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Why Is This Happening? 'How the Word Is Passed' with Clint Smith: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with author Clint Smith about the narrative of slavery and race in America, and how it has been contested and changed over time.

What we call history isn't a fixed thing; it's a narrative, contested and fought over, changing over time. Right now, the United States is in the midst of a massive historical battle over its own narrative, specifically the legacy of slavery and race in America. The backlash to that fight is spilling into public policy as Republican state legislatures push to regulate the way students are taught about the founding of our country.

In Clint Smith's new book "How The Word is Passed", Smith studies our understanding of slavery through the stories we tell of it. He travelled to the cemeteries and plantations and prisons home to these stories to see up close how they reckon with - or fail to reckon with - their own relationship to our country's legacy.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

CLINT SMITH: For so many people in this country, history is not something that is based upon empirical evidence. It is not something that is based on primary sources. It is not something that’s based on being presented with historical documents. It is a story. It is an heirloom. It is a story they have been told and a story that they tell.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. It's a truism, I think, that everyone learned at some point in their education, maybe in history class, as early as grammar school or in high school or in college or in graduate school that what we call history isn't just some fixed thing. It's contested. It's fought over. It changes over time. It's not sold in the past.

That's true in terms of understandings that we have about even very factual matters, when certain developments in tool building happened, when a certain kingdom conquered another, what year that might be, things that come to us through archeological records might be adjusted over time as new information comes in. But then there's always this sort of interpretative battle. I mean, there are figures who certain eras view as heroes and others view as villains. There's all kinds of obvious ways in which the victors get to write history.

I think an example of that I always think about is that Andrew Jackson is on the $20 bill. If you're a Cherokee person in this country, he is the person that pursued ethnic cleansing against your people. And there he is, every time you pull out a $20 bill, the villain, the bringer of tears, the person that, like Pharaoh driving the Jews out, drove you out of your land. That's the guy and there are busts of him and there are celebrations of him. For years, the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner was the name of the Democratic Party dinner in every county in this country.

And then, of course, the other part of that is Jefferson, right? I mean, Jefferson, who, by the way, a complicated figure even at the time. It’s not like people didn't know back when Jefferson was actually alive and running for office that he had sex with—and I think it's fair to say raped, because you can't have consensual sex with a slave—that he had raped a slave, that he had created a child with her. That wasn't some thing that we discovered in 1965 about Thomas Jefferson.

There's pamphlets at the time attacking Thomas Jefferson for this very thing, which was viewed as scandalous, horrifying to many, for complicated reasons that probably don't sync up with the modern reasons that we think it's horrifying and scandalous. But the point being that Jefferson could have gone either way. He could have gone into ignominy. He could have been viewed as a villainous creature if his faction hadn't quite won the things that it won. None of this is set in stone.

And so, all of this is, in some ways, a very obvious ground that I'm treading over, but it's worth just taking time to think about because we're in the midst of a massive historical battle in this country, particularly in the last year, about the legacy of slavery and race in America and what it means for us now, what it means in who we celebrate and who we don't, and what statues we put up and what we don't, and what our curricula are in schools, what we teach children, which events they learn about and which they don't, which events get commemorated and praised and which do not.

All of that is right now being fought over. It can be an incredibly intense warfare, nonviolent, of course, happening through ideas, put through state legislatures. You have, of course, The 1619 Project from The New York Times Magazine, the brain child of Pulitzer Prize winner, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has been on the podcast twice, that seeks to kind of reassert the centrality of slavery and the institution and its legacy as a central defining feature of what the nation was and is.

And now you have this enormous mobilization of backlash to that framework for understanding American history that I think really centers slavery and Jim Crow, white supremacy and segregation, racial hierarchy as central institutions in American life. You've got a huge backlash against that that's playing out with bills being passed in state legislatures controlled by Republicans that ban the teaching of what they call critical race theory or say that no teacher can tell a student that they should feel guilty about their ancestors, and on and on and on.

It's an incredible bit of cosmic kismet and amazing publishing industry timing that into this breach steps the poet and author Clint Smith. Now, Clint Smith is someone that I have known of for a while, whose work I have followed. He's hosted a podcast. He's a really incredible and beautiful, beautiful, beautiful poet. He is now out with his first book that takes this head on. It takes it on in a really fascinating way. The book is called “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.”

What Clint has done is go out to the actual physical sites—the soil, the ground, the steps, the field houses, the plantations, the prisons, the places that this history was and is—and looked at how a plantation tells a story about itself, looked at how Jefferson's Monticello tells a story about itself, how Angola prison tells a story about itself, and in doing this, excavates just how conflicted and contested the battle lines are between mythos and actual history, between fact and fantasy about imagined pasts that get reimagined in every moment, and about how the sites of the racial trauma and violence of this country are sites in which the meaning of our history and our racial present are fought over. It's my great pleasure to have Clint Smith on the podcast.

