If you think you’ve already confronted America’s history with slavery, perhaps you should read Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.
Here are some things I learned from the book.
Frenchman Édouard René de Laboulaye, who first conceived of the Statue of Liberty as a gift to the United States, was president of the French anti-slavery society. In an early model of the statue, sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi placed broken shackles in the lady’s left hand to celebrate emancipation and the end of American slavery. On the finished 1886 statue, her left hand holds a tablet, and small bits of broken chain peek out from behind her robe by her feet. Historians theorize that the abolitionist theme would have alienated American donors to the cost of the pedestal. “Centering the story . . . on [the two nations’] friendship made for a more compelling pitch to those with money, many of whom opposed Black freedom,” Smith writes.
Countering the claim that Southern states seceded from the Union in order to preserve states’ rights and not to preserve slavery, Smith quotes from seven documents from various Confederate states explicitly mentioning slavery. For example, Mississippi’s secession document says, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery–the greatest material interest of the world.”‘ The Confederate constitution proclaims, “In all new territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress,”
James Roberts, who fought in the Revolutionary War and was afterward enslaved in Louisiana, asserted in a slave narrative, “From fifty to sixty head of women were kept constantly for breeding. No man was allowed to go there, save white men. From twenty to twenty-five children a year were bred on that plantation. As soon as they are ready for market, they are taken away and sold, as mules or other cattle.”
As you might imagine, much of this book is hard to read. But Smith, a poet and staff writer at The Atlantic, leads the reader adroitly through eight sites relevant to slavery, including plantations, Angola prison, New York City (which slaves helped to build), Goree Island, off Senegal, from which thousands of captured Africans made their way to America, and others. Smith’s tone is engaging and readable; he’s exploring the history along with us.
Rather than circumscribing what American schools teach about the history of race, we should be disseminating books like How the Word Is Passed. For so much of Western history, Black lives seemed not to matter. Immanuel Kant, the famous 18th-century German philosopher avowed, “Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race.” To uproot that sentiment fully, there’s still so much work to do.