‘The Idea That Slavery Was a Long Time Ago is Profoundly Untrue’: An Interview with Clint Smith

The author of How the Word is Passed on writing through the lens of fatherhood, reckoning with the past and confronting difficult histories, and the beauty that can rise from pain.

Clint Smith was born and raised in New Orleans, a former epicenter of America’s slave trade. Despite the city’s close connection to chattel slavery, there is now little within it to commemorate this history. However, there are many streets and schools named after slave owners. In the New Orleans of Smith’s childhood, a 16-foot-tall, 8,000-pound brass statue of Robert E. Lee—a commander of the Confederate Army during the Civil War—stood atop a 60-foot pedestal close to the city’s centre. Dressed in his Confederate uniform, Lee was depicted in a crossed-arm stance, defiantly facing north. In 2017, the statue came down along with several other racist monuments in the city. It was a historic moment in a struggle dating back decades, and it propelled Smith to reconsider his city of birth along with the pervasive legacy of slavery throughout the country.

How the Word Is Passed (Little, Brown and Company) is the result—a remarkably perspicuous book that dispels the myths and half-truths surrounding the history of slavery in America. A staff writer at The Atlantic, an award-winning poet and educator, and now a New York Times bestselling author, Smith debuts with a narrative nonfiction account that revolves around visits to sites that help him better understand the central role that slavery played in the development of the country. It’s a narrative that includes a plantation-turned-museum/maximum-security prison, a Confederate cemetery, and Wall Street. Through recounting his travels, Smith illustrates how white supremacy and exploitation were foundational to the American project.

While often painful, How the Word Is Passed also pays tribute to Black life in America and the people committed to preserving its history. Smith suggests that if we learn to reckon with the past rather than rewrite it, we just might be able to find a better way forward. The author currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and I caught up with him over the phone to discuss his new book.

Andru Okun: I want to start by talking about your hometown of New Orleans. When did you begin living outside of the city, and how did your perspective of it change as a result?

Clint Smith: I lived in New Orleans my entire life up until Hurricane Katrina. I was three days into my senior year of high school, and my family and I ended up evacuating to Houston, Texas, where we lived with my aunt and uncle for a while. My parents then came back for their jobs, and my younger brother who was in sixth grade at the time came back as well. My sister and I stayed in Houston, where I finished high school.

I think part of what happens when you’re from New Orleans and you leave is that you don’t realize all the ways that New Orleans has shaped your sensibilities and your disposition. Even simple things like holidays, I took for granted that people have jambalaya and gumbo and crawfish etouffee. The idea of not having those things that were staples during the celebratory moments of my life was strange. I realized I came from a place that had such a singular history and that the unique history and make up of New Orleans is something that everyone from there carries. I think I’m still learning every day about the ways that New Orleans shaped me. As I became a father, I learned about how growing up in New Orleans has shaped the way I think about childhood and what a meaningful childhood looks like and how much of that was animated by the sense of community and love, the sort of village I felt I was raised in within the city.

How has fatherhood changed your work?

I started the book in May of 2017, the same month that my son was born. So on a practical level, parenthood very much shaped the writing experience. My kids are all over this book in the sense that their emergence into my life and their presence inevitably shaped the work that I was doing and the logistics of how I wrote. I didn’t have long, extended opportunities to write; I wasn’t going away to residencies. I was writing during naptime and episodes of Sesame Street. I would take my laptop with me everywhere I went and if they fell asleep in the car, then I would pull over in a parking lot and try to get fifteen minutes in before they woke up. I was disabused of the idea that this book would be written in any sort of long, luxurious stretches of time, and I recognized it would be written during whatever moments I had, whether it was when my child was sleeping on my chest or however long I could stay awake after we put them down for bed.

I remember a few years back I had lunch with Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton, and she had two young kids in the early stages of her career. When I asked how she did it, she told me that no amount of writing is too short. If you can only write for ten minutes, you might be able to write a paragraph. That sort of thing builds up, so you have to forget this idea that it’s only possible to write if you have an hour or two hours or an afternoon. You just have to take what you can get.

