Historian Clint Smith Speaks on Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across US

We characteristic a particular broadcast on the newly created Juneteenth federal vacation commemorating the day in 1865 when enslaved individuals in Galveston, Texas, discovered of their freedom greater than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. We start with our 2021 interview with historian Clint Smith, initially aired a day after President Biden signed laws to make Juneteenth the primary new federal vacation since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Smith is the writer of How the Phrase Is Handed: A Reckoning with the Historical past of Slavery Throughout America. “Once I consider Juneteenth, a part of what I take into consideration is the each/andedness of it,” Smith says, “that it’s this second through which we mourn the truth that freedom was stored from a whole bunch of hundreds of enslaved individuals for years and for months after it had been attained by them, after which, on the similar time, celebrating the tip of one of the egregious issues that this nation has ever completed.” Smith says he acknowledges the federal vacation marking Juneteenth as an emblem, “however it’s clearly not sufficient.”


It is a rush transcript. Copy will not be in its closing kind.

AMY GOODMAN: Right this moment, a Democracy Now! particular, on this, the newly created Juneteenth federal vacation, which marks the tip of slavery in the USA. The Juneteenth commemoration dates again to the final days of the Civil Conflict, when Union troopers landed in Galveston, Texas, on June nineteenth, 1865, with information that the struggle had ended, and enslaved individuals discovered they had been freed. It was two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

In 2021, President Biden signed laws making Juneteenth the primary new federal vacation since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On the day after Biden signed the laws, I spoke to the author and poet Clint Smith, writer of the ebook How the Phrase Is Handed: A Reckoning with the Historical past of Slavery Throughout America. I started by asking him about touring to Galveston, Texas, and his emotions on Juneeteenth turning into a federal vacation.

CLINT SMITH: As you talked about, I went to Galveston, Texas. I’ve been penning this ebook for 4 years, and I went two years in the past. And it was marking the fortieth anniversary of when Texas had made Juneteenth a state vacation. And it was the Al Edwards Prayer Breakfast. The late Al Edwards Sr. is the state legislator, Black state legislator, who made doable and advocated for the laws that turned Juneteenth into a vacation, a state vacation in Texas.

And so I went, partly, as a result of I wished to spend time with individuals who had been the precise descendants of those that had been freed by Normal Gordon Granger’s Normal Order No. 3. And it was a extremely outstanding second, as a result of I used to be on this place, on this island, on this land, with individuals for whom Juneteenth was not an abstraction. It was not a efficiency. It was not merely an emblem. It was a part of their custom. It was a part of their lineage. It was an heirloom that had been handed down, that had made their lives doable. And so, I believe I gained a extra intimate sense of what that vacation meant.

And to type of broaden, broaden out extra usually, you spoke to the way it was greater than two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and it was an extra two months after Normal Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, successfully ending the Civil Conflict. So it wasn’t solely two years after the Emancipation Proclamation; it was an extra two months after the Civil Conflict was successfully over.

And so, for me, once I consider Juneteenth, a part of what I take into consideration is the each/andedness of it, that it’s this second through which we mourn the truth that freedom was stored from a whole bunch of hundreds of enslaved individuals for years and for months after it had been attained by them, after which, on the similar time, celebrating the tip of one of the egregious issues that this nation has ever completed.

And I believe what we’re experiencing proper now’s a type of marathon of cognitive dissonance, in the best way that’s reflective of the Black expertise as a complete, as a result of we’re in a second the place we’ve got the primary new federal vacation in over 40 years and a second that’s necessary to have fun, the Juneteenth, and to have fun the tip of slavery and to have it acknowledged as a nationwide vacation, and on the similar time that that’s taking place, we’ve got a state-sanctioned effort throughout state legislatures throughout the nation that’s trying to forestall academics from instructing the very factor that helps younger individuals perceive the context from which Juneteenth emerges.

And so, I believe that we acknowledge that, as an emblem, Juneteenth is just not — that it issues, that it is necessary, however it’s clearly not sufficient. And I believe the truth that Juneteenth has occurred is reflective of a shift in our public consciousness, but additionally of the work that Black Texans and Black individuals throughout this nation have completed for many years to make this second doable.

AMY GOODMAN: And may you clarify extra what occurred in Galveston in 1865 and, at the same time as you level out, what the Emancipation Proclamation really did two-and-a-half years earlier than?

CLINT SMITH: Proper. So, the Emancipation Proclamation is commonly a extensively misunderstood doc. So, it didn’t, type of wholesale, free the enslaved individuals all through the Union. It didn’t free enslaved individuals within the Union. The truth is, there have been a number of border states that had been a part of the Union that continued to maintain their enslaved laborers, states like Kentucky, states like Delaware, states like Missouri. And what it did was it was a navy edict that was trying to free enslaved individuals in Accomplice territory. However the one means that that edict can be enforced is that if Union troopers went and took that territory.

And so, a part of what many enslavers realized — and realized accurately — was that Texas can be one of many final frontiers that Union troopers would be capable to are available in and power the Emancipation Proclamation — in the event that they ever made it there within the first place, as a result of this was two years previous to the tip of the Civil Conflict. And so, you had enslavers from Virginia and from North Carolina and from all of those states within the higher South who introduced their enslaved laborers and relocated to Texas, in ways in which elevated the inhabitants of enslaved individuals in Texas by the tens of hundreds.

And so, when Gordon Granger involves Texas, he’s making clear and letting individuals know that the Emancipation Proclamation had been enacted, in ways in which due to the topography of Texas and due to how unfold out and rural and much other than totally different ecosystems of knowledge many individuals had been, a whole lot of enslaved individuals didn’t know that the Emancipation Proclamation had occurred. And a few didn’t even know that Normal Lee had surrendered at Appomattox two months prior. And so, a part of what that is doing is making clear to the 250,000 enslaved individuals in Texas that that they had really been granted freedom two-and-a-half years prior and that the struggle that this was all fought over had ended two months earlier than.

AMY GOODMAN: Through the ceremony making Juneteenth a federal vacation, President Biden acquired down on his knee to greet Opal Lee, the 94-year-old activist generally known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth. That is Biden talking about Lee.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: As a toddler rising up in Texas, she and her household would have fun Juneteenth. On Juneteenth 1939, when she was 12 years previous, a white mob torched her household residence. However such hate by no means stopped her, any greater than it stopped the overwhelming majority of you I’m taking a look at from this podium. Over the course of many years, she has made it her mission to see that this present day got here. It was virtually a singular mission. She has walked for miles and miles, actually and figuratively, to convey consideration to Juneteenth, to make this present day doable.

AMY GOODMAN: And that is Opal Lee talking at Harvard College of Public Well being.

OPAL LEE: I don’t need individuals to assume Juneteenth is simply sooner or later. There may be an excessive amount of academic parts. Now we have an excessive amount of to do. I even advocate that we do Juneteenth, that we have fun freedom from the nineteenth of June to the Fourth of July, as a result of we weren’t free on the Fourth of July, 1776. That may be celebrating freedom — do you perceive? — if we had been ready to do this.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s Opal Lee, thought of the Grandmother of Juneteenth. And, Clint, one of many stuff you do in your ebook is you introduce us to grassroots activists. This doesn’t come from the highest; this comes from years of organizing, as you level out, in Galveston itself and with individuals like — not that there’s anybody like — Opal Lee.

CLINT SMITH: Yeah, no, completely. A part of what this ebook is doing, it’s an try and uplift the tales of people that don’t usually get the eye that they deserve in how they form the historic file. So, meaning the general public historians who work at these historic websites and plantations. Which means the museum curators. Which means the activists and the organizers, individuals like Take ’Em Down NOLA in New Orleans, who pushed the Metropolis Council and the mayor to make doable the truth that in 2017 these statues would come down, a number of Accomplice statues in my hometown, in New Orleans.

And a part of — once I take into consideration somebody like Miss Opal Lee, a part of what I take into consideration is our proximity to this era of historical past, proper? Slavery existed for 250 years on this nation, and it’s solely not existed for 150. And, , the best way that I used to be taught about slavery, rising up, in elementary college, we had been made to really feel as if it was one thing that occurred within the Jurassic age, that it was the flint stone, the dinosaurs and slavery, virtually as if all of them occurred on the similar time. However the girl who opened the Nationwide Museum of African American Historical past and Tradition alongside the Obama household in 2016 was the daughter of an enslaved individual — not the granddaughter or the great-granddaughter or the great-great-granddaughter. The daughter of an enslaved individual is who opened this museum of the Smithsonian in 2016. And so, clearly, for therefore many individuals, there are people who find themselves alive at present who had been raised by, who knew, who had been in group with, who liked individuals who had been born into intergenerational chattel bondage. And so, this historical past that we inform ourselves was a very long time in the past wasn’t, actually, that way back in any respect.

