When I was growing up, my parents rarely took us on “vacation.” But every summer, we would pile in the station wagon and drive some number of hours to visit family, in Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, New York. My mother was both a US history buff, and operating on a shoe-string budget. This, my friends, means that my brother and I have visited almost every Revolutionary or Civil War battle ground or relevant historic home within a 50-mile radius of Baltimore, DC, or Wilmington, DE. Plus or minus a few here and there. I remember learning about indentured servitude at Mount Vernon; I don’t remember learning much at all about the enslaved people who ran that house and estate.
All this to say, Clint Smith’s book spoke to a very core part of me, and the way I learned about parts of American history. The project is deceptive in its simplicity: Smith traveled to Monticello, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston, New York City, and Goree Island in Senegal. At each location, he took tours, talked to people, and explored the way that each site engages – or not – with its own part in the history of slavery in this country.
The resulting narrative is incredibly powerful. Smith has a true gift for presenting what is often a terribly upsetting set of facts clearly and unflinchingly. We learn along with him, and also share the emotions he feels. I had no idea, for instance, that New York was the site of the second-largest slave market in the US. As someone who spent 12 years in public schools in the state of New York, that ignorance is deeply shameful. This is a grappling with how we, as a country, tell the story of slavery. How we shape public history, and how public history shapes society.
This is an absolutely must-read.