History may be recorded in textbooks, but that’s not where it lives. Rather, it’s in the blood of the people who carry that history inside them, and the complex places they and their descendants inhabit.

Clint Smith’s latest book, How the Word Is Passed, is a history of American slavery that centers the lives of those people and places. Whether he’s describing his Black grandfather sitting in his living room or his white tour guide at Monticello Plantation, Smith brings his readers skin-close to his subjects, so we feel them pulsing underneath his sentences. Given that Smith is an accomplished poet and nonfiction writer, I was excited to discuss with him how his book borrows from both genres. I was surprised to learn when talking to him that literary fiction is perhaps what most influenced his creative process, enabling him to delve deeply into America’s ugliest truths.

Ben Purkert for Guernica

Guernica: How’d you pick this section of text for us to discuss?

Smith: It was a hard exercise for me to decide, because I’ve never done something like this before. It was fascinating—and a little frustrating—to try and find a “before” and “after” because, in my writing process, I’m revising throughout. I’m the kind of a writer where, especially in prose, when I write a paragraph, it’s rare that I just go to the next paragraph. Typically, I’ll edit pretty extensively before moving on. Anyway, I chose this section because it’s from the epilogue in my book.

Guernica: Why is that significant?

Smith: The book as a whole is exploring how different places reckon with—or fail to reckon with—their relationship to the history of slavery. But, in the epilogue, I take a slightly different approach. Instead of exploring all these monuments and memorials and prisons and cemeteries and plantations, I look at my own family history and think about my own grandparents as monuments, in a way.

Guernica: How did that shift in thinking happen?

Smith: I took a trip with them to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. As we were walking through, I was so struck by the fact that my grandparents had experienced firsthand much of the violence that was documented in the exhibits. My grandmother was born in 1939 in Jim Crow apartheid Florida; and my grandfather was born in 1930 in Jim Crow apartheid Mississippi. Even the history of slavery itself, as the museum depicted it, was experienced by people they knew and loved, people who raised them. They had a profound proximity to all of it. It’s like I say in the book, sometimes the best primary-source documents are standing right next to us.

Guernica: Why did you decide that the most personal section of the book had to come at the end?

Smith: It was important for the arc of the book. I wanted that section to be placed there as a means of tying everything together, because that trip with my grandparents was what helped clarify for me what the book was attempting to do.

I started thinking about this book in earnest in 2017 after the statues for several Confederate generals and leaders came down in New Orleans. The statues for Robert E. Lee, for Jefferson Davis, for P.G.T. Beauregard, and one that was for the Battle of Liberty Place, which was a white insurrection meant to take down the Louisiana Reconstruction-era government. This was following the 2015 Charleston massacre in which Dylann Roof went into the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine people as they were praying. So the country was experiencing a larger reckoning around the Confederacy and white supremacy, as we have been to varying degrees since the movement for Black lives began, if we’re going to think about the movement of Black lives beginning with Trayvon Martin’s death. Anyway, these statues were coming down. And I looked around and thought to myself: What does it mean that I grew up in this majority Black city in which there are more homages to enslavers than enslaved people? What does it mean that I grew up with this sixty-foot statue of Robert E. Lee in the middle of the city? What does it mean that, to get to school, I had to go down Robert E. Lee Boulevard; that, to get to the grocery store, I had to go down Jefferson Davis Highway, to get my middle school named after a Confederate leader? That my parents now live on a street named after someone who enslaved over 150 people? This is how the project started, in May 2017.

Guernica: Then what happened?

Smith: Well, in October 2017, I got married. My grandparents were both in town, and part of what we did the day after the wedding was visit the NMAAHC. While I was walking through with them, pushing my grandfather in a wheelchair and my grandmother slightly ahead of us, I think in that moment, I knew that something different was starting. It was a catalyst for something else internally.

Guernica: In the “before” and “after” paragraphs, you describe your grandfather so vividly. I’m curious, though, about the time gap. In the early draft, he’s eighty-six, and then he’s eighty-nine in the final.

