Skip to main content

tv   Clint Smith How the Word Is Passed  CSPAN  July 10, 2021 11:01am-12:02pm EDT

11:01 am
in the united states and being launched by russia. how do we walk this back and kind of restore vaccine diplomacy to its rightful place because of its incredible tech -- track record? >> you can find the rest of the program on booktv.org and search for peter hotez or "preventing the next pandemic." >> c-span's book tv continues. next, atlantic staff writer clint smith looks at slavery's legacy in america. and then james patterson and bill clinton discuss their new thriller involving the abduction of the daughter of a former u.s. president by terrorists. later, dambisa moyo offers an insider view on how corporate boards operate. find more information on book tv.org or consult your program guide for full schedule information.
11:02 am
>> , host: hi, everyone. welcome and good evening. on behalf of harvard bookstore, i am thrilled to introduce this virtual event with clint smith presenting his new book, "how the word is passed: a reckoning with the history of slavery across america." which debuted at number one on the new york times bestseller list. and tonight, he is in conversation. thank you so much for joining us virtually. through virtual events like tonight's harvard bookstore continues to bring authors and their work to our community. every week we host events on the zoom account featuring lin-manuel miranda, stacey abrams, and rendon fleming and nick stone. check out the event schedule at harvard.com/events, and while you are there you can sign up for our email newsletter. this evening's discussion will
11:03 am
conclude with some time for your questions. if you have a question for our speakers at any time during the talk tonight, click on the q&a button on your screen. we will get through as many as time allows. this event will have closed captioning available, depending on the version of zoom you are using, you may need to enable captions yourself by clicking on the closed caption button on your screen. in the chat, i will be posting a link to purchase copies of "how the word is passed" on the harvard.com as well as a link to donate in support of this series of our store. your purchases and contributions make events like tonight's possible and help ensure the future of a landmark, independent bookstore in harvard square. thank you all so much for showing up and tuning in, both in support of our authors and also of the truly incredible staff of booksellers at harvard bookstore. we sincerely appreciate your support now and always.
11:04 am
and finally, as you may have experienced in virtual gatherings, technical issues may arise. of course, we hope that they don't, but if they do, we will do our best to resolve them quickly. thank you so much for your patience and understanding. now, i am delighted to introduce our speakers. clint smith is a staff writer at "the atlantic" and the author of a poetry collection, "counting dissent," which won the 2017 literary award for best poetry book from the black caucus library association and was a finalist for an naacp image award. his writing has been published in the new yorker, new york times magazine, poetry magazine, the paris review and many other publications. min jin lee's novel, "pachinko" was a finalist for the book infection, a runner up for the
11:05 am
-- in fiction, a runner up for the day in literary peace prize, winner of the medici book club prize and a new york times 10 best books of 2017. lee's debut novel "free food for millionaires" was a national bestseller and on top 10 books of the year lists for the times of london, npr's fresh air and usa today. there will be discussing clint smith's groundbreaking new book, "how the word is passed: a reckoning with the history of slavery across america." in the book, dr. smith recounts his visits to nine sites that memorialize, distort or evade their connections to slavery. from the african-american burial ground national monument in lower manhattan to a confederate memorial chapel to a juneteenth celebration in galveston, texas "how the word is passed" , explores the ways in which america commemorates itself with thorough research and bell like clarity. the new york times praises smith's unapologetically
11:06 am
subjective map of american memory as an extraordinary contribution to the way we understand ourselves. i am honored to turn things over to our speakers. the digital podium is yours. min jin: hi! how are you, clint? clint: i am so good. i am so glad to be here. i cannot think of anyway to celebrate what has happened the last 24 hours better than being in conversation with one of my favorite writers. min jin: well, folks, clint is number one on the new york times bestseller list. it is pretty incredible and cool. that is going to be, when we build your monument, we are going to put that on the bottom. [laughter] how is that? clint: oh, man. freaking confederates.
