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Arts & Culture

A Poet Reflects On How We Reckon — Or Fail To Reckon — With The Legacy Of Slavery

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. As 2020 comes to an end, we ask Clint Smith what he's thinking about as he looks back at this year. He's a staff writer at The Atlantic. His book of poems "Counting Descent" won the 2017 literary award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. His forthcoming book "How The Word Is Passed" explores how different sites across the country reckon with or fail to reckon with their relationship to the history of slavery. Here's Clint.

CLINT SMITH: Obviously, a lot has happened this year. But what's top of mind for me as we end 2020 is the sort of racial reckoning that this country has experienced over the last several months and really over the last several years, both since George Floyd was killed and since Black Lives Matter has begun. And within that is this interrogation of Confederate monuments and memorials and statues. And should they be taken down? Should they stay up?

And in 2017 in my hometown in New Orleans, we removed several statues and memorials of Confederates, including Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard. And those statues were taken down. And I began thinking about, what does it mean that I grew up in this city, you know, where there are names of hundreds of people who were Confederates or owned enslaved people that sort of ornament the iconography of the place I grew up, in this majority Black city? And what does it mean that we have a city that, in many ways, honored and memorialized enslavers more than it did the enslaved?

So I began thinking of that and thinking about how different places across the country, including my own hometown - to what extent are these places being honest about their relationship to this history, and to what extent are they hiding from it? And this ultimately became the book that I've written that comes out next year, which is a narrative nonfiction book. But with me, all things begin in poetry. And, you know, that's how I was trained as a writer. And so while the book is a narrative nonfiction project, the poems are the things that help me ask the questions. And so I wanted to share a poem that I wrote. And I've been writing, in many ways, for the last few years that served as a sort of entry point to this interrogation because we can take down these monuments, but if we don't address what led the monuments to be put up in the first place, then we're not actually solving the issue.

(Reading) Growing up, the iconography of the Confederacy was an ever-present fixture of my daily life. Every day on the way to school, I passed a statue of P.G.T. Beauregard riding on horseback, his Confederate uniform slung over his shoulder and his military cap pulled far down over his eyes. As a child, I did not know who P.G.T. Beauregard was. I did not know he was the man who ordered the first attack that opened the Civil War. I did not know he was one of the architects who designed the Confederate national flag. I did not know he led an army predicated on maintaining the institution of slavery. What I knew is that he looked like so many of the other statues that ornamented the edges of this city, these copper garlands of a past that saw truth as something that should be buried underground and silenced by the soil.

After the war, the sons and daughters of the Confederacy reshaped the contours of treason into something they could name as honorable. They called it the Lost Cause, and it crept its way into textbooks that attempted to cover up a crime that was still unfolding. They told us that Robert E. Lee was an honest man, guilty of nothing but fighting for the state and the people that he loved, that the Southern flag was about heritage and remembering those slain fighting to preserve their way of life. But, see; the thing about the Lost Cause is that it's only lost if you're not actually looking. The thing about heritage is that it's a word that also means I'm ignoring what we did to you.

I was taught the Civil War wasn't about slavery, but I was never taught how the declarations of Confederate secession had the promise of human bondage carved into its stone. I was taught that the war was about economics, but I was never taught that in 1860, the 4 million enslaved Black people were worth more than every bank, factory and railroad combined. I was taught that the Civil War was about states' rights, but I was never taught how the Fugitive Slave Act could care less about a border and spell Georgia and Massachusetts the exact same way. It's easy to look at a flag and call it heritage when you don't see the Black bodies buried behind it. It's easy to look at a statue and call it history when you ignore the laws written in its wake.

I come from a city abounding with statues of white men on pedestals and Black children playing beneath them, where we played trumpets and trombones to drown out the Dixie song that still whistled in the wind. In New Orleans, there are over a hundred schools, roads and buildings named for Confederates and slaveholders. Every day Black children walk into buildings named after people who never wanted them to be there.

Every time I return home, I drive on streets named for those who would have wanted me in chains. Go straight for two miles on Robert E. Lee. Take a left on Jefferson Davis. Make the first right on Claiborne. Translation - go straight for two miles on the general who slaughtered hundreds of Black soldiers who were trying to surrender. Take a left on the President of the Confederacy who made the torture of Black bodies the cornerstone of his new nation. Make the first right on the man who permitted the heads of rebelling slaves to be put on stakes and spread across the city in order to prevent the others from getting any ideas.

What name is there for this sort of violence? What do you call it when the road you walk on is named for those who imagined you under a noose? What do you call it when the roof over your head is named after people who would have wanted the bricks to crush you?

GROSS: Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He's the author of the poetry collection "Counting Descent" and the forthcoming narrative nonfiction book "How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With The History Of Slavery Across America." It's scheduled for publication next June.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll feature our interview with Stephen King about writing his horror story "The Stand" about a pandemic and now living through a pandemic. And we'll hear from Patrick Stewart. After playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and in four movies, this year he starred in the series "Star Trek: Picard." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineers today are Audrey and Adam Staniszewski. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMINIC MILLER'S "CHAOS THEORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.