clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Clint Smith III on confronting slavery’s legacy in America

The Atlantic writer joined Jamil Smith on Vox Conversations to discuss his bestselling book, How the Word Is Passed.

An etching of slaves picking cotton in a plantation field. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I’d argue truth and reconciliation are the most essential issues in American life. The ongoing attempt to criminalize the teaching about past and present atrocities and inequities associated with racism in America provides a flashpoint to reenter a much older and more nuanced debate concerning how this nation heals from its original wounds.

I believe Clint Smith III has written an essential book to help us get closer to that necessary accountability. How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America is a bold and deeply reported look at how the story of American slavery lives on in the present day. Its arrival comes at a moment when those who exploit political power are now using critical race theory as a bogeyman to prevent any education about these topics, any true reckoning with their consequences — and, therefore, any real change.

A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows. You can hear much more of our chat in this week’s episode of Vox Conversations, embedded below.

Subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Jamil Smith

There has been an ideological war going on over the history and remembrance of slavery in this country since, well, there was slavery. The villainy of the enterprise is unquestionable, but it must have been particularly evident to everyone who was seeking to lie about it. From the start, holding kidnapped Africans and their descendants was portrayed as something not only essential, but noble.

The falsehoods about slavery and the confederacy that propagated it have been spread, not merely through violence and propaganda, but in our textbooks, by our monuments, and within our modern American politics. In his latest book, How the Word Is Passed, Atlantic Magazine staff writer Clinton Smith III writes, “For so many of them, history isn’t the story of what actually happened. It is just the story they want to believe. It is not a public story we all share, but an intimate one, passed down like an heirloom that shapes their sense of who they are. Confederate history is family history in which loyalty takes precedence over truth.”

Clint’s book, which topped the New York Times Best Seller list for nonfiction upon its publication in June, is a journey through those willful misconstructions in present time. Starting in 2017, the start of the Trump era, he visited eight places in the United States, and one location abroad to, as he put it, “understand how each reckons with its relationship to the history of American slavery.” It’s an uncompromising piece of work, one that I hope everyone who listens to this conversation, and those who don’t, pick up and read.

Dr. Clint Smith III, my man, thanks for joining Vox Conversations.

Clint Smith

It’s good to be here, Jamil.

Jamil Smith

You know, you had to write this book. The world that we live in necessitates this kind of education. Let’s dive on into that.

Clint Smith

Yeah. So as a little bit of background, the book itself is about how different historical sites across the country reckon with, or fail to reckon with, their relationship to the history of slavery. So I go to different places across the country and try to understand the extent to which they are being honest about their relationship to this history, and the extent to which they’re not.

And the origin of it is that, in my hometown, in New Orleans, in 2017, I was watching the statues of several Confederate monuments come down, so statues of P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and thinking about what it meant that I grew up in a majority Black city, in which there were more homages to enslavers than there were to enslaved people.

And what does that mean? What does that mean that, in New Orleans, to get to school I went down Robert E. Lee Boulevard? To get to the grocery store, I had to go down Jefferson Davis Parkway? That my middle school was named after a leader of the Confederacy? That my parents live on a street named after somebody who owned 150 enslaved people?

And what does that mean? Because we know that symbols, and iconography, and names are not just symbols, they are reflective of the stories that people tell. And those stories shape the narratives that communities carry. And those narratives shape public policy. And public policy shapes the material conditions of people’s lives.

Which isn’t to say that taking down a 60-foot statue of Robert E. Lee is gonna erase the racial wealth gap, of course not, but it is to say that all of these things are part of the same ecosystem of ideas and stories that help shape how we understand what has happened to certain communities, and how we understand what needs to be done for those communities in order to move forward.

And so when we think about tradition and what is passed down, the book is entitled How the Word Is Passed because it’s taken from a quote from a descendant of a Black enslaved family at Monticello, the plantation of Thomas Jefferson. And talking about the way that Black families, since they didn’t have so many of the documents that other people had in order to mark and document their history, Black people weren’t included in the census until 1870. The story of who our families were was passed down orally. It became, in and of itself, a sort of heirloom.

These stories became heirlooms that were passed down through generations that helped give us a sense of who our families were, where they came from. And those things help us sort of situate ourselves in relationship to the history of this country. The book is exploring the way that those heirlooms are passed down, in the context of the descendants of enslaved families and the descendants of people who fought for the Confederacy and everything in between.

Jamil Smith

You know, I found most surprising, especially towards the end of the book, you did not merely go to the sites that one might expect to find this kind of iconography – you know, plantations, Angola Prison, which I guess was about two hours from where you grew up in Louisiana. But also here to New York City and to Galveston Island, which a lot of people are now more familiar with because Juneteenth is now a national holiday. Tell me a little bit about how you chose the particular sites that you did, because certainly you had, unfortunately, many choices of places to go.