11:07 am
clint: it's wonderful to be here. i am so happy this is happening, because i think this book is just amazing. you guys, like, this book is really, really amazing and it's also so moving to read. it is beautifully written. it is an incredibly important primary document, as well as a secondary source, because you are writing about your experiences of what it's like to understand the way slavery is understood today in 2020, 2021. how long did it take for you to write this book? clint: four years. i started in may of 2017 or it began to become conceptualized in may of 2017 watching the confederate statues come down in new orleans. i was watching the statues come down in my hometown in new orleans and thinking about, what did it mean that i grew up in a majority black city in which there were more homages to enslavers than there were to enslaved people. and then kind of opened it up
11:08 am
and started thinking about other -- and then how this city reckoned with it slavery and how it was embedded in the physical infrastructure. and then kind of opened it up and started thinking about other places across the country and across the ocean and how they were telling that story. so, i have been writing it for four years, but so much of this is animated by trying to write into the gaps and to fill the gaps that i felt like i had experienced and that i was carrying from a young age, and trying to answer a lot of questions and fill a lot avoids in my own education that i -- a lot avoids in my own education that i hadn't had the answers to. the book was almost a process of attempting to fill those gaps. min jin: i memorized your book. i was wondering if you could read this one paragraph where you talk specifically about what you just said. the reason i want you to read it is because i want those who are here today to see how
11:09 am
beautifully he renders the emotion and the memory on the inspiration of this book. it starts with "i was born" on page 171. just that paragraph. clint: " i was born and raised in a city filled with statues of confederate soldiers, white men on pedestals and black children playing beneath them. where black people play trumpets and trombones to drum out the dixie's song still whistled in the wind. in my hometown of new orleans, there are at least hundred streets, statues, parks and schools named after confederate figures, slaveowners and defenders of slavery. for decades, black children have walked into buildings named after people who thought of them as property. my own middle school is named after robert mills lushing, a confederate and former louisiana superintendent of education who fought against desegregation and believed in "the supremacy of the caucasian race."
11:10 am
every time i returned home, i would drive on streets named after those who thought of me as chattel." min jin: i read that paragraph and it just, ugh, right here. because i think what really kills me is this idea that all these little children have no idea. i am positive that your teachers are not talking about it. i am positive that the principal isn't saying, oh, isn't it wonderful. every day you are thinking, i have to do this at the school or passing by certain streets. without knowing or without being taught that history because that , history is considered either shameful or we revise it and think of it as something as part of the lore. the reality of the true history, which cannot even be disputed, is really painful because at the center of it, it means that a certain body is property, right.
11:11 am
so, how did it, like, at what point did you make that connection between lusher and who he is and how you feel about it? clint: i mean, for so many of these statues and so many of the buildings, so much -- this many memorials, the iconography around new orleans, i had no idea growing up. i used to feed the ducks in the city park under the literal statue of beauregard, a man who ordered the first attack who ordered the civil war. on the way to school everyday, i had to go down robert e. lee boulevard to go to the grocery store, i had to go down jefferson davis highway. the street my parents live on today is named after somebody who enslaved 150 enslaved people. and so, i didn't, i mean, i didn't know those things at all really growing up. i had no real conception of the who these folks were. and to the extent that i did, i was just told that they were
11:12 am
important men in louisiana history. and what's interesting is that robert e. lee isn't even an important man in louisiana history. he's from virginia. there are multiple levels to this sort of absurdity. min jin: why are we told these things? why are little children told these men are important to us and why should we revere these monuments? why are they there? what do you say to your kids about this? clint: so i mean, the reason that so many of these confederate statues and slaveholding statues to slaveholders were erected with the specific intention of distorting their legacy, and to sort of mold their legacy in a way that was much more favorable than the reality of the project that they were tied to. the confederacy is, by fact, by like historical fact and grounded in primary source
11:13 am
documents, a territory that succeeded, treasonous territory that succeeded from the united states and raised an army predicated on maintaining and expanding the institution of slavery. the insidious nest of white -- the insidious and it -- insidious notice of white supremacy is that it turns that statement from an empirical one to an ideological one. it attempts to say that me saying that is reflective of my political sensibilities instead of being something that is grounded in primary source documents like the declarations of confederacy secessions. in 1860 one, a state like mississippi says verbatim "our position is thoroughly aligned with the institution of slavery, the greatest material interest in the world." they were not vague, they were clear about why the civil war was about to begin. and so, the idea that we would have statues of robert e. lee and jefferson davis and schools named after lusher represents a late 19th century, early 20th-century attempt to
11:14 am
essentially gaslight this country into thinking that who these men were is not who they actually were. and we see that in somebody like alexander stephens, who in 1861 writes the famous -- infamous cornerstone speech where he says the confederacy is founded on the principle of african inferiority and the attempt to engage in chattel slavery perpetuity. in 1865, comes back and people are like, what do you have to say for yourself? you lost the war. you are the vice president of this country that attempted to secede from the union and you set all these horrific things about slavery. he was like, i never said that. they are like, what are you talking about? we were there, we saw you. he was like, no, you must be mistaken, i never said anything like that. it is eerily parallel to some of the things that we see now, where people are trying to tell us that we did not see things