Smith: About two and a half years passed between me going with him to the museum and then me sitting down to interview him formally in his home. And that was a major realization for me, when I became aware of the fact that I was spending so much time asking strangers all of these questions about their lives and their relationship to the history of slavery, yet I hadn’t been as intentional in asking my own family those questions. It helped, I think, that I’d started reading the Federal Writers’ Project interviews, so I was absorbed in all these oral histories of people who had lived through enslavement and who had been children or young people when abolition came in 1865 or when the Civil War ended in 1865. I found these first-person testimonies so powerful, and I understood that I needed to be doing something similar with my own family. The more time I spent on the book, the more it became clear that this chapter of history we tell ourselves was a long time ago wasn’t that long ago at all. I didn’t have to go far to find people with proximity to that history. I just had to look at the people I’ve known my entire life.

Guernica: In the early draft, you show us your grandfather playing with your young son, but that visual didn’t make the final cut.

Smith: My son still appears in the book, I just decided that this wasn’t the place I wanted to introduce him. And I do that a lot in my revision process, move things around to try them out in different places. For my son, I ultimately decided to bring him into the epilogue’s opening pages instead. I thought about the book like a novel, in that I was very focused on who gets introduced and how and when.

Guernica: A novel?

Smith: Yeah! I was reading a lot of novels while I was writing this book, because I wanted it to be a history that read as a novel. I wanted the same sensory details, the human texture, the emotional resonance that exists in so much of the fiction I love. And that meant spending a lot of time on descriptions of people. I wanted to paint a clear picture of these individuals for the reader, whether it’s the tour guide at Monticello or my own grandfather. I think poetry also trained me well for this, because poetry teaches us to home in on a moment or an idea or an image in the same way that a photograph does in some ways, right? You look at a photograph and it maybe captures something that allows you to look at someone you see every day with greater detail. One of the things I’m most grateful for is that, in writing the epilogue specifically, I pushed myself to think more intentionally about who my grandparents were. And part of that journey meant figuring out who they were to me.

Guernica: It’s one of the things I love about the book, how you depict every individual you meet with such detail and care. Even those that we might feel some animosity toward, like the tour guide at Angola Prison.

Smith: Again, I think I learned from novelists. I learned from reading folks who spend paragraphs and pages describing how a person looks, how a person walks and how a person talks. How their body moves through various spaces, what their voice, not only sounds like but what it feels like. Toni Morrison does this better than anyone. And I wanted this book, on both a craft and aesthetic level, to give us a three-dimensional sense of who all these people are. Specifically, the people who are most responsible for keeping stories of slavery alive, or failing to. If I’m going to tell the story of the land, I’m going to tell the story of the place. And if I’m going to give the place a sort of literary attention, it would seem only natural to give that same level of attention to the people who occupy that place, who are its descendants and its curators. To put it another way, this book is a trip, and I wanted readers to feel like they were on the trip with me.

Guernica: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the influence of fiction, because your book has such a clear sense of plot. For example, when you decide to go to the Sons of Confederates Veterans Memorial Day celebration, I found myself both very nervous on your behalf and engaged as a reader. It was terrifyingly suspenseful.

Smith: I’m so glad to hear you say that. One of the things about a nonfiction project like this is that, obviously, you can’t make something up. You’re subject to the whims of the world. But, thankfully, sometimes there is serendipity. When I was in the visitor center for the Confederates cemetery and this woman sees me looking at a flyer and covers her head anxiously and turns red and flips the flyer over, I knew—as a writer—that I needed to push toward it. Because, clearly, there’s something worth exploring there.

Guernica: How did your grandfather feel when he heard you were going to this Sons of Confederates Veterans event?

Smith: I don’t think we really talked about it. But I know my wife was…skeptical. And it makes sense. I was asking her to watch the kids for the day so that I could go to a Sons of Confederate Veterans Memorial Day event. She was very supportive of the book, and understood what I was trying to do. And I couldn’t have written this book without her support, but she told me that, if I was going to go this, I needed to go with Billy. Billy is our dear friend and a white person. She said, “You’re not going there alone.”

It was interesting because Billy—or “William” in the book—has been on his own journey of thinking about his ancestors who owned plantations and who enslaved people and who fought for the Confederacy. Our visit had its own significance in different ways for both of us but we went together.

Guernica: Your book reminds me of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted in how it uses interpersonal stories to tell a larger societal truth. I’m curious, was there a book that served as a model for you?

Smith: Yes, and that book was Evicted! Funnily enough, Matt was on my dissertation committee.

Guernica: Wow.