In terms of how I thought about and approached the book, I think fatherhood further amplified the emotional texture of the places I visited: the Whitney Plantation and seeing these small statues of children sprinkled throughout different exhibits across the plantation; the Field of Angels, the main exhibit at Whitney Plantation, and seeing the names of thousands of enslaved children who died during infancy or childhood in Louisiana prior to emancipation; a slave cabin and seeing the crib or small bed that an enslaved child would sleep in—it felt so much more intimate. It wasn’t as much of an abstraction as I think it would have been previously.

Throughout my experience of writing this book, I thought much more deeply about the implications of family separation than I ever had before. So much of the way that many of us are inundated with the spectacle of chattel slavery is through the brutal whippings and beatings, these violent moments of cruelty manifesting themselves. And to be sure, that was an enormous and horrific part of the institution, and I understand why that is so much of what we see in the depictions of slavery. But for some reason, I hadn’t fully accounted for the role that family separation played in the institution. And when I took a step back and thought about what it might mean if I were sleeping in my home and I woke up and my two small children had been disappeared in the middle of the night, and I had no idea where they’d been taken or if I’d ever see them again, it became almost overwhelming to think about. And that is the reality that millions of enslaved people lived through over the course of generations. The possibility of being separated from your wife, your parents, your loved ones, and your community hung over enslaved people for generations as an omnipresent threat, a mechanism of psychological terror. I experienced that emotionally in a much more visceral way and felt the tremors and the shaking in my own body when I considered what it might mean to live with that threat hanging over you every day. Kids can change so much about your life in all sorts of ways, but their presence certainly made me more conscious of the implications that this institution had on family units.

How the Word Is Passed was at the top of The New York Times bestseller list for several weeks. What were your expectations for this book’s release in terms of its reception?

I did not expect that it would be a number one New York Times bestseller. It’s hard to explain to people how much that was not at all in my conception of what was possible. I never considered, even with all the pre-publication buzz and the great reviews, that it would become what it became. When I got the call when the list came out, I fell out of my chair. I just kept yelling expletives, basically. I couldn’t believe it was real. And it still feels very surreal.

But let me say, I am incredibly wary of attaching any sense of a book’s success to external factors that are beyond my control. Going into this book, I didn’t want its success to be defined by whether it was a bestseller or if it was nominated for prizes or awards or reviewed well. There’s so much that’s not in your control as a writer. In some ways the book doesn’t belong to you once you put it out into the world; that’s what it means to create art and literature. I was very much moving through this process with a recognition of that, and I had to be clear about who this book was for and whose opinions mattered to me. I wanted to write a book that I would have wanted to read when I was in high school. So much of this book was animated by attempting to fill in the gaps of my own education, the gaps of my childhood. I also wanted to write a book that I would have wanted to teach when I was a high school teacher. Those were the driving forces that shaped how I wrote. To the extent that I had an audience in mind, that fifteen-year-old version of me was that audience, to write a book that would provide the history, language, framework, and toolkit with which to more effectively make sense of the landscape of inequality that I was seeing around me growing up in New Orleans that I didn’t know how to explain. So much of the iconography I didn’t really understand. So much of the history was embedded in the infrastructure of the city in ways that I had never known or been presented with. The book itself is this four-year journey of me trying to bring the reader along to learn about the things which I wished I had learned about when I was younger.

So now you have this large audience engaging with your book and lots of white readers who may be confronted with ideas that make them uncomfortable. I don’t see it as your responsibility to make these readers feel more at ease; I am curious, though, if you ever felt the need to factor in white readers' innate defensiveness while writing this.

I don’t consider what will or won’t make a white person uncomfortable. That doesn’t really factor into my writing at all. The thing about this book is that I wanted to lift up and honour the work of public historians, tour guides, descendants, and the people who are engaging with all sorts of folks from the public on these issues every day. I think the tenor of the book was inspired by the approach so many of these public historians and guides took with a recognition that our country has systematically and structurally failed to teach the history of slavery to millions of people in any way that is commensurate with the actual impact that it had. You have generations of people of all ages who have little to no understanding of some of the basic history of slavery. You carry a recognition of that, and you extend a level of grace and generosity and understanding to people who might not know information because they’ve never been presented with it. Many of these guides very much believe in meeting people where they are. They know that you have to recognize where people are coming from when you’re engaging if you want to have that engagement be meaningful.

