“Of the services and sufferings of the Colored Soldiers of the Revolution, no attempt has, to our knowledge, been made to preserve a record. They have no historian.” wrote the Black abolitionist and journalist William Cooper Nell in 1855. Often considered the first to write a history recovering the collective memories of African-Americans, Nell may as well have said that for Black enslaved people writ large.
Nell’s now-ordinary observation raised the question: how do people remember slavery? For him, the answer lay not merely on the written word, or in interviews with the enslaved and freedmen. It lay in things people see, in everyday life. Nell visited cemeteries, and was instrumental in getting a monument dedicating Crispus Attucks, the Black dock worker first to be killed in the Boston Massacre, placed on the Boston Common. Every year, almost a million people walk by the bronze statue. Thus for many, Attucks weaves into what they know about history. Nell’s were not just acts of preservation, but acts against forgetting itself, and an approach to public history.
Clint Smith’s “How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America” shares Nell’s curiosity with how slavery is remembered in contemporary America. A poet and staff writer at the Atlantic, Smith concerns himself with the public spaces that enable re-remembering and un-forgetting; like Nell, he grapples with the nature of narrative, memory, and public history. For Smith, who grew up in New Orleans, a Robert E. Lee statue is both unsettling and deeply familiar: “I was born and raised in a city filled with statues of Confederate soldiers.” Smith understands well that the narrative-formation that gives slavery its legacy and power is happening every day. By tour guides and curators and teachers. By the formerly-incarcerated. By those repositories of knowledge rarely considered as what they truly are: society’s historians on the frontline.
That Smith sees these front-line historians is clear from the first few pages of the book, such as when he says about David, a tour guide at Monticello: “In just a few sentences, David had captured the essence of chattel slavery in a way that few of my own teachers ever had.” A page later, Smith renders the feint with which David suddenly re-centers the humanity of the enslaved for his white audience by calling it “the pedagogical equivalent of a crossover in basketball.” It is for these moments, seemingly small, that Smith reserves the hush of his own surprise and learning. Rarely in a book of this scope does one find such careful reconstruction and attention to rhetoric.
A book of how slavery is remembered will, of course, hardly be light reading. Good thing then that Smith knows when to steer toward the contemporary. When describing the post-Civil War strategy of convict leasing across the South, for instance, Smith carefully shows how convict leasing was dependent on the Louisiana’s shift in the requirement for conviction from unanimous to non-unanimous juries in 1880, thus ensuring more convictions. The pages are enthralling and enraging — because Smith mentions that non-unanimous juries remained legal in Louisiana until 2020. The past, he implies, isn’t always past.
Also softly revelatory about Smith’s approach is how he understands the role of emotion in public history. For this reader, for instance, there was much to learn about the Federal Writers’ Project — a 1930s project stemming from the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration that collected more than 2,000 accounts by formerly enslaved people. Those accounts affect much of the work at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, La., an unusual site among southern former plantations in that it resolutely centers stories of the enslaved. The primary voice that arises around the introduction of the project is that of the director of operations at the Whitney Plantation, Yvonne Holden. In her thirties, Holden jumped at a tour guide position just as she began to learn her own family’s entanglement with the region’s history. As she shows Smith the figurines that make up an artistic installation, The Children of Whitney, she tells him, “Each visitor gets a lanyard with an image of this, and the image is paired with an excerpt from the Federal Writers’ Project. A slave narrative.” To Smith, it matters how the figurines have become a crucial part of how the Whitney Plantation teaches its visitors about the harrowing state and scale of children within slavery. In other words, Smith sees how memories often mimic the snaking turns of a river; they often have less to do with truth and falsity than with the complex emotional registers with which they are passed down.
Importantly, the book is indubitably a radical act within the halls of knowledge. Smith knows “preserved” sites and the public domain are hardly inherently positive places — a chapter on a Confederate cemetery is among the best of all — but he knows they wield power. Citing a treasure trove of academic historians — people who often derisively refer to books like his as “popular history” — Smith asks what many academics do not: what does the public know? What do “I” know?
Kamil Ahsan is a doctoral student in history at Yale, with a prior doctorate in biology from the University of Chicago. His work appears in The Nation, NPR, and The Baffler, among others.
HOW THE WORD IS PASSED: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America
By Clint Smith
Little, Brown and Company, 352 pages, $29