CLINT SMITH: It's such a pleasure to be here with you, Chris.

CHRIS HAYES: This is a great, great, great project. It's both a great conceit for a book and it's really brilliantly executed. But tell me first about yourself because you talked about growing up in New Orleans and you also talk about, like a lot of this history not being the history that you even learned as a young Black man in a city that has obviously an incredibly vibrant and one of the most storied and incredible legacies of African American arts and literature and writing and history.

CLINT SMITH: Yeah, so the origin of this book, the origin story, sort of began in 2017 when I was watching the statues of several Confederate figures come down in May of 2017: P.G.T. Beauregard, Confederate General, Jefferson Davis, Confederate President, Robert E. Lee, Confederate General. I was watching these statues come down after the city council and the mayor had voted for them to be removed.

This is following a two year battle of having them removed following the massacre at the Charleston Church and the nine lives that Dylann Roof took in 2015 in South Carolina. I was watching these statues come down from my home in Maryland and thinking about what it meant that I grew up in a majority Black city in which there were more homages and more iconography dedicated to enslavers moreso than there were iconography and monuments dedicated to enslaved people. And what are the implications of that? What are the implications of that in a majority Black city?

What does it mean that to get to school every day, I had to go down Robert E. Lee Boulevard? What did it mean to get to the grocery store, I had to go down Jefferson Davis Highway? That my middle school was named after a Confederate leader? That the street my parents continue to live on is named after somebody who owned 150 enslaved people? That the plantations that we visited as field trips when I was in elementary and middle school didn't say the word “slavery” on these tours?

So I'm kind of thinking about all of this together and thinking about the implications of such iconography existing and how that shapes what the landscape of inequality looked like in my city growing up, because we know that monuments and memorials and street names aren't just symbols. We know that these symbols are reflective of stories people tell, and these stories embed themselves into narratives that societies carry, and these narratives shape public policy, and public policy shapes the material conditions of people's lives.

And so, I got really interested in how a place reckons with – or fails to reckon with – their own relationship to that history beginning in New Orleans and then expanding out across the country. To your point, for me, it was really important because I remember what it felt like growing up in New Orleans in the '90s and being inundated with these messages, some implicitly, some explicitly, about all the things that were wrong with New Orleans and embedded within that was like a commentary on all things that were wrong with the Black people in New Orleans.

It's like, “New Orleans is the murder capital of the nation. We incarcerate more people per capita than China and Iran and Russia.” There's a cultural pathology that is embedded into the infrastructure and the culture of this city. I remember being inundated with these messages and not really having the language or the toolkit or the history with which to push back against it. And as a kid, that can become really paralyzing and that can become really intellectually and psychologically paralyzing and unsettling.

You begin, at worst, to internalize so many of the messages that this country begins to tell you about yourself and about your community. When I began to learn this history as I got older, and especially in graduate school where six years of my life were dedicated to reading books and thinking about the history of inequality, it was so profoundly emancipatory, and it was so profoundly freeing. I also had this moment where I was like, “Why didn't I learn this eighth grade? Why didn't I learn this in my eighth grade Louisiana history class? How are we going to have a conversation about the P.G.T. Beauregard statue in the city park where I literally fed ducks and geese with my family under the shadow of the statue of P.G.T. Beauregard and not talk about who this man was and what he represented? That the Confederacy, again, these images and these men on pedestals, who surrounded and ornamented this city, were people who fought a treasonous war predicated on maintaining and expanding the institution of slavery?”

The insidiousness of white supremacy is that it turns that into an ideological statement rather than an empirical one, rather than one that is actually grounded in evidence and grounded in history. Instead, it becomes something that is meant to reflect an ideological disposition.

CHRIS HAYES: Wait, you mean the critique, or like what you're saying? Explain that more.

CLINT SMITH: Yeah. I think part of why the reason that I didn't learn something like that, so part of the reason that I wasn't told by my teachers what the Confederacy was, which is, an army that fought a war predicated on maintaining and expanding the institution of slavery. And so, if a teacher says that, what they have been taught or made to feel is somehow reflective of them indoctrinating students with their ideological position or their political beliefs, when it in fact is just a statement that is grounded in primary source evidence, right?

These Confederates, as you know, said it for themselves. You look at the Declaration of Secession in 1861 where all of these states say quite directly that they are seceding from the Union so that they can perpetuate chattel slavery. States like Mississippi saying that “our interests are thoroughly aligned with the institution of slavery, the greatest material interest in the world.” So they're not vague about why they are seceding.

