Clint Smith's radical faith that Americans can learn new facts -- and be changed by them

Talking to the author of a powerful new book of reportage about how America remembers, and misremembers, its past

Like me and maybe like you, Clint Smith was miseducated.

Miseducated about the origins of his country, the United States. Miseducated about the Civil War that almost tore it apart. Miseducated about the layers of history that shaped his own life as a Black man.

In some of the most poignant moments of his magnificent new book, “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America,” he confronts the enforced ignorance that didn’t just ensnare the angry white people who voted for Trump, that didn’t just thrive in the South, but infected every single American, including himself.

Not long ago, already an accomplished poet and budding scholar, he decided to make himself another thing still: a reporter. Notebook and recorder in hand, he visited the monuments and memorials and museums through which America faces (or doesn’t face) its past, and, against his own original inclinations, he began to talk with the tour guides who tell it like it is (or don’t) and the visitors whose minds open to new truths (or don’t), and he reflected and meditated on his own life and education and family history — all to brilliant and moving effect.

I caught up with Clint the other day for a conversation you won’t want to miss, below.

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“It's OK for it to be hard, and it's OK to still do it”: a conversation with Clint Smith

ANAND: One of the things that most struck me about this extraordinary book is that you take on a topic that everyone is talking about, arguing about, and litigating. Everybody's got an opinion. In terms of form, you do the thing that, as a reporter, I was always told you should do but we often forget to do, which is you travel, you hit the road, you talk to people, and you allow the opinions to bubble up from reporting.

And given your academic background, your training, it wasn’t inevitable that that would be the approach. It's quite an unusual approach. Why the travelogue approach? Why did you to approach this not from the reading of history alone or from opinion alone, but really bottom-up reporting?

CLINT SMITH: I still have these moments sometimes where I’m called a journalist and I'm like, "Who's a journalist? Who's that?" I'm still getting used to it. I've been at The Atlantic for less than a year. And so, in technical terms, I've only been a journalist for a relatively small amount of time. But I guess I was doing journalism in this book, even when I didn't necessarily give it that name.

The format of the book was not originally going to be that of reportage. Originally, I was going to write a second poetry collection about different Confederate statues in New Orleans. Each poem would be about a statue of a Confederate, a slaveholder, or someone who advanced the project of slavery through their legislation or rhetoric. 

Then I realized that I wanted to expand the project beyond New Orleans, and I didn't want it to focus singularly on the Confederacy or the people who perpetuated the institution of slavery. And so I started thinking about going to different places and historical sites that were reckoning, or failing to reckon, with their relationship to slavery.

I went to Monticello, and I was on this tour. I was watching these two women the whole time. They were clearly, deeply unsettled, and haunted by so much of the information that they were hearing.

After the tour, I had to psych myself up. I was on a group chat with a couple of friends who are journalists, and I was telling them about the experience. They were like, "You have to go up to these people. You have to go talk to people." That is not a natural disposition for me. It kind of runs counter to my ethos as a person to go up to strangers and ask them a random set of questions. But I did it. The responses that they gave me were so illuminating. 

They said things like, "I had no idea Jefferson owned slaves. I had no idea that Monticello was a plantation." These were folks who bought plane tickets, who rented cars, who came to this place as a sort of pilgrimage to the site of one of our founding fathers and the third president of the United States, and who had no conception of him as a slaver or his place as a plantation.

In that moment, it became very clear to me that this book could not simply be my reflection and meditations on my experience at different places. Even when I was clear that it was going to be a travelogue, it hadn't been clear to me prior to that moment that I should be talking to as many people as I could when I went to these places.

In the moment, I realized that it had to be my experience at these places in conversation with the experiences of other people in these places, and how we are all coming to these same places and making sense of them in different ways. That made the book so much more rich and dynamic because you were getting a range of different perspectives. You get to hear from people how they curated the experience of that land, how they encountered that land or that place, and what that place meant or symbolized to them — in ways that were far more dynamic and honest than any sort of conjecture that I could attempt to impose on people.

ANAND: You had this wonderful character, this tour guide in Monticello, who talks about his desire to challenge white people but not push them too far. When I heard that, it seemed that it was an approach that your book is also taking.

There are a lot of good white liberals who helped put your book at the top of The New York Times bestseller list. How did you think through your own version of that challenge — of pushing white people, but not pushing them too far?

CLINT: I really do believe in meeting people where they are. I have been extended an enormous amount of grace and generosity from people who did not necessarily owe it to me, which has allowed me to more fully see a set of experiences and perspectives in ways that I had not previously fully understood. 