At the same time, none of that means that you soften the blow, so to speak. None of that means that you reduce or limit how transparent you are about what this institution was, or that you pull back on any of the details that are central to understanding. It’s about finding a balance between generosity and accountability, a balance between empathy and responsibility. So many of the people that I met who have dedicated their lives to telling the history of slavery do this in such a remarkable and important way. These are people who have a deep intellectual understanding of this history and who also are in conversation every day with people who have no idea. They model for me what it means to find a balance and to tell people the truth in a way that will allow them to hear it.

The scene where you sit in on a Sons of Confederate Veterans gathering seems like it must have been so trying. Yet, you seemed to have been exceedingly patient with everyone you engaged with. Did you ever feel frustrated during these conversations? 

I think for me, those are moments where I’m just moving with curiosity. I’m really a genuinely curious person, and I knew that even though I would fundamentally reject everything that group of people stands for, I also wanted to understand why they believe what they believe. I really did want to understand how one could come to think, despite the overwhelming evidence and primary source documents, that slavery wasn’t the central cause of the Civil War or that the Confederacy didn’t secede because of slavery even though their government specifically said otherwise. What animated somebody’s understanding of history and themselves to believe things that run counter to all of the evidence that we have? 

I knew that if I approached them from an antagonist perspective that they wouldn't open up. If I tried to make it this gotcha moment or if I got super angry, they wouldn’t talk to me in any way that would be illuminating or valuable. What I wanted from that experience was clarity, and I think I got a lot of it. I think they were pretty honest with me about why they do what they do and why they believe what they believe. In those moments, I’m less interested in engaging in what feels like a performative antagonism at the expense of getting honest responses and then letting the history itself serve as a rebuttal. That’s what I wanted to do in that chapter—I wanted these people to open up to me and tell me about how they’d come to believe these different things, and then I went to the primary source documents to make it clear to the reader what is true and what is not in ways that I think are far more interesting and effective than me attempting to do any of that in real time. 

I also wanted to make clear to the people that I was talking to that I’m not a quote-unquote objective or neutral party; I had very direct conversations with these people about how they feel a sense of pride when they visit a cemetery for tens of thousands of people who fought on behalf of the Confederacy, because all I see is people who fought a war to keep my ancestors enslaved. I am honest with them, and I think there’s a difference between being honest and antagonistic. I think it’s important to paint these folks in three-dimensional ways. It can be very easy for them to become caricatures of themselves, and I think they’re often depicted as caricatures, but the truth is that these are people who hold their grandchildren on their lap the same way my grandparents did. These are people who sit down for family dinners with people they love. They are human beings with their own interior lives that I think need to be taken seriously because it reminds us that they’re not cartoon characters, they’re people. And that makes the implications of what they believe all the more urgent and frightening and dangerous. It is because they are real people that what they believe is so concerning, not because they’re cartoonish notions of people we can toss to the side and discount. In fact, they represent people who are all around us.

Your book digs into the misconceptions and myths of American slavery. One of the more bewildering narratives is that of the benevolent slave owner. How did this particular falsehood become so common?

Earlier on in slavery, during the Jeffersonian age, the people who engaged in slavery largely knew it was wrong. Jefferson wrote about this, and he knew it was a pretty terrible thing, but he also said it was necessary for social and economic foundations. It was this thing that many people seemingly did begrudgingly, and they hoped that, ultimately, they could move toward a time that it would not be necessary. That shifted when slavery became much more entangled in the American economy. It became much more central to it and then the narrative turned into slavery being a civilizing institution. In the words of the late senator John Calhoun of South Carolina (who was also once our vice president), slavery was a “positive good” for both Black and white people alike. You could look at the historian Ulrich B. Phillips, who perpetuated the idea that plantations were civilizing institutions, that enslaved people were treated well and slavery had rescued Black people from the savagery and anarchy of Africa—that it had given them Christianity and civilization, a specific and important role to play in the American project. 