I say all that to say, I continuously felt like I was encountering information that would have been transformative for me as a kid and as a young person who was coming up in a society and felt like I was being told that the reason that one community looked one way and another community looked another way was because of the people in those communities and not because of what has been done to those communities generation after generation after generation.

And so it gave me a new language and a new framework to better make sense of what this country is and to better understand how this history that we tell ourselves a long time ago wasn't actually that long ago at all. And the idea that history wouldn't shape what the contemporary landscape of inequality looks like is both morally and intellectually disingenuous.

CHRIS HAYES: What came through to me, something I think about a lot and it was really present in your book, particularly when you visited... One of the sites visited is explicitly a Confederate cemetery, right? Other sites are these contested sites or they're sites where, in the case of, say, Jefferson's Monticello, it's like, well, you’re kind of wrestling with two things. Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence guy, spent all day writing books. Brilliant dude. Also, 150 enslaved people lived here.

But in the case of the Confederate Memorial, it's like that's just what it's there for. The thing that's striking there when you talk about your childhood with Jefferson Davis Highway is that... In the intro, I was talking about, like, we know that victors write the history, right? But they were not the victors. That's the craziest thing about it, right? It makes a certain sense in a kind of... In all places, in all times, you see this phenomenon, I think, in places that the winners get to decide what the history is.

And in this case, you have these figures who are celebrated after the fact who, at the time, are viewed with contempt and rage. I mean, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who they can't the bust of out of the Tennessee State Capitol, was one of the most controversial and hated figures of his day at the time by Northern white people. He was hated by Black people because he was a monster and a slave trader and a cruel torturer, but he was, in just mainstream white Northern opinion, was a villain.

There's something so remarkable about what the Southern backlash post-Reconstruction Redeemers are able to pull off in this historical messaging when they had lost it, both in the war and for the period afterwards.

CLINT SMITH: Yeah. I mean, it reflects what some scholars say, that the South lost the war, but won the history. There was a profound effort to, as you know, completely reconceptualize and recalibrate this country's understanding of what the war was actually fought over. It was a sort of 19th century gaslighting.

I mean, you read some of these documents and you think about Alexander Stephens' Cornerstone Speech, the Vice President of the Confederacy, where he says very explicitly that the Confederacy is being founded on the principle of African inferiority and the cornerstone of this nation is the effort to engage in perpetual chattel slavery. And then after the war is over, he's like, “I never said that. What are you talking about?” Everybody is like, “Dude, what do you mean? We were there. It's in the papers. We saw you.”

He's like, “No, no, no. You must be mistaken. I never said anything like that.” That is reflective of this microcosm of how the Lost Cause moved through the late 19th century and into the 20th century in which there was an effort to say the thing that existed or the thing that happened didn't happen, right?

You have an entire historical school of thought that infiltrates the public discourse and public consciousness perpetuating the ideas of John Calhoun, the infamous Senator of South Carolina and, at one point, our vice president, who talked about slavery as a positive good for both Black and white people, or the historian Ulrich B. Phillips, who was the leading historian of slavery through the early 20th century and who wrote books that shaped what the public consciousness around slavery was, and he basically said that slavery was a civilizing institution that was good for both Black and whites alike, in a similar vein to Calhoun. You have the Lost Cause which, one, says, "Everybody calm down. Slavery wasn't even that bad. It was full of benevolent slave owners and enslaved people who were very grateful to have been taken care of by these kindly masters." And then, to take it a step further, they're like, "But the war wasn't even about slavery in the first place."

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Right.

CLINT SMITH: “So the slaves were treated well and it wasn't even about slavery, so why are you making this about that?”

CHRIS HAYES: It's interesting, too, because we have this modern conversation about disinformation as if it is a product of a certain set of technological formations. But it is, from the day they lose the war, it is a huge disinformation campaign by basically the ex-slaver planter class and Southern white elites to do the kinds of things that we see governments and people do all the time now, but it's just wildly successful. I mean, one of the most successful disinformation campaigns.

Nathan Bedford Forrest is a great example where he also does the same thing that Alex Stephens does where he.... This is the guy who literally founded the KKK, who tries to tell people, "No, no, no. I always believe in Black equality." He gave this speech late in life that tries to retcon his entire life's work as a violent white supremacist so that he can get off the hook. What you bring out in the book is, when you visited a lot of these sites, and maybe we can start with the Confederate Memorial, the success of that and how we talk a lot about the crazy modern experience.

