While on a blogging break, I’m taking the time to share some of my favorites from the More to Come archives. Let’s stop celebrating a past that never existed. Instead, let’s understand and honor the one that did. — which is used in a portion of the following piece — was originally posted on October 5, 2020.
Our recollections need a reckoning and a reimagining. A reckoning with the history that did happen and a reimagining through recovered stories with hope for our collective future.
America has spent centuries denying the fundamental role slavery played in shaping our country. Our capitalistic economy, the way we shaped our cities and countryside, our unwieldy way of electing a president, America’s uneven system of justice, thoughts on what constitutes the public good, our constitution … so many aspects of life in America were shaped, at their core, by that history. Slavery “is not irrelevant to our contemporary society; it created it.”
That perspective comes from poet and author Clint Smith in his groundbreaking 2021 book How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. Near the end of this important work, Smith asserts that,
At some point it is no longer a question of whether we can learn this history, but whether we have the collective will to reckon with it.
Smith’s is a well-researched book told with a poet’s ear for the story. Which is as it should be. He takes the reader to landmarks and monuments all across America, places where guides, local citizens, and activists tell stories to those who visit. Some of the stories are true. Some are willfully false. Others work with less than complete information to try and point towards truth.
The reader visits Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Whitney Plantation — two Southern historic sites taking different approaches but, nonetheless, working toward a fuller understanding of our past. Smith, a Black man, visits Blandford Cemetery during a Sons of Confederate Veterans event, where the participants’ polite but strained conversations mask their indifferent and sometimes hostile attempts toward a full understanding of the past. He is in Galveston for the Juneteenth celebration, a story that until recently wasn’t known to many white Americans. Angola is the site of a former slave plantation turned prison, where incarcerated Black men work long hours in the fields in a system akin to slavery. The readers join Smith for a tour of Manhattan to learn about New York City’s difficult and tortured slave history.
As a historian and preservationist, I was exhilarated and challenged by How the Word is Passed. Exhilarated that a writer of Smith’s talent and background would take on public history in such a thoughtful and respectful way, while recognizing the importance in saving the places where history happened. Challenged by the realization yet again of how far we have to go just to a true examination of the past.
In reading this book, I was reminded of when I first stood at Jamestown as a history-enthralled 11-year-old. The picture of the 17th century ruin of the church tower, abutted to the 1907 Memorial Church, is seared in my mind. I also remember the water lapping at the nearby shore, serving as a reminder that the people at Jamestown had the most tenuous of toeholds on this continent in those early years.
While I didn’t know it at the time, the narratives of life in early 17th century Virginia — told by the guides, the plaques that lined the walls of the 1907 church, and the books I devoured — were incomplete and sometimes egregiously false. White Christian Europeans were the focus. If they were mentioned at all, Native Americans, along with the enslaved African Americans who began arriving against their will at Jamestown in 1619, were small, dependent actors; impediments, if you will, to the greater story of the colonists and settlers and the shaping of what it meant to be an “American.”
Those Europeans were not home. They were the outsiders. Yet we are still fighting over how to interpret their presence in what would become Virginia.
Today, thanks to the scholarship of historians, works like the 1619 Project, the explorations of archaeologists, and the education efforts of groups like Preservation Virginia, the interpretations at Jamestown are more richly textured, recognizing the various layers that make up this iconic place in American history. Something worth understanding happened there in the early 17th century. There are stories worth telling and people worth remembering in part for the significance they bring to our lives today. But because history is not what happened, it is a story about what happened, we need to be thoughtful and as truthful as possible in how we craft our narratives of remembrance.
In his remarkable first work of nonfiction, Clint Smith has shown us a way forward. He visits places with hard and misunderstood histories. He listens intently to the stories of the historians and guides and asks meaningful questions that draw out conversations. He works to understand what these places mean today, what we’ve told ourselves about them, and how that impacts the way we live. He treats old places as having value to our life today, as spaces of reflection. He also values the stories and memories of elders who are not that far removed from those who were enslaved.
Memories are important because of the gaps that exist in the story of slavery. Smith quotes David Thorson at Monticello who 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.”
Memory is a poet, not a historian. Clint Smith is also a poet. In this book I’ll return to again and again, he shows us why we give thanks for the poets and the stories they bring to life.
More to come…
NOTE: Here are other posts on More to Come examining the need to tell the fuller story of our history:
- Places and perspectives (June 22, 2020)
- Confessions of a Southerner. Like a Southern drawl, this may take a while. (November 26, 2018)
- Raised on cornbread and recollections (April 23, 2018)
Image: Discussion on the life of the enslaved at Belle Grove, a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation that has worked to tell the fuller story of all those who lived, worked, and died there. Photo credit: Belle Grove.