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Author Clint Smith speaks about history of slavery and writing

The Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith spoke at the Smith Ballroom at the Morris Inn on Wednesday evening. Smith’s book, “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America,” was a #1 New York Times Bestseller and a 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award Winner for Nonfiction. 

Smith’s talk was the 14th annual Rev. Bernie Clark, C.S.C., Lecture, an event created by the Center for Social Concerns in 2009 in order to highlight justice issues and themes affecting the common good. The annual lecture honors the late Clark, who influenced students with the life lesson of a “Theory of Enough.” 

In addition to being a journalist and writing non-fiction, Smith is also a poet. His poetry collection “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. 

Smith’s 2021 book, “How The Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America” is a narrative non-fiction work that focuses on different places and monuments that tell the story of slavery in the country. In researching for the book, Smith interviewed many people, among those his grandparents, which he said reminded him of how “temporally proximate” slavery is. 

“There are people alive today who knew, who loved and who were raised by people who were born into chattel slavery. The idea that we would suggest that that has nothing to do with our social, political, economic and cultural infrastructure today is… profoundly morally and intellectually disingenuous,” he said.

The genesis of Smith’s book came from the realization that there were “more homages to enslavers than the enslaved” in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he grew up. Smith said this selective memory about slavery was a common theme in his research, especially when writing about the maximum security prison, Angola. 

“Seventy-five percent of the people there are Black men and 70% of them are serving life sentences and the prison is built on top of a cotton plantation,” he said. “If there was a prison in Germany built on top of the former concentration camp, and the people held there were disproportionately Jewish, that place would certainly be a global emblem of antisemitism. Something like that would never be allowed.”

While researching for his book, Smith also visited Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia, the resting place of thousands of Confederate soldiers. Smith described meeting a man named Jeff at the cemetery whose grandparents would take him to visit the cemetery as a boy. Smith recalls Jeff telling him that “these confederate men didn’t fight for slavery, it was not about racism. This was about states’ rights. This was about state sovereignty and economic protection.”

Smith said he disagreed with Jeff based on the empirical evidence in the Declaration of Confederate Secessions of Mississippi in 1861, which states, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”

Smith highlighted how this experience exemplifies for him why the “emotional underbelly” that undergirds ideologies is vital to understand. 

“This sort of human texture that animates certain beliefs is important. it’s not simply the case that these folks are two-dimensional caricatures of bigotry. These harmful beliefs, often violent beliefs, emerge from something with real human familial communal texture to it. I think it’s important to wrestle with that and to sit with that,” he said.

Another site Smith visited to trace the history of slavery in the U.S. for his book was Gorée Island in Senegal. The House of Slaves on the island is a memorial to victims of the transatlantic slave trade. 

 “I remember standing there and being told this story in 2009, that so many people have walked through this door and been put on ships and sent to the New World. As a descendant of enslaved people, it was such a somber, charged moment, to stand in this world right now and to look out to the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, and to imagine the possibility that maybe one of my ancestors walked through that door,” he said.

Smith also spoke more generally about how he became a writer. Between his sophomore and junior years at Davidson College, Smith interned at a publishing company in New York City. A fellow intern took him to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in Lower East Manhattan where he discovered spoken word poetry. Back at college, Smith started writing and talking with friends about poetry. 

“We created a Dead Poets Society,” he said. “We would meet at our main academic building on Sunday nights and we would read poems, write poems and talk about them. It was this really incredible organic space that we created. These people were physics majors, German majors, English majors, chemistry majors… so it wasn’t the ‘literati’ necessarily. It was just people who realized that poetry was one of the ways that they could make sense of the world and who they were in relationships to it.”

Smith said he is proud to be a part of an “ecosystem of other writers of color” including Hanif Abdurraqib and Safiya Sinclair. 

“When I was in college, I was an English major and I was struggling to connect with much of the canon because I felt that I was being told what did and didn’t constitute poetry, whether it was Keats or Whitman or Yeats,” he said.

Smith ended his talk with a reading from “Above Ground,” his forthcoming poetry book about his experience becoming a father.

Contact Angela Mathew at amathew3@nd.edu.