Clint Smith’s extraordinary narrative takes us on a most remarkable tour. Remarkable in that he is showing us, so many of us, what has been in front of our eyes all of our lives. Through eight U.S. cities with a detour to Dakkar, Senegal, this poet and historian shows us the legacy of enslavement. He is asking readers to see and to think about the overwhelming remnants of “honors” to Civil War heroes and anti-emancipation monuments.
“The history of slavery is the history of the United States,” Smith writes. “It was not peripheral to our founding; it was central to it. It is not irrelevant to our contemporary society; it created it. This history is in our soil, it is in our policies, and it must, too, be in our memories.”
Smith grew up in New Orleans, but acknowledges that he did not think about the history of enslavement when, as a child, he walked down streets named for slave owners. Standing in front of a plaque installed by the New Orleans Committee to Erect Markers on the Slave Trade, he realizes that “After years of Black people being killed by police and having their deaths broadcast in videos streamed across the world, after a white supremacist went into a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine people as they prayed, after neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protect a Confederate statue and reclaim a history born of a lie, after George Floyd was killed by a police officer’s knee on his neck, cities across the country have begun to more fully reckon with the history that made such moments possible—a history that many had previously been unwilling to acknowledge.”
Smith’s writing is beautiful—he is a poet, after all. The prologue opens with this lyrical sentence: “The sky above the Mississippi River stretched out like a song.”
Yet enmeshed in the eloquence, Smith’s book is replete with revelations. In one startling paragraph he writes about a free Black man who wanted to pay to be re-enslaved so that he could keep his family from being separated. “The love he had for his family outweighed every other consideration.” On Smith’s visit to New York City, he discovers that plots in what would become Manhattan’s Central Park, Seneca Village, had actually been purchased by free Blacks and whites from a white couple between 1825 and 1857. When New York City’s mayor declared eminent domain to create Central Park, their property, churches, and gardens were seized, and they were bludgeoned, dragged away.
In May of 2019 Smith learned that a new museum on Liberty Island “put forward a new interpretation of the Statue of Liberty origin—that it ‘was intended, in part, to celebrate the abolition of slavery in the United States.’” Smith investigated. A French law professor, Édouard René de Laboulaye, was an “ardent abolitionist” and proposed the gift of the statue “to lift up the cause of freedom.” When sculptor Fréderic-Auguste Bartholdi crafted his first exemplar, “Liberty Enlightening the World,” the woman held a pair of broken shackles in her left hand. By the time the statue was shipped to Liberty Island, for political reasons, the chains had virtually disappeared under her robes. “My eyes moved to Lady Liberty’s feet, and I thought I could see the faint contours of broken chains,” Smith wrote of his ferry ride back to the mainland. “But I might also have imagined seeing them because I finally knew they were there.”
—Lou Ann Walker
2022 finalist judges