11:15 am
that we just saw and attempt to tell us that things are not about what the people who have engaged in that behavior say that they are about. i learned about these things, many of the stuff i learned, you know, in the process of writing the book. i don't think i knew lusher was named after a confederate leader until about two years ago, and this was my middle school. i think part of what happens when you learn this history is that it provides a sort of clarity about why the society, our society collectively, looks the way that it does today, and i think the reason why one community looks one way and the reason another community looks another way is not simply because of the people in those communities, but often is because what has been done to those communities generation after generation. they are not just symbols, they are reflective of the stories that we tell. these stories embed themselves into narratives, and narratives shape public policy and public
11:16 am
policy shapes the material condition of people's lives. that's not saying that taking down a statue of robert e. lee will reduce the racial wealth gap. it is to say that it is part of a much larger ecosystem of factors and ideas and stories that shape how we think about what communities deserve or don't serve. min jin: yes. quickly, when you talk about the empirical turning into ideological, it's such a powerful idea when we take real facts and make them into opinion, or a theory, which are very different things. what i was just curious about is, i mean, what really upsets me, i guess what really upsets me about your book and about what's going on, not just in america, but around the world, is this profound resistance to the reckoning, the profound resistance to the empirical. when i see that fighting to hold onto something and when i was reading your book, i kept on
11:17 am
focusing on, should i focus on the individuals who don't want the history taught, which is literally what is happening in certain legislatures in america right now, or should i focus on the fact that we have these public historians, these well-intentioned guides who are willing to tell the truth about their community and their ancestors? so, i was really moved by the guide at monticello and what he's trying to do or what the marist is trying to do in new york. the way the book is structured, clint goes to all these different places and very often, there is an individual who will be a guide or a docent who will kind of walk with clint, and then we become both a guide, as well as clint. there is a real fictional, dramatic aspect to the way this book is structured, which i found really appealing and really inclusive of our experience and our emotional tenor of how to feel about history.
11:18 am
which i really admired. who do you focus on? do you focus on the individuals who are willing to confront the truth or do you dwell on the fact that there is humongous pockets of people who are saying no, no, no, that's part of my history and too bad for you, too bad that you are a little boy and you go to a school named lusher? that's just too bad. clint: yeah. i think i am fascinated by, and part of the reason i go to a place like blandford, being one of the larger confederate cemeteries in the country in petersburg, virginia. the remains of 30,000 confederate soldiers are buried there. in the book, i go there for the sons of confederate memorial celebration. i don't go to a place like that because i have any hopes of convincing those people to believe what is true. i go there because i am, i think as a researcher, as a reporter, as a journalist, as a curious person, i am genuinely trying to
11:19 am
understand how they come to believe what they believe. min jin: right. clint: it was important for me to go to that place not in an antagonistic stance or not in a way that it was attempting to like prove them wrong, or suggest that what they -- there's like an update happening on my computer. it's the virtual world. it is not an attempt to convince them of something that they don't want to believe. it is an attempt to gain clarity. i think i do gain clarity. i got clarity that for summoning -- for so many people, history is not empirical evidence or primary source documents, it's a story that they have been told and it's a story that they tell. it's an heirloom passed down across generations. it is something deeply entangled in their emotional sense of who they are in the world and who
11:20 am
their family is in the world. providing them, showing them, you know, the declarations of confederate secession is not necessarily going to move our shift how they think, because -- or shift how they think because it is not about evidence or things that they know or don't know, it's about their relationship to the people who have told them certain stores. and then, but to your point, for me, i do think that part of what's evident in the book is that there are a lot of people who are not antagonistic to new information or antagonistic necessarily to the truth, but who literally just don't know. i think about the donna and grace who i met at monticello, who are two women who were on the tour given by the tour guide who had given this hour-long tour that was really white -- quite direct about jefferson's moral inconsistency, about jefferson's relationship to slavery, and the fact that he enslaved over 600 people over the course of his lifetime, including four of his own
11:21 am
children. these women were so clearly unsettled by what they were hearing. i went up to them after and they were like, i had no idea that jefferson owned slaves. i had no idea that monticello was a plantation. these are folks that bought plane tickets, who rented a car, who got a hotel room, who came to monticello almost as sort of a pilgrimage, and had no conception that this place was a plantation and that the person who lived there enslaved hundreds of human beings. that's a microcosm for how so many people in this country have such little understanding of what slavery was, how it shaped the founding of this country, and subsequently, how it continues to shape every part of our social, political and economic infrastructure. min jin: it's funny that you say that, because i was thinking about them a lot. i was thinking very hard about those two women in monticello since i have been reading the book.
