By Bill Bigelow, Jesse Hagopian, Cierra Kaler-Jones, Ana Rosado, and Ursula Wolfe-Rocca
This lesson is part of a suite of activities developed to accompany How the Word Is Passed by a Zinn Education Project curriculum collective, which includes the authors listed above.
In the prologue to his book How the Word Is Passed, Clint Smith writes that “The echo of enslavement is everywhere.” How the Word Is Passed captures a few of these echoes and tries to make sense of them for our lives today. Smith shows how in different sites, slavery is remembered, slavery is distorted, and slavery is forgotten. He travels to Thomas Jefferson’s home of Monticello, where, during Jefferson’s life at any given time, he enslaved 130 people; to the Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans, near the largest revolt of enslaved people prior to the Civil War; to Louisiana’s Angola State Prison, site of a former plantation; to the Confederate burial ground of Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia; to Galveston Island, home of the first Juneteenth commemoration, where the first non-Native enslaved person arrived in 1528; to New York City, which on the eve of the American Revolution had the highest proportion of enslaved Black people to Europeans in the North; to Goree Island in Senegal, a center of the trade in enslaved Africans from the 16th century to 1848.
Finally, Smith returns to his own family, whose ancestors were enslaved, to make sense of the intimate, close-to-home impact of the “crime that is still unfolding.”
In his research for How the Word Is Passed, Clint Smith spoke with people who “are, formally or informally, public historians who carry with them a piece of this country’s collective memory.” This activity asks students to imagine them selves as “public historians,” trying to draw on an infinitely painful history to help us make sense of our society today.
How should we “teach” about the meaning of each of these places in a way that educates people about the truth of U.S. history? And about what that history demands of us now? Those are the questions students confront here.
In the lesson, students receive facts about each of the locations in How the Word Is Passed and imagine how they might commemorate what occurred there. If time allows, students can supplement these fact sheets with their own research. Each instruction sheet for students encourages them to think beyond traditional museum remembrances — although museums themselves needn’t be the staid, neutrality-feigning sites of yesteryear. As Smith points out in the book’s Epilogue, the National Museum of African American History and Culture “recognizes that Blackness is not peripheral to the American project; it is the foundation upon which the country is built.” That is the sensibility we hope students will bring to each of their commemoration proposals.