Clint Smith

The book is about eight different historical sites, nine if you include the prologue and New Orleans. And so while it’s about eight different places, like you said, I could have gone to a hundred thousand and eight. There’s no shortage of places across this country that have a relationship to the history of slavery, in which this history is sort of scarred onto the landscape.

But part of what I wanted to do was go to places that represented a sort of patchwork of memories, a patchwork of experiences, that served as a sort of literary quilt, if you will? To capture places that represented the different parts of the spectrum of how slavery is remembered or misremembered.

And so you have a place like the Whitney Plantation, which is one of the only plantations in the country that centers the lives of enslaved people, even though that should be what every plantation does. But it is surrounded by a constellation of plantations in Louisiana where people continue to hold weddings.

I talk to wedding planners where people use the former slave cabins as bridal suites, where people can celebrate one of the most joyous days of their lives on the site of what I can only understand as a place of intergenerational torture and exploitation. And the Whitney is a place that sort of fundamentally rejects that. And fundamentally rejects the idea that a plantation can and should be understood as anything other than a site of torture, while at the same time lifting up the humanity of those who were tortured and exploited on that land.

And so on one end of the spectrum, you have that. And then on the other end, you have a place like Angola Prison, which is only an hour or two away from the Whitney, but in terms of how it reckons with its own relationship to the history of slavery, is fundamentally different. It is the largest maximum-security [prison] in the country. And it is built on top of a form of plantation that shows little desire to engage and confront the fact that that is a deeply foundational part of its history, that shapes what the landscape of that place looks like today.

And so I wanted to capture the places on that end of the spectrum, on the other end of the spectrum, and then sort of in-between. And ultimately, I tried to find places that represented some of the themes that I might find in other locations. I wrote about Monticello and Thomas Jefferson, but I could have easily written a chapter about George Washington and Mount Vernon.

Jamil Smith


Clint Smith

Or James Madison and Montpelier. But my hope is that in going to one place, I am able to tease out some of the themes and ideas that one might find in other places. And ultimately, you know, I also didn’t want the book to be a sort of 800-page desk-weight. I know what it’s like to see a book that you really want to read, and then to look at it and be sort of intimidated by the size. I did not want that to be the case with my book. Also just logistically, I didn’t want the book to be a sort of overwhelming physical artifact. Maybe there’ll be a part two. Who knows.

Jamil Smith

Well, I was going to say there’s plenty to teach. As we know, your PhD is in education from Harvard. And honestly, just as an aside, man, I don’t know how you did this at the same time you were doing a dissertation. I did the math when I read the prologue.

Clint Smith

Uh, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Jamil Smith

But what you said there about Monticello reminds me of what your tour guide, David, said, and that fundamental difference that he notes there is really what your book strikes at the heart of. And the fact that you were able to do that while the Trump era was essentially being born and that this kind of nostalgia was being even more politicized – I thought that was very fortunate timing, in a way, for the book and for the lessons that you had to teach.

Clint Smith

Yeah. I mean, the book begins in Monticello. And Monticello was the first place that I went when I started conceiving of this book. I wanted to go there because I think Monticello, in and of itself, and Jefferson specifically, the patron of Monticello, so to speak – Jefferson I think embodies and personifies so many of the contradictions, and so much of the hypocrisy, and so much of the cognitive dissonance of America, in a sense that America is a place that has provided unparalleled, unimaginable, unfathomable opportunities to millions of people across generations to achieve upward mobility and accumulate wealth in ways that their ancestors could have never imagined. But it has done so at the direct expense of millions and millions of other people who have been intergenerationally subjugated and oppressed.

And both of those things, both of those realities, are the story of America. And Jefferson, similarly, is somebody who carries that dissonance within himself. He wrote one of the most important documents in the history of the Western world, and also enslaved over 600 people over the course of his lifetime, including four of his own children. He is someone who wrote in one document that all men are created equal, and wrote in another document that Black people are inferior to whites in both endowments of body and mind.

And so when David, the tour guide at Monticello, who’s this sort of remarkable character … part of what I love about narrative nonfiction is that sometimes you find these people on your reporting trips who are better than any character you could come up with if you were attempting to write a novel. Their personalities are so rich and their backgrounds are so complex, and dynamic, and three-dimensional. And David was just such an incredible person to find, and had these quotes that I think really captured what Monticello is now attempting to do, and in many ways attempting to make up for what it failed to do for so long.

