how they might have taken breaks from work under the shade of mulberry trees, whispering and laughing and holding each other in their arms. I thought of Joseph Fossett, who remained at Monticello while his wife was taken to Washington, DC, to train as a cook in the White House kitchen during Jefferson’s presidency. How three of their children were born in the White House. How in 1806 Jefferson thought Joseph had run away, when he had in fact gone to see his wife in Washington.
I thought too of how in 1827, after Jefferson’s death, Edward and Jane Gillette along with nine of their children and twelve of their grandchildren were sold. How David Hern along with his thirty-four surviving children and grandchildren were sold. How Joseph Fossett was freed in Jefferson’s will, but his wife, Edith, and seven of their children were sold. How these families were separated to posthumously pay off Jefferson’s debt.
I thought of all the love that had been present at this plantation, and I thought too of all the pain. (P.13–14)
To my left was the Big House, framed by a row of oak trees whose branches bent like crooked crescent moons, wind chimes singing in their tangled limbs. The leaves had changed color, folded into themselves, and dressed the dirt on the cobblestone path in a thin blanket of brown foliage. The Big House sat at the end of the road, alluring in its decadence, its white façade with a dozen open doors and windows, wind slapping the shutters back and forth against the pane.
Behind me was a memorial of intersecting white stone partitions, with the names of a hundred thousand people enslaved in Louisiana laid out across each black slab. It was similar to the Wall of Honor I had seen earlier in my visit but far larger, with even more names. The walls of this memorial sat like shadows anchored to the ground, a labyrinth of lost voices etched into dark stone. It was staggering to even consider the enormity of the number of people, and to consider what that number meant in the context of my own life. I thought about all of the descendants of these names and the lineage of Black Louisianans who came after them. How the intergenerational progeny of the names on the walls were possibly people I passed on the street, people I had gone to school with, people checking out their food next to me in the same grocery store. Perhaps they were members of my own family. Lineage is a strand of smoke making its way into the sky even though we can’t always tell where it’s coming from, even though sometimes we can’t distinguish the smoke from the sky itself. (P.82–83)
(Lousiana State Penitentiary, Angola, Louisiana)
I turned and asked Norris, “How much did you get paid when you worked the fields?”
“They give folks an allowance. First six months when I came to prison, you didn’t earn anything,” he said. “The first six months you’re paying off all of your clothes that we got to give you while you’re here. Now, go figure.” Norris chuckled. “Six months going to pay for clothes for a lifetime.”
But how much does someone make after the period is finished? I asked.
“Jobs in the field? Seven cents an hour.”
I leaned in, thinking I had misheard.
“Seven cents,” Norris said again.
“This place really is just like the plantation was. Just to utilize all the free labor that they can get,” Norris continued. “They lost all that free labor to emancipation, and now how are we going to get that free labor back? You got all these folks wandering around with no real skills, don’t know what to do, well, we can create laws to put them back in servitude, and that’s what they’ve done. Where do they work? They go right back to working convict leasing, working these same plantations that they were free from.”
I asked Norris what stood out to him in his memories of the field.
“Picking cotton,” he responded, without any hesitation. “Man… it’s like knowing your history, knowing what our folks went through, and all of a sudden, having one of those cotton sacks in your hand.” He cupped his hand and then closed his fingers around the bag we were both imagining in his grasp. His knuckles were dark and cracked, and when he reopened his hand he rubbed the inside of his palm with his thumb.
“I think that’s the biggest challenge more than anything else,” he continued. “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.” (P.116–117)
“My father was in the military, so I was raised primarily north of the Mason-Dixon Line. So I don’t have the Southern upbringing. I don’t have the War of Northern Aggression or the states’ rights war,” he said, referring to the alternate names the Civil War is sometimes called by those sympathetic to the Confederate cause. “Is it possible that this church in 1735 may have been built probably with slave labor? Absolutely. When the balcony was used up here, and the congregation was small, did slaves stay up there? Perhaps.” Ken said that the lack of discussion around these topics was potentially tied to the demographic makeup of the cemetery’s visitors. “Our visitor population is overwhelmingly white, because again, what this is, it’s not that a Black population doesn’t appreciate the windows, but sometimes in the context of what it represents, they’re not as comfortable.” He went on: “In most cases we try and fall back on the beauty of the windows, the Tiffany glass kind of thing.”
