News & Politics

The Washingtonian Interview: Clint Smith

The bestselling author explains how talking to Americans about slavery changed him.

Photograph by Jeff Elkins

Clint Smith’s recent bestseller, How the Word Is Passed, traces a series of trips he took to explore the legacy of slavery. Smith—a poet, Atlantic staff writer, and former high-school teacher in Prince George’s County—investigates how Monticello has begun to wrestle with Thomas Jefferson’s brutal treatment of people he enslaved, and he visits Galveston Island to understand how the Juneteenth proclamation changed—and didn’t change—the lives of Black people in Texas.

How the Word Is Passed is a vivid look at the ways in which slavery is not some terrible chapter from the distant past but rather continues to ripple through American life. We caught up with the Silver Spring resident to hear more about what he discovered.

You sought out very different sites to write about: both the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, which is now a museum that focuses on the experiences of enslaved people, and Blandford Cemetery in Virginia, a large Con­federate burial ground.

I wanted to find places that represented this spectrum of experiences: places that are working hard to interrogate [their] relationship to this history, and then places that are completely running from and abdicating any responsibility. The Whitney is founded on the principle that a plantation can only be understood as an intergenerational cycle of torture and exploitation. It’s surrounded by plantations where people continue to hold wedding ceremonies and fancy parties and use the slave cabins as bridal suites.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have a place like the Blandford Cemetery, where I spent the day with some Confederate veterans and got to see a sort of contemporary manifestation of the Lost Cause.

At Blandford, you attended a Sons of Confederate Veterans event. When you started taking notes, a man recorded you on his phone. But the encounter ended up being more positive than that would suggest.

It was important for me to make sure that everyone in my book was a three-dimensional character. It can be easy to make these people into caricatures or [seem] very distant. But they are all around us. They go to the same banks, they take their kids to the park, and they are people whose sense of history and of themselves within history is not irrational to them.

I think all the time about a guy named Jeff who loved to come to the cemetery at dusk and watch the deer slalom through the tombstones and think about the stories his grandfather used to tell him. This is a very emotional place for many people. And I think that it is not always [a place] that is animated by anger or grievance in, you know, the way that we often think about the people who came to Charlottesville [in 2017].

Jeff said something that stuck with me. He likened the North fighting in Southern territory to “me going in your house and telling you how to live in it.” That’s a strange way to think about a war over slavery.

One of the most important things I could do as a writer, as a journalist, was to hear what they thought. I didn’t want to approach them from an antagonistic perspective. The best thing I could do was let them say everything they wanted to say and share what they wanted to share. And that, in many ways, was the most damning reflection and indictment of what they believed, right?

Have you been to Richmond since the Confederate statues came down? There’s an emptiness on Monument Avenue now that makes me think of countries that lost wars. And of course Richmond was the capital of a place that lost a war.

It’s just fascinating to think about how long it’s taken [to remove the statues], even though most of these were put up in the late 19th and early 20th century.

For all the change we’ve seen, there are still places like Angola state penitentiary in Louisiana, which you also visit. It’s a prison that houses mostly Black people and is built over a plantation where people were enslaved. The echoes are disturbing.

I could have written an entire book about Angola. It was profoundly haunting. Angola is an 18,000-acre-wide prison, the largest maximum-security prison in the country. Seventy-five percent of the people held there are Black men, over 70 percent are serving life sentences, and it’s built on a former plantation. What does it mean that that place has a gift shop and sells shot glasses and coffee mugs and T shirts and baseball caps? You know, little stuffed animals dressed in prison garb?

The book doesn’t have a chapter about the DC area, but Confederate history is embedded in many places in our region. I live in Alexandria, where there are more than 60 streets that are named for, or probably named for, Confederate officers. How can we better reckon with that history?

Part of what I try to capture in the book is that that reckoning looks different in different places across the country. Even the conversation around critical race theory—you know, we have no national curriculum. I think we’re going to continue to see a wider and wider chasm. There are places where young people are continuing to grow up with no sense of slavery in any way that is commensurate with the impact that it had on this country, and then you’re going to have teachers who help their young people more fully understand what happened.

Are you saying you believe that those divisions can eventually be bridged?

Yeah, I do think so. There are some people who you can share all of the empirical evidence, all the primary-source documents, with and they will not change what they believe, because what they believe is not based on fact—it is based on stories that are entangled in the myths of this country. And they will not accept anything that destabilizes those myths, because they would be accepting stories that sort of disintegrate a sense of who they believe themselves to be.

But I do think there are other people who just don’t know. I did not begin the project as an expert on slavery. I did this book as a means of going on this literal journey to understand a part of history that I had a sort of surface-level understanding of but would come to learn that I didn’t understand in any way that was proportionate to the actual impact it had. It was transformative for me to learn, and my hope is that it can be transformational for people reading it.

So you’re optimistic?

I guess there’s a difference between optimistic and hopeful. Optimistic feels more passive to me. I am hopeful that more people will find it within themselves to think critically about this country’s history, to better understand why our country looks the way that it does today. And that hope is a choice. You make a choice to be hopeful every day.

This article appears in the September 2021 issue of Washingtonian.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.