Slavery Wasn't 'Long Ago': A Writer Exposes The Disconnect In How We Tell History
In his new book, How the Word Is Passed, Clint Smith visits eight places central to the history of slavery in America, including Thomas Jefferson's Monticello plantation and Louisiana's Angola prison, which was built on the site of a former plantation.
Other segments from the episode on June 2, 2021
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After the statue of Robert E. Lee near downtown New Orleans was taken down from its 60-foot pedestal in 2017, Clint Smith says he became obsessed with how slavery is remembered and reckoned with and with teaching himself all the things he wishes someone had taught him long ago. Smith is from New Orleans, where at least 100 streets, statues, parks and schools are named after Confederate figures, slaveholders and defenders of slavery. The street his parents live on is named after a man who owned more than 150 enslaved people.
In Smith's new book, he reports and reflects on his travels to eight places to understand how each reckons with its relationship to the history of American slavery. The places he goes to include Thomas Jefferson's plantation, Monticello, the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, where the enslaved people in that parish revolted, a cemetery in which 30,000 Confederate soldiers are buried, and Angola Prison, which is built on the site of a plantation.
At the end of the book, Smith interviews his grandparents to see how this history has shaped his family. His grandfather's grandfather was enslaved. Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. His book, "Counting Descent," won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. In 2014, he was the National Poetry Slam champion. His new book is called "How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With The History Of Slavery Across America."
Clint Smith, welcome to our show. It's actually your second time on our show because you read a really excellent poem on our show awhile ago during the pandemic about growing up in New Orleans, where all - it seemed like all the streets were named after Confederate generals or people who had owned slaves. Tell us more about why you wanted to write about sites that were major places in the history of slavery, major sites of slavery.
CLINT SMITH, BYLINE: Yeah. It's a real pleasure to be here. And as you mentioned at the beginning, you know, so much of what animated this book and served as a catalyst for wanting to write this book was watching the statues - these Confederate statues in my hometown of New Orleans - come down in May of 2017 - and so statues of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, among other symbols of white supremacy, coming down after having been erected and located in different parts of the city for over a century, many of them.
And I started thinking about what it meant that I grew up in a majority-Black city in which there were more homages to enslavers than there were enslaved people. Like, what did it mean that to get to school I had to go down Robert E. Lee Boulevard, to get to the grocery store I had to go down Jefferson Davis Highway, plantations on field trips as an elementary and middle school student? I was going to places that were the sites of torture and intergenerational chattel bondage, but no one said the word slavery.
And so I started thinking about, like, how that came to be because, you know, symbols aren't just symbols. They are reflective of stories that we tell. And those stories embed themselves into the narratives that a society carries. And those narratives shape public policy. And public policy obviously shapes the material conditions of people's lives.
And so the implications of this were vast. And so I started thinking about that in New Orleans, and then I kind of started thinking about, well, what did this look like across the country and across the ocean? Like, what are the different places that are attempting to or failing to tell a story about the history of slavery? And how does that shape our country's collective memory of this institution that we are told happened a long time ago, but, in fact, wasn't that long ago at all?
GROSS: What were you taught in school about the Confederate generals and the owners of enslaved people whose names and statues were all over New Orleans where you grew up?
SMITH: I was taught very little, to be honest. And to the extent that I was taught anything, I was taught that, you know, Robert E. Lee was an honorable man who fought for the state and the people that he loved. I was taught that the Civil War was about states' rights and that it was reflective of a failure to compromise, when, in fact, you know, all that had been happening in the decades prior to the Civil War were attempts to compromise, and what was compromised was the freedom of enslaved people.
And so part of what made me want to write this book was that, like, I remember growing up in New Orleans and being inundated with these messages, some implicit, some explicit, about why New Orleans was the way that it was, right? I was, you know, inundated with messages that New Orleans was the murder capital of the nation, that we incarcerated more people per capita than China and Iran and Russia, that there was a sort of culture of violence, a culture of - a pathology that was so deeply embedded in the city. And implicit within that is the Black people within the city because this was before, especially at that time, for a long time, a majority-Black city.