Which is to say that Thomas Jefferson is central to our understanding of the founding of this country. He is central to our understanding of how the American project and the American experiment was imagined and conceived. And he is also someone who, knowingly, did things that ran counter to the ethos and spirit that he purported to endorse in this American experiment that they were attempting to build.

And so you have to hold all of those at once. And you can’t pretend like this slave-owning part of Jefferson was not central to his identity, is not central to how we should remember him. When the only reason he was able to do so many of the things that he did, the only reason he was able to write the letters and engage with the philosophy, and do the science, and travel to these places, was because of the hundreds of enslaved people on his plantation who were engaged in the labor that made his life possible.

It’s not even a “put one over there and put one thing over here.” It’s “I do have to hold all of this together.” And part of what David is saying is, so much of how we remember Jefferson, so much of how we remember this country, so much of how we understand ourselves is often based in a sort of nostalgic conception of those things, which is not an honest conception of those things. And we have to be honest, if we are going to fully understand how America’s past has shaped its present.

Jamil Smith

With regard to the narrative non-fiction approach, there’s lots of ways to tell this story, of course; why do you feel like that was the way to go? And why do you feel like it’s particularly effective?

Clint Smith

It’s interesting, ‘cause it didn’t originally begin that way.

So as you know, my sort of training as a writer is originally as a poet. And so I came to writing as a poet. My first book is a collection of poems. I came of age in the DC poetry scene. When I started thinking about these questions, when I started thinking about the Confederacy, and thinking about slavery, and thinking about memory, thinking of how we understand and misunderstand this history, at first, as I was watching these statutes come down in New Orleans, I was thinking, “Okay, well, my second collection of poems will be about different monuments in New Orleans. And the conceit will be each poem is about a different monument, and I’ll sort of, you know, do it like that.”

But I think I quickly learned that I wanted my exploration to one, move beyond New Orleans, and two, move beyond the Confederacy and monument, specifically. You know, poetry is the creation of art, but it is also the mechanism by which I do my best thinking. So when I was writing these early poems, thinking about this history, it helped me realize that I needed a little bit more room to breathe. I need a little bit more space than a poem might afford.

And so then I started writing these sort of longer essays about different places and I was like, “Hmm, this isn’t really getting me where I need to go.” And then when I went to Monticello, on that tour with David that we mentioned, I met these two women, Donna and Grace. And I went up to them after the tour with David. In the book, I talk about how David, in the span of an hour, had provided a more honest, complex, and truthful depiction of Jefferson than I had ever encountered in my own education. And I was on this tour with about a dozen people, and these two white women were clearly unsettled by so much of what they were hearing. And I went up to them after and I was like, “Hi. My name’s Clint, I’d love to hear what that experience was like for you, what you think about what David said,” and they were like, “Man, he really took the shine off the guy. I had no idea Jefferson owned slaves. I had no idea that Monticello was a plantation.”

And mind you these are folks who, you know, bought plane tickets. They rented cars, they got hotel rooms, they came to this place as a sort of pilgrimage to see the home of one of our founding fathers and the third president of the United States, and had no conception of this place being a plantation. They had no idea that this person was an enslaver.

And for me that moment was really important and clarifying because it told me that this shouldn’t just be extended personal reflections or meditations on my own visits to these places, but that my reflections and experiences had to be in conversation with the experiences of other people. I had to add the reporting to it. I had to add the interviews to it because it made the story much more rich, and if I’m actually trying to get a sense of how different places across the country think about our relationship to the history of slavery, what better way is there to sort of magnify and amplify than by talking to people who are at these sites, whose conception and ideas of American history might be very different than my own.

Jamil Smith

Yeah, I found those moments to be some of the most clarifying of the entire book, because you’re offering the reader this lens that you have. You read books in libraries for hours and hours and hours, you know the history. You’re coming to it, and yet you’re still enlightened, but they’re enlightened from a different perspective entirely and you’re getting that in real-time for the book. I thought that was particularly poignant, and it’s sometimes striking.

Clint Smith

Yeah, and it was for me too.

This goes back to your original question about the narrative nonfiction choice. I’d done a lot of research and reading about the history of slavery before beginning this book; that research is in many ways what led to this book. Part of the book writing process itself was because I wanted to learn more about this thing that I realize I didn’t understand, in ways that were actually commensurate with the impact that it had on this country.

This book is not written by someone who began this book as an expert on the history of slavery. The book itself is a sort of journey of my own learning. It is a journey through which I am going to these different places and reading these different books and meeting these different people that are all more deeply informing my own understanding of this history, my own understanding of this country, and have provided me, four years later, with this really remarkable clarity that I think is emancipatory.