Smith: He’s been a friend and mentor and big brother to me in many ways. Especially when I was having a hard time in my early days of graduate school and thinking about why I was there. I learned a lot just by watching how he approaches his work. And when you read Evicted, you see how he maintains a critical eye while also moving with a kind of generosity toward every person he meets, whether they’re the landlord or the person being evicted. He allows you to see them as human, as fully complex. There are no two-dimensional characters in Evicted, right? They all have positive and negative aspects. And this was an important thing for me to learn.

Guernica: How so?

Smith: In the fall of 2014, I started teaching classes and holding writing workshops in prison in Massachusetts. I’d never worked in prison before. I wrote about the experience and gave it to my advisor, Meira Levenson. And she said, “Clint, this is great. But…is every single person in prison the next Malcolm X? Is every person you encountered actually this very brilliant erudite person?” Because what’s also true is that people in these places generally don’t have a high level of education. All of which is to say that I think my politics and my ideology were overly animating the way I was writing about that experience. Which, honestly, makes sense. When you see a group of people being caricatured as monsters, as unforgivable, as horrific people, and then you come in and you develop relationships with them and you cultivate a radical sense of empathy, what happened in my case is that you swing all the way to the other side in an effort to counter those negative caricatures society is inundated with. I wanted to believe that they were all brilliant. But I came to realize that, even though well-intentioned, I was now also making a caricature of them, just in a different way. That was an important lesson for me.

Guernica: In the process of researching this book, was there a particular moment that most struck you?

Smith: In what sense?

Guernica: In that it profoundly impacted you.

Smith: I will always remember standing in the execution chamber of Angola Prison [which was built on the site of a former plantation]. I mean, I’ve long found the death penalty to be egregious. I was radicalized on this when Troy Davis was killed. But yeah, when I left Angola, I felt deeply haunted by it.

Guernica: In your chapter about Angola Prison, in which the majority of prisoners held today are Black, you write: “If in Germany today there were a prison built on top of a former concentration camp, and that prison disproportionately incarcerated Jewish people, it would rightly provoke outrage throughout the world.” As a Jewish person, I find that comparisons like these can sometimes make me uncomfortable. But this sentence felt highly illuminating and persuasive to me.

Smith: I appreciate that. Yeah, it’s a tricky thing because I agree that comparisons between any horrific or oppressive phenomena can be fraught, in that it’s easy to flatten the differences between them. I was especially sensitive to that in this chapter because I hope the reader notices that at no point do I suggest, for example, that imprisonment is slavery, or that Angola is the same as a plantation. I think it’s important to recognize, whether you’re talking about the Holocaust or slavery, that there are very real differences between things. Slavery and mass incarceration are different entities. And with regard to the Holocaust, I would never want to make a comparison that would make someone bristle or undermine the larger point. But I do think, in this case, I wanted to compare two things that have brought their respective countries an enormous sense of shame, and to consider how the two countries have established different relationships to that history. In Germany, there’s still anti-Semitism today that’s very present and must be taken seriously. I do also think that Germany, relative to the United States, has been much more intentional about a process of reckoning about what transpired with the Holocaust. All this to say, I’m glad to hear about your reaction, because it’s important to me to look at how collective memory has shaped the landscape of these two different countries without making a direct comparison necessarily between the two histories in and of themselves.

Guernica: Your book is such a deeply necessary one. Why do you think something like it didn’t already exist?

Smith: Well, there is a vast and rich literature by historians and journalists and scholars, without whom this book would never be possible. So I need to acknowledge that, first and foremost.

The other answer I could give is that every book is shaped by the person writing it. In a sense, only I could’ve written this book, because only I am who I am. One thing I wonder about is that, oftentimes, when I was on these tours, I was the only Black person. How did the fact that there was a Black person on the tour of a Confederate cemetery, say—how did that shape the way that people were leading the tour or acting on the tour? Somebody else could have gone to all of these exact places and had a fundamentally different set of experiences. But this book was informed by my particular life and experiences and curiosity.

To read more interviews from our Back Draft archive, click here.

Clint Smith

Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the nonfiction book How the Word Is Passed and the poetry collection Counting Descent. Counting Descent won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He has received fellowships from New America, the Emerson Collective, the Art For Justice Fund, Cave Canem, and the National Science Foundation. His writing has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review and elsewhere. Born and raised in New Orleans, he received his BA in English from Davidson College and his PhD in education from Harvard University.

Ben Purkert

Ben Purkert is the author of the debut novel The Men Can't Be Saved and the poetry collection For the Love of Endings. His work appears or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, Slate, Poetry, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He currently teaches creative writing at Rutgers.

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