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'How The Word Is Passed' Teaches The Importance Of Reckoning With History

One hundred years ago, from May 31 through June 1, 1921, a group of white police officers organized white citizens in an attack on the Black residents of Tulsa, Okla., with both aircraft and ground forces. As many as 300 Black Americans were killed, many more were injured, and 35 blocks of the city were destroyed, with damages amounting to what would be more than $20 million today.

Tulsa was not the only site of white violence against Black communities in the early 20th century. But this history is generally not taught in schools.

Today, as writers, scholars, and activists push back against this erasure of Black history, conservative white Americans in power have responded with a push to make learning about this "critical race history" illegal — along with sweeping anti-voting rights legislation. This all points to a desire to present a white-centered view of American history — to erase the oppression of Black Americans and the history of white supremacy and white violence.

In his first major work of nonfiction, How the Word is Passed, poet, scholar and Atlantic Magazine staff writer Clint Smith seeks out this troubling history to understand the stories America tells itself about who we are through what is remembered. The aegis of the book is this: Smith traveled "to eight places in the United States as well as one abroad to understand how each reckons with its relationship to the history of American slavery."

Smith begins with Monticello, the plantation owned by Thomas Jefferson, which, like many institutions of its time was built mainly by the labor of enslaved Africans. Writes Smith: "Jefferson was not singular in his moral inconsistencies; rather he was one of the founding fathers who fought for their own freedom while keeping their boots on the necks of hundreds of others." There were, on average, 130 enslaved human beings at Monticello at any given time, vastly outnumbering Jefferson and his family.

Writes Smith: "The splitting of families was not peripheral to the practice of slavery; it was central. And Jefferson was no exception; in addition to the enslaved human beings he sold during his lifetime, nearly all the enslaved Africans in his possession were sold after his death to cover his extensive debts." Little remains of the history of these enslaved human beings; much of what is known comes from Jefferson's meticulous note-keeping of the buying and selling of enslaved Africans.

Thus, piecing together the lives of enslaved human beings from the paucity of records and artifacts becomes Smith's project: the marbles children crafted from dirt for play after all day labor, the reports of mothers beaten when struggling to hold onto their infants at the auction block.

Smith describes not just the places of history, but the reactions of people he meets upon his explorations. Some are cognizant of it; others, like the elderly white sisters-in-law he meets at Monticello, are grappling with hearing this information for the first time and wondering why this aspect of Jefferson's history had never been taught in their history classes. '"It really takes the shine off the guy,'" they say to Smith.

From Southern plantations to prisons, from memorials to cemeteries, Smith reckons with the truths and lies of slavery and race that are woven into the contemporary fabric of our society. There is his exploration of Angola Prison, which articulates how the racial inequities in policing and justice systems stem from post-Reconstruction white supremacy "meant to funnel Black people into the convict leasing system, replacing in part the labor force lost as a result of emancipation." There is the Blandford Cemetery of Confederate Soldiers where "the soft din of lawnmowers buzzed in the distance, their vibrating bodies held by Black men steering them in between tombstones and draped in Confederate flags" and the tour guides who won't talk about slavery because their majority white visitors view the Confederacy in a positive light.

There is the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, which centers the enslaved and explores how "sexual violence was ubiquitous during slavery, and it followed women wherever they went;" here, Smith learns about the Black women enslaved on breeding farms, systematically raped while their children sold at market, like cattle; how the violence did not end with death, but instead Black people's bodies were used as medical experiments to advance science and medicine post-mortem. How the Northern factories and European industry also were fueled by the labor of the enslaved.

There is New York City, which, during the 17th and 18th centuries held more enslaved Black people than in any other urban area across North America, where Wall Street banks traded in enslaved persons as capital and Central Park was built only "because several generations ago hundreds of Black people were violently forced from their homes."