It’s sort of liberating, because the more you learn about the history of this country, the less this country is able to lie to you about why it is the way that it is. The more you can look around and truly recognize that the reason one community looks one way and another community looks another way is not because of the people in those communities, but it’s because of what has been done to those communities, generation after generation after generation.

Part of why I made the narrative nonfiction choice is that I wanted the reader to feel like they were on this journey with me, that they were on this trip with me to these different sites. And I also didn’t want to write a book that felt preachy or didactic, or like it was trying to hit you over the head with a hammer, but instead was saying like, “I’m out here trying to learn more about the history of this country, and I hope you will come along with me on that journey.”

Jamil Smith

Tell me if you think this is weird, but I was reading it and I was reminded of the first time I ever went to the Grand Canyon, which was just a few months ago. And I had seen pictures of it. I’d seen documentaries about it. You’ve seen a film that uses it as a metaphor, but actually being there ... like there’s just no way that anyone can adequately describe that. I can’t even right now. And so I’m thinking about these sites that you’ve been to, and me as a boy growing up in the northern Midwest. This stuff was not readily available. This stuff is not something I went to on a field trip.

And I still have a lot of exploration to do myself. I just said to myself, “Well, I’m valuing what Clint is saying here and what Clint is observing here but dammit, I need to get on the road and see these things for myself.” Is that one of the things that you hope readers would take away from this?

Clint Smith

Oh, absolutely. I think that they should visit all the different places that I’ve visited, but even more than that, I kind of hope this book prompts people to look around their own communities and their own cities and their own states and to realize that there are all sorts of places like this all around them. Again, the scars of enslavement are just etched into the topography of this land, of this country, in so many ways that could never be captured by any single text, and so I do hope that this serves as a catalyst of interest for people to go to these places, and to walk across the land, to stand in the buildings, to be in the spaces where this history happened. Because nothing can compare to that, right?

Like it’s one thing to read about a slave cabin, and it’s another thing to stand inside of one. It’s another thing to walk inside of that cabin and hear the wood moan under feet, to see the way that sunlight sort of slides in through cracks in the wood planks on the side of this small home, and to recognize how susceptible to the elements the people inside of it would have been. It’s one thing to read about Monticello, and it’s another thing to be on that mountain top, and to walk across those paths that are the same paths that were built by enslaved hands, to see Jefferson’s home and recognize that it was built by enslaved labor. To be at Angola ... I’ve worked in prisons and jails for the past several years as a teacher, but I had never experienced anything like Angola prison. I had never seen Black men working in the fields of what was once a plantation while someone watches them on horseback with a gun over their shoulder, in a place where they work for virtually no pay, pennies on the hour.

It is difficult to put into words what that feels like, like what this really feels like in your body, and I tried my best to do that in this book, and tried my best to bring both depictions of how seeing these things and feeling these things, watching these things standing inside of these places made me feel, and also just create a sort of sensory experience for the reader. Like, what do these places look like? What do they smell like? What does the air taste like? What are the voices of the people who were responsible for telling the stories of this land sound like? What are their backgrounds? I really wanted it to be a sort of cinematic experience almost, where the reader feels sort of surrounded by the sights and sounds and sensory details and texture that make these places what they are.

Jamil Smith

What you’re saying now is reminding me of something I saw at the Whitney just this past week. There’s an exhibit there by a Black photographer named Dawoud Bey, and one of the artworks that’s on display is this collection called Night Coming Tenderly, Black after the Langston Hughes Dream Variations. And what it is, is this landscape photography that’s essentially just done like you were seeing it at night. You know, if you’re an escaped runaway enslaved person coming upon property in Ohio along the Underground Railroad, you come along Lake Erie, you come along a house that you don’t know is friendly or not.

That kind of fear gets put into you and there’s a way that we can sort of just really experience it through the artwork. And like you’re saying, there’s a way that you can just really experience it by being there, and it’s a necessary thing I think we have to do in order to help bridge the empathy gap, folks who don’t understand or just through no fault of their own frankly were not made fluent in Blackness, the way that we are forced to be fluent in Whiteness. That kind of thing, it reaches people. And that’s why I’m really so thankful for this work that you’ve put out, because it’s something that will reach people, in ways that they may not even realize until much later.

Clint Smith

I appreciate you saying that. And yeah, people that ask me about the audience, “Who is this book for, who do you hope reads it?” As an author, you hope many people read your book and you hope as many people read your book as possible but –

Jamil Smith

I hope everybody reads this.

Clint Smith

You and me both, but it was written first and foremost, as I kind of alluded, to a before me, right? Like, this was a learning journey for myself, and I wanted to write this sort of book that high school Clint really could have used in his classroom. And that high school English teacher Clint really could have used, as a text to teach in his classroom. But I also recognized that there are many people, to your point, who just don’t know, and who don’t even know that they don’t know.

