Public slave auction, 1965. A print from The Slave Trade and its Abolition, edited by John Langdon-Davies, Jonathan Cape, London, 1965. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The myths about slavery that still hold America captive

Updated 1:27 PM ET, Sat October 2, 2021

(CNN)At first, Clint Smith had trouble making out the objects beside a white picket fence in the distance. Then he drew closer; what he saw made him shudder.

Planted in a garden bed in front of the fence were the heads of 55 Black men impaled on metal rods, their eyes shut and jaws clenched in anguish.
Smith, a journalist and a poet, was visiting the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana as part of his quest to understand the impact of slavery in America. He had spent four years touring monuments and landmarks commemorating slavery across America and in Africa, but his stop at the Whitney, in his home state, stood out.
Author Clint Smith: "America has a lot of accounting to do for what it has done to different groups of people."
There he encountered no mint juleps or "Gone with the Wind" nostalgia about slavery. Instead, the plantation displayed statuettes of impoverished, emaciated Black children. Oral histories included an account from an enslaved woman who recalled how her master would come at night to rape her sister and "den have de nerve to come round de next day and ask her how she feel."
The plantation's harrowing centerpiece, though, was what made Smith stop in his tracks. The severed heads were ceramic sculptures -- a memorial to the largest slave rebellion in US history. In 1811 some 500 slaves, led by a mixed-race slave driver named Charles Deslondes, marched through Louisiana in military formation before federal troops captured them. Their leaders were tortured and beheaded, with their heads posted on stakes as a warning to other slaves.
This memorial by Woodrow Nash at the Whitney Plantation commemorates an 1811 slave uprising after which its leaders were beheaded.
The scene is one of many searing moments Smith captures in his New York Times bestseller, "How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America."
There is no other book on slavery quite like it. Smith explores slavery's impact on the present as much as on the past. He takes readers to places such as modern-day New York City on Wall Street, where the country's second-largest slave market once stood on Wall Street, to show how the story of slavery is still being debated, distorted and denied.
Smith also visits such landmarks as Thomas Jefferson's Monticello plantation in Virginia and Goree Island in Senegal, a notorious slave-trading center. Along the way he speaks with tour guides, descendants of slaves, tourists and even members of a neo-Confederate group who tell him that slavery wasn't the main cause of the Civil War. Others tell him there was no such a thing as a "good" slave master.
Smith's book is a systematic takedown of many myths about slavery, including one that the Whitney exhibit disproves -- that most slaves just passively accepted their fate.
"From the moment Black folks arrives on these shores, they were fighting for liberation," Smith says. "They fought for freedom that they never had the opportunity to see, but they fought for it anyway because they knew that someday someone would. When I see that at the Whitney, I think of all those sacrifices."
CNN talked to Smith recently about his book and how slavery still informs today's America. The conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
How do you respond to people who say, 'Why should I care about slavery? It happened centuries ago. I didn't own any slaves, and neither did my ancestors. Why are you trying to make me feel guilty for something I didn't do?'
Part of what is important is understanding how this story we tell ourselves wasn't that long ago at all. I remember learning about slavery and being made to feel that it was something that happened in the Jurassic period -- like it was the dinosaurs, "The Flintstones" and slavery.
I always think now about the woman who opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016 alongside the Obama family, who rang the bell. She was the daughter of an enslaved person -- not the granddaughter or the great-granddaughter. She was the daughter of someone born into intergenerational, chattel slavery.
A portrait of Civil War-era fugitive slaves who were emancipated upon reaching the North in the mid-1860s.
My grandfather's grandfather was enslaved. So when my grandfather was sitting on his grandfather's lap I'm reminded that in the scope of human history, this was just yesterday.
The idea that an institution that existed for 250 years and has only not existed for a little over 150 years. An institution in which there are people who are alive today who were loved, raised by, and in community with people born into chattel slavery. The idea that that would have nothing to do with what the contemporary landscape of inequality looks like today is morally and intellectually disingenuous.
When people talk about what makes America exceptional, what made us so economically powerful, they often talk about American ingenuity, can-do spirit, and people like John D. Rockefeller. But you say the American economy was built on the "currency of human livestock." How was slavery crucial to the way this country's economy grew?
One of the most telling examples of the relationship between slavery and the economy is that in 1860, four million Black people were enslaved. Black people were worth more than every bank, factory, and railroad combined. The four million Black people were worth more than all the manufacturing in this country before the Civil War began.
A poster advertising a slave sale in 1863 in Frankfort, Kentucky.
Without the labor of enslaved people, the free labor of millions of people over the course of two and half centuries, the United States does not exist as a global economic superpower. It's that simple. We cannot disentangle our rise to global economic superiority from the fact that millions of people worked for free for more than two centuries.
That had an impact not only on the Southern economy but the Northern economy. Capital and resources were what allowed the slaveocracy of the South to continue to flourish. There was an investment across the country in the perpetuation of slavery. It's why in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, the mayor of New York City would propose that New York City secede from the Union alongside the Southern states because the economic and political infrastructure of New York City was deeply invested in slavery.
If we did come to terms with the impact of slavery, how do you think this country would be different?