I am now reading through Clint Smith’s book, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. Smith’s goal is to examine places in America and how they tell the story of slavery and racism in American history.
In the past couple of years there has been the backlash on CRT and the telling of “American history.” We somehow think that tearing down some statues that were erected at a time and place to deliver a direct message to the Black population whites wanted to dominate is “erasing history.” Monuments are not history.
Places and how the story is told in a place is necessary. How that story is told, what is emphasized, is what needs examining. It’s not about erasing history. It is about telling a more full history.
Smith’s first chapter details a visit to Monticello. The tour and the displays tell much more of Jefferson’s attitudes and actions on slavery than in times past. Smith had a conversation with two conservative white ladies after the tour to see what they thought. Like me, they learned things about Jefferson they hadn’t learned in “history” books. I had always held a very high view of Jefferson without any regard to his slave-owning nor his abuse of Sally Hemings nor of his brutal treatment of slaves.
Somehow, when we are challenged with a more full picture of someone we have admired in the past it challenges US, as white people. The tour guide explained to Smith, “I’ve come to realize that there’s a difference between history and nostalgia, and somewhere between those two is a memory.”
History needs to tell the story of the past with facts gathered. If more facts come into play, tell the whole story. Nostalgia wants to remember history without the facts. Nostalgia is about what you want to hear (p. 41).
As whites, we want to go back to a history that never existed. We like that place, but it’s a place that is a hologram now. We just don’t want to acknowledge it.
I still won’t take away from the marvel of Jefferson’s work that brings the founding of the nation. I need not throw away my admiration for what was accomplished through the power of his words.
But I can walk with the understanding that we walk with deep imperfection and not all words match up with the deeper character and actions of people. You have deal with the whole mess. The refusal to deal with the whole mess is our problem. It’s not our fear of bringing down a nostalgic statue of Robert E Lee. It’s our refusal to hear the whole story that is harmful.