Beginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader on a tour of monuments and landmarks—those that are honest about the past and those that are not—that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation’s collective history, and ourselves.
Gregarious, learned and engagingly open-minded, the book meets America where it is on the subject — which is to say, all over the place ... [Clint] skillfully braids interviews with scholarship and personal observation, asking, 'How different might our country look if all of us fully understood what had happened here?' ... The result is a tour of tours and a reckoning with reckonings, which sketches an impressive and deeply affecting human cartography of America’s historical conscience. The book’s standout quality is the range and sincerity of its encounters ... His ease with strangers is charmingly apparent ... Never getting lost in his story’s many thickets, Smith confidently interleaves the history of American slavery with his subjects’ varied relationships to the institution’s evolving legacy ... Smith has a penchant for evoking people and places, and occasionally garlands his text with descriptions of voices, landscapes and curricula vitae that distract from the substance of his research. His generosity of spirit also leads him to affirm some instances of remembrance that might deserve more scrutiny ... But it’s surely a sign of strength when even a book’s shortcomings vindicate its larger project. Smith’s unapologetically subjective map of American memory is an extraordinary contribution to the way we understand ourselves.
It is for these moments, seemingly small, that Smith reserves the hush of his own surprise and learning. Rarely in a book of this scope does one find such careful reconstruction and attention to rhetoric ... A book of how slavery is remembered will, of course, hardly be light reading. Good thing then that Smith knows when to steer toward the contemporary ... enthralling and enraging ... Also softly revelatory about Smith’s approach is how he understands the role of emotion in public history ... Importantly, the book is indubitably a radical act within the halls of knowledge. Smith knows 'preserved' sites and the public domain are hardly inherently positive places, but he knows they wield power. Citing a treasure trove of academic historians, Smith asks what many academics do not: what does the public know? What do 'I' know?.
In rich, evocative language, Smith synthesizes first hand research, textual sources, and interviews as he weaves a lyrical and precise tapestry of the truth of America's past that many would like to continue to hide ... The detail and depth of the storytelling is vivid and visceral, making history present and real. Equally commendable is the care and compassion shown to those Smith interviews — whether tour guides or fellow visitors in these many spaces. Due to his care as an interviewer, the responses Smith elicits are resonant and powerful ... Smith deftly connects the past, hiding in plain sight, with the today's lingering effects. ...