This is a common recurring theme in the podcast and in the show of talking to a person who's in a different epistemic universe and who says the equivalent of two plus two equals five, right? It's just things that are not true. Donald Trump won the election. And yet, an effort of that kind was pulled off successfully for seven to 10 decades in the American South with essentially complete hegemonic victory about the wrong... Like, saying two plus two equal five.

CLINT SMITH: And in many ways, continues to be successful.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes. Yes.

CLINT SMITH: A 2018 study from the Southern Poverty Law Center showed that only 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors were able to identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh my god.

CLINT SMITH: 8 percent. Part of the effect and part of the insidiousness of that gaslighting campaign is that it is not meant simply to turn everyone into a Confederate sympathizer or a white supremacist or a neo-KKK member. It is meant to obscure history. It is meant to confuse us. It is meant to muddy the waters so that people, in ways that we continue to see now, to your point, in ways that create a fundamentally different epistemological realities for different groups of people and one that doesn't allow new information to change someone's mind, because these epistemological realities become embedded in community and they become embedded in lineage and they become embedded in history and in family. One of the places you mentioned that I go was the Blandford Cemetery, which is one of the largest Confederate cemeteries in the country, and it's where the remains of 30,000 Confederate soldiers are buried.

I went there for the Sons of Confederate Veterans Memorial Day celebration. As you can imagine, I was conspicuous at such an event.

CHRIS HAYES: I got to say, my stomach was in knots for the whole chapter. I mean, you're explicit about that too. I mean, yours was as well, I think.

CLINT SMITH: Yeah, no, mine very much was. Shout out to my friend, William. My wife wouldn't let me go unless I took a white friend. And so, my friend William, who has been on his own journey of reconciling and considering and reckoning with the fact that his ancestors owned enslaved people and fought for the Confederacy… So we were both going there to think about our own histories and lineages and how they've been shaped by the Lost Cause, but in different ways. So I was there.

When I was having these conversations with the Son of Confederate Veterans and these neo-Confederates, what became clear is that, for so many people in this country, history is not something that is based on empirical evidence. It is not something that is based upon primary sources. It is not something that is based on being presented with historical documents. It is a story. It is an heirloom. It is a story they have been told and a story that they tell.

It is something that is deeply embedded in their sense of who their family is and their memories of their family and the stories that they were told by these people in ways that make it so difficult for them to disentangle the stories they've been told and the messages and the politics that they were shaped by as young people from the reality of the world that exists today. One of the guys I met there was a guy named Jeff, and he talked about how he just loved walking... He had this memory of coming to the cemetery at dusk with his grandfather and sitting in the gazebo and watching the deer scamper around the tombstones and listening to the wind as it sort of rustled the trees and made the leaves dance. It's a beautiful sentiment…

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

CLINT SMITH: But one that is deeply entangled in the stories that his grandfather told him and the falsehoods and the myths that his grandfather told him about the war and what it was or wasn’t fought over. One of the things that Jeff loves to do most now is bring his granddaughters to the same cemetery and tell his granddaughters the same stories that he was told by his grandfather. It becomes difficult to disentangle the politics that someone is saturated in and raised in and the people who are shaping the politics of these individuals.

And then when it comes time for them to be confronted with the fact that, well, actually, the Confederacy was fighting war to preserve slavery, if everything you have been told by the people you love more than anything in the world runs counter to that, then many people reject it because if they were to accept that information, they would have to be for them rejecting...

CHRIS HAYES: The people they love.

CLINT SMITH: The people they love.

CHRIS HAYES: The crazy thing about this is that as I was reading that chapter in the book is that it's even broader than history. It's how we parcel the knowledge of public life even, right? I mean, even in real time you see it. But in that chapter, I was thinking about, I don’t have people in my family, in my closest circle, who are from the South and who are white people from the South raised in this mythos. But I've had very heated and difficult conversations with people that I am close to who are Italian American about Christopher Columbus.

Now, it's a little removed because it's not... But it's the place that I've seen this viscerally, where it's like, you have an attachment here that has nothing to do with the actual dude at all, obviously, and doesn't even have to do with the fact of what he did or did not do when he conquered and enslaved the people that he encountered in this place. Your relationship is to the emotional investment that you have in your upbringing and the life world you inhabited and the holiday is a representation of the importance of those people who you love and care for and feel deserve dignity, all of which are completely legitimate and normal human emotions. It's just that they have been hitched to this awful guy who committed a bunch of horrible crimes. And trying to unhitch that wagon, though, is really hard.

CLINT SMITH: Absolutely. It is hard. I think that, you're right, that it's reflective of something that happens in the context of history, but also that happens in a much broader context. I mean, we see it happen in religion. We see it in happen in people's political identities, right? Part of what I think about is that there are people who make a different choice, right?