And I think there’s a balance to be struck, right? Like, we should recognize the ways in which the infrastructure of our educational system across this country has profoundly failed so many people across generations, in ways that teach them or have failed to teach them about the legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow and the like. And all of the hundreds of years, the centuries of state-sanctioned oppression that have created the conditions, the contemporary conditions of inequality that we see today.

And it’s not to say that presenting people with that information will in and of itself change them. That’s not in our control. It’s not in my control, it’s not in any writer or artist or media person or scholar’s control, but I think we should take seriously what it means to attempt to provide people with information that helps provide clarity about why our society looks the way that it does, ‘cause I know what it’s done for me. I know what learning this information has done for me, I know how much clarity it has given me. I know how freeing it has been for me.

I know how it has sort of released me from a sort of paralysis that I felt as a kid. So much of my childhood was shaped by being inundated with these messages about all the things that were wrong with Black people from society, and not having the language or the framework or the toolkit with which to push back against it, not to have the language to push back against it, not to have the history to push back against it. And I feel like I have so much of that now.

I can’t adequately describe how important it has been for me. And I hope that in different ways, depending on somebody’s background and sensibility and what they’re bringing to this work, that this work can similarly be freeing in some way for them. Because, again, the more you learn about this history, the more you realize that so much of the inequality we see around us? It makes sense. It is the logical conclusion of so much of what we have done, and in many ways, continue to do.

Jamil Smith

For those who might think that this is a book just about slavery, I remember your section on New York City, where you came here and engaged in the history of the slave trade, through the banks like JPMorgan Chase and whatnot, but you also went to places like Seneca Village, where there is a buried Black neighborhood in Central Park. Can you tell us why you felt that it was necessary to be here, at a site that people don’t really know as much about, with regards to its connection to slavery?

Clint Smith

I wanted to come to New York City generally, because one, I wanted to make sure that people understood, if somebody’s reading this book and it is their entry point into the history of slavery in America, I didn’t want to create a piece of work that by excluding northern cities made it seem as if the South was the only area engaged in this practice. Certainly it was concentrated and centralized in many ways in the South, because the South’s sort of social and economic foundations relied heavily upon the institution of slavery.

But it was not singularly a Southern institution, and people don’t realize always that New York City was the second-largest slave market in the country after Charleston, South Carolina, for an extended period of time. They don’t realize that on the eve of the Civil War Fernando Wood, the mayor of New York City, suggested that New York City secede from the Union alongside the Confederacy because New York’s economic and social infrastructure was so deeply entangled in the slavocracy of the South. Or that the Statue of Liberty was originally conceived of as a gift to the United States celebrating the abolition of slavery, and then over time had its meaning shifted and changed. Because this was right after the Civil War and you had millions of people who were not necessarily supportive of something that was celebrating, if you’re on the losing side of it, that is lifting up and celebrating a war or the cause of a war that you just lost.

And so they moved the shackles. There were broken shackles that were originally in Lady Liberty’s hands, and they took them out and switched it for the torch and the book, and then moved the shackles to her feet, or just under her robe. But you can only see these broken shackles if you’re looking from an aerial view.

So, if you’re on Liberty Island, you can’t actually see the broken chains that are meant to symbolize abolition. And when we think of a metaphor that really captures how so much of the history of slavery is sort of hidden in plain sight, I think the Statue of Liberty embodies that in a really remarkable way, because it’s right there. It’s right there in front of us, but you can’t see it, because it has purposefully been hidden and obfuscated in an attempt to minimize the nature of what that symbol’s relationship to slavery was.

Jamil Smith

Obviously we have a lot of folks right now who are trying to do the same kind of obfuscation, trying to criminalize not only the teaching and learning about this kind of history, but really anti-racism in and of itself. With your book being published in this climate of false outrage and propaganda, what are your thoughts? You know, I definitely believe in works always being unfinished. Is there something maybe you wish you could add to the book in light of what’s going on right now?

Clint Smith

Man, you know, it’s one of those things where for me, it’s hard to end a book, ‘cause it could just keep going. There are so many other places that I would have loved to depict. But for COVID, I would have loved to have gone out West. I think there’s a lot to be said about slavery in California, in Washington, in Oregon, which is not part of our public discourse or not part of our public consciousness around how we understand and remember slavery in this country.

I remember I finished the last reporting that I did for the book in February of 2020. It was two or three weeks before everything shut down. And so I felt really grateful that a book that relied heavily on traveling to places and reporting, that I had finished doing so before COVID and could do the writing and editing process over the course of the next year.

