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Author Clint Smith, inaugural Foster Distinguished Visitor, reckons with America’s history of slavery

Clint Smith, an award-winning author whose latest book chronicling the legacy of slavery in the U.S. topped the New York Times bestseller list, visited The College of New Jersey on March 8 as the inaugural speaker in the newly created Foster Distinguished Visitor Series

In a conversation led by Michael Mitchell, assistant professor of African American studies and criminology, Smith spoke about his book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, to guests in a packed Mayo Concert Hall. 

Author Clint Smith, inaugural Foster Distinguished Visitor, reckons with America’s history of slavery
Michael Mitchell, assistant professor of African American Studies and Criminology, with Clint Smith, the author of the New York Times bestseller ‘How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America.’ Photo: Anthony DePrimo

Smith gave the audience a taste of the book, which documents his travels to historically significant sites in the U.S. (and one abroad) to understand how “each reckons with its relationship to the history of American slavery.” During his conversation, Smith took the audience to several of the most impactful places he visited.

In reflecting on his trip to Monticello, the Virginia plantation home of Thomas Jefferson, Smith noted that history lionizes Jefferson as a founder of our country and the author of the Declaration of Independence. In that document, the country’s third president wrote “all men are created equal” — words that are at odds with the fact that Jefferson enslaved more than 600 people at Monticello.

“I think that Jefferson, is in so many ways, a microcosm for the larger story of America,” Smith said. “America is a place that has provided unparalleled, unimaginable opportunities for millions of people across generations in ways that their own ancestors could never imagine. And it has also done so at the direct expense of millions and millions of other people who have been intergenerationally subjugated and oppressed. And both of those things are the story of America.”

Smith also talked about his visit to the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana — now a museum educating visitors about the history and legacy of slavery in the United States. He contrasted its mission with that of neighboring plantations that function as backdrops for extravagant events.

“The Whitney is a really important place because it refuses to tell a story about the plantation as being anything other than a site of torture, and it is surround by a constellation of plantations where people to continue to hold weddings, where people continue to throw parties,” he said.

Both Mitchell and Smith shared the discomfort they felt visiting the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The facility, known as “Angola” after the former slave plantation that previously occupied the land, is the largest maximum-security prison in the country. Seventy-five percent of the people housed there are Black men, the majority of whom are serving life sentences. Smith highlighted the stark contrast between Angola and Dachau, the first concentration camp built by Nazi Germany, which now stands as a remembrance site. He spoke of his recent visit to Dachau, which he described as vast, haunting, empty, and unsettling.

“I tried to imagine what it would be like if on that land they built a prison, and in that prison the vast majority of people held there were Jewish. It was so abhorrent to imagine [that] we would ever do anything like that because such a thing would be a global emblem of antisemitism.”

Of Angola he asked, “What are the specific manifestations of American anti-blackness that allow that place to exist, on that land, in a way that we would never allow in a different geopolitical context?”

Erika Heinrich ’23, a marketing major in the Women in Leadership and Learning program, said her own educational journey only gave her glimpses into Black history through figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks — both very important, but not nearly the representation that is needed to be accurate, she said. 

“I found it fascinating and shocking as Dr. Smith revealed the dark side of our history that is hidden from us,” Heinrich said. 

Mitchell believes that Smith’s book can serve as both a blueprint and a call to action. 

“As TCNJ improves its commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism, Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed provides a lesson, a starting point if you will, on how to reckon with the uncomfortable truths of anti-Black racism and its lasting effects today,” Mitchell said. 

“I appreciate TCNJ bringing such a profound and impactful speaker to our school community,” said psychology major Jess Perini ’23.

A writer at The Atlantic, Smith is the author of How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America and the poetry collection Counting Descent, which won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. He was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. His two TED Talks, The Danger of Silence and How to Raise a Black Son in America, collectively have been viewed more than nine million times.

— Emily W. Dodd ’03