There are people who say, "I am not defined by the deeds of my ancestors. I'm not defined by what they did. And it is okay for me to look back and say what they did was wrong and I can make a different set of choices." How powerful would it be for Jeff to, instead of perpetuate this message and this propaganda and these falsehoods to his granddaughters, how powerful might it be for him to walk around that cemetery and say, "These are your ancestors and they fought a war over this terrible thing and it was not okay. But you are not defined by the decisions that they made, and you can make a different set of decisions," and then move forward, right? But I think it is difficult because ultimately, we're talking about people's sense of who they are in the world and their sense of how they attain meaning and a sense of personhood and a sense of value.

If someone's sense of themselves is deeply grounded in lineage and in family and in maintaining a certain story about who their family was, sort of cracking that story open and saying that this story you've been told is actually wrong or is actually a lie…

CHRIS HAYES: It's a lie. You've been lied to.

CLINT SMITH: It's a lie. I mean, understandably, in many ways, that creates a sort of existential crisis for folks where it's like, “Well, who am I if so much of what I have been taught by the people I love, who raised me and who shaped me in every sort of way, is a lie?”

CHRIS HAYES: And we should also note that it didn't arise organically, too. That's what makes this lie both so insidious and so successful. It was an extremely coordinated project, the project of, they call themselves the Redeemers. Even that word, right? I mean, even that word. It was a project. It was a project pursued on different fronts among organizations, the Daughters of Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate... This was a very coherent, mobilized, organized, militant movement to create the conditions for a false history.

And not just a false history, actually, a set of violent and authoritarian interventions in the policy world to essentially re-subjugate the Black people of the South. But when you talk about the other options, the counterpoint, there's two counterpoints. There's the plantation you go to, and there's also Monticello, which both offer counterpoints to this, right? Maybe talk about each of them. Monticello I found sort of... I haven't been in Monticello in years. I don't remember the last time I went, but I feel like when I went, it must have been probably been 10 years ago. I felt a little like, “Yeah, we're still doing a fair amount of white washing here of what this place was and what it meant.” It's not like you're not saying that it was a working plantation with 150 human beings under a regime of psychological and physical torture, but you're not really centering that in the way you should. But it sounds like your experience of it was pretty striking.

CLINT SMITH: Yeah. Monticello, I think, is a really fascinating example of a place that is responsive to new information and is responsive to new evidence, some would argue too slow to respond to new information. But of the places I visited—there are eight that are highlighted in the book, but I visited dozens of places that didn't make it into the book—of the places I visited, what was most striking about Monticello is how... They have the primary house tour where you go into Jefferson's home and you learn about...

I mean, Jefferson was a such multifaceted person and had so many different interests and had so many different pursuits. You're learning a lot about those different facets and different elements of who he was. And then there's a tour that focuses on, I think his gardening or his relationship to nature. And then there's a tour that focuses on slavery in Monticello, and that is the tour that I went on. I went on all of these tours, but that is the tour that I write about.

For context, Monticello, I wanted to go there because I think that Jefferson in so many ways embodies and personifies the contradictions and dissonant dualities of this country in the sense that America, as we know, is the place that has provided unparalleled, unimaginable, unfathomable opportunities for upward mobility and wealth generation across generations of people for millions of individuals, but it has done so at the direct expense of millions and millions of other people who have been inter-generationally subjugated and oppressed.

And both of those things are the story of this country, right? Both the opportunities that have been created for people whose ancestors could have never fathomed that their descendants would live and create the wealth that they have and it is also the story of the people who were, again, oppressed and subjugated across generations in ways that continue today. Jefferson is someone who wrote one of the most important documents in history of the Western world and also enslaved over 600 people, including four of his own children.

He is someone who wrote in one document that "all men are created equal" and wrote in another document, Notes on the State of Virginia, that Black people are inferior to whites “in both endowments of body and mind,” as he put. Part of what I wanted to figure out at Monticello was how does a place tell a full and honest story of this person in all of their complexities, in all of their contradictions, and present that to its visitors? Pushing beyond that, how do we make sure that we are not singularly centering Jefferson when we tell the story of Monticello because, in many ways, Monticello belonged to the enslaved folks who lived there more than it did to Jefferson. I mean, Jefferson was away for years of his life, whether it be in Paris or New York or Philadelphia or D.C. when he was in public office. And so the people who were always there were the Hemingses, were the Grangers, were the Fossetts, and this community that had been built and cultivated over the course of generations. I wanted to really figure out what that place was doing to tell a story about those people as much as it would tell the story about Jefferson.