And so I was inundated with these messages as a child and as a young person, and I felt like I didn't have the language or the toolkit or the framework with which to push back against it. What happens is, you almost experience sort of psychological and emotional paralysis where you, like, know that the things that this country is telling you about your community and about people who look like you is wrong, but you don't necessarily have the language or the history with which to explain it.
GROSS: So it's very hard to change the narrative of history, even when the narrative you're trying to change is proven to be wrong or distorted. But some places really are trying to change the narrative. And you visited one of those places - Jefferson's home and plantation, Monticello. And it seems that the narrative there is changing, that the tours given to people now are saying very different things about the history there than the tours that used to be given. Give us an example of that.
SMITH: Yeah. So Monticello, I think, is a really fascinating example of a place that evolves and changes over time and responds to new information and shapes their - the curation of their museum experience in that way.
And so one example of a new project that they've begun is something that started a few years ago, which is a tour that focuses on the Hemingses of Monticello, the Hemings family. And the Hemings family was an enslaved family, an enslaved Black family, on Monticello's plantation, who - which included Sally Hemings, who was the daughter of Elizabeth Hemings and John Wayles. So her father was a white man, and her mother was a mixed-race Black woman. And so she was actually a quarter Black, but was still enslaved on that plantation because of the sort of notions of the one-drop rule and that one drop of African blood would make you Black, which, you know, gets into a larger thing of race as a social construction.
But regardless, the Hemingses were enslaved on this plantation and were really central to what the plantation was and how it operated. And part of what Monticello has recognized is that they have to center the lives of the enslaved people who lived there and not just center the story of Monticello on Jefferson because it's much larger than Jefferson. And in order to understand it as a plantation, we have to understand the people who lived on that plantation and made it what it was outside of the context of this single man.
GROSS: I thought it was really interesting that some of the tourists are basically prepared or you might even say warned by the tour guides that some of what you're going to hear today might be difficult. Because a lot of the people who come to visit Monticello are just expecting a heroic story about Jefferson and not realizing that some of the story they're going to get is about Jefferson as a slave owner, somebody who bought and sold people and who had a sexual relationship with one of the people who he owned. So did that surprise you that they were almost, like, you know, like, warning
GROSS: before the tour.
SMITH: It did. So the tour you're referencing is the Slavery at Monticello Tour. And one of the things that was most interesting about it is that, to your point, a lot of people come to this place having no conception of Jefferson as someone who owned enslaved people. And so I spoke to these two women after my tour, Donna (ph) and Grace (ph), and I had been watching them during the tour, given by this man, David Thorson, who's a tour guide at Monticello. And he talked about slavery and Jefferson and Jefferson's relationship to slavery in ways that were more direct than any teacher I had ever had. And it was clearly, deeply impacting these women. And their mouths were agape, and they were clearly sort of unnerved and unsettled.
And I went up to them afterwards and spoke to them, and they were just like, I had no idea Jefferson owned slaves; I had no idea that Monticello was a plantation. And mind you, these are people who bought plane tickets, who bought hotel rooms, who rented cars to come to this place almost as a pilgrimage to see the home of the third president of the United States, one of our founding fathers, but had no conception of him as someone who enslaved human beings.
GROSS: Yeah. And getting back to Sally Hemings for a second, she was 16, and Jefferson was in his mid-40s when he started his sexual relationship with her. So he's having sex with somebody who he owns, and she's 16.
SMITH: Right. Part of what Monticello is doing, too, is trying to sort of complicate notions of the history that we've been taught, in saying that, you know, we cannot understand what Sally Hemings' relationship to Jefferson was as something that was fully consensual because he owned her. And that is - should serve as an entry point to us thinking about the way that Black women throughout the history of slavery were treated, the way that their bodies in so many ways were not their own and the ways that they were subjected to rape and to assault and to just an onslaught of subjugation to their bodies in ways that I don't think this country has fully accounted for.
