Photos of Clint Smith and David Harrelson.

Reimagining Monuments with David Harrelson and Clint Smith

In this episode, we talk with David Harrelson and Clint Smith about monuments, memorials, and statues—and also about culture, understanding, and hopes for the future. Talking about memorials, as Harrelson and Smith make immediately clear, you can't help but talk about values, and also about people and peoples. And, recently, talking about monuments, memorials, and statues has also meant talking about toppling, contextualizing, replacing, and reimagining.

Show Notes

About Our Guests

David Harrelson is the cultural resources department manager for The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. He is a Grand Ronde tribal member from the Bean-Menard-Sengretta family. He was raised by a mountaineer and grandparents who worked in education and health care. Among his lineal Oregon ancestors of recent memory he counts the owner of a logging company, a mobile butcher, chief of police, and Kalapuya headman. David is active in his community and currently serves on the Oregon State Advisory Committee for Historic Preservation (SACHP) as well as the Oregon Arts Commission. He is a former board member of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, Oregon, and has previously been a conversation leader for Oregon Humanities' Conversation Project, where he led sessions on the topics of monuments and place. Working for over ten years in the field of cultural resources, David continues to champion the protection of archaeology sites, maintenance of ancestral lifeways, and proliferation of indigenous art forms throughout his Tribe's homelands centered in Western Oregon.

Clint Smith is staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of Counting Descent, which won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. Clint has received fellowships from New America, the Art For Justice Fund, Cave Canem, and the National Science Foundation. His writing has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. He currently teaches writing and literature at the DC Central Detention Facility. His debut nonfiction book, How the Word Is Passed, which explores how different historical sites reckon with—or fail to reckon with—their relationship to the history of slavery, was published by Little, Brown in June 2021. He received his BA in English from Davidson College and his PhD in Education from Harvard University.

Further Detours

"Writing on the Landscape: Reimagining Monuments and Memorials" was a workshop led by David Harrelson and Jess Perlitz on May 24, 2022. 

You can read an excerpt from Clint Smith's book How the Word Is Passed in The Atlantic.

Our conversation with Smith was recorded in 2021. The full recording is available on YouTube and Soundcloud.

Erratic Rock State Natural Site is just of Highway 18 between McMinnville and Amity.

Other on monuments, memorials, and memory from Oregon Humanities:

  • "Here Lies" by Paul Susi, on an intentionally forgotten injustice
  • "Process and Privilege" by Cynthia Carmina Gómez, on the effort to rename a street in Portland for César E. Chávez
  • "Albina Rising" by Deonna Anderson, on a vision to rebuild an erased neighborhood
  • "To Heart Mountain" by Alice Hardesty, on visiting the World War II prison camp her father designed
  • "An Oregon Canyon" by Donnell Alexander and Sika Stanton, on the renaming of John Brown Canyon
  • "On Paper Wings" by Brett Campbell, on a filmmaker's efforts to commemmorate tragedy and reconciliation


Adam Davis: Hello and welcome to The Detour. I'm Adam Davis. I want to tell you here at the start of this episode about a statue in a park not far from where I spent some years in my childhood. The park was called Lincoln Park, and further from where I was, there was a statue of President Lincoln, but that's not the statue I want to tell you about.

The statue I have in mind was smaller than the one of President Lincoln, though it too was of a man with a beard wearing a suit. This smaller statue was good to climb on, and that's all I knew about it. If you managed to scramble to the top of it and to sit or stand on the flat granite that backed the smooth bronze, you felt pretty tall.

There you were face to face with an unmoving man with a beard and a suit. For most of the years that I climbed on this statue, I didn't know who this man was and I don't think I cared. When I got too old to climb on the statue, when it would've been beneath me to do so, I read the fading plaque on the statue’s side and learned that the bearded man was Greene Vardiman Black, one of the founders of modern dentistry.

I had been scrambling around for years on a bronzed representation of Green Vardiman Black, innovative dentist. Who thought to erect a statue of Green Vardiman Black on the south edge of Chicago's Lincoln Park? Who designed it and built it, and who paid for it? What was the statue of this influential dentist supposed to mean or to do?

And why did I as a kid see this statue as nothing more than something to climb on? In this episode of The Detour, we talk with David Harrelson and Clint Smith about monuments, memorials, and statues, and also about culture, understanding, and hopes for the future. Talking about memorials, as Harrelson and Smith make immediately clear, you can't help but talk about values and also about people and peoples.

