There is VERY much a reason why this book is topping so many best-of lists in 2021. The most important thing to take away from this review is that you should read this book. It is extraordinary. This is a work of non-fiction in which the author visits 9 different sites, in the US and abroad. At each location, Smith vacillates between exploring the local connections to slavery (sometimes more explicit than others) and meditating more broadly on how our society should shape itself around a massive tragedy like slavery. Smith is an empathetic tour guide for this journey – he listens and questions equally historic experts and Confederate army supporters. He walks us through New Orleans, Monticello, the Whitney Plantation, Angola prison, Blanford Cemetery, Galveston Island, New York City, Goree Island, and the memories of his living grandparents as they visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Through his thoughtful probing of people and history at each landmark, we come a little bit closer to understanding the meaning of one of the greatest tragedies in the world. Enslaving humans was a choice, made over and over again by countless people, and the benefits have trickled into our present day society. We know people today, love people today, who love and loved people who were born into slavery. So many times, people try to dismiss slavery as “the past” – something that happened to some unnamed other people. Something that just happened. But this books helps us to reckon with the way that slavery was not just something incidental to our country – it is part and parcel of our country itself. It is baked into our foundation, and it impacts the way that we live today.
History is often at its best when it is personal. We’re all readers here, so you might be like me in that you love a good story. Smith’s writing will deliver that and then some. There is just enough poetry in his writing to evoke each landmark as though we were traveling next to Smith. He speaks to the reader like the educator that he is, helping us to uncover aspects of history that might make us uncomfortable – but never flinching from the truth. Reading this book is like being in the best classrooms, the ones where everyone comes prepared because the lecturer has prepared such engaging readings that no one wanted to skip it – the ones where the discussion is lively and challenging, and when it lags the professor is there to ask just one more insightful question. Smith doesn’t let the readers down – on each tour, he asks the guide the questions that we need to hear. Even when the guide attempts to stick to their preferred version of the script, Smith helps us to make sense of the discrepancies between what the guides say and what we can learn from historical records. This is as true in Angola prison, where the guide steadfastly prefers to focus on progress made rather than reckon with the past, as it is true in Goree Island, where there is some evidence that the specific horrors of the past might be overstated in that particular location. Smith explores the reasons why each monument would make those decisions about what they present to the public, and the impact it has on our collective understanding of where we come from.
Above all, Smith drives home that the issue of slavery is the history of the United States. The legacy of colonialism and slavery have quite literally shaped the world for hundreds of years. He begins the book with a land acknowledgement, as we should all do, regularly. The land that I’m currently living in was once likely inhabited by several different tribes, including the Osage, the Kilkaapoi, and Kaskaskia nations. I do not know how many people in my own line of ancestry owned other humans, or if I am a descendant of someone who was also enslaved. But I know that I live in a place where it was legal more often that it was not to own other humans. I live in a place where the people who set up our current government made the choice to enslave humans, and whether they felt moral qualms about the horrors of slavery or not they felt specifically that there was something inherently bad about Black people. They allowed slavery to be perpetuated not just within a single generation, but to specifically claim every child born to a woman who was enslaved – making sexual assault not just incidental to but nearly essential to the continuation of the institution. The amount of profit from slavery – from the stolen lives of other humans, from the absolute horror that was endured – has been immense, and it has entirely benefited the perpetrators of these horrific crimes. I have grown up with the legacy of those decisions, with a society that continued to treat Black people as second class citizens legally.
Clint Smith has written a book that helps to ignite a conversation between his words and the reader. May we take that spark and carry it forward, and truly begin to honestly reckon with our history. When we dispel the myth that the country was created with the equality of all people in mind, we can honor where those gaps were in our history and try so much harder not to make those same mistakes going forward.