GROSS: So when you think about the Declaration of Independence - and Thomas Jefferson was one of the drafters of the Declaration - what do you have to reconcile in your mind?
SMITH: I mean, Jefferson, I think, generally, is such a fascinating historical figure for me 'cause I think he is sort of a microcosm of America. He's a microcosm of the dissonance and the disconnect and the contradictions of this country, in the sense that America is this place that has provided unimaginable, unparalleled opportunities for millions of people across generations to build wealth and create opportunities for upward mobility and has done so at the direct expense of millions and millions of other people who have been subjugated and oppressed across generations. And the story of America is both of those things, and we have to hold both of those things at once to recognize the totality and complexity of this country.
And I think Jefferson, similarly, you know, is the man who wrote one of the most important documents in the history of the Western world and is also someone who enslaved over 600 people over the course of his lifetime, including four of his own children. He is someone who wrote in one document that all men are created equal and wrote in another document that Black people are inferior to whites in both endowments of body and mind. And so I think that Monticello and Jefferson and one of the reasons I wanted to go there for this book is that I wanted to explore how this place tells a fuller, more honest, robust story of this person so that we can have a fuller, more honest, more robust understanding of this country that he was one of the creators of.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Clint Smith. His new book is called "How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With The History Of Slavery." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "SKYLARK")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Clint Smith. His new book, "How The Word Is Passed," is about how cities in the South, as well as New York and Senegal, are reckoning with their relationship to the history of American slavery. The book reports and reflects on his trips to plantations, prisons, cemeteries, museums, memorials and historical landmarks in eight cities.
I want to talk about your visit to Blandford Cemetery, which is a cemetery for about 30,000 Confederate soldiers. And you went there on Memorial Day. What year was this?
SMITH: This was in 2019.
GROSS: OK. And what city is the cemetery in?
SMITH: Blandford Cemetery's in Petersburg, Va.
GROSS: So you went on Memorial Day. There were, I assume, a lot of Confederate flags on graves?
SMITH: Innumerable Confederate flags - I mean, probably more Confederate flags in one place than I've ever seen anywhere in my life.
GROSS: You went to the Memorial Day ceremony held at the cemetery. Were a lot of people dressed in Confederate clothing and hats?
SMITH: Yeah, so this was a Sons of Confederate Veterans Memorial Day celebration, and so you had a lot of people who were re-enactors, who were dressed in the garb of the Confederacy, who were singing the songs of the Confederacy and who were wearing paraphernalia of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who were wearing vests and clothing that was sort of adorned with Confederate iconography. And the interesting part is that, you know, this is hundreds of people who are here for this event, and it felt like a family reunion, almost, that I was imposing on - and people sitting on lawn chairs and laughing and slapping each other's backs and telling stories and kids running around, playing catch around the trees.
And so there was a sort of cognitive dissonance in the experience where there was so much joy and laughter and levity in a place that was honoring those who fought a war to keep my ancestors in chains and that this event was celebrating the army that fought that war for that cause. So it was a strange experience in that way.
GROSS: The keynote at the ceremony was from the commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and that commander in chief at the time was Paul Gramling Jr. I want you to describe some of the things he said in the speech. One of the things he said was he compared people who were taking down Confederate statues to ISIS; he said they're like American ISIS. What are some of the other things he had to say?
SMITH: Yeah. I mean, that was certainly one of the things that most stood out, is when he was talking about the people attempting to tear down these statues as American ISIS. And, you know, I think about the people who I know and who I love who, over the course of the past several years, have been working in different cities across the country to have these statues torn down, their parents who want their children to live in a world where they do not, you know, walk past the shadow of someone who wanted them enslaved. It is teachers who want their students to understand that it's possible to build a different world. It's, you know, elders who lived through the civil rights movement and who are sort of training the next generation of activists and thinkers about what it means to push back against this misrepresentation of American history.