11:22 am
and their kind of innocent shock about what is going on. and i did feel some compassion for them, but it almost seemed to be almost, it's hard to believe. it's actually hard to believe and the privilege of saying i will not see that part about that world and i can continue to do so. why are you telling me? and then i thought let's just assume that these are innocent people who just didn't know, because schools did not teach it to them. it was kind of shocking to me, because when i was 16 years old, part of my history class at the bronx high school of science was to read "peculiar institution." i read the entire book when i was 16. i came to america when i was seven. after nine years of speaking english, i read that entire book, and it changed the way i think about slavery, right. and when i became a history major in college, it was a very easy thing for me to understand,
11:23 am
and kenneth stamm's book, he was -- which you quote quite a bit. he was somebody that dr. king quoted, in terms of understanding that slavery was not an institution in which people who were, the enslaved people were not happy about it. they were not treated well. have you seen netflix's recent show, "high on the hog." clint: no, but people keep talking about it. they are saying that they read the book and are watching the show and they are in conversation with one another. i have not but i definitely need to. min jin: there is one episode about jefferson, in particular, and about how he gave very meager rations to the enslaved people that he had. so they had to grow gardens in order to have sufficient calories to do the heavy work of outdoor labor. and when you think about a rich man like that, who was able, and you say this very clearly in
11:24 am
your book, he was able to read, write and think about democracy because enslaved people were doing free labor for him and he did not even feed them properly. when you think about it that way, like, how can we think about the ideals of democracy at the personal hypocrisy of the architect of democracy, right? i mean, it was so disturbing to me. but i was wondering in terms of resistance, the emotional resistance that people have to not being converted. and there is a beautiful passage that you wrote on page 172. it is one paragraph and i was wondering if you could read it for us? because you've got everything in this one paragraph. i've memorized your book. clint: i mean, i can tell. i am honored. 172.
11:25 am
this is also a format that i have not really done before. periodic reading. min jin: i am trying to keep you on your toes. it begins with "for many of the people," and just that one paragraph. clint: " for many of the people i met at blandford, the story of the confederacy is the story of their home, of their family, and a story of their family is the story of them. so when they are asked to reckon with the fact that their ancestors fought a war to keep my ancestors enslaved, there is a resistance to facts that have been documented by primary sources and contemporaneous evidence. they are forced to confront the lies that they upheld. they are forced to confront the flaws of their ancestors. as greg stewart, a member of the sons of confederate veterans told "the new york times" in the aftermath of the charleston massacre "you are asking me to agree that my great grandparents and great, great grandparents
11:26 am
were monsters. accepting such a reality would, for them, mean the deterioration of a narrative that has long been part of their lineage and the disintegration of so much of who they believe themselves to be in the world. min jin: yeah. so, is it possible for us to believe that george washington, thomas jefferson were monsters? right? is that hard for us to say? is it possible that you could be a beautiful thinker and have amazing architectural taste and be a monster? clint: yeah. i mean, it's interesting. even that sort of formulation is fascinating. i am almost less interested in, you're asking me to accept that my great-grandfather was a monster, i am not really interested in the interiority of your grandfather's spirit or what's in his heart.
11:27 am
it's much less interesting or relevant to me if you think or do not think your great-grandfather was a monster. what's more important to me is that you accept that your grandfather fought to preserve a monstrous cause. it's almost kind of like how we think about like people who were like, there's not a racist bone in my body, or there is no racist blood in my heart, or whatever formulations people use. and it's like, i am not interested in the sort of, the spiritual or physiological notions of racism in relation to your body. i think it's more important to think about, and we are having a much more robust conversation about this in our national discourse now, relative to what we had before, thinking about history, thinking about systems, thinking about structures. you know, i think all the time about this james baldwin essay that he wrote in 1963, or a speech he delivered in 1963 to new york city educators.
11:28 am
i think it was published in he 1964. says a lot of amazing things in it and touches on slavery a lot. one of the things he says is that black children are told over and over and over again that they are criminal, and the role of the teacher, and he's using teacher here literally but also as a sort of meta-name for a larger society, the role of the teachers to help the child understand that although the world tells them that they are criminal, it is in fact the society and the history that created the conditions that that black child is growing up in that is the criminal. and it's like, it's an intuitive thing for many of us and it's very clear for many of us. i know this from having been a high school english teacher, from having been a black child growing up in new orleans, that there are a lot of folks who internalize the falsehoods and the pathology that we are inundated with. you know, in my case, i was inundated with growing up in new orleans.
11:29 am
sometimes when you don't have the language or toolkit or framework to push back against it, there can be a sort of psychological and emotional paralysis where you know what you are hearing is wrong but you don't necessarily know how to say it or how to say why it's wrong and explain it. when people are telling you these sorts of things, the sorts of things that the son's confederate veterans and united daughters of the confederacy literally created after the civil war in the late 19th century in order to distort and confuse an entire society so that we don't really know what to believe. because the goal of the lost because the goal of the lost cause is not to make everybody a white supremacist. it is a sort of orwellian project to make everything so cloudy and foggy and be like, maybe the civil war was not fought over slavery. it makes things so murky that it's difficult for us to have an epistemological consensus.
