I just read a great new book: “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America,” by Clint Smith.
Smith’s main point is that people, northerners and southerners, are now learning things about slavery they were not told in school -- the depths of depravity by which a female slave could be labelled a “good breeder” by her owners, and other aspects of good old-fashioned American enterprise.
Many people in this country still see slavery through a sentimental haze: slaves were better off here than they would have been in Africa; they were handled benevolently at the plantations.
You know, good people on all sides.
Nowadays mayors and school boards and governors are trying to forbid controversial or academic critiques of America.
(Some of these moronic governors are aiding Covid by not mandating vaccinations and masks at work and school.)
Smith’s book about slavery lies is a companion to the so-called “Big Lie” about alleged election fraud and the merry tourists who flocked to the Capitol last Jan. 6.
For all the chicanery and cowardice in high places, the worst parts of slavery are impossible to hide as Smith makes his rounds. As a one-time news reporter, I respect his shoe-leather approach -- visiting hot spots of the slave trade. A staff writer for the Atlantic – and a poet – Smith interviewed tour guides and museum directors as well as tourists, plus participants in Confederate commemorations.
The new cadre of historians and guides make it clear that that people, white people, mostly male, not only performed violent deeds but also knew what was being done, mostly in rural and southern states.
Smith begins where, in a sense, the country began – Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, where he "owned" slaves while preparing to write the Declaration of Independence. While he put pen to paper, his white staff put whips to the backs of Black slaves. Background music for Jefferson.
At Monticello, Smith chats with two visitors -- white, Fox-watching, Republican-leaning women, who hear a guide talk about Jefferson’s long association with a female slave.
Speaking to Smith, who is Black, the two women seem aghast. Smith quotes one of them:
“’Here he uses all of these people and then he marries a lady and then they have children,’ she said, letting out a heavy sigh. (A reference to Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman, who bore at least six of Jefferson’s children. The two were never married.) ‘Jefferson is not the man I thought he was.’”
That is the theme of the book – many Americans in position of responsibility and knowledge deliberately deflected what was known about slavery. And not just in the South. I know somebody who did college research on commerce in New England, and never came across the mention of slaves in Yankee states.
Then again, in a 2020 farewell to the great John Thompson, I praised a recent book about Frederick Douglass and noted that in all my school years in New York (with many history electives in college), I never heard the name "Frederick Douglass." (To be clear, I did know his name, just not from school. Our parents were part of a Black/white discussion group, and they extolled heroes like Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, and all of the children have learned from our parents.)
Smith points out that the Dutch and English, who pushed out the Lenape natives, welcomed slaves on the oyster-laden shores of lower Manhattan, and used them for labor, and shipped thousands to farms and other towns. New York was the second largest entry port, distributing slaves culled from Africa. Those who died were tossed, unmarked, into a pit near Wall Street.
One chapter in this book about slavery jarred me because I did not see it coming – a visit to the dreaded Angola Prison in Louisiana.
Smith explains his visit to Angola by pointing out that Black prisoners worked for free or for pennies, at the penal equivalent of plantations. In fact, Angola had a big house, where the warden and his family were served by trusted Black prisoners.
Prisons as plantations: As it happens, I have heard the metallic clank of the heavy door slammed behind me in three different prisons – and all three stories involved Black men. (See the links below.)
Smith’s itinerary includes: Monticello Plantation, Va.; the Whitney Plantation, La.; Angola Prison, La..
Blandford Cemetery, Va., Galveston Island, Tex, where emancipation was belatedly revealed to Blacks, leading to the recent proclamation of a new national holiday -- Juneteenth; New York City; and Gorée Island, Senegal, the legendary focus for the African slave trade.
In a moving Epilogue, Smith interviews his own elders for stories of prejudice, slavery and downright brutality they experienced or heard from their own elders.
Clint Smith’s book makes it clear that white America knew more about slavery than it discussed -- just as many of our "public servants" like to talk about sight-seers who had a fun day in the Capitol last Jan. 6, brandishing flagpoles, gouging eyeballs and shouting racial epithets.
It never went away.
It’s who we are.
* * *
Two book reviews in the NYT:
Three of my stories from prisons, when I was a news reporter:
* After writing this piece, and reading the thoughtful comments, I discovered a new book: “Land,” by Simon Winchester, a writer with great and varied interests. (We met in 1973 when he was posted to Washington by The Guardian.) Now living in the U.S., Winchester is writing about the creation and development of land.
An early paragraph about the original inhabitants of this continent fits right in with the tone of this discussion: (Page 17)
“The serenity of the Mohicans suffered, terminally. The villagers first began to fall fatally ill – victims of smallpox, measles, influenza, all outsider-borne ailments to which they had no natural immunity. And those who survived began to be ordered to abandon their lands and their possessions, and leave. To leave countryside that they had occupied and farmed for thousands of years – and ordered to do so by white-skinned visitors who had no knowledge of the land and its needs, and who regarded it only for its potential for reward. The area was ideal for colonization, said the European arrivistes: the natives, now seen more as wildlife than as brothers, more kine than kin, could go elsewhere.”
Winchester’s newest book then goes in many directions. I look forward to reading the rest.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.