But for the pandemic, there are other places that I might have gone. But at the same time, you know, maybe that’s the universe telling me the book was what it was supposed to be, and if there’s another project that will include some other places, then we’ll see. Maybe part two is how the word keeps passing on. Who knows? But I’ve worked on this book for four years. I gave it everything I had.

And the interesting thing about writing a book over the course of an extended period of time is that you also change as you are writing the book, right? So, you know, I became a father. I have two young children. I moved cities. This was also written over the course of the Trump era. And so my sensibilities were shifting, my politics were shifting, my life was shifting. The person who finished the book is, I think, necessarily different than the person who began the book. And if I were to start this book again today, it might look a little bit different than it would have when I started it originally in 2017.

So all that’s to say, I’m proud of what it is, and I hope that there will be other opportunities to keep building on it.

Jamil Smith

Not having that lens myself, how did becoming a dad change your viewpoint on all of this?

Clint Smith

Yeah. It definitely animates the way that I make sense of the world, the way I understand who I am in the world, and that understandably, and I think necessarily, informs how I make sense of the places I go and the people that I meet. We talked about Donna and Grace. When I was talking to them, I was showing them pictures of my then, I think, four- or five-month-old son. And when I’m at the Whitney Plantation and I’m standing in the what’s called the Field of Angels, which is an exhibit that documents the thousands of enslaved children who died in infancy or as children during slavery in Louisiana in the 19th century, the emotional impact of a space that is different.

Because I can’t help but think about my own children. There’s a statue in the middle of that exhibit of an angel holding the body of a child who’s passed away. And I wasn’t emotionally prepared for how that would hit me as someone who, at that point when I was doing the reporting, had an almost two-year-old, and my wife was a few weeks away from giving birth to my daughter. So it made the experience of so many of these places more visceral. It made the stakes feel higher. And I think, too, for some reason, so much of the way that we understand slavery in our public consciousness is centered on the spectacle of physical abuse. Which is understandable, right?

Jamil Smith


Clint Smith

... the beatings, it’s the whippings –

Jamil Smith

The keloids.

Clint Smith

Yeah, that is what is depicted in so much of the cinema and the film and the television, and I understand why, because it is abhorrent, it is gruesome, and it captures so much of the nature … it embodies and almost is a metaphor for the immorality of this institution.

Jamil Smith

Right. And it’s also something we don’t see anymore. And that’s the thing. It’s like, people think that racism was that. Racism looks like that. And when we see, you know, Denzel shedding a tear when he’s getting whipped, and when we see “12 Years a Slave,” it’s important that we see that and understand those stories as having happened.

But there’s also a danger in that, in thinking that that is all racism actually looks like when it manifests itself, and that it doesn’t manifest itself in negative health outcomes, and in poor education, and in various other ways, climate discrepancies with regards to neighborhoods. This is the kind of thing we need to relate the stuff you’re talking about in this book to what’s happening in present day, and I think you do that very well in the book.

Clint Smith

I appreciate that. And I absolutely agree that I think it can distort our understanding of what racism was or is, and also distort our understanding of what slavery was. Right? Like, slavery was certainly defined by that, but the point I was making about the kids is that I never fully, for some reason, grappled with the nature of family separation and slavery. And I obviously knew that it happened, but I never really sat with it, and I never really sat with what that meant.

And I think having two young children who are now four and two, sometimes as I was writing this book, I would try to do these sort of empathy exercises. I remember sitting after hearing David talk about families being separated at Monticello, I kind of sat for a moment on the bench under one of the mulberry trees there, and I just closed my eyes and imagined if I were in my home and I woke up the next day, and my children were gone. Just had been disappeared, and I had no idea where they were, and I didn’t know if I would ever see them again.

I mean, I can’t even ... the fear. I can’t even sit with the thought for too long because it is so profoundly jarring to consider. But the reality is that millions and millions of enslaved people lived under the omnipresent threat that that could happen to them or members of their family or their friends or members of their community at any moment. Right? Like, at any moment, you could be separated from your husband or your wife or your parents or your children or the people in your communities, people you love.

And I think having kids really brought that home in a different sort of way, ‘cause I just can’t ... it’s just so hard to even wrap my head around the idea that that could happen, that it obviously happened, and it was central. It was really central to the institution. Not only that it happened, but that the threat of it happening was used as a mechanism of psychological terror, to push enslaved people to continue to do the work that they did, for fear that if they did not, they might be separated from their families or their loved ones.

Jamil Smith

Yeah, I have to sit with that for a minute myself, and I don’t even have kids. It brings to mind, honestly, the thought about you starting your graduate education right when Michael Brown was shot. How did the events in Ferguson, Trayvon Martin before that, how did police brutality and the disproportionate effect that it has on Black communities, how did that inform your graduate work?