11:30 am
and to the operation -- into the operating from the same basis of truth. you have people who genuinely believe what they believe because again, it's like entangled in this more, it's like deep sense of self, psychological and emotional project, that it's kind of like, they could care less about, you know, what the primary source documents or historical facts have to say. >> can you talk about the lost cause? because i think that is one of the most important things that is not taught in history. you and i understand what it is but i think the average person does not know what the lost cause is. can you sort of define it? clint: the lost cause is a sort of multi-pronged effort that was primarily engaged with or
11:31 am
engaged through the united daughters of the confederacy after the end of the civil war. and essentially, it is saying that slavery was not that bad, and slavery was a civilizing institution that was, as john calhoun, the senator from south carolina and at one point our vice president, said it is a positive good for both black people and white people like, and that black people were much better here enslaved than they were in africa. the other part is sitting slavery was not that bad, and -- the other part is saying slavery was not that bad, and also, the civil war was not about slavery. it also says that the people fighting for the confederacy were people who were simply fighting to defend their families and their states, and they were fighting to defend themselves from northern aggression. they literally called it the war of northern aggression. as one of the people that i met at blandford said, a guy named jeff, he was like, if they had
11:32 am
just stayed up north, everything would have been fine. in my mind, i'm like, fine for who? clearly not fine for the 4 million enslaved black people at that time. again, it is censoring a group of people who are in fact the perpetrators of a crime. essentially, it is attempting to distort and misrepresent the nature of what the civil war and slavery, the nature of what the civil war was fought over and what slavery as an institution was. kenneth stamm, who you brought up before, i think people take for granted or don't even know that until the civil rights movement and writers, historians like kenneth stamm with his book, particularly kenneth stamm, the predominant view in the early 20th century of slavery was the one propagated by historians who were like, slavery was a civilizing
11:33 am
institution. the plantation was a great place for slaves. that is how most americans, through the 1910s, 1920's, 1930's, 1940's, 1950's thought of slavery until you had historians like kenneth stamm, and make clear that the reason the disparities between black-and-white communities existed in the mid-20th century in the way that they did was intimately tied to an institution that had ended less than 100 years ago. and so, really grounding the sort of origin point of black-white inequality in chattel slavery, which seems so self-evident and obvious but was not part of the national public discourse of how we understood what inequality was at that time. >> i think that this is so important, because when i was researching, when i researched my fiction and i was really looking into colonialism and imperialism, so often, the
11:34 am
christianizing force, the taking of the savages and making them into noble, that is a very common ideology found throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries as to justify their systematic campaign of stealing, stealing and murder. [laughter] rather than looking at the nations that are the criminals, they actually make the objects of their criminality into the criminals themselves. that's the ultimate gas lighting that we are speaking about. what is hard about what we just said and or agreeing upon is that those that are hearing in -- hearing it are saying if you , are white, you feel bad listening to this, you feel battering this, so i don't want to deal with the. i've heard people of color and
11:35 am
bipoc community members saying things like, you know, that was a long time ago. i've also seen within the african-american community where you have immigrants saying about american descendants of slaves, oh well, i don't know what your problem is, rather than looking at the systematic routes as to why if you have less capital to start out with, how could you possibly get somewhere. and i was just curious like, how do you reconcile with all the different voices within our own -- for me, i'm thinking, maybe i cannot reach certain groups. ok. i will try but if i can't, how do i even reach members of my own community who reject and support the majority's point of view? clint: it's a great question. so, i will say that i am sympathetic to those who say, you know, we cannot only consume black media or black literature or black history that is
11:36 am
grounded in our trauma or in our oppression or grounded in , slavery, or jim crow. i absolutely believe that. blackness in this country is a beautiful, remarkable, heterogeneous, pluralistic, centuries long project that deserves to have all sorts of media and books and literature and art created that reflects the heterogeneity of that experience. >> as well as the joy, right? the joy and the humor. clint: absolutely. so i would never, you know, i very much agree with that. and i think there are some people and part of what you are alluding to is that there is idea among some folks who are like, more slavery, underground railroad, another slavery book, and i get the impulse. but i think, again, part of the insidiousness of white supremacy is that it makes us feel like we talk about slavery all the time, when we actually don't talk about it in any way that is commensurate with the impact it
11:37 am
had on this country. part of what i want this book to make clear is both are temporal and physical proximity to this time. slavery existed, if we think of 1619 being the symbolic marker of the beginning of slavery, existed for 250 years and has only not existed for 150. we have this institution that existed before the country was even a country and has existed for 100 years longer than it hasn't. the woman who opened the national museum of african-american history and culture in 2016 was the daughter of an enslaved person. not a great-granddaughter, she was the daughter of someone born into intergenerational chattel slavery. my grandfather's grandfather was enslaved. when my son sits on my grandfather's lap, i imagine my grandfather sitting on his grandfather's lap and i am reminded again that this history that we tell ourselves is so long ago was not that long ago at all.