Perhaps it was not simply that Black people did not come to a Confederate cemetery because they didn’t want to be in the space, perhaps Black people did not come to these spaces in large part because of how the story of the Confederate cause was told. I was tempted to tell Ken about the Whitney Plantation: how a great many people assume that Black Americans would have no interest in visiting the land upon which their ancestors were enslaved, but my visit to the Whitney had shown me that if a place was willing to tell a different story — a more honest story — it would begin to see a different set of people visiting. For me, coming to a Confederate cemetery and hearing Ken speak about the beauty of a set of windows without explaining what they were meant to memorialize, was not unlike going to a plantation and listening to a talk about the decorative infrastructure of the enslaver’s house without mentioning the enslaved hands who built it. (P.123–124)
Galveston is a small island that sits off the coast of Southeast Texas, and in years past this event has taken place outside. But given the summer heat, the island’s humidity, and the average age of the attendees, the organizers moved the event inside. A man named Stephen Duncan, dressed as General Granger, stood at the base of the stairwell, with other men dressed as Union soldiers on either side of him. Stephen looked down at the parchment, appraising the words as if he had never seen them before. He looked back down at the crowd, which was looking up at him. He cleared his throat, approached the microphone, and lifted the yellowed parchment to eye level.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
All slaves are free. The four words circled the room like birds that had been separated from their flock. I watched people’s faces as Stephen said these words. Some closed their eyes. Some were physically shaking. Some clasped hands with the person next to them. Some simply smiled, soaking in the words that their ancestors may have heard more than a century and a half ago.
Being in this place, standing on the same small island where the freedom of a quarter million people was proclaimed, I felt the history pulse through my body. (P.173–174)
New York City
Once we made our way back to the group, Damaras explained, “One of the biggest lies we are still telling in this country — and I know because I’m trying to combat it — [is that] during the Civil War we were the good guys, right? New York City was good. Everybody else in the South, they were bad.”
She went on: “Here’s a small recap. This is what happens. We divide ourselves up into two sections: Southern — Confederate or slaveholding states; Northern — Union or free states. What are we fighting over?” She pauses and scans our faces. “Currency — what our currency was going to be moving forward. The United States of America’s economy was founded on the currency of selling human livestock. So we’re fighting a war over slavery. When we teach this story to our children, adults, and people outside this country, we lie and we say that New York… we were never a slave state, we were a free state.” Damaras took a deep breath and shook her head. “Guys, what were you just standing in front of?” She pointed to the marker behind us, her voice rising an octave. “Where we’re standing” — she pointed emphatically to the grounds beneath her — “this is the second largest slave market in the United States of America. The second largest, the first being in Charleston…” Her voice dissolved into the cacophony of the city.
Damaras adjusted her microphone and waited for an ambulance to pass. “Eventually slavery would become so intertwined with our economy that Fernando Wood — he was the mayor of this city during the Civil War,” she clarified, “he would say, ‘Listen…we should secede from the Union,’” she said, paraphrasing what Wood indeed proposed in 1861 in an effort to protect the city’s profitable, cotton-trading relationship with the Confederacy. (P.221–222)
I had arrived back in the US, and one afternoon I found myself scrolling through the photos I had taken during my trip to Goree. In one photograph, small children chased a soccer ball around a field of sand, clouds of dust rising behind swift ankles. A group of women in colorful garments sat on benches under baobab trees, whose thick trunks and infinite branches stretched like a canopy across the courtyard. Stray cats curled around the benches, dragging their backs along the splintered uneven wood.
I found another photograph I had taken of the Door to No Return from the opposite end of the House of Slaves. In the photo, the stone, arched corridor narrows as your eyes move closer to the door. Upon first glance, you cannot tell that the door opens out over the ocean; it is instead simply a burst of light erupting from the wall. What I like about this photo is that the sun’s vibrant glow draws your attention to the door while simultaneously obscuring what’s behind it. Almost as if it were saying, “Look at me, but don’t look past me.”
That door could no longer be what I had first imagined, but perhaps it did not need to be. Around 33,000 people were sent from Goree Island to the New World. Perhaps it matters less whether they did so by walking through a door in this house or if they were marched down to a dock and made to board from there. Perhaps it matters less that millions of people were not sent into bondage from this island but that people from this island were sent into bondage at all. When I stood in the room in the House of Slaves that sat adjacent to the ocean, when I opened my arms and touched its wet stone walls, did it matter exactly how many people had once been held in that room? Or was it more important that the room pushed me into a space of reflection on what the origins of slavery meant? (P.267–268)