And, in Senegal, there is Gorée Island and the House of Slaves — where Smith is struck both by the horror of the place and its similarities to other places he has seen; how the small, cramped cells where Africans were held captive before being shipped across the Atlantic to American slavery echo the cells in Angola Prison and the flimsy shacks on plantations used to house enslaved Blacks; the street names that bear the names of European colonizers in the same way that street names in the American South bear the names of Confederate enslavers.

It is important to understand the relationship of slavery to colonization; it is important to understand the history of Africa as existing before this violence as well as understanding the legacy that this violence has wrought.

"We have to look at who is at the other end of it," Smith writes. Who profited?

In rich, evocative language, Smith synthesizes first hand research, textual sources, and interviews as he weaves a lyrical and precise tapestry of the truth of America's past that many would like to continue to hide.

The detail and depth of the storytelling is vivid and visceral, making history present and real. Equally commendable is the care and compassion shown to those Smith interviews — whether tour guides or fellow visitors in these many spaces. Due to his care as an interviewer, the responses Smith elicits are resonant and powerful.

And yet, repeatedly, Smith encounters resistance from white Americans to believing the horrors of the past. Consider the denial of Sally Hemings. She was the daughter of a Black enslaved woman, a mother who had no choice in her sexual relationship with Hemings' father (Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law). And Jefferson himself began a sexual relationship with the enslaved Hemings — which she had no power to refuse — when he was in his mid-40s and she was 16, fathering her six children. It's a part of history denied by Monticello for decades and only recently given space in the history of the place. The growing consensus among historians is that sexual relationships between white enslavers and enslaved Black women were rape because of this power imbalance: enslaved Black women had no ability to refuse the sexual demands of enslavers; indeed, the Virginia Slave Codes gave enslavers the power to enforce compliance by any means necessary and if an enslaved person "should happen to be killed in such correction, it shall not be counted a felony."

"There are just so many ways that our public education is failing people by just not giving them the context to understand that Monticello is a plantation, and that slavery was a system that created the economic prosperity that enabled our country to exist," writes Smith.

Smith deftly connects the past, hiding in plain sight, with the today's lingering effects. In Wallace, La., home to the Whitney Plantation, the descendants of the enslaved still live in the surrounding areas amid environmental blight and "the intergenerational poverty that plagues many formerly enslaved communities nearly a century and a half after emancipation." In Charlottesville, a short distance from Monticello, the racial terror demonstrated by white supremacists in 2018 echoes that experienced by Black folks during slavery and Jim Crow. "I found the county where my grandaddy was from and saw the people who were lynched there," recalls Yvonne Holden, the Whitney Plantation's director of operations, to Smith, about a trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., a family legacy of racial terror Smith knows only too well. "My grandfather grew up in a town where people were lynched and buried before the sun rose the next morning," he writes.

The past is not past; it is present.

One of the most poignant moments comes when Smith visits a celebration of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, both organizations with ties to the racial hate group the Ku Klux Klan, keynoted by Paul C. Gramling Jr. — a moment that is especially emotive when juxtaposed with the Juneteenth celebration on Galveston Island in the following chapter. Even though he has taken care to invite a white peer along, Smith is acutely aware of being a Black man in that space — of the hostility of the crowd; a white man filming him with his cell-phone, another putting on display his open-carry gun. "I felt a tightening of the muscles inside my mouth, muscles I hadn't even known were there," writes Smith.

As a former educator, with a grandmother who was an educator, Smith comes back to education as the way forward. There is a reason American slavers tried so hard to keep enslaved Blacks uneducated, making teaching an enslaved person to read or write a severe crime. There is a reason Texas tried to obfuscate slavery in textbooks, calling enslaved Africans "happy" and "workers." There is a reason for the attacks on critical race theory, on anything that teaches the truth of slavery and white supremacy; on anything that connects past injustice to its perpetuation through contemporary social injustice. There is a reason this history is not taught. Education creates knowledge and understanding, which creates a drive for truth, justice, and social change.

"But it happened, it really happened," writes Smith. And without learning the actual history to understand why society is the way it is today, nothing will ever be made right.

Hope Wabuke is a poet, writer and assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.