Friday, August 13, 2021

Review: How the Word is Passed

From How the Word is Passed, by Clint Smith:

Open quote The history of slavery is the history of the United States. It was not peripheral to our founding; it was central to it. It is not irrelevant to our contemporary society; it created it. This history is in our soil, it is in our policies, and it must, too, be in our memories." How the Word is Passed

If you didn't learn this in school, it's not because it didn't happen. It's not because it wasn't important. It's because the people who wrote the history in this country didn't want you to learn this, to the point where even today's teachers don't know what they aren't teaching.

Grade: B+

Clint Smith visits many sites, including Virginia's Monticello and Blandford Confederate Cemetery, Louisiana's Whitney Plantation and Angola Prison, Texas's Galveston, site of the Juneteenth proclamation, a walking tour of slavery in New York City, and West Africa's Gorée Island with its "Door of No Return". In each place he talks to tour guides and visitors, seeking to learn how each place reckons with its own relationship to slavery.

It's much as you might expect. Some places, like the Confederate Cemetery, with its 30,000 Confederate burials, are mostly unreconstructed racist. One man diplomatically describes the Sons of Confederate Veterans who throng a Memorial Day ceremony there: "We know them well. Some of them are absolutely delightful human beings...And some of them don’t think the war ended."

The visit to Monticello was hopeful. Whereas the traditional tours focus on the home's architecture and the highlights of Thomas Jefferson's life, Monticello has recently added a tour of the plantation that focuses on slave life there. It's about time the shine on Jefferson's biography is balanced with his despicable treatment of his fellow humans living and working on his own land. And it's not like he didn't know his behavior was despicable. He behaved that way anyway.

Likewise, Louisiana's Whitney Plantation offers tours that don't ignore the economic purpose of the plantation and the role of slavery in serving that purpose. Whereas most Southern plantations make their money today renting themselves out to brides who want an antebellum wedding, the Whitney's own plantation house serves as a contrast to the cruel business of the plantation.

Smith goes on like this, finding some good points in how history is presented, some bad, and some slowly evolving. Taken as a whole, the reader begins to get an understanding of just how central slavery is to the history of America, and how its mark on us today is still the dominant strain in American life. This book should be offered as supplemental reading in high school American history classes. It's essential reading for every adult whose own high school education overlooked so much of our history.

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