And so I take that seriously. That is something that matters to me. There's a balancing act between both recognizing that there has been a systemic intergenerational failure in education across this country, and the fact that millions of people do not understand slavery in any way that is commensurate with the actual impact that it has had on our history, and on the contemporary landscape of inequality. It is not necessarily someone's personal fault that they don't understand that part of our history.

That said, that does not mean that someone is not accountable for it, does not have a responsibility to engage with and take this history seriously, and seek out what they have not learned about. But part of what you have to do is present people with information that makes clear to them what they haven't learned. In and of itself, the book is a project that I began as a personal attempt to learn more about this period of history that I had a sort of basic level of understanding of. I realized that I did not understand in any way that was commensurate with the actual impact it has had on this country.

This book is an attempt to more fully equip me with all that I wish I had learned in my American history class, all that I wish I had learned throughout my K-12 education that would've given me so much more clarity about why there was a 60-foot-tall statue of Robert E. Lee in one of the busiest traffic circles in our city. About why I went to a middle school named after somebody who was a leader of the Confederacy, about why the street my parents live on today is named after somebody who owned 150 enslaved people. To get to the grocery store, I had to go down Jefferson Davis Parkway.

ANAND: Over the last year-plus after George Floyd, there have been so many books that people have turned to. There have been so many organizational and institutional reckonings that have happened. And this book clearly arrives in the middle of all that. One of the really interesting “chicken and egg” debates I hear is, do we need to educate hearts and minds to get better structures, or do we need to reform structures and emphasize that in order to get better hearts and minds?

Some folks say we need a better education system. We need to tell the truth about slavery. We need this and that. Other people say screw all of that. We need fair housing laws and banking laws and that kind of thing, and you'll get to anti-racism if you do those institutional things. What do you think about that debate?

CLINT: I think it's a both/and. I mean, I don't accept the idea that providing people with new information is not going to play a role in reshaping our society. If we're going to be overgeneralized, there are two camps of people encountering this information. There are people whom you can present all the history, all the empirical evidence, all the primary-source documents — you could put it all in front of them. And no matter what you show them, they are not going to change their minds.

The way that they think about history, themselves, and their relationship to this country has nothing to do with facts or evidence, and it has nothing to do with what actually happened. It is a reflection of a story that they tell and a story that they have been told. It is an heirloom that has been passed down to them over the course of generations that allows them to create meaning, a sense of purpose, and value for themselves in the midst of a myth, a lie. To accept the reality of that lie would mean they have to accept an existential crisis, because their sense of who they are in relation to the world has been so deeply tied to and emotionally invested in this falsehood.

Then there are people who simply do not know or have never been taught the history of this country. When they encounter truthful history, it has the potential to shift the way that they make sense of this country's history and why the country looks the way that it does today. I know that it did that for me. I think about the first time I encountered information about the New Deal, and when I first read Ira Katznelson's “Fear Itself.” I wondered, "Why did no one ever teach me that the New Deal — this thing that I had been taught my entire life had created the contemporary middle class — why had no one ever taught me that it was intentionally, specifically, and systemically created to prevent millions of Black people from having access to those same benefits that afforded millions of white people a chance to create upward mobility and intergenerational wealth?"

When I learned that, it gave me, again, so much clarity. I didn't learn that till I was maybe 26 years old. When I learned that, it was like, "Oh, this helps me make sense of why housing today looks the way it does today, why the wealth gap is the way that it is today." And it gave me clarity that shaped my politics. It gave me clarity that shaped how I understood everything that I saw around me. And I think it is one example of a sort of confluence of things that I have learned over the course of my own adulthood that have helped me recalibrate and reexamine so much of what I've been told about this country.

I say this to say that just because someone is presented with information does not mean that it is going to change their politics inherently. Someone can read this book, and they may have never encountered any of this information before. And they may say, "Oh, wow. Interesting. I didn't know any of this." They might go on moving through the world in the exact same way that they moved through it before. But, ultimately, that's not up to me. I don't have any control over that.

But what I do take seriously, and what I have experienced for myself, is that I know that new information and history and language and new frameworks can be transformative. And, more importantly, can also be emancipatory, can be liberating, and can free you from this lack of information that makes you uncertain about things that you should be able to be certain about.

ANAND: One of the things that really fascinated me throughout the book was that you are, in the same way that the 1619 Project is and other persuasive endeavors in this space are — you're inviting many people, including white people, to completely alter their basic view of the essential goodness of this country and to interrogate that, and perhaps substitute one basic understanding of what America is for another. As you know, many people, including a lot of people you encounter, experience that as a theft. You're inviting them to live in truth and surrender that emotional capital.

I wonder, what's the pitch for those people to live in truth? I understand the intrinsic value of living in truth, and I understand the value for all kinds of other people. But what is the pitch to white people to live in a truth that is, frankly, far more painful than the fantasy many of them live in?