11:38 am
the idea that this would have no impact on what our landscape looks like is morally disingenuous. part of what i want really -- readers to understand and feel is we are made to feel like slavery was this thing that happened in the jurassic period. it's like dinosaurs and flintstones and slavery. and i think i experienced a sort of transformational understanding of my proximity to this time through the process of writing this book, in part because i was physically standing on the land were so much of this happened, and mike -- and like physically standing inside of slave cabins where enslaved people themselves lived walking across land that enslaved people had cultivated, standing inside buildings where enslaved people were told that they were free. i had a different sense of intimacy and the sort of sensory experience of it all made me feel much closer to. but also, the sort of temporal
11:39 am
aspect made me feel much closer to it. i say all that to say, this slavery is something that has just profoundly, profoundly shaped our country in ways that i think before writing this book i understood in an abstract way. slavery shaped america, slaves built the white house. i understood it but i did not get it. i think it is important for us to not run from a history that is painful because we are made to feel as if that is the only type of way we should consumer -- consume our history. we should consume this history and part of what i tried to capture in the book is that what's remarkable is all that's been accomplished in spite of that history or was born out of that history. and i think that you can see examples of than the united states and in colonized groups of people across the world.
11:40 am
these remarkable stories of art and literature and culture that are born out of these unimaginable circumstances. i think it is a both thing. -- i think it is both and. we need tv and movies and books that reflect the wide range of the black experience, the painful aspects and the joyful aspects, but we also shouldn't allow ourselves to be convinced that we talk about this too much. something i tell people is nobody would ever say, sometimes people will be like, there are so many movies about slavery. there's not actually. there are not that many films or television series about slavery relative to the period time that it existed in this country. nobody would ever say that about a world war ii movie. there is a world war ii movie nominated for an academy award every year. that would seem absurd.
11:41 am
it would seem absurd and also like, kind of like adjacent to insensitive or offensive. but we are made to feel all the time like, "12 years a slave," and now we've got "underground railroad." there is good art and bad art, good history and bad history, good literature and bad literature, but i don't think that we should decide not to -- pretend as if this sort of oppressive aspects of our history did not exist and simply lift up more joyous aspects without understanding the way that so much of that joy emerged from so much intergenerational pain. and i think that it can be framed in ways that are nuanced and thoughtful and not like inundating people with a sort of
11:42 am
trauma porn, but like laying out the reality of what happened, and simply being honest about it, and making people confront it and see it on its most human terms. >> i also think that to not have this history, even though it can be painful, is to lose your superpowers. because i think the history of resistance and survival and workarounds and of the revolution that must have existed in your heart to somehow every single day insist on dignity, integrity. like, how did you not murder your enslavers? that's incredible. you have to wonder, are enslaved people of kindest people in the world? [laughter] right? clint: it's so important to make sure that we are not thinking about resistance singularly in its most massive and in some
11:43 am
ways gendered terms. slave rebellion. but resistance, to your point, there were millions of enslaved people who resisted slavery in millions of different ways every single day. to build a family, to love your children, to protect your children, to build community, to find love, to find moments of respite, all those things are forms of resistance in the face of a set of circumstances that . -- that are just, for so many of us are just unfathomable. it's important we have a holistic view of what resistance looked like that is not limited to, you know, as impressive as they are, harriet tubman or frederick douglass, nat turner or any of these other important historical figures, but that resistance was far more, sometimes far more subtle, but no less important. >> well, as a matter of fact, the resistance i was thinking
11:44 am
about in particular -- i am going backwards in the book now -- is poetry. right? that we were able to connect with our feelings and to write our responses to oppression, to hatred. that we were insisting and resisting with our humanity, artistic ability to make something beautiful out of trauma. i was wondering if you could read, because you are a poet, your thoughts about phyllis wheatley, i was wondering if you could share with us your incredible section on page 28? "at the time i encountered the passage," just that paragraph. clint: at the time i encountered this passage, i was finishing what would be my first collection of poetry. i was riding in the aftermath of the ferguson uprising, using poetry to process the incessant
11:45 am
state sanctioned violence happening to black people around me, attempting to put my life and conversation with this political moment and the history that birthed it. i spent hours pouring over both the voice and the form of my poems, revising, rearranging, adding and deleting until there were dozens of iterations of each stanza, every line. i thought of how seriously i took the crack -- i thought how all of my work stemmed from a place of love, a love of my community, a love of my family, a love for my partner, a love of those hoping to build a better world than the one we live in. >> how about that for the most evolved sense of resistance? so yes, i want nat turner, yes, i want harriet tubman, but yes, i also want phyllis wheatley. and the idea that thomas jefferson can actually say that poetry is beneath -- what is it?
