Who Should Read This Book – Everyone. I can’t think of anyone, at least Americans and people I interact with, who would not benefit from reading this book.
What is the Big Takeaway – How we tell the story of our history matters, and we in America have largely done a poor job of telling the story.
And a 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” (289).
I should not have made my top ten list of 2021 reads so soon. Clint Smith’s book would be on it. This is one of the best, and most important, books I read this year.
Smith tells the story of slavery in American history through visits to historical sites with a connection to slavery. Throughout the book he shares conversations with tour guides and other visitors at these sites, as well as his own research. The result is a compelling, readable book. If you like history, you would like this. But even people who may tend to yawn at the thought of a history book will enjoy it too, for it is not the dry, boring history you may imagine.
The first chapter centers on Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. This is a site that has done a lot to reckon with Jefferson’s ownership of slaves. There is an attempt at striking a balance between mythologizing Jefferson as a saint and totally condemning him as a villain. The second chapter is somewhat similar, as Smith visits Whitney Planation which is another site that seems to be trying to tell an honest history.
Then we come to the third chapter, on Angola Prison. This chapter is rough. Unless you’re some kind of confederate apologist, the first two chapters will probably mostly be things you already know and are willing to hear. But as one of the tour guides that Smith interviews says, “I mean, history is kind of about what you need to know . . . but nostalgia is what you want to hear” (41).
For me, chapter three began the part of the book I needed to hear. Angola Prison is built on a plantation. It is where Louisiana’s death row is located. The idea of taking a tour of an active prison, being able to see the prisoners on death row, just felt wrong. But it reminds me that this is not just history, this is about our present world. We white Americans mostly try to ignore the uncomfortable parts of our history. Why talk about these things, we ask. We declare our innocence with the declaration, “well, I don’t own slaves!” The comparison Smith makes with Germany is eye-opening:
“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. I imagine there would be international summits on closing such an egregious institution. And yet in the United States such collective outrage at this plantation-turned-prison is relatively muted” (101)
America has never truly reckoned with slavery. Smith discusses the development of the Lost Cause narrative at the end of the 1800s. This Lost Cause narrative rehabilitated the Confederacy and tried to gloss over the role of slavery. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and the rest were translated into American heroes rather than insurrectionists. This is seen clearly in chapter four where Smith visits Blandford Cemetery and speaks to members of a group that celebrates the Confederate heritage. Here, the people who fought against and killed American soldiers are celebrated as patriots.
One common thing Smith hears is that most white southerners did not own slaves. The reasoning is that they could not have then fought to defend slavery. Yet Smith shows how they fought to defend a system of slavery:
“White Southerners commitment in the Confederate cause was not predicated on whether or not they owned slaves. The commitment was based on a desire to maintain a society in which Black people remained at the bottom of the social hierarchy” (170)
Further, Smith provides page after page of documents from the Confederate states which explicitly say they are seceding because of slavery. He provides documentation that men like Lee were not noble heroes, but violent slave owners who beat their slaves, separated families and saw the slaves as subhuman.
But if you think Smith’s book is limited to the history only in the American south, you will be uncomfortably surprised. He visits New York and takes the reader on a walking tour of slavery in the North. Not long before the Civil War, slavery was common in New York. Apparently one mayor of the city suggested seceding from the country to preserve slavery. Even as slavery became less common in the north, the north benefited: “The financial capital in the North allowed slavery in the South to flourish” (221).
Further, even many abolitionists continued to see black people as not equal to whites. One idea was to free the slaves, but send them to Africa because whites and blacks could not live together. The final chapter in the book is a visit to Senegal, one of the places from which slaves were sent to America. Smith shows how even “Enlightened” Europeans such as Hegel and Kant held racist attitudes and ideas towards Africans.
This is why I say everyone should read it. This history is our history and it still influences our world today. We are once again debating how to teach history. The words have changed as they always do. It is “critical race theory” and “woke” that dominate the headlines, but its the same motivation it has always been – to replace history with nostalgia. I hear people worried that history may make their child (their white child) feel uncomfortable. These people seem to want a story where white America is always the good guys and nothing much ever was bad. But learning history – slavery, lynching, convict leasing, mass incarceration – should make you feel uncomfortable.
Maybe more discomfort will make us want to change things.
Smith quotes W.E.B. Dubois and I think I’ll end with that quote:
“Our histories tend to discuss American slavery so impartially, that in the end nobody seems to have done wrong and everybody was right. Slavery appears to have been thrust upon unwilling helpless America, while the South was blameless in becoming its center . . . One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over” (101).