CLINT: That's a great question. I think about this guy Jeff that I met at the Sons of Confederate Veterans event. Part of what he talked about was how the story that he learned of the Confederacy had been shared with him by his grandfather. He talked about how he and his grandfather used to sit in this gazebo in the middle of the Blandford Cemetery, one of the largest Confederate cemeteries in the country, and his grandfather would tell him these stories of these men who fought this war to protect their families and their communities, and who served with courage to save the culture and the heritage of the South. And that the war wasn't really about slavery. The war wasn't really about perpetuating this institution. He told him this story, and they would sing songs.

And so Jeff's sense of himself is deeply, emotionally entangled in the stories his grandfather told about that land, and the people buried in that land, and what it represents. For him to be presented with new information that sort of decimates that story and undermines that story is existential for him.

There is this scene in the book that talks about how much he loves to bring his granddaughters to the same site where his grandfather brought him. He brings his granddaughters and tells them. He talks about how he likes to sit in the gazebo, watch the deer scamper through the tombstones at dusk, and tell his granddaughters about the people buried here — what they fought for and who they were, and what that says about who their family is. So this is how this becomes an intergenerational project.

But what is important is that telling a different story is possible. What would it mean if Jeff said to his granddaughters, "The people buried here, they are our family. They are also people who fought a war for a terrible, terrible thing. And you do not have to be defined by the thing that your family and your ancestors have done. You can love your family. You can be proud of who you are. And you can also be very clear about the things that people in your family have done wrong. Name that, interrogate that, and excavate that, and make a different set of decisions about how you're going to live moving forward”?

ANAND: Many who encounter monuments and memorials in the course of everyday life have not thought deeply about those things. Monuments and memorials are often just synonymous in lay people’s minds with history. It seems one of the projects of your book is to make people realize there's no such equation. Monuments and memorials do not equal history. What did you learn about what memorials and monuments, in fact, are?

CLINT: Monuments, memorials, iconography, and holidays — these things are reflective of the stories that people tell. And the stories people tell shape the narratives that communities carry, and those narratives shape public policy, and public policy shapes the material conditions of people's lives. That's not to say that taking down a 60-foot statue of Robert E. Lee or making Juneteenth a holiday is going to erase the racial wealth gap. Of course not. But what it is to say is that these things are all part of the same ecosystem of stories and ideas that help us understand what has happened to certain communities. Thus, it helps us understand what certain communities need or deserve to make amends for what has happened to them.

And so memorials and monuments are in conversation with, and intrinsically tied to, the material conditions of people's lives in ways that aren't always clear and immediate to see. But I think it is no coincidence that both before and after George Floyd, we saw activists and organizers attempt to take down these statues and symbols that represent a set of ideas and a set of stories that run counter to ideas of justice, equity, and fairness.

So symbols and monuments and memorials matter a lot. The eradication of them in and of itself is not the goal. It is one marker toward ultimately creating more opportunity and more effective and equitable distribution of resources for folks across the board.

ANAND: What do you imagine a meaningful program of reparations for slavery would look like in America?

CLINT: One of the people I meet in the book is a guy named Hasan, who's a teacher in Senegal. I asked him this question. I went to Senegal, in part, because I wanted to understand how West Africans think about this origin point of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and how West African and Senegalese students are taught about the slave trade. He said something that I think is true. As important and as essential as the distribution of material resources is to make amends for what has happened, it cannot singularly be through material resources. It also has to be in our collective consciousness and our collective memory. This is why any reparations program should include an effort to repair the material harm done and the harm to our collective memories that has been done. It has to be both.

Any reparations program that I'm thinking about would include a school curriculum about what was done and why specific material resources were allotted to make amends for that harm. Because what happens if you just start handing out checks, or if you just start changing policy without also doing some sort of larger educational or public programming or restitution around it, people in that community fail to understand why it is being done.

None of this is easy. That doesn't mean that you don't do it. Sometimes I think we do this thing where we pretend as if people should simply accept it and that it should be easy for them to encounter new information that questions everything that they have ever been taught. That's not an easy thing.

We are all on this planet attempt to make some meaning of our lives, in the however many decades we are afforded here. And if the thing that we have used to make meaning of our lives — even if it's egregious, even if it's wrong — is called into question, it can be hard to let that go. That doesn't mean you shouldn't let it go, but we don't all have to sit here and pretend like it's an easy thing to do.

It is messy. It is complex. It is nuanced. It is hard. That is history. It's OK for it to be hard, and it's OK to still do it.

Clint Smith is a poet, scholar, and writer for The Atlantic. You can order his latest book, “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America,” here. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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Photo: Little, Brown, and Company