SOMETHING magical happens when a poet turns their attention to prose. Sentences take on the lyric quality of the line, and paragraphs assume the compact perfection of stanzas. Multiple truths are given equal weight, and every single word is intentional.
Such is the case with Clint Smith’s second book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, an ambitious volume published in June by Little, Brown about the ways America remembers its history of slavery. Each chapter is devoted to a location or landmark, and while some cover familiar sites like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, others feature lesser-known places, like Blandford Church and Cemetery, which houses one of the largest mass interments of Confederate soldiers in the U.S. South. Stories about Smith’s travels and his conversations with employees and visitors slip seamlessly into history and historiography—all of which are knit together with the beauty of his magnetic prose.
“You’ll probably hear my children in the background,” says Smith, who lives in Maryland with his wife and two kids, as we sit down for a Zoom interview near the end of March. My first question is about his new book’s inception, and I quickly learn that it began in another genre. Smith discovered his love of writing in 2008 during a visit to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a haven for Black and Brown poets located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Back then he was a self-described “disillusioned English major struggling to connect with the canon,” but after one night at the Nuyorican, Smith was hooked. He would go on to an illustrious career as a poet, winning the Jerome J. Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review in 2017 and the National Poetry Slam championship in 2014 with the Beltway Poetry Slam team. He would also publish Counting Descent (Write Bloody Publishing, 2016), a prize-winning collection exploring themes of race, genealogy, and coming-of-age.
Less than a year later, after Smith’s hometown, New Orleans, removed a statue of Robert E. Lee in the spring of 2017, Smith began planning a second collection in which each poem would discuss a Confederate monument in the city. “At first it was just one poem, because poetry is how I entered my life as a writer,” he says. Smith envisioned a book that grappled with the question, What did it mean to grow up in a place in which there were more homages to enslavers than to enslaved people? The idea most certainly could have worked, but soon he felt he needed more space, so he decided to try his hand with an essay, penning “An Intimate History of America”—about visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture with his parents and grandparents—for the Paris Review Daily in late 2017. In an instant a would-be poetry book turned to prose, and the rest is—quite literally—history.
Over time the project’s geographical scope changed to include other U.S. cities and Gorée Island, a major slave trading post off the coast of modern-day Senegal. Still, the book’s concept wasn’t fully realized until Smith visited Monticello in 2018, shortly after learning about a newly added Sally Hemings tour. On the day of his planned visit, the Hemings slots were full, so he opted for a tour that dealt specifically with Jefferson’s relationship with slavery. Afterward he approached fellow visitors to hear their thoughts. His aha moment came during a conversation with Donna and Grace, two white women whose reactions to learning the truth about Jefferson are included in the Monticello chapter. “Reporting isn’t a natural thing for me,” says Smith, who recently became a staff writer at the Atlantic but is still surprised when people call him a journalist. “Walking up to strangers and asking them questions runs counter to my ethos, but I did it when I was at Monticello. And I was like, Oh, okay. This is what this book needs to be.” As the women talked, Smith realized he wanted How the Word Is Passed to contain more than self-meditation and personal reflection. “It had to be about the multiplicity of voices…how we all converge in these places and experience them in different ways depending on who we are.”
The Whitney Plantation
While a life like Frederick Douglass’s is remarkable, we must remember that not every person who lived through slavery was like Douglass. Most did not learn to read or write. Most did not engage in hand-to-hand combat with white slave breakers. Most did not live close enough to free states in the North to have any hope of escape. No one, enslaved or otherwise, was like Douglass. There were other brilliant, exceptional people who lived under slavery, and many resisted the institution in innumerable ways, but 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.
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How We REMEMBER
WITH HIS FIRST NONFICTION BOOK, HOW THE WORD IS PASSED, PUBLISHED IN JUNE BY LITTLE, BROWN, POET AND SCHOLAR CLINT SMITH DELVES INTO THE LEGACY OF SLAVERY ALIVE IN MONUMENTS AND LANDMARKS WITHIN AND BEYOND THE UNITED STATES, IN AN IMMERSIVE READ THAT EXQUISITELY DEPICTS HOW A NATION AND ITS INHABITANTS REMEMBER ITS HISTORY.
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