Clint Smith

In enormous ways. Mike Brown was killed the same week I started graduate school, so I can’t disentangle the six years I spent getting my PhD from the experience of watching what was happening in Ferguson while I was going through my doctoral orientation. And I think what it did was, it made clear what the stakes were. And that this was not just going to be an intellectual exercise. This could not and should not simply remain an abstraction, that the things that I was learning or trying to learn in this setting was an attempt to gain a toolkit and assemble a toolkit with which to more effectively name, identify, and work on behalf of the communities that I care about.

And so, one of the first things that I did was I started teaching at a prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts, in part because, you know, I was sitting around doing what graduate students do. I was sitting around reading Foucault and thinking about theory. And that’s not to downplay theory. Theory is helpful and really generative.

But I could not sit around reading books about incarceration without engaging with incarcerated people. For me, I know how I learn best, and I know how I move best and most thoughtfully and most empathically and most urgently through the world, and it is when I am regularly engaging with and encountering people who are experiencing the things that I’m researching or studying, to remind myself that, again, it is not just an intellectual exercise, it is not just a paper, and I’m not just doing this to sort of stretch the muscles of my own brain. That I’m trying to learn these things and better understand these systems and institutions and histories, in order to make sense of the very real conditions people are living through today.

And so working in prison as we were having this sort of larger national conversation about the carceral state and the extensions of the carceral state, and the tentacles of policing and the criminal legal system, was a really profound reminder for me of what prison does to people, because now these folks weren’t abstractions. They weren’t nameless. They weren’t faceless. These were people who I knew, whose stories I knew, who I laughed alongside, who I cried alongside, who I learned alongside.

It was also just a reminder that the vast, vast, vast majority of people who end up entangled in the criminal legal system are people who are born into a set of social circumstances that would be incredibly difficult for any of us to escape from, or to make a life for ourselves in the way that we have been fortunate enough to make a life for ourselves today. And so it’s also this reminder of how the arbitrary nature of birth and circumstance shapes the life outcomes and trajectories of people in really profound ways.

I think being reminded of that, and being reminded that, but for the arbitrary nature of birth and circumstance, I very easily could have been on the other side of those bars instead of being a teacher coming in and out of them, was really important for me. Right? Because there’s nothing inherent to me or anything inherent to what I’ve done that makes me worthy of having gone to graduate school, or working for The Atlantic, or writing a book, and that if I had been born into a different set of circumstances, my life might have looked very different.

And that’s not to say people don’t have agency, but it is to say that we have to understand how people’s agency manifests itself in the social and historical and political contexts from which it is emerging.

Jamil Smith

You know, that’s true of us both. We were both born in cities where, if not for the guidance and a few fortunate turns, our lives would be very different. And one thing I’m curious about, you were born and raised in the most carceral state there is in this union. How did the circumstances of your birth and your adolescence shape you?

Clint Smith

I think I was very lucky, and grew up in a home with two college-educated parents, and grew up in a home where I always felt very loved, and I felt very safe. I felt very affirmed. And I am deeply, deeply grateful for that, and would not be who I am, would not be where I am without that. A Black kid growing up in New Orleans, and I grew up in a very mixed-income neighborhood. I went to a very sort of mixed-income set of public schools.

And so I’m regularly encountering people whose life circumstances are different than mine, and being reminded of how proximate, despite having these college-educated parents, and in some ways ostensibly being shielded from the difficulties of so much of what was plaguing New Orleans, that I wasn’t actually shielded from it, that I was deeply proximate to it, and that as we know from the deep sociological literature, having well-educated parents in and of itself is not enough to protect a Black child from the tentacles of the carceral state.

I was thinking about that, the tentacles of the carceral state. I was thinking about that and I was just thinking about, again, I grew up in this city in which, people are always like, “New Orleans is the murder capital of the nation.” It incarcerates more people per capita than China, Iran, and Russia. Comparing us to these authoritarian regimes, talking about how the culture of the projects was so backwards, and people were shooting each other and killing each other. And this sort of implicit immorality that was entangled in these communities.

And I remember being inundated with these messages. And knowing that they were wrong and knowing that they were misguided and knowing that they were racist, but again, not having the language to push back against it. And my experience as a kid was in some ways being told that I was the exception to the rule. And feeling a sort of paralysis because it felt like people were trying to give me a compliment, but I was like, “That’s not a compliment because what you’re suggesting ...”