11:46 am
it is beneath the dignity of money to it critically. the fact that he could dismiss the art and have children who are black, i mean, to me, i will never, ever consider thomas jefferson in the same way. i can say you had some very cool ideas that you took from, let's say rousseau and locke, you spun it, took ownership of it, but i'm not going to forget that you took some ideas from white guys in europe as well, and you were able to justify your bad behavior and somehow, white americans today are thinking that he's a good guy. i want to know how far you can go back, but this is really important to me because i wanted to talk about you being an artist. there is a wonderful paragraph here on page 26. i am going backwards. donna and grace are the two women that clint meets when he goes to monticello.
11:47 am
and that paragraph, that first paragraph, if you could read that for us, on page 26. clint: donna and grace, and so money people, specifically white people, have often understood slavery and those held in its grip only in abstract terms. they do not see the faces, they cannot picture the hands, they do not hear the fear or the laughter. they do not consider that these were children like their own, or that these were people who had birthdays and weddings and funerals, who loved, and celebrated one another, just as they loved and celebrated their loved ones. >> see, for me, that is the whole point of writing at all. because we have to be specific, we have to be particular, and the only way we can ever have the accretion of qualities of human beings and then to have
11:48 am
the drama of their lives is when we can actually say, how can i possibly hurt another person because the other person is a person? i was so moved by it. nella is going to come back because folks have been patiently waiting to ask questions. where are you? nella: thank you. oh, my gosh, my head is exploding. this is an incredible conversation, this is beautiful. but yes, we do have some questions. ashley ford is here. clint: ashley ford! nell: yes. clint: bestseller ashley ford! nell: yes, exactly. clint: every time i see me and ashley post together anywhere, my heart just letters. -- my heart just flutters. ashley, who talked to oprah yesterday, real m.v.p., one of my dear friends.
11:49 am
thank you for watching. >> what a beautiful memoir. hi, ashley. we love you. nell: ashley asks, which, if any, of the places you visited during your research would you want to return to? >> good question. clint: hmmm. probably the whitney plantation. and i did return to it so i actually did my reporting at the place, maybe i guess two, i think i went there in february of 2019. and then, i went back for a thanksgiving of 2019, because my family was in new orleans for my grandmother's 80th birthday. part of what we did was we all went to the whitney plantation together as a family. i write about my grandparents at the end of the book in the
11:50 am
epilogue. i was there with my grandmother, who if you read the book, part of what i talk to her about is the way that she learned about slavery. she was carrying a lot of shame because she had been taught so many of the lessons that everybody was taught in the early 20th century, it was a civilizing institution, they were benevolent slaveowners, they were saved from the savagery of africa. she was on her own journey of sort of unlearning so much of what she had been taught her entire life. when we were at the whitney this , place that centers the lives of enslaved people and it is surrounded by a constellation of plantations where people continue to hold weddings and take pictures in front of the homes of enslavers, have bridal suites in former enslaved cabins. the whitney formally rejects the idea that we can understand a plantation as anything other
11:51 am
than a torture site, but we should understand that the people held at the torture site as fully human individuals. when i went with my grandparents and my wife, my kids, my parents, it was so powerful to see the impact that like a 60 minute tour could have on people. i was almost like watching them during the tour. i thought about writing about it but i almost wanted to preserve the intimacy of that moment. it was just so powerful, because what the whitney does is so exceptional, but it shouldn't be. this is how the story of slavery should be told at every plantation across the country. i think it is an example of a place that is working really hard to do, to tell the story of a plantation the way that it should be told. i think it is a powerful, a powerful place that is -- can be a catalyst for all sorts of learning and unlearning and
11:52 am
recalibration of how we understand what slavery was. so actually, when you come visit me in new orleans, we will go to the whitney, and then we will eat cupcakes. nell: [laughter] we have an anonymous attendee question. was there anything that you came across in your research that surprised you? clint: yes. i've gotten this question a couple of times over the past two weeks of media stuff. i know we are running close on time so i will give rapidfire answers. angola prison. i have been teaching at prisons for the last seven years in massachusetts and in d.c. but i , was not prepared for what i saw at angola. and specifically, i mean, there is a whole lot to say about angola, which is a prison built on top of a former plantation which disproportionately incarcerates black men. they go out into fields and
11:53 am
basically work for no pay while someone watches over them with a gun over their shoulder. that place had a gift shop, and it had shot glasses and coffee mugs and baseball caps and sweatshirts. on one of the coffee mugs, it said, it had the silhouette of a watchtower and said "angola, a gated community," as if to sort of belittle or make a mockery of the thousands of people who were being held and continue to be held in the prison. i have a lot to say about angola. i could have written an entire book just about that experience. i was deeply surprised, unsettled and haunted by the profound lack, it almost, the cravenness of a place like that. it just felt so wrong on so many levels. nell: i just need a minute with that.