CHRIS HAYES: And there’s a deeper connection between those two, because there's a certain way in which one rest upon the other. It's not just that they're... I mean, this is something that I don't think I quite realized or didn't snap into place until... Actually, when I read Ta-Nehisi's novel, there's some of this. But when I was reading your chapter on Monticello, it really snapped into place, which is that, it's not just the case of these two things are side by side.

It's that when you go at the house tour and it's like, "He spoke five languages, and he wrote 12 letters a day, 15 letters a day, and here, his papers would take up an entire wing of a library." You think to yourself, “Wow, this guy was just unbelievable intellectual energy,” He didn't have to work.

The thing that made that possible is that basically everyone else, 90% of people operating on this system, and this even includes Southern whites, who were obviously not at all the status of chattel slaves, but the vast majority of Southern whites did not own slaves. This slaver class is living in this just insane energy surplus in which the rest of an agrarian society is pouring their sweat, in the case of slaves, in a way that's just unfathomable at a human level.

Above them, in a much better circumstance but also in an agrarian sense of, “you're up at 6:00 doing chores,” right, the white non-planter class. And then at the very top, there's Jefferson, who gets to chill all day and write his letters. It's because he owns the slaves that he can do that. It's one connected to the other. They're not just next to each other.

CLINT SMITH: No, absolutely. I mean, I think that that is one of the most important points around Jefferson, right, is that you cannot understand anything about Jefferson's life without understanding how it was shaped and animated and made possible by the labor of enslaved people. One of the things that was most interesting to me... I think it's interesting because I'm a staff writer at The Atlantic now, and I got the job during the pandemic. I wasn't a journalist or didn't identify as a journalist necessarily before this.

This book in some ways was my first foray into reporting. I don't know how it is for you, but the idea of walking up to strangers and asking them questions is not a part of my natural ethos. But it became clear to me that this book cannot just be a 300-page meditation on my own reflections and experiences at these places. It had to be in conversation with the experiences of others.

One of the things I did at Monticello, which was one of the first places I went and it became the first chapter in the book, was go up to these two women, Donna and Grace, after the Slavery at Monticello tour, and I'd watched them during this tour given by a man named David Thurston, who is a tour guide at Monticello. It was this hour-long tour in which he really talked more honestly about Jefferson and his relationship to slavery than any teacher I've ever had. I was almost surprised by it, because I expected to go and for them maybe to dance around it, but he was very direct.

I saw the faces of these women wilt as they heard the story and their mouths sit agape. Afterwards, I went up to them and we were having this conversation. They were just like, "I had no idea that Jefferson owned slaves. I had no idea that Monticello was a plantation." It was such an important for me, because I think in the spaces that I operate in and the people I'm surrounded by, I can take for granted that... You know, everybody I know is like, "Jefferson owned enslaved people and is full of contradictions and that is something that people wrestle with and think about and have discussions about.”

But it was a reminder that there are still millions of people across this country who truly have no idea about Jefferson, and Jefferson as a microcosm for the story of slavery around this country, right? That there are millions of people who have not ever encountered or been presented with information around the history of slavery and our country's founding relationship to the history of slavery that completely shatters and calls into question and undermines so much of what they have been taught. I don't know what Donna and Grace... I don't know if they left and this shifted their politics or the move they moved through the world, or if they just kept doing what they were doing, but it was so telling that these were folks who bought plane tickets, bought a hotel room, rented a car, and showed up to this place without having any idea that the place they were coming to was a plantation where hundreds of people had been enslaved.

CHRIS HAYES: We’ll be back after this quick break.

I mean, I’ve got to say that for even just for myself as someone who... I was incredibly lucky to get an incredible education. I learned in my excellent high school education—shout out to Mr. Kagan, who's a great high school history teacher—we learned about reconstruction.

We learned about some of the battles, the white supremacist terror that was visited on the reconstruction South and state capitols and New Orleans, the Battle of New Orleans, where a white supremacist government murdered members of fusion Black and white Reconstruction government, things like that.

And yet still, here I am, 42, who's immersed myself in the last five or six years in this history, particularly the Reconstruction years, which is a period that I've been really invested in, and I learn new stuff every day. Like your chapter on the Angola plantation, again, I knew the place was infamous, I knew that it used convict labor, I knew that it was this direct line between the systems of racial hierarchy, exploitation and oppression of the just post-bellum South and the modern version of mass incarceration. I could write out an index card, but the full weight of what Angola is and was and how it came to be, I learned a lot from your chapter on it. And I'm pretty well read on this stuff and 42.

CLINT SMITH: Yeah, I mean, I learned a lot from that ... I mean, I learned a lot from every chapter. Part of what I don't want people to think is that I am ... I came into this book as an expert on the history of slavery, and I am trying to in this sort of didactic way educate people on this history.