And a part of what so many activists and grassroots public historians and organizers throughout this nation acknowledge is that if we don’t totally perceive and account for this historical past, that really wasn’t that way back, that within the scope of human historical past was solely simply yesterday, then we gained’t totally perceive our modern panorama of inequality at present. We gained’t perceive how slavery formed the political, financial and social infrastructure of this nation. And when you’ve got a extra acute understanding of how slavery formed the infrastructure of this nation, then you definitely’re capable of extra successfully go searching you and see how the explanation one group seems to be a technique and one other group seems to be one other means is just not due to the individuals in these communities, however is due to what has been completed to these communities, technology after technology after technology. And I believe that that’s central to the type of public pedagogy that so many of those activists and organizers who’ve been trying to make Juneteenth a vacation and convey consideration to it as an entry level to assume extra wholly and truthfully concerning the legacy of slavery have been doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Throughout an interview on CNN, Democratic Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez known as out the 14 Republican congressmembers — all white males — who voted towards making Juneteenth a federal vacation.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: That is fairly in keeping with, I believe, the Republican base, and it’s — whether or not it’s making an attempt to battle towards instructing primary historical past round racism and the function of racism in U.S. historical past to — , there’s a direct by means of line from that to denying Juneteenth, the day that’s well known and celebrated as a symbolic form of day to signify the tip of slavery in the USA.

AMY GOODMAN: For those who may reply to that, Clint Smith, and in addition the truth that on the identical day, yesterday, the Senate minority chief stated they might not be supporting the For the Folks Act?

CLINT SMITH: Yeah, I imply, I believe —

AMY GOODMAN: The Voting Rights Act.

CLINT SMITH: Completely. I believe, very clearly, the important race idea — the thought of it’s getting used as a bogeyman, and it’s being misrepresented and distorted by individuals who don’t even know what important race idea is, proper? So we ought to be clear that the factor that individuals are calling important race idea is simply — that’s the language that they’re utilizing to speak concerning the thought of instructing any type of historical past that rejects the concept America is a singularly distinctive place, and that we must always not account for the historical past of hurt that has been enacted to create alternatives and intergenerational wealth for tens of millions of individuals, that has come on the direct expense of tens of millions and tens of millions of different individuals throughout generations.

And so, half of what’s taking place in these state legislatures throughout the nation with regard to the trouble to push again towards instructing of historical past — 1619 Challenge, important race idea and the like — is a recognition that we’ve got developed on this nation a extra subtle understanding, a extra subtle framework, a extra subtle public lexicon, with which to know how slavery — how racism was not simply an interpersonal phenomenon, it was a historic one, it was a structural one, it was a systemic one.

AMY GOODMAN: I would like you to speak extra about your ebook, How the Phrase Is Handed: A Reckoning with the Historical past of Slavery Throughout America. Are you able to speak concerning the journey you took — you had been simply mentioning the place you grew up, in Louisiana, the map of the streets of Louisiana — and why you are feeling it’s so important not solely to take a look at the South, however your chapter on New York is one thing that individuals can be — many can be shocked by, the extent of — when individuals speak concerning the South and slavery, that New York, in fact, had enslaved individuals?

CLINT SMITH: It did. It was actually necessary for me to incorporate a chapter on New York Metropolis, and a spot within the North, extra broadly, partly as a result of, , whereas nearly all of locations I go to are within the South, as a result of the South is the place slavery was saturated and the place it was most intimately tied the social and financial infrastructure of that society, it most actually additionally existed within the North.

What lots of people don’t know is that New York Metropolis, for an prolonged time period, was the second-largest slave port within the nation, after Charleston, South Carolina; that in 1860, getting ready to the Civil Conflict, when South Carolina was about to secede from the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln, that New York Metropolis’s mayor, Fernando Wooden, proposed that New York Metropolis must also secede from the Union alongside the Southern states, as a result of New York’s monetary and political infrastructure had been so deeply entangled and tied to the slavocracy of the South; additionally that the Statue of Liberty was initially conceived by Édouard de Laboulaye, a French abolitionist, who conceived of the thought of the Statue of Liberty and giving it to the USA as a present, that it was initially conceived as an thought to have fun the tip of the Civil Conflict and to have fun abolition.

However over time, that which means has been — even by means of the conception of the statue, proper? The unique conception of the statue really had Girl Liberty breaking shackles, like a pair of damaged shackles on her wrists, to represent the tip of slavery. And over time, it turned very clear that that might not have the type of vast stream — or, vast mainstream assist of individuals throughout the nation, clearly this having been simply not too lengthy after the tip of the Civil Conflict, so there have been nonetheless a whole lot of recent wounds. And they also shifted the which means of the statue to be extra about type of inclusivity, extra concerning the American expertise, the American challenge, the American promise, the promise of democracy, and type of obfuscated the unique which means, to the purpose the place even the design modified. And they also changed the shackles with a pill and the torch, after which put the shackles very subtly type of beneath her gown. And you may — however the one means you possibly can see them, these damaged chains, these damaged hyperlinks, are from a helicopter or from an airplane.