I think once people realized that they didn’t want to give slavery up because of all these sorts of social and economic conveniences and the power that it afforded them, then they did what humans do, which is make up a different story to justify their actions. So then they thought of themselves as doing the enslaved a favour, giving meaning and structure to people who would otherwise have no idea what to do in the world. As Yvonne Holden at the Whitney Plantation said, when white people come to the Whitney one of the questions she gets the most is, “Were there good slave owners?” And these questions come specifically from white visitors, and I’m paraphrasing, but she basically says if someone kidnapped your child, no amount of niceness would take away from the fact that they were a kidnapper who stole children. I think that’s a helpful framework because within the context of chattel slavery there is no such thing as a good slave owner. If you own another human being, you are engaging in behaviour that is morally abhorrent and unacceptable. The formulation of the benevolent slave owner is in and of itself a contradiction.

This sort of reminds me of how people talk about Angola Prison after Burl Cain [the former warden] arrived. Angola is said to have been this really horrific place before Cain, and he is widely credited with shaping it up and improving the lives of the people imprisoned there. But we’re still talking about the country’s largest maximum-security prison sitting on a former plantation, a prison named after the origin country of the enslaved people forced to work there.

It’s one of those things where it’s a both/and. Obviously, I write about Angola in the book, and I wrote my dissertation about education and incarceration, and I think a lot about mass incarceration, the history of chattel slavery, and our current carceral landscape. I think we can recognize that it is a good thing that Angola Prison is not as violent as it once was. It is a good thing that it is safer for the incarcerated people there than it once was. That is a different thing than saying that a place is good. Recognizing that there is less harm being enacted on the minds and bodies of incarcerated people than there were two or three decades ago is not the same thing as saying that Angola is now a good place to be, because it’s not.

For me, I’ve been teaching in prisons and jails for the last seven years. I take seriously what it means to mitigate the harm that people currently incarcerated are experiencing. I think people who are currently incarcerated should have better health care and access to education and better food. I also believe that we should build a society in which it’s not necessary for prisons to exist because we have provided communities with the necessary social infrastructure that would prevent people from becoming entangled in the criminal legal system in the first place. So it’s that both/and. From what I understand, Burl Cain came in and made reforms that have mitigated the harm that people in Angola experience, and that is good. It also doesn’t mean that he made Angola Prison a good place.

Another misconception you write about is that slavery wasn’t simply a result of southern white supremacy. As your book notes, northern financial institutions bankrolled and profited from slavery, and the demand for slave labour was directly related to international demand for cotton and sugar. Why do you think popular narratives of slavery often limit its horrors and impacts to the American South?

I think a lot of people like to think of themselves as not as culpable. As you alluded to, the concept of the North as “the good guys” doesn’t account for the ways that so much of the economic, social, and political infrastructure of northern cities were deeply entangled and invested in perpetuating slavery in the South. New York City was once the second-largest slave market in the country. The banks and financial institutions provided the capital that allowed slavery to subsist, and so much of what slavery excavated from the soil was sent off to Europe. New York was so invested in slavery that on the eve of the Civil War, the mayor of New York City, Fernando Wood, proposed that New York City secede from the Union alongside the southern states because the city’s existence was so deeply tied to their fate. I think it’s important to recognize the reality of these northern cities, and I wrote about New York, but I could have written about Providence, Boston, or a host of northern cities whose histories are inextricably linked to slavery. It’s a history that’s not often told because Americans genuinely like to create clean demarcations between good and evil. So we say the South did this terrible thing and the North did this good thing, when the history is much more complex than that, in the same way that we now know what we call “red states” and “blue states” are not just red and blue. In Louisiana, it’s a quote-unquote red state, but there are millions of people who vote for democratic causes or politicians in cities throughout the state. Louisiana in the mid-19th century was a slave state, but there were also many people who were sympathetic to the Union; in New York City, which was in a quote-unquote free state, there were a lot of people sympathetic to the Confederacy. No city or region is monolithically anything, certainly not monolithically good or bad. But when we retroactively look back, we often attempt to create narratives that overly simplify the nature of what was happening. It’s often done to provide a level of cover or to stave off culpability for harm that has been done.