I mean, for me, this book, the book itself was like a journey of learning so much of this history that I had never known. And so for context, Angola specifically, Angola, for those who don't know, is the largest maximum security prison in the country. It is 18,000 acres wide, bigger than the island of Manhattan. It is a place where 75 percent of the people held there are Black men, over 70 percent of them are serving life sentences and it is a former plantation.

And what I tell folks is that if you were to go to Germany and you had the largest maximum security prison in Germany and it was built on top of a former concentration camp in which the people held there were disproportionately Jewish, that place would so clearly and rightfully be a global emblem of antisemitism. It would be abhorrent. It would be disgusting. We would never allow a place like that to exist, because it would so clearly be an affront to all of our moral and ethical sensibilities.

And yet, here in the United States, we have the largest maximum security prison in the country, where the vast majority of people held there are Black men serving life sentences who work for virtually no pay in fields that were once a plantation with someone who watches over them on horseback with a gun over their shoulder.

And it's allowed to exist. And so part of what I'm thinking about when I go to a place like Angola are what are the ways that white supremacy not only enacts physical violence on people's bodies, but also collectively numbs us to certain types of violences that, in another global context, would be wildly unacceptable? And what does it mean, not only that that place fails to tell an honest story about itself and has this very close relationship, this unsettling close relationship in its imagery and landscape to this horrific history, but that they almost seem to make a mockery of it. So Angola has connected to it a gift shop.

CHRIS HAYES: This is really Twilight Zone-level creepy.

CLINT SMITH: It was… I could've written an entire book just on my experience at Angola. So you walk into this gift shop at the largest maximum security prison in the country that is-

CHRIS HAYES: A currently functioning one.

CLINT SMITH: A currently functioning one.

CHRIS HAYES: This is not a museum of the thing that used to be. Inmates are there right now.

CLINT SMITH: Right. I've not been to the concentration camps in Germany, but from what I ... they have restaurants and museums, but from what I understand, they are tastefully done and it is also not a place where people continue to be held. And so it is a place where thousands of people continue to be held, it has a museum that from, what I could tell in my visit, did not mention the word “slavery” anywhere.

And connected to this museum is a gift shop that sells all sorts of Angola penitentiary paraphernalia, including shot glasses and sweatshirts and baseball caps and coffee mugs. And on one of these coffee mugs, one of the most striking and unsettling things I saw was a coffee mug that had the silhouette of a watchtower on it, and you could see the small silhouette of a person at the top of the watchtower and you could see the silhouette of their gun.

And above and below the image of the watchtower were the words, "Angola, a gated community." And so it is one thing to not talk about, to not address, to sidestep your relationship to the history of slavery. It feels like something wholly different to make a mockery of, and belittle, the reality of the people who are currently imprisoned there, a place where the average sentence is like 83 years, and who will mostly die there, many of them for things that they did as children.

And you have coffee mugs and shot glasses that are almost making fun of what is happening there. So it was one part of what was a really unsettling experience at that place.

CHRIS HAYES: I think the book does a really good job of pushing us to see things through almost foreign eyes. The point you made there, I think about the international comparison, there's that famous little story David Foster Wallace used in a commencement address of, the older fish swims past the two younger fish and says, "How you doing?" "Oh, great day. Water's great today," and swims away and the younger fish says to the other fish, "What's water?"

And the water is the history we learn and the context we're in and we're taken out of that water and you look at ... I think of this all the time with Turkey and the Armenian genocide, where it's so obvious, we have the facts and it was a genocidal campaign by the latter years of the Ottoman Empire to forcibly remove, imprison and sometimes kill the Armenian minority. That's well documented, it's a fact, and why can't you guys just acknowledge this?

It's so much easier to see clearly in different contexts. And that comes up, I think, in the North, like in the New York City chapter you do, where I kept thinking as I was reading it, we were told ... I mean, it's this funny thing that New York public school education is very New York-centric. I think this is true everywhere where you got a lot of local history when you're younger.

And it's a little less fraught in New York than, say, New Orleans, just along the specific question of the Civil War, say. But it's still fraught because Peter Stuyvesant, oh, I remember learning he got a great deal from the Indians that he bought it from for like 21 shells, or whatever. Like he was a savvy shopper, that's what we all learned. And then also that this was an unusually tolerant and cosmopolitan place.

And again, the reality of New York City and the North's role in slavery and funding it is, as we continue to learn, way, way, way, way more morally compromised and complicated than I think the simple story that even liberal, Northern children learn.

