Planted in a garden bed in front of the fence were the heads of 55 Black men impaled on metal rods, their eyes shut and jaws clenched in anguish.
Smith, a journalist and a poet, was visiting the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana as part of his quest to understand the impact of slavery in America. He had spent four years touring monuments and landmarks commemorating slavery across America and in Africa, but his stop at the Whitney, in his home state, stood out.
There he encountered no mint juleps or “Gone with the Wind” nostalgia about slavery. Instead, the plantation displayed statuettes of impoverished, emaciated Black children. Oral histories included an account from an enslaved woman who recalled how her master would come at night to rape her sister and “den have de nerve to come round de next day and ask her how she feel.”
Smith also visits such landmarks as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation in Virginia and Goree Island in Senegal, a notorious slave-trading center. Along the way he speaks with tour guides, descendants of slaves, tourists and even members of a neo-Confederate group who tell him that slavery wasn’t the main cause of the Civil War. Others tell him there was no such a thing as a “good” slave master.
Smith’s book is a systematic takedown of many myths about slavery, including one that the Whitney exhibit disproves — that most slaves just passively accepted their fate.
“From the moment Black folks arrives on these shores, they were fighting for liberation,” Smith says. “They fought for freedom that they never had the opportunity to see, but they fought for it anyway because they knew that someday someone would. When I see that at the Whitney, I think of all those sacrifices.”
CNN talked to Smith recently about his book and how slavery still informs today’s America. The conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
How do you respond to people who say, ‘Why should I care about slavery? It happened centuries ago. I didn’t own any slaves, and neither did my ancestors. Why are you trying to make me feel guilty for something I didn’t do?’
Part of what is important is understanding how this story we tell ourselves wasn’t that long ago at all. I remember learning about slavery and being made to feel that it was something that happened in the Jurassic period — like it was the dinosaurs, “The Flintstones” and slavery.