11:54 am
ok. let's see here. see if i can read words again. here we go. could you speak about the creative process that led you to consider these histories in reported prose instead of poetry? clint: i thought it would be a collection of poems. i thought that i would write a poetry collection in which the conceit would be that each poem would be about different monument in new orleans. my first book is a collection of poetry. i thought poetry is my primary form of sorts, or at least was for a long time. and then i realized that one, i think i wanted to go to places
11:55 am
outside of new orleans. two, i realized that it needed more room to breathe in a poem -- to breathe then a poem would allow for. three, i realized that it cannot be only my own sort of extended meditations on my experiences at these places. it had to be in conversation with the experience of other people there. it had to have the voices of the guides, and had to have the voices of the public historians, the voices of the other people i was encountering on these journeys. i mean, like, the chapter i write about angola is largely shaped around a guy named noris henderson. he was incarcerated in angola for several years and he was on this tour with me. i could have tried to write that chapter without speaking to noris for being there alongside him. when he and i are on this bus that is moving through fields where people he was once
11:56 am
incarcerated with our literally picking crops and he is looking down at his hands and you see the calluses on his hands and he's talking about how he used to work for seven cents per hour in fields that he said my ancestors might have been enslaved on this land. it creates an entirely different sort of literary and sensory dynamic. part of what i wanted this book to bring the best of history, the best of journalism, the best of the literary nonfiction that i read. if you don't already know, i am president of the fan club. here we are. it's amazing that we've gone this long without me turning this on its head and being like, so let's talk about it. truly. may be at our next harvard bookstore event. i wanted to do the best to bring all that together to try to create something that almost wasn't defined by genre or
11:57 am
confined by genre, and that attempted to sort of break it apart, and break the pieces of each genre that i love and then put it together to create this different sort of literary and historical collage, and make it feel like the reader was on this journey with me, that they weren't being talked at or preached to, or this was in a didactic or jargony historical text. i wanted it to be a history book that read like a novel and that's what i tried to. >> i was wondering if you wouldn't mind reading us this last paragraph to close us out. one of the pieces we haven't discussed is your focus on education. you started out this project because you are a teacher, you are concerned about your students, but also you are a student. i think that you are clearly a lifelong learner as well as an artist. this one paragraph on page 293, the last paragraph, was so beautiful and i wanted to share
11:58 am
it because i think there are educators in this audience right now, and i think they should know why you wrote this book. clint: this is about the -- this is in the about this project section. this is the last paragraph. much of what shaped my desire to write this book was my experience as a high school teacher in maryland outside washington, d.c. though i was an english teacher, history informed both the way i approach the texts that we read and how i made sense of the social realities of my student's lives. it was as a teacher that i first began to fully account for the way the history of this country shaped the landscape of my student's communities, from slavery to jim crow apartheid to mass criminalization. i've come to realize that those conversations with my students now a decade ago about how we might begin to understand our lives in relation to the world around us were some of the
11:59 am
earliest sparks of this book. i tried to write the sort of book i would have wanted to teach them. i hope i made them proud. >> we are so proud of you, clint. everybody go out and get this book. i believe every american should have this book. it is so beautiful. you do us proud, clint. thank you so much, harvard bookstore. please support your independent bookstores. they are our lifeline. they make our neighborhoods and they are good neighbors. they are teachers, friends. thank you. clint: thank you so much. thank you everyone for attending. >> thank you. thank you so much. keep reading. stay safe, everyone. have a great night. this was an incredible conversation. buy the book, i have reposted the link. buy from harvard bookstore, too. >> you are going to need your poster. bye, everybody. >> gosh. thank you. have a good night.
12:00 pm
>> here is a look at some of the best-selling nonfiction books according to the new york times. topping the wrist is bill o'reilly history of organized crime in america "killing the mob." followed by malcolm gladwell's examination of the development of precision bombing in world war ii in "the bomber mafia." matthew mcconaughey's "green lights." glennon doyle's "untamed." wrapping up some of our nonfiction books is isabel wilkerson's look at what she calls a hidden caste system in the u.s. some of these authors have appeared on book tv. you can watch their programs at book tv.org. ♪ >> weekends on c-span two an
12:01 pm
intellectual feast. every saturday you will find events that explore our nation's past on american history tv. on sundays, book tv brings you the latest on a books and authors, it is television for serious readers. learn, discover, explore. weekends on c-span2. >> next, on "book tv." james patterson and former president bill clinton discuss their new thriller involving the objection of a former u.s. president by terrorists. followed by dambisa moyo's inside view on how corporations operate. abby: good evening, and welc

42 Views

info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on