CLINT SMITH: Absolutely. And one of the things that I wanted this book to do was to ... I didn't want this to only be centered in the South, because obviously, the history of slavery is saturated in the South, given how the South relied politically and economically on the institution.

But the entire country is culpable here. And I think projects like the 1619 Project and obviously the work that scholars and historians in this field have done for decades that it's finally getting some of the attention that it deserves, make this clear. But New York City for a long time, most people don't know, was the second largest slave port in the country after Charleston, South Carolina.

The mayor of New York City, Fernando Wood, in 1861 tried to get New York City to secede from the Union when he realized that South Carolina and these other states in the South were going to secede, because New York City was deeply reliant on the economic realities made possible by slavery in these Southern states. And so it didn't come to pass, but I remember learning that piece of information as I was writing the book, and I was like, "Man, the mayor of New York City, this place that we are ... that I was taught is this sort of ... is and always has been in so many ways, this bastion of cosmopolitanism, tried to secede the city from the Union on the eve of the Civil War.”

And it is not only that New York City had an economic relationship to slavery, but there were enslaved people in New York itself.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, and it's crazy when you look at the election maps, I remember I had the exact same feeling where I was like, "Wait, New York was a bastion of Northern pro-slavery reaction? What? And pro-Democratic Party sympathy and Lincoln got his butt kicked here? What?" None of that, knew none of it. None of it.

CLINT SMITH: It runs counter to so much of the way that we're taught about slavery, which is often taught without any sort of complexity, which is often taught in simple binaries. And I mean, I think some of this, we see the residue of this, in some ways, in our political discourse today.

We say red states and blue states and this Republican state or this Democratic state, and I understand why it happens because who… We recognize who's in charge of state legislatures or who the governor of a state is or who the state tends to vote for in a given presidential election.

But one of the things that I thought a lot about while writing this book and researching this book was the ways that New York had people who wanted to secede from the Union, it had people who wanted to stay in the Union. Texas had people who wanted to secede from the Union, people who wanted to stay in the Union.

CHRIS HAYES: Sam Houston.

CLINT SMITH: Sam Houston was basically kicked out of his position because he was like, "Ah, I don't think we should secede, guys" and they were like, "Well, sorry, man. It's a wrap for you." And then Lincoln was like, "Well, do you want us to ... I can send some troops and you can fight to keep Texas in the Union." And then Sam Houston was like, "No, I'm going to retire. I'm good. It's not worth it."

But I think it is important to remember that none of these places were politically homogenous. That there were folks in Northern states and in Southern states who were sympathetic to the cause of either side. And I think it's important to lean into that complexity. And that doesn't mean that we don't name things and state things plainly when they exist. Like the Confederacy, the army was fighting a war to preserve slavery. That is true.

And I think we should also make sure that we tease out and recognize some of the nuances that shape what the political realities of that time look like.

CHRIS HAYES: I think that's a great note in some ways to bring this to a close, because I actually think, what I love about this book, and what I love about the 1619 Project and the things that have flowed down is that history is complicated. Things can be morally simple. Slavery is something that is morally simple. It's morally simple. The Holocaust is morally simple. Some are morally simple and still historically and factually complex, politically complex, socially complex.

And I do think that we live in a moment where there is an impulse to kind of sloganeer and pound things through the relentless hammer of social media into crisp, flat slogans. And the history, the history is both morally simple and complex at the same time. And the book does an incredible job with that, but it doesn't do anyone any good, I think, to just take the shortcuts.

If you're going to take a shortcut, you should take a shortcut to the right side of the way it's morally simple. If you're going to take the shortcut, you take the shortcut of the two, slavery was an atrocious evil, as was Jim Crow, and this is the legacy of white hierarchy that this country was erected upon and continued to maintain and has maintained to this day in many forms.

If you're going to take a shortcut, that's the shortcut to take, as opposed to the opposite one. But the real way to get somewhere better is something deeper and a deeper wrestling with all this, and I think this book does an incredible job, so people should absolutely pick it up. It's called “How the Word Is Passed“ by my guest, Clint Smith. Clint, thanks so much.

CLINT SMITH: This was great. Thanks, Chris.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Clint Smith, the author of “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America." That is out today on June 1st if you’re hearing this the day the podcast is published. It’s seriously a fantastic book. I’d recommend checking it out. We’d love to hear your feedback. I’d love to hear about historical sites that you’ve gone to, what your experience was at those sites, things you’ve learned about that you didn’t know before. I think that’s an experience that’s widely held these days.

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHPod, email WITHpod@gmail.com.

“Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. This is normally the part where I tell you where you can find transcripts for our episodes but we are working on getting those up to date. We’ll let you know when they’re published.

Related Links:

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith