Sunday, June 20, 2021

How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith

Little, Brown and Company, 2021
336 pp

In September of this year the longlist for the National Book Awards will be released, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see this book there.   I also wouldn't be at all surprised if it wins -- it more than deserves this accolade and any other that comes its way.   

Clint Smith was born and raised in the city of New Orleans, and yet, as he says, he "knew relatively little" about the city's "relationship to the centuries of bondage" rooted in its
"soft earth, in the statues I had walked past daily, the names of the streets I had lived on, the schools I had attended, and the building that had once been nothing more to me than the remnants of colonial architecture."
He quotes historian Walter Johnson as saying that "the whole city is a memorial to slavery," and realizes that "it was all right in front of me, even when I didn't know how to look for it."  After the statue of Robert E. Lee was taken down in May, 2017, Smith notes that he had become "obsessed with how slavery is remembered and reckoned with," and with "teaching myself all of things I wish someone had taught me long ago."  In an interview with Publisher's Weekly he notes that as he watched the "architecture of [his] childhood coming down," he  thought about how
 "these statues were not just statues, but memorialized the lives of slave owners and how history was reflected in different places."

He also states in his book that  right now America is at an "inflection point," 

"in which there is a willingness to more fully grapple with the legacy of slavery and how it shaped the world we live in today"
 but that while some places have "more purposefully ... attempted to tell the truth about their proximity to slavery and its aftermath,"  there are others which have "more staunchly" refused.   From this beginning, as Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning notes in his blurb for How the Word Is Passed,   Smith visited several "historical sites that are truth-telling or deceiving visitors about slavery."  Each chapter, as Smith describes in his prologue is a 
"portrait of a place, but also of the people in that place -- those who live there, work there, and are the descendants of the land and of the families who once lived on it.  They are people who have tasked themselves with telling the story of that place outside traditional classrooms and beyond the pages of textbooks."

They are also, as he says, "public historians who carry with them a piece of this country's collective memories," who have "dedicated their lives to sharing this history with others."  

Using a wide variety of scholarship discussing the actual history of these locations,  personal interviews, as well as his own experiences and insights, he begins this "necessary journey" (as W. Caleb McDaniel calls it in his blurb)  to discover how each place has come to address its dark and painful past, or how in some cases they "worked not to have a discussion about slavery."   He stops first at Monticello Plantation before moving on to the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana  where people are "confronted with the reality of slavery."    Angola Prison is the next stop, where he discovers that the one thing not on the tour he took was the fact that the prison was built on top of a plantation. In fact, he recalls that after the guide spoke about "Indigenous communities and French exploration of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries," he moved directly to post-Civil War America, failing to mention the time that Angola had been a plantation where enslaved black people were responsible for a cotton yield "higher than most other plantations of the South."  And while the guide did mention convict leasing, he failed to talk about it as an "explicit tool of economic and racial subjugation."  In Virginia, Smith visited the Blandford Cemetery where 30,000 Confederate soldiers found their final resting place, later returning there with a friend for a Memorial Day Sons of Confederate Veterans commemoration ceremony; in Galveston, Texas he celebrates Juneteenth.  Then it's up north to New York City where he discovers its "untold history" unraveling all around him, after which he's off to Gorée Island in Senegal, Dakar to the Slave House and  Door of No Return, a "place that still holds the ghosts of thousands and remains a symbol for the plight of millions. " That is not his final stop though -- he visits the National Museum of African American History which stirs up the memories of his maternal grandparents who had accompanied him and who will go on to share their stories with him.

 As Smith notes at the end of his book,  "he history of slavery is the history of the United States."   It is neither "peripheral to our founding," nor is it "irrelevant to our contemporary society."  It is "in our soil, it is in our policies, and it must, too, be in our memories."  

 I have become an staunch advocate for this book -- it's one everybody should read, not just for the history within, but also for Clint Smith's writing here, which is not only knowledgeable but truly  insightful and inspiring, coming straight from his heart and his soul.   

so very very very very highly recommended.  

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Sphinxes and Obelisks, by Mark Valentine

Tartarus Press, 2021
266 pp


The other day I received an email notifying me that Tartarus has published a two-volume set of the Collected Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions, which I quickly bought.  I received a "notification of payment" email from Ray Russell, saying that the books would be posted next week.  I emailed back to thank him and happened to mention how very much I was enjoying this book, and he made the most spot-on comment ever:

"Mark has a way of making you feel that you need just a few more shelves..."

A "few more shelves" indeed: this time around the final tally is fourteen books bought out of the list of 36 I noted as "want to read," with  three more already on my shelves thanks to Valancourt. Where I'm going to put all of these I don't know, but that's what happens when I read Valentine's essays.  I know from experience that before I even open one of his books I'm going to need a pen and paper to write down the titles he discusses, and I also know that I will not escape unscathed as far as the bank account goes. And I don't care.  

Sphinxes and Obelisks is (as are many of Valentine's essay collections) a book lover's paradise, with the  dustjacket blurb mentioning books that have been "overlooked," offering examples of such "recondite reading" material as 
"an interplanetary fantasy by a Welsh squire; a timeslip into a mysterious England by a priest once called the original Dorian Gray; an avant-garde novel about a tea-party and the Holy Grail."

I mean, seriously, who could resist?  At the same time, this book is also a fascinating collection of odd miscellany of rather out-there topics including the Sphinx Illusion performed in 1865 at the Egyptian Hall, a "strange head of myth speaking" to an audience "from out of a casket, uttering its omens and riddles;" an essay on what ghosts wear, and the game "Cat-at-the-Window" as recalled by Edward Marsh  in his memoirs,  which ends in speculation as to whether Algernon Blackwood's story "Ancient Sorceries" "may have been inspired by a too fevered indulgence in the cat game" (read the story, you'll understand) and the possibility of a  more "pedestrian and peregrinatory version of the game" having been known to Arthur Machen, "the eminent historian of Dog and Duck, an old bowling game," and "admirer of cats."   As a matter of fact (and unsurprisingly)  many of these essays contain various literary roads leading to Machen, as well as various examples of one of my own newly-discovered reading passions, psychogeography (especially in "Apocalypse and Marrow Jam: Pilgrim from Paddington") which also happens to stem from my reading of  Machen's Hill of Dreams last year.  

Colonel Stodare (with the Sphinx)  as he appears in the book; this photo is from Travelanche

Beginning and ending with treks through bookstores (never new books, by the way), in dreams and with  writer John Howard, Sphinxes and Obelisks is another must-read collection  for fellow travelers who are easily led down the rabbit hole to dally in the realm of the obscure.  I have to say that Mark Valentine is one of the few writers whose fiction and nonfiction works consistently attain the level of near perfection; this book has the feel of listening to an old friend whose love of literature knows no bounds.  

Very, very highly recommended; one of my favorite books so far this year.