And in some ways, I believe that that could be a microcosm for a way we cover the story of slavery throughout this nation, that these chain hyperlinks are hidden, out of sight, out of view of most individuals, below the gown of Girl Liberty, and the way the story of slavery throughout this nation could be very — as we see now, very deliberately making an attempt to be hidden and stored from so many individuals, in order that we’ve got a essentially inconsistent understanding of the best way that slavery formed our modern society at present.

AMY GOODMAN: Clint, earlier than we finish, you might be an writer, you’re a author, you’re a trainer, and you’re a poet. Are you able to share a poem with us?

CLINT SMITH: I’d be blissful to. And so, while you’re a poet writing nonfiction, that very a lot animates the best way that I strategy the textual content. And so, that is a part of the — that is an adaptation or an besides from the tip of one in all my chapters, that initially started as a poem that I wrote once I was making an attempt to consider a few of these points that I introduced up.

[reading] Rising up, the iconography of the Confederacy was an ever-present fixture of my day by day life. On daily basis on the best way to high school, I handed a statue of P.G.T. Beauregard using on horseback, his Accomplice uniform slung over his shoulder and his navy cap pulled far down over his eyes. As a toddler, I didn’t know who P.G.T. Beauregard was. I didn’t know he was the person who ordered the primary assault that opened the Civil Conflict. I didn’t know he was one of many architects who designed the Accomplice battle flag. I didn’t know he led a military predicated on sustaining the establishment of slavery. What I knew is that he seemed like so most of the different statues that ornamented the perimeters of this metropolis, these copper garlands of a previous that noticed reality as one thing that ought to be buried underground and silenced by the soil.

After the struggle, the little children of the Confederacy reshaped the contours of treason into one thing they may title as honorable. We known as it the Misplaced Trigger. And it crept its means into textbooks that tried to cowl up a criminal offense that was nonetheless unfolding; that advised us that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man, responsible of nothing however combating for the state and the people who he liked; that the Southern flag was about heritage and remembering these slain combating to protect their lifestyle. However, see, the factor concerning the Misplaced Trigger is that it’s solely misplaced for those who’re not really wanting. The factor about heritage is that it’s a phrase that additionally means “I’m ignoring what we did to you.”

I used to be taught the Civil Conflict wasn’t about slavery, however I used to be by no means taught how the declarations of Accomplice secession had the promise of human bondage carved into its stone. I used to be taught the struggle was about economics, however I used to be by no means taught that in 1860 the 4 million enslaved Black individuals had been price greater than each financial institution, manufacturing unit and railroad mixed. I used to be taught that the Civil Conflict was about states’ rights, however I used to be by no means taught how the Fugitive Slave Act may care much less a few border and spelled Georgia and Massachusetts the very same means.

It’s straightforward to take a look at a flag and name it heritage while you don’t see the Black our bodies buried behind it. It’s straightforward to take a look at a statue and name it historical past while you ignore the legal guidelines written in its wake.

I come from a metropolis abounding with statues of white males on pedestals and Black youngsters taking part in beneath them, the place we performed trumpets and trombones to drown out the Dixie track that’s nonetheless whistled within the wind. In New Orleans, there are over 100 faculties, roads and buildings named for Confederates and slaveholders. On daily basis, Black youngsters stroll into buildings named after individuals who by no means wished them to be there. Each time I’d return residence, I’d drive on streets named for individuals who would have wished me in chains.

Go straight for 2 miles on Robert E. Lee, take a left on Jefferson Davis, make the primary proper on Claiborne. Translation: Go straight for 2 miles on the overall who slaughtered a whole bunch of Black troopers who had been making an attempt to give up, take a left on the president of the Confederacy who made the torture of Black our bodies the cornerstone of his new nation, make the primary proper on the person who permitted the heads of rebelling slaves to be placed on stakes and unfold throughout the town so as to forestall the others from getting any concepts.

What title is there for this type of violence? What do you name it when the street you stroll on is known as for individuals who imagined you below a noose? What do you name it when the roof over your head is known as after individuals who would have wished the bricks to crush you?

AMY GOODMAN: Clint Smith, writer of the ebook How the Phrase Is Handed: A Reckoning with the Historical past of Slavery Throughout America, speaking on Democracy Now! in 2021, the day after Juneteenth turned a federal vacation.

Arising, we keep in mind the life and legacy of the legendary actor, singer and human rights activist Harry Belafonte, who died in April on the age of 96.

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