And so, you know, when he calls it American ISIS, it was, I think, reflective of the propaganda effort of the lost cause continuing and trying to distort the work of these people. I mean, he called them terrorists, you know? He said that these folks were terrorists. And they, in my experience, are anything but. And what he also said before he told the story about the history of Memorial Day is, he said, I don't know if it's true or not, but I like it. And that stayed with me because I thought that that moment was - sort of embodied so much of what was happening at this event and so much of what happens with the sort of narrative and mythology of the lost cause - which, you know, for those who aren't familiar, the lost cause is this attempt after the Civil War to say that, one, slavery wasn't that bad; two, slavery wasn't actually the cause of the Civil War anyway; and three, that the - you know, the war is about states' rights, and everybody who fought for the war - or fought for the Confederate cause was, like, fighting for their family and their community and wasn't actually interested in fighting to preserve slavery - all of these things, which we - you know, scholars will tell you is not true.
And when you say - when you have somebody like that say, I don't know if it's true or not, but I like it, it reflects a commitment to tell a story that makes someone feel good or allow someone to situate themselves in the story of American history in a way that they prefer, rather than something that is based on empirical evidence or primary-source documents or historical evidence. And that moment stayed with me for a while.
GROSS: So there you were, a Black man, at this Memorial Day ceremony at a cemetery honoring Confederate soldiers who fought to keep people enslaved. You must have stood out.
SMITH: Yeah, so I was quite conspicuous at that event. And it was jarring, and it was unsettling. But, you know, what I wanted to do was have honest conversations with these people, and I wanted to understand why they believed what they did. And so, you know, it felt important to me, not only to go but to engage the re-enactors and the Neo-Confederates in conversations when they were willing. And the people that I went up to looked at me with curiosity and, I think, often suspicion. And I - you know, several people during the event, as I watched from behind the crowd, turned around and started recording me on their phones. And so it was clear that my presence was not something to - that they expected or even wanted.
But I did want to have these conversations to understand, well, like, how can this piece of land - which I can only understand as being the site of those who fought a war, again, to, like, keep millions of people enslaved - be this site of remembrance and this site of joy and this site of pride for so many people. And I wanted to do my best to enter these conversations and to engage in these conversations in ways that would allow people to be honest about it, rather than approaching from a sort of antagonistic standpoint.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Clint Smith. His new book is called "How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With The History Of Slavery." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WYNTON MARSALIS' "ELVEEN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Clint Smith, author of the new book "How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With The History Of Slavery Across America." His book reflects on his visits to plantations, prisons, cemeteries, museums, memorials and historical landmarks. He was born and raised in New Orleans. He's now a staff writer at The Atlantic. Smith is also a poet. His book, "Counting Descent," won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association in 2014. He was the National Poetry Slam champion.
In the epilogue of your book, you write about your grandparents, and you actually interview them. And so I'd like to start this section of our interview with asking you to read a paragraph about your grandfather's grandfather. And, to me, this is almost like a prose poem.
SMITH: I'd be happy to.
(Reading) My grandfather's grandfather was enslaved. They shared a name, a lineage and the hard soil of Mississippi. My grandfather's grandfather was enslaved. I thought about how I felt pulled closer to the center of the concentric circle of history. My grandfather's grandfather was enslaved. I said it out loud and let it idle on the edges of my lips. My family told me that my grandfather's grandfather was born into slavery, and I never knew until I asked.
GROSS: When did you ask?
SMITH: It was in the process of writing this book. You know, one of the reasons I wanted to end the book with the interviews and conversations with my grandparents is based on a trip that I took with my grandparents to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. And we were walking through the museum. I was pushing my grandfather in his wheelchair. And my grandmother was walking a little bit in front of us. And I had this moment where I was walking through this museum, and I realized that so much of the violence and history that was documented in this museum was something that they had experienced firsthand.
You know, my grandfather, born in 1930, Jim Crow apartheid in Mississippi, my grandmother born in 1939, Jim Crow apartheid Florida. You know, this history, the history that we are made to feel happened in the Jurassic age almost is something that they lived through. And when I spoke to my grandmother, she had this refrain, you know, when I asked her about the - our trip to the museum. She was just like, I lived it. I lived it. I lived it. Like, she was looking around and realizing that, like, so much of what she was seeing, she lived through it and experienced it directly.
And I just really - you know, I had spent these years working on this book, interviewing strangers and going into the archives and thinking about primary sourced documents and asking people I had just met their life story and what their relationship to the history of slavery was. And I realized I had never been as intentional in doing so with my own family. And so I sat down and had this series of conversations with my grandparents and just learned so much about them and their history and their own lineage, which is my own, in ways that I never would have known otherwise.
GROSS: Did your grandfather's grandfather pass on any stories about being enslaved that were handed down to your parents and eventually to you?
SMITH: So my grandfather didn't actually know his grandfather well. He, by the nature of family circumstance, was not raised in close proximity to his grandfather. And his grandfather also died when he was young. And so I don't have access to those sorts of stories. And I think that this is something that Black people across this country often struggle with. You know, we have limited documentation that we can go back to think about our genealogical records. You know, the first census to include Black people in it was in 1870. And so for so many of us, we cannot even sort of go back beyond a certain period to understand who our family members were, much less get a set of stories and histories from them. So, you know, part of what I had attempted to do, which is part of what I think many Black people to do, is to use the oral histories and to use conversations and to use whatever extent records we can find to sort of piece together this puzzle of our history that is sort of cast in fog.
GROSS: You know, the reading that you did for us, it's almost like you just mulling over and saying to yourself over and over, my grandfather's grandfather was enslaved. And I'm sure, like, you knew in some abstract level that your ancestors had been enslaved. What was the difference between knowing abstractly and finding out that your grandfather's grandfather was slave? Like, because it sounds like it was almost in its own way a shock to have the specificity of that.
SMITH: Yeah. I think it gave me a different sense of my proximity to that history, again, because, you know, as I sort of mentioned, like, we are taught that the history of slavery is something that happened, you know, almost like when there were dinosaurs. It was like the dinosaurs, "The Flintstones" and slavery. You know, like, in so many ways, that's how young people are taught to think about it. They are taught to think that this is something that was terrible but was a long, long, long, long time ago. And when I encounter information that's like my grandfather's grandfather was enslaved, you know, this person who I love, this person who I was raised around, this person who was so central to my life and my own identity is someone who was only a generation or two removed from a family member who had been born into slavery.
And so I think about my own 4-year-old son sitting on my grandfather's lap. And I imagine what it would have been like for my grandfather to sit on his grandfather's lap. And I'm reminded that this history that we are told was so long ago wasn't, in fact, that long ago at all. The woman who opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture alongside the Obama family in 2016, who rang the bell to sort of signal the opening of this museum, was the daughter of an enslaved person - not the granddaughter, not the great-great-granddaughter, but was the daughter of someone who had been born into slavery. And this is in 2016.
And so it's a reminder that there are people still alive today who loved, who were raised by, who knew, who were in community with people who had been born into chattel slavery. And I think when you realize our proximity to that, you gain a different understanding of how the idea that - what our society and what our country looks like today would not be impacted by that is both morally and intellectually disingenuous.
GROSS: Your grandfather had limits around his education. There wasn't a high school in his county that Black children could go to. Tell us what he had to do to get a high school education. And this was in Mississippi?
SMITH: It was Mississippi. So there was no high school for him in his county. So he had to go to an entirely different county across the state in order to pursue his high school education. And he was so lucky, you know? He was lucky that he - his principal took a liking to him and picked him out and thought that he was somebody who had a lot of potential, and set it up so that he would be able to get this education in this different county in ways that were not reflective of what happened for most people, you know?
And I think it is a reminder that, like, but for the arbitrary nature of birth and circumstance and a small - a series of small decisions made by people who I will never know that my own life and my children's lives might look fundamentally different than they do - right? - because it is not guaranteed that my grandfather would've been picked to go to school in this different county, and then would have gone on to get his degree from Dillard University and then gone on to get his Ph.D. from Howard University, which changed the trajectory of our family's life. He could've very easily been one of many people in Mississippi and many children in Mississippi who stopped school after - you know, after they reached the age of 12, 13, 14, and who went to work in the fields or who went to find some sort of job.
GROSS: Do you think that, like, your grandfather's college education and his doctorate set the stage for you to be able to go to Harvard and get your doctorate?
SMITH: Oh, I mean, there's no question. I mean, I - it would have been - I won't say impossible. But, like, the fact, again, that there was a person, that there was a principal at a school who looked at my grandfather and said, you have potential, and I don't want your education to end here - and that there was the ability to set him up in a school in a different county so that he could graduate from high school and then go on to get his BA and his Ph.D. I mean, it - I'm a big - I think a lot about the butterfly effect and this idea that, like, a single, small moment or decision changes the trajectory of a single person's life, and then, ultimately, like, generations of people. And I think that that was a moment like that.
And, you know, it would have been very - it is hard for me to imagine that my parents' life, that my mother's life and the life that they were able to create for me and my siblings would have been possible had that decision not been made by that person in, like, 1940s, 1950s Jim Crow Mississippi. And the insidiousness of it is that it shouldn't - you know, the trajectory or success or upward mobility of someone's life and the opportunities they have should not be reliant on a single person's decision, because there were, undoubtedly, like - there were so many young Black kids in 1940, 1950 Jim Crow Mississippi who would have had their lives changed and who were, you know, I'm sure just as smart as my grandfather and who deserved to go to high school. But the fact that there was so much scarcity of opportunity made it so that, you know, he was the exception to the rule and, again, put our family's life on a different trajectory. And so it's hard for me to imagine that getting a degree from Harvard would have ever been possible had that opportunity not been provided for my grandfather.
GROSS: I think what we're hearing is your children in the background. You have two young children (laughter)?
SMITH: I do. Yes. They are - we are all in the house together and have been for many, many months now, as is the case of everybody. I have a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old.
GROSS: Well, let's take a break. And then you can just tend to them briefly. And then we'll reconvene (laughter). They seem to want you right now.
SMITH: Sounds good.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Clint Smith. His new book is called "How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With The History Of Slavery." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANILO PEREZ AND CLAUS OGERMAN'S "RAYS AND SHADOWS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Clint Smith. His new book is called "How The Word Is Passed." It's about how cities in the South, as well as in New York and Senegal, are reckoning with their relationship to the history of American slavery. The book reports and reflects on his trips to plantations, prisons, cemeteries, museums, memorials and historical landmarks in eight cities. I want you to read a poem that was published in your collection of poems called "Counting Descent." And the poem is called "Ode To The Only Black Kid In The Class." Can you read it for us?
SMITH: I can. (Reading) "Ode To The Only Black Kid In The Class." You, it seems, are the manifestation of several lifetimes of toil - Brown v. Board in the flesh. Most days, the classroom feels like an antechamber. You're deemed expert on all things Morrison, King, Malcolm, Rosa. Hell, weren't you sitting on that bus, too? You are everybody's best friend until you were not - hip-hop lyricologist (ph), presumed athlete, free and reduced sideshow, exception and caricature, too Black and to white all at once. If you are successful, it is because of affirmative action. If you fail, it is because you were destined to. You are invisible until they turn on the Friday night lights. Here you are star before they render you asteroid, before they watch you turn to dust.
GROSS: A few years ago, you won a national poetry slam competition. And you're really so good at, you know, performing your poems. If anybody wants to see you performing in front of an audience, there's examples on YouTube that are actually like TED talks.
SMITH: One of the things that was most interesting about it is that, to your point, a lot of people come to this place having no conception of Jefferson as someone who owned enslaved people. And so I spoke to these two women after my tour, Donna (ph) and Grace (ph). And I had been watching them during the tour given by this man, David Thurston (ph), who's a tour guide at Monticello. And he talked about slavery and Jefferson and Jefferson's relationship to slavery in ways that were more direct than any teacher I had ever had. And it was clearly deeply impacting these women. And their mouths were agape. And they were clearly sort of unnerved and unsettled. And I went up to them afterwards and spoke to them. And they were just like, I had no idea Jefferson owned slaves. I had no idea that Monticello was a plantation. And mind you, these are people who bought plane tickets, who bought hotel rooms, who rented cars to come to this place almost as a pilgrimage to see the home of the third president of the United States, one of our Founding Fathers, but had no conception of him as someone who enslaved human beings.
(Inaudible) summer was like, let's go to the new Nuyorican Poets Cafe. And I was like, the what of what? I was like, nah (ph), let's go see, like, the new "Mission Impossible" movie. And she was like, no, shut up. Like, let's go to the poetry cafe. You'll like it. And so we went. And I had never experienced anything like that in my life. I mean, you go in, and people are like - the DJ, there's a DJ. And he's playing like New Edition and Bill Biv DeVoe, and everybody's dancing and singing and, you know, the Jackson Five and, like, Biggie and Tupac. I mean, it was amazing. And I was like, this is a poetry reading?
And then people get on stage, and it's this room full of Black and brown and queer people who are sharing poems that were unlike anything I had ever read and unlike any poems I'd ever experienced. And the poem moved through their body, right? It wasn't something that was simply meant to exist on the page, but something that could exist on the page and also existed - was shaped by someone's voice, was shaped by their gesticulations, was shaped by, to your point, the performance of it. So for me, I left that night. And I was like, I don't know what this is, but I want to do it.
And I went back to Davidson College. I started a poetry group. And I wrote a lot of bad poems for a really long time. And I went to open mics in Charlotte, N.C., which is close to Davidson. And I just practiced and read and watched as much as I could. And I - you know, now I'm, you know, I have this narrative nonfiction book. I'm a staff writer at The Atlantic. And so I've moved and expanded into other genres. But what is clear to me is that, like, I would - my life as a writer would not have been possible without that that community at the Nuyorican but also the sort of larger slam poetry community that made me into the writer that I am.
GROSS: Do you have any of your greatest hits (laughter) performing that you could do for us now?
SMITH: Oh, man. I'll read this poem, "What The Cicada Said To The Black Boy," because there are a lot of cicadas around me right now. I think, like, the nature of their life cycle is deeply fascinating. And I sort of wanted to play with that metaphor.
(Reading) What the cicada said to the Black boy. I've seen what they make of you, how they render you a multiplicity of mistakes. They have undone me as well, pulled back my shell and feasted on my flesh, claimed it was for their survival. And they wonder why I'll only show my face every 17 years. But you, you're lucky if they let you live that long. I could teach you some things, you know. I've been playing this game since before you knew what breath was. This here is prehistoric. Why you think we fly? Why you think we roll in packs? Do you think these swarms are for the fun of it? I would tell you that you don't roll deep enough, but every time you swarm, they shoot. Get you some wings, son. Get you some wings.
GROSS: Clint Smith, it's been a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much.
SMITH: It's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Clint Smith is the author of the new book "How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With The History Of Slavery Across America." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review two new suspense novels about writers. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says that, by trade, writers are paranoid people. They spend too much time in their own heads, many of them worried about whether the work of other writers garners more sales and recognition. Here's Maureen's review of two new literary suspense tales that amp up the anxiety.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: This spring, a wave of suspense stories is breaking whose plots center on struggling writers stealing someone else's work. But these novels are more socially aware than the traditional who-wrote-it tales of literary paranoia. In many of these stories, power imbalances rooted in gender or class tempt malefactors into thinking they're justified in stealing someone else's voice and story. Two of the best have just been published in time for early summer reading.
"A Lonely Man" is a brooding literary thriller by Chris Power that explores human betrayal in all its infinite variety. And it's also reminiscent of the Graham Greene classic, "The Third Man." The story opens one evening in a Berlin bookstore. Two men, both British, both writers, are browsing and reach for the same book. Robert is a married father of two. Some years ago, he published a respectfully reviewed short story collection. And ever since, he's been trying to write his first novel - accent on the word trying.
The other man, Patrick, is a ghostwriter whose last client was a Russian oligarch who'd hired Patrick to write his memoirs, filled with information damaging to Vladimir Putin. That writing project came to a halt the morning the oligarch went out for a run and was subsequently discovered hanging from an oak tree. The death was ruled a suicide, but Patrick insists it was murder.
Robert and Patrick begin meeting for drinks, and as Patrick unbends, he tells Robert he's being followed, probably by the same pro-Putin thugs who murdered his former employer. As Robert listens, he feels tempted to steal a story that would otherwise go to waste. Robert begins manipulating Patrick into sharing detailed accounts of his interviews with the doomed oligarch. It's all going so well, until Robert is grimly reminded that in laying claim to Patrick's material, he, too, has turned into a writer who knows too much.
Jean Hanff Korelitz is the novelist who gave us the 2014 domestic thriller "You Should Have Known," which was made into the recent HBO series "The Undoing," in which the online buzz over Nicole Kidman's gorgeous coats threatened to distract attention from the diabolical narrative. Korelitz's new novel is called "The Plot," and it's an ingenious, witty nightmare of a thriller about the dangerous consequences of sticky fingers in the literary world. The protagonist of the plot is Jacob Finch Bonner, a once-celebrated young author who, by his own admission, fumbled his early shot, failed to produce a good enough second novel or any trace of a third novel, and had been sent to the special purgatory for formerly promising writers. That special purgatory is a low residency masters of fine arts program at the fictional Ripley College in Vermont, where, for the past few summers, Jacob has taught a prose fiction workshop.
To say that Jacob has become cynical about teaching would be like saying that Ulysses takes a long time to get home. When the story opens, Jacob has just arrived at his temporary office on campus without having read his new students' writing samples because, after all, thinks Jacob, what was there to know? These particular students, these ardent apprentices, would be utterly indistinguishable from their earlier Ripley counterparts - mid-career professionals convinced they could churn out Clive Cussler adventures or moms who blogged about their kids and didn't see why that shouldn't entitle them to a regular gig on "Good Morning America" or newly retired people returning to fiction, secure in the knowledge that fiction had been waiting for them.
But as fate would have it, there is one special student in the summer seminar, an arrogant toad named Evan Parker who refuses to share his work with the class but does break down and share his spectacular plot idea with Jacob. Years later, when Jacob has slid even farther down the literary food chain and is working as a freelance writing coach, he becomes curious about whatever happened to Parker and his great idea for a novel. To his shock, Jacob discovers Parker's obituary online. There's no novel because Parker didn't live to write it. But Jacob is alive, and it would be a crime to let that spectacular story vanish into the ether, wouldn't it?
I'll stop there, because one thing that surely would be a crime would be to divulge any more of the malevolent twists and turns of "The Plot." The plot of "The Plot" is so inspired that it should be assigned as required reading in the very MFA programs it satirizes, both as a model of narrative construction and as a warning to wannabe (ph) writers that purloined letters are an ever-present danger of the literary life.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "A Lonely Man" by Chris Power and "The Plot" by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the sharp racial distinctions in the way Americans' Second Amendment right to bear arms has been applied. Our guest will be Carol Anderson, author of the new book "The Second: Race And Guns In A Fatally Unequal America." She says the Second Amendment was crafted to ensure slave owners could suppress rebellions, and Black people have often been denied the right to use guns in self-defense with tragic consequences. I hope you'll join us.
Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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