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In 'How The Word Is Passed,' 8 Places Tell The Story Of Slavery In The U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A new book challenges us to consider slavery not as a sidebar to American history, but as the story. The history of slavery, writes Clint Smith, is the history of the United States. To build his case, Smith traveled to plantations and memorials, to cemeteries and museums, trying to understand how different places reckon with their relationship to the history of American slavery. The result is his new book, "How The Word Is Passed."

Clint Smith, welcome.

CLINT SMITH: It's a pleasure to be here.

KELLY: Explain the title.

SMITH: So the title is taken from a quote from a descendant of Monticello's Black community, and it is a reference to the oral histories and stories that are passed down across generations through the Monticello community and through the descendants of that community, thinking about how the story of Jefferson is often the one that is lifted up when we think about the history of Monticello and the legacy of Monticello. But the reality is that there were hundreds of Black people across generations who lived on that land, who created community on that land, who cultivated that land, whose stories have not historically been lifted up in the same way that the story and legacy of Jefferson has been.

KELLY: You went to Monticello. You went on a tour. Tell me about the two white ladies you met. These were self-proclaimed history buffs, and they had come on this tour of Monticello with you, a tour that focused on slavery.

SMITH: Yeah. So Donna and Grace are their names, and I went up to them after we had been together on this slavery at Monticello tour. So Monticello has a tour of the main house, which is the primary tour, and then they have additional tours. They have a tour that's focused on slavery at Monticello. And as I was on this tour, I saw their faces change and their mouths sort of hang agape, and they were clearly unnerved by so much of what they were hearing and clearly shocked by it.

And so I went up to them after our tour, and I just started asking them questions about how they had experienced what we had just heard. And it was a powerful moment because they were like, I had no idea that Jefferson owned slaves. I had no idea that Monticello was built with the help of enslaved people. And it was an important moment and reminder for me. Not everybody understands Jefferson as an enslaver, and I think that that is reflective of a profound failure that we have in this country in which the memory and the history of slavery has been so distorted and has been so erased and has been so minimized relative to what - the impact that it actually had on this country.

KELLY: Some of the places you visited are really wrestling with how to tell the story accurately of what unfolded in that place, the history of slavery in that place. Some are not doing it, in your judgment, very well. Tell us about a place that's - that hasn't quite figured it out yet.

SMITH: So one of the places that I go is Angola prison. Angola is the largest maximum-security prison in the country - 18,000 acres wide, bigger than the island of Manhattan - where the vast majority of people held there are Black men serving life sentences who go out into fields every day on land that was once a plantation and pick crops for virtually no pay while someone watches them on horseback with a gun over their shoulder. And what does it mean that that prison has a gift shop?

KELLY: Yeah. That was the detail that blew my mind.

SMITH: And, you know, one of the most unsettling things was walking into this gift shop, which is attached to a museum that, as I experienced it, did not say anything about the history of slavery that existed on that land. And there was a coffee mug that had the silhouette of the - Angola's front gate, and above and below, it said, Angola, a gated community. So it's one thing to not address the history of slavery. It also feels like something wholly different to make a mockery about what is transpiring on that land. And so Angola is a place that seems to have little interest in acknowledging and confronting that history.

KELLY: You keep talking about the land - the land on which these people walked, the land on which you went to walk to go reexamine these events. You're talking about the land almost like a primary document, and I want to dig in on that, why that was so important to go there, to walk it, as opposed to the history that we all read in books.

SMITH: Yeah. I think there's - it's one thing to read about the structure of a slave cabin, and it's another thing to stand inside of one. I think part of what these places do is create human texture, emotional texture and remind us that this history that we tell ourselves was a long time ago wasn't, in fact, that long ago at all, you know? When I think of my 4-year-old son and him sitting on my grandfather's lap, I think of my grandfather sitting on his grandfather's lap, and I'm reminded that my grandfather's grandfather is someone who was born into slavery.

And so there are people who are alive today who were loved by, who had relationships with, who were raised by, who were in community with people who were born into intergenerational chattel slavery. And so the idea that we would suggest that that history has nothing to do with what the contemporary landscape of inequality looks like is both morally and intellectually disingenuous. And I think that when we are on this land and when we're in these buildings that have a direct relationship to this history that, again, isn't that long ago, we feel are our proximity to it in a way that I think is really powerful.

KELLY: You used to teach - right? - high school English.

SMITH: I did.

KELLY: This was in Prince George's County, Md. And you say that this project in part was about trying to write the kind of book you would have wanted to teach your students. What is it you wanted your former students to know?

SMITH: I remember when I was young, I felt like I didn't have the language or the framework or the toolkit with which to understand why the world around me looked the way that it did. And I was inundated with messages about why Black people writ large lived in the conditions that we did. And we were told, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that it was our fault. And I felt like I hadn't - I didn't have this history to help ground me in an understanding of why the - my society and why this country looked the way that it did.

And it wasn't until I became an adult that I gained access to the sort of knowledge that gave me a toolkit with which to understand all the ways that this country has lied to me about my community. And so what I wanted for this book to be was something that helped me understand and I hope is the sort of text that would have helped my students understand, that it would be the sort of book that would be both a historical document but also an engaging one, one that feels like they are on this journey alongside me.

KELLY: We've been talking about the book "How The Word Is Passed" by Clint Smith.

Mr. Smith, thank you.

SMITH: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOFT GLAS'S "BASIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.