Clint Smith on how the word is passed

“I think that the onus is on writers and journalists and scholars to take the momentum that has been catalyzed from the organizers on the ground and to help give new language and new frameworks,” says Smith about confronting America’s racism.

By Christian Feuerstein

Clint Smith will be the keynote speaker at Mount Holyoke College’s fifth annual BOOM! Building on Our Momentum Community Day. He will lecture on “How the Word is Passed” on Tuesday, March 23, at 4:30 p.m., Eastern time. This talk is free and open to the public

Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. His essays, poems and scholarly writing have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Poetry magazine, The Paris Review, Harvard Educational Review and elsewhere. Smith’s debut nonfiction book, “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America,” explores how different sites across the country reckon with — or fail to reckon with — their relationship to the history of slavery. It will be published in June.

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

In your article “Stories of Slavery, From Those Who Survived It” you analyzed the work of the Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives. You mention that you never learned about their existence throughout your entire education. When did you first learn of these narratives? 

The first time I encountered them I didn’t realize I was encountering them. It was at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2015. There’s the room where you hear the voices of enslaved people surrounding you, almost as if they were ghosts. You hear people speaking in the first person about trying to see their mother after they worked in the fields at night, or how difficult it was to work with the overseer watching over them or trying to find moments of respite and moments of reprieve amid the incessant violence of the work. It was so haunting and so compelling and so striking. But when I first heard them I didn’t know that they were from the Federal Writers’ Project. It wasn’t until I went to the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana in 2019 that I found out. 

The Whitney Plantation is one of the only plantations in the country that makes a concerted effort to center the story on the lives of the enslaved rather than the slaver. They’re saying, this was a place of intergenerational violence and oppression and we are going to hear the stories of those people here. 

I had no idea how extensive the Federal Writers’ Project was. Over 2,000 narratives and stories have been collected from formerly enslaved people. It was fascinating. And I started having more conversations with historians to try to get a sense of why I never learned about these, why the only stories that I remember encountering were that of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. There’s a lot of value and importance in sharing the stories of people who escaped, of sharing the stories of people who resisted enslavement through running away, of showing that Black people were not docile, passive recipients of the violence that they experienced. 

The other side of that is, if the only stories we ever hear are that of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and the like, then it gives us a skewed notion of what slavery was, because these were exceptional people. The vast majority of Black people who were enslaved did not escape. The vast majority of Black people did not learn to read and write as Frederick Douglass did. They did not hide in the attic for years and years like Harriet Jacobs did. So the things that create the most compelling narratives aren’t necessarily the things that are most reflective of the quotidian life of the enslaved. 

Part of the power of these narratives is that they provide insight into the lives of ordinary enslaved people. These are an invaluable set of primary source documents that give us insight into the life of enslaved people in ways that few other other things do.

Your nonfiction debut, How the Word is Passed, explores how different places relate — or don’t relate — to their connection with slavery. When I heard the premise, my mind immediately went to the HBO series “Watchmen” and how that was the first time many Americans learned about the 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when the thriving Black community was obliterated by a white mob. What does it take for white Americans to really explore Black history?

Part of what happens is that the reckoning that a country experiences, or the willingness of a country and the people within them to confront these histories, is tied to social movements. Prior to the civil rights movement, this sort of pervasive narrative around slavery was one that was propagated by historian such as Ulrich Bonnell Phillips. He wrote that slavery was a benevolent institution, it was a civilizing institution, that there were plenty of nice slaveholders who treated their slave workers well, and that this was a necessary sort of social dynamic, given the the sort of inherent inequalities between Black and white people. That was kind of the pervasive narrative around enslavement until the 1950s.

It wasn’t until the civil rights movement that there was a larger recalibration and reengagement with what slavery was. Historians like Kenneth Stampp played a huge role in shifting the focus and saying that the origin of so many of the issues that Black people are experiencing come from slavery and there was nothing benevolent about it. It was a cruel, inhumane, violent institution that kept parents and children and their children and their children under bondage in perpetuity.

The civil rights movement — and this is the thing about social movements — not only resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It also transformed the way that our country remembers events that have led up to that time. Black Lives Matter has done a similar thing. 

We can’t just judge Black Lives Matter on what the budgets of police departments are or not, or what policies have been acted or not enacted. Black Lives Matter, over the last several years, has done a profound job at pushing this country to recalibrate what it thought it knew and to explore and identify what it didn’t realize it didn’t know. There’s so many books and so many writers and so many thinkers whose work is getting attention now in ways that would have been impossible without the activists and organizers on the ground who’ve been pushing this country since when Trayvon Martin was killed or when Mike Brown was killed, in 2012 and 2014, respectively. In the following years, you see a huge transformation in people’s level of understanding of what racism is.

I think that the onus is on writers and journalists and scholars and anybody to take the momentum that has been catalyzed from the activists and organizers on the ground and help give new language and new frameworks. Luckily, there’s a plethora of folks doing that important work and giving us new frameworks and language all the time. And so I think the onus is on people to recognize that. 

As a former high school teacher, I think what you have to do is bring those texts and ideas into schools. You have to train teachers in order to effectively implement that pedagogy. Every person, every organization, every group, every company has to look back and interrogate, what are the things that they do or fail to do that willingly or unwillingly perpetuates inequality. I think from there you make progress. But it’s slow. Social changes are like turning a ship and you can’t just turn the ship on a dime. Sometimes it has to make a big turn and you don’t want to hit an iceberg on the way, but you just have to keep turning.

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