You write, “Our country’s teachings about slavery, painfully limited, often focus singularly on heroic slave narratives at the expense of the millions of men and women whose stories might be less sensational but are no less worthy of being told.” As a writer and a historian, how do you determine which stories are worth telling?

I’m really interested in the people who are not anthologized in our textbooks, the people who did not necessarily write their own autobiographies or end up on our posters on the wall. That’s part of why I appreciate the Federal Writers Project slave narratives so much—even with all of the limitations and problems embedded within them due to how they were transcribed and how white interviewers engaged them—I think they can tell us so much about what the ordinary, quotidian nature of slavery was like for people who were not Douglas, Tubman, Jacobs, or Equiano. Those narratives tell us what it meant to be a human, to make a sense of meaning and purpose for yourself in the midst of these unimaginable circumstances, and they’re more reflective of how the majority of people experienced slavery. They were trying to build community and find love and meaning and respite in these small moments where they could, to remind them that they were people who had agency despite being oppressed by an institution predicated on taking that agency away.

I thought one of your book’s most affecting chapters was the one in which you speak with your grandparents. Their stories felt so personal and unfiltered. How did you come to include them in this project?

I was writing this book, travelling across the country and having conversations with all these different people, and I was asking strangers these really deep questions about their lives. I realized that I’d never brought the same level of formal attention to conversations with my own family, gaining a sense of all of their life stories and talking to them with a level of intentionality and specificity that I hadn’t before. As I write in the book, I realized that some of the best primary sources aren’t in archives. Rather, they’re right next to you.

My grandmother and my grandfather are their own sort of monuments to a history that wasn’t that long ago. I think I had a moment when I realized my grandfather’s grandfather was enslaved, and I saw my son sitting on my grandfather’s lap and was reminded of how recent this was and what not only our physical proximity to slavery is, but also our temporal proximity to this history is. It’s this story we’re told that happened a long time ago, when in fact it wasn’t that long ago at all; there are people who are alive who loved and were raised by and in community with people who were born into intergenerational chattel slavery.

I was just doing a local NPR show and an older woman called in and talked about how in her earliest years she was raised by her great grandfather, who was born a slave. The idea that slavery was a long time ago is just so profoundly untrue, and at worst it is morally and intellectually disingenuous to suggest that it was. It was important for me to have conversations with my grandparents about their own proximity to that history and what their lives were like in the more direct aftermath of slavery. My grandfather was born in 1930 in Mississippi, which is only 65 years after the end of slavery—there were millions of people alive when he was born that were once enslaved. Much of this book was interested in questions of proximity and intimacy, and I wanted to better understand my grandparents’ stories to make sense of my own, to more effectively situate myself in this history, but also to get a sense of what it felt like for them to be so close to it.

While on a slavery tour in New York, your guide, Damaras Obi, noted that race is a social construct that isn’t supported by any scientific or genetic evidence. When, if ever, do you think America will be ready to grapple with this concept? 

That’s one of the million-dollar questions, I think. I mean, it’s another both/and. You have to carry recognition that race is completely made up with the specific intention of creating and demarcating lines of power—that it’s grounded in the history of capitalism and exploitation. Another physical mechanism could have been used to decide who was and was not a citizen, but they used race. And race is what has come to shape not only our contemporary social, political, and economic infrastructure, but our global infrastructure as well. So you have to hold the recognition that it’s made up, but it also has profound implications that are with us now and will likely be with us forever. Part of what Black people have done is taken this thing that was used as a mechanism of oppressing, subjugating, and violating us and turning it into this remarkable culture that has emerged out of such pain. Whether it be the music, the art, the literature, the sensibilities, or the language, these things came out of the history of chattel slavery. I often think about how remarkable it is that things so beautiful could have emerged from something so ugly, but that is the incredible story of Black life in this country.