I was often pointed to as, “Oh, well, you’re a Black boy in New Orleans accomplishing X, Y, Z.” And that being used as a way to sort of blame people who were not accomplishing or doing the same things. I can look back now and talk, and understand how that is the way that systems of oppression operate. They use exceptions to the rule in order to legitimate the rule, in order to legitimate the otherwise deep web of oppression that keeps lots of people down.

But I didn’t know how to say that when I was a kid. And so I think I felt confused, I think I felt frustrated. I was like, “I know what these people are saying is wrong, but I don’t know how to say it’s wrong.” And so much of my scholarship and so much of my work as an adult is animated by attempting to gain the language and toolkit with which to more effectively make sense of what I was seeing and hearing around me as a young person in New Orleans. And to make clear that the reason certain communities in New Orleans look the way that they do is not because of anybody in those communities, it is very clearly and directly about what has been done to those communities generation after generation after generation.

And even though the world attempts to make people seem as if it is their fault that they live in the conditions that they do, it’s far from it. I think all the time about this essay James Baldwin wrote, based on a speech he gave in 1963. It’s called “A Talk to Teachers.” And it’s based on a speech he gave to a group of New York City educators. And in it he says that, “The role of the teacher is to help the Black child understand that even though the world tells them over and over again that they are criminal, that it is in fact the society that created the conditions that that child is forced to grow up in. It is the history that created the social circumstances that child is forced to grow up in that is actually the criminal.”

And for many of us that’s intuitive, but I think we can underestimate how many young people aren’t given that framework to understand that you didn’t do anything to deserve this. This country did this to you. But we can also make a different set of choices about what our life looks like moving forward.

Jamil Smith

Indeed, and that’s why I think that, maybe, the term was a little bit harsh. But I believe that you know what you’re doing in this book, and a lot of folks, other writers, are trying to do right now is really in effect remedial education for this country. And like you said before, it’s not their fault that they don’t know this. I mean, I didn’t read Baldwin till after college. There’s a lot of things that aren’t taught to us that should be.

But right now, of course we have people trying to criminalize the teaching of these kinds of things. And we end up having the same conversations about conversations, in lieu of action when it’s becoming most urgent. I’m just curious what you think of that, in light of having experience in the classroom that a lot of us don’t?

Clint Smith

Yeah, it’s an interesting time because I think that we’re in this moment where, on the one hand, you have Juneteenth that is made a federal holiday, the first new federal holiday in 40 years. And it is a holiday celebrating the end of slavery. And we know that the end of slavery did not come on a single day, it was “a violent and uneven process.” But it is a holiday that now symbolizes the end of this institution. And it’s a holiday that we should have had 156 years ago when the Civil War ended. And it’s pretty abhorrent that we have not had a holiday to celebrate the end of one of the worst things we have ever done until this moment.

And at the same time, you have state legislatures across the country that are engaged in a state-sanctioned effort to prevent teachers from teaching the very context from which this holiday emerges. And so I think, as Black Americans, it’s this sort of marathon of cognitive dissonance that is so emblematic of our experience in this country.

Like Juneteenth, it is a good thing that Juneteenth is a holiday because it is the result of the work of generations of Black activists, specifically Black Texans who have been advocating for this for a long time. And to not take that seriously would be to do a disservice to the work and advocacy that they’ve been engaged in for years and for decades.

At the same time, very clearly, Juneteenth being a national holiday is in and of itself not enough. And there is more work to be done in order to make sure that we are accounting for and making amends for what the history of slavery has done to Black people in this country. And I think the feeling of seeing Juneteenth become a national holiday. While also seeing states attempt to prevent Black people from having access to the ballot. While also seeing states attempt to prevent teachers from teaching the history of slavery and racism. While also navigating a world in which the systems and structures of racism, and as the scholar, Theodore Hartman says, “The afterlife of slavery informs our political, social, and economic infrastructure.”

And then being told that it doesn’t and experiencing this sort of gaslighting, that’s exhausting. And it’s difficult, and to kind of go back to the beginning of our conversation, it’s in the same way that we have to hold a lot of complicated things and complex realities and oftentimes contradictory realities, it feels like, of somebody like Jefferson. That’s our country. Our country is just a web of contradictions, a web of hypocrisy, a web of cognitive dissonance. And that is who it has always been.

And part of our work is to, I think, ensure that we ourselves, first and foremost, have a clear-eyed understanding of that. And that more and more people develop a clear-eyed understanding of that, so that we do not misunderstand why our country looks the way that it does today. That we don’t use notions like the idea of meritocracy or the idea that if you just work hard, everything will work out for you, or good things will happen for you. That we don’t allow those sort of socially constructed mythologies to overly romanticize our country to the point where we can’t see it for what it actually is.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.