“The sky above the Mississippi River stretched out like a sky.”
This is a book that seeks out physical spaces tied to slavery in the US, look into the ways they tell (or don’t tell) the history upon they’re situated, and ask questions about how that history is told, by whom, and to whom. The book begins with Clint Smith visiting Monticello, the plantation estate built by Thomas Jefferson overlooking the area around Charlottesville. If you go there now, the estate’s history is told through a more balanced, fuller history in part because of the legal control the descendants of Sally Hemmings, and how the family has been able to leverage that control in reshaping the legacy of Jefferson and the plantation. Even in other venues that influence has been felt around Charlottesville. A few years ago the University of Virginia went through a bit of a rebranding in the athletics department because of a partnership with Nike, and the logos that were designed took influence from some of the architectural elements of the school. There was pushback because one specific element, the brick serpentine walls around campus (look, I know the university calls their campus The Grounds…) and how they were built by slaves and including their design elements without giving due credit or context rubbed some people the wrong way.
Anyway. At Monticello, Clint Smith meets other visitors and interviews them and the more complicated way Jefferson’s legacy is told is on display in their reactions to it. I’d be interested to see if Clint Smith was able to find older tour materials. I grew in Virginia and visited Monticello many times as a kid, certainly before the shift in balance, and well, I would be curious how those tours compare to the recent changes. Anyway, Smith mentions how for a lot of people Jefferson is a shining example of American inventiveness, but that the legacy is complicated by the personal life he led. Joseph Ellis talks about Jefferson being the most important figure to understand as an American because he literally embodied that paradox of America, as a place that holds itself up as a model of personal liberty and freedom, but at the cost of Black bodies and Black labor. I don’t know whether that can be “understood” so much as allowed to exist in paradox in one’s mind.
Smith then visits Angola Prison in Louisiana, which was built on top of a former plantation. The transition from plantation to the site of leased prison labor to an actual prison comes across partly as just a matter of semantics. But one of the absurd realities of slavery and post-slavery is that since the bodies of enslaved people were investments that needed some level of protection, the move to contracted labor often meant a more deadly and abusive situation. Convicts (often arrested in incredibly dubious circumstances) would be leased out for short stints on former plantations, and this was simply a new form of slavery (Douglas Blackmon’s book – Slavery by Another Name details this fully) with frequent deadly results. The same basic idea was realized on Cuban sugar plantations with Chinese immigrant labor around the same time. And the move to become a prison, with no realization of that history is more of the same.
Smith also visits “good” plantation sites, where the focus on history, as opposed to photo ops and weddings, have been in existence from their revitalization. He also spends a lot of time in New York City in order to investigate Northern sites as well. In each of the different places Smith visits we get a rendering of history, but in addition the witnessing of Smith’s writing. That’s not missing from history texts necessarily, but that is what Smith’s book brings, a human reaction to inhuman spaces.