Clint Smith is a poet who whose graceful insights shape the prose of his new book “How the Word is Passed,” a sobering travelogue of historical sites, mostly in the South, that generally do a poor job of accurately recounting slavery, often referred to as America’s original sin.
It’s a timely read as many conservatives are ginning up the manufactured outrage machine to decry anything that makes it look like there might be a significant strain of racism and white supremacy that courses through the country’s past and — unexamined — continues to drain into the present.
Smith weaves a haunting narrative of a nation that clings to notions that the Civil War was not about slavery; that by and large slaves had it pretty good; and that hundreds of years of racism don’t have any impact on the cultural, economic, and political landscape of today’s nation.
Most touching, though, was his final chapter where he sits down separately with his two living grandparents — his grandmother on his father’s side and his grandfather on his mother’s side — who both grew up in the segregated South.
For his grandmother, Florida was a place where she and her Black friends were legally not allowed to attend the much-better funded, all-white public schools. While she walked to school, the public school bus rolled past, with white kids often rolling down the windows to toss out taunts and objects at the Black children.
“Go home, n—-r!” they would yell. “You ain’t got no business here.”
Smith said he had never before heard those stories, and it was heartbreaking as he recognized the world where his beloved, strong, fiercely independent grandmother had grown up. He describes her as a woman whose “voice is the front porch of a home with everyone you love waiting inside.” Yet as a child she was taught to keep her eyes lowered so as not to irritate the white people.
More viscerally shocking was a story told by his grandfather who — also for the first time to Smith’s ears — recounted the lynching of a Black man in the small Mississippi town where the grandfather lived as a boy. The Klansmen who killed him didn’t like much that he had provided information to police about a white man — a member of the Klan — who was involved in selling bootleg liquor.
The Klan took him from his home out into the countryside where they hanged him. They also cut off his penis and stuck it in his mouth.
If that last sentence seems harsh — and it is — then consider what it was like to be that man. Or to be his children, his wife, or his parents, who knew that his brutal death was not only witnessed by a cheering, murderous mob, but that the horrific crime would go unpunished even though most everyone in town knew who was involved.
About the time I was reading this book, I came upon a comment by Ted Cruz, the vile and despicable U.S. Senator from Texas. Proving that there is no low that he can’t crawl beneath, Cruz slithered onto the anti anti-racism bandwagon to proclaim that those who teach critical race theory are every bit as racist as the Ku Klux Klan. No difference at all, he said.
Which got me to thinking: What if some terrorists kidnapped Cruz and spirited him off to some remote location? There, they tell him that he can pick his fate from two choices.
For Option One, Cruz would be taken outside; his penis would be cut off and stuffed into his mouth; and then he would be executed by hanging.
For Option Two, he and his family would have to sit through a course of study influenced by critical race theory.
Which would he choose?
My guess is that that he would have to flip a coin. After all, according to him, there is no difference between the two. They are basically the same thing.