How the Word is Passed: A Reflection for this Juneteenth
This Juneteenth reminds us that we still have a lot of work to do to ensure Inclusion. Read Emmy’s review of “How the Word is Passed” book for inspiration.
“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light a fire in the minds of men. Words can bring tears from the hardest heart.” – Patrick Rothfuss
Every June 19, the US celebrates Juneteenth. Even though this holiday celebrates freedom from slavery for the Black community, there is still so much work that needs to be done to ensure equity in society and the workplace. As I work to broaden and deepen my understanding of what it means to be a White American, I picked up How the Word is Passed: a Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith. The New York Times review listed the book as one of the top 10 books of 2021.
Smith uses this compilation of stories and reflections on different locations around America as the backdrop to help us explore and reframe our history, our heroes, and our assumptions. The resulting exploration taught me so much history missing from my education.
Throughout “How the Word is Passed”, Smith offers us portraits of many inspiring people changing the story. They are engaged in bringing a more wholesome understanding of people in our past, whether enslaved or free, to the foreground.
Smith, who is an accomplished poet, brings these skills into this book throughout. He uses images and emotions to help us absorb the harsh truths about the experiences of enslaved people and the self-interest of the surrounding white community. Smith uses the historic voices and observations combined with his impeccable research to move the reader to challenge our notions and change our perspective. While the words are patient and measured, we are forced into unavoidable contact with the inhumanity of slavery and our continued complicity with its persistence in modern times.
There were three distinct sections of the book that stood out to me:
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
Smith starts the reader off slowly, exploring a familiar, iconic location, the home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello. Smith challenges us to confront the contradiction of a Founding Father who kept people enslaved and fathered several children with Sally Hemings, beginning when she was only 16.
Jefferson is so often lauded for his noble words declaring all being created free and equal. However, at the same time, he penned “some of the most racist” comments asserting Black people’s inferiority and inherent limitations. As though his actions were not enough, his largely unknown pamphlet, Notes on the State of Virginia, leave no ambiguity as to his views on slavery and his justification for a system that profited from denying people’s humanity and right to their own labor.
The Blandford Cemetery
While too many sections of the book warrant further review, I will share a bit about the most striking chapter for me that talks about Smith’s visit to Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia.
The cemetery serves as a foil to address the phenomenon and mythology around the real cause of the Civil War and the profound consequences to us today. He explores the history of the cemetery with 30,000 unmarked confederate soldiers’ graves, the annual Sons of Confederate Veterans celebration held there, and the celebratory visitors to its Confederate war memorial chapel.
Smith uses images and emotions to help us absorb the harsh truths about the experiences of enslaved people and the self-interest of the surrounding White community.
The Recharacterization of Robert E. Lee
Smith breaks down America’s predicament. Our inability to move past our history is inextricably connected to our failure to confront the economic foundation of the chattel slavery system. He elaborates on the white-washing of Robert E. Lee’s reputation from a slave-owning military leader of the rebellion to a noble defender of state’s rights. This recharacterization began almost immediately after the war and remains embedded in the hundreds of monuments to Lee and other Confederate leaders around the South and the US.
How Our Fictional Past Keeps Racism Alive
He painstakingly documents that each of the states which left the Union did so to maintain and perpetuate a system of owning other people and exploiting their labor for profit. He walks us through why the perpetuation of an alternate version of the past is so harmful to our present.
Once completed, I was left with no doubt that this fictional account of the causes of the Civil War is at the heart of our continued crisis in America. Smith patiently explains why the perpetuation of monuments to Confederate leaders is a lynchpin to maintaining a racist foundation of American ideology. He points out that at the time of the Civil War, “White Southerner's commitment to the Confederate cause was not predicated on whether or not they owned slaves [but rather] based on a desire to maintain a society in which Black people remained at the bottom of the social hierarchy.”
The great Confederate heroes help to keep the divide alive and create excuses for not addressing the damage caused by slavery, the continuing racist ideas embedded in our culture, and the failure to heal to move past slavery’s legacy. In the workplace, many organizations are still struggling to move past the toxic culture, despite declaring their commitment to strengthening DEI. But now is the time to heal and reset our organizational culture, and there is no better way to start than by admitting areas to improve and re-learning.
“How the Word is Passed” is an excellent springboard to continue to re-learn the history of America and further my own reckoning as an American with insights into our future direction. As we celebrate Juneteenth, let’s continue to seek knowledge, understand, and ensure our words are passed truthfully and kindly.
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