Recently, talking about memorials, monuments, and statues has also meant talking about toppling, contextualizing, replacing, and reimagining—all more serious and more thoughtful activities than climbing, and more vexed, too, not child's play. As we turn to these two conversations, I want to ask what you think monuments, memorials, and statues are or should be for.

I want to ask you to think of one or two memorials that you remember from your childhood, and I also want to ask you to listen in pretty well as David and Clint talk about the time before us and the time to come, and about intimate history, family history, and how best to mark the histories and shape the futures of the many people that live here.

David Harrelson is the cultural resources manager for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. He's also a historian and a member of the Oregon Arts Commission. David has long been a champion of public art and has worked to use ancestral art forms for the purpose of public art. David speaks about memorials in a dynamic, changing, temporal way, something to engage with, something that is representative of society now.

I spoke with David in August 2022 at the X-Ray FM Studios in Portland, Oregon. 

Do you remember, as a kid, is there a monument or a memorial that made a particular impression on you? 

David Harrelson: Yeah, there isn't. And that is odd, and it's something that I've had to face and that it was never really something that impacted or [that] I’ve noticed noticed or was aware of until I went and worked in Washington, DC. 

Adam Davis: And so how old were you or when you were in DC and those started to register?

David Harrelson: Yeah, it was after undergraduate. Uh, I was around 22, 23 years old. 

Adam Davis: Do you think you started to notice because of where you were in terms of your age and who you were becoming? Or was it more that they were all around and, and that's why they registered for you? 

David Harrelson: I think it's that combination of they were omnipresent. Um, I also think that I was becoming a lot more aware because I was immersing myself working on the hill, in Congress. And so when you're learning about power structures and dynamics and how things are done, you start to look around and realize the world and what's shaping that world and how people are, you know, defining the physical space that they're in. And there seemed to be a relationship between what was going on in Congress and then the physical landscape that was all around.

Adam Davis: That's interesting. The landscape that we sort of, that whether you work on politics or more likely don’t, that landscape you work through, or walk through, has a lot to do with the power structure underneath. 

David Harrelson: Yeah, and I think that that came from being a historian, right? And that's sort of what I was trained as. But then also as an Indigenous person, which, place is sort of the base of everything. Everything begins with place, and functions of time and story and everything, is based on that common experience, because when you walk through place, you share that. And so those are some ideas that came in being around the Capitol Building and seeing that and wanting to know the deeper history because all these people that were moving through that space were sharing place. But so there's an indigenous concept of how I was raised to think about my home, and then I was going to a new place as a guest, even if it was my nation, my country, right? Like it was new to me. I was a guest, so I was interested in what that baseline was, and so I inquisitively looked around.

Adam Davis: Yeah. In DC it's, it's almost overwhelming; once you notice one, you see they're everywhere. And there's often words, too, along with these big sculptures. And whereas out here in the Pacific Northwest, as you suggested at the beginning, not so much. Do, I guess first, uh, do you agree that we don't, that there's a relative paucity of monuments and memorials out here? Uh, whether you agree with that or not, like, is that a good thing? Like, should we be surrounded by sculptures and other monuments, or is it better to let the place itself more organically, uh, emerge?

David Harrelson: Yeah, well I think that that's some of the processing that I've worked through. And as I came back from DC, I went to work for my tribe, my community, and it really grounded a lot of the way that I think about place. So no, I, I don't, because I really have internalized this tribal teaching that our history is written upon the landscape. And I think that landscape and place are like these connectors of people through time, through lived experience, association, historical events, and um, to me, it's just the whole concept of a monument is sort of, uh, invasive. It sort of seeks to define something as opposed—I don't think it has to, which is maybe the other part of it. And, I really want to challenge this idea, that we try to reimagine monuments to do something that is a little bit more in line with like Indigenous ways of knowing and understanding a place.

What's interesting is, it's not new. I think that to observe in the Pacific Northwest, we have traditional monuments. They're here, we'll see them. But then it's also things like instead of a person, it's an elk statue. Or instead of, um, a person on a horse, it's, uh, a burial canoe of Chinookan people at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Um, these are all things that existed generations before I, you know, was around and thinking about tribal things. So I think that there's a lot to borrow on, in sort of that's representative. There's still those other traditional monument-like things, but people have been pushing a different way of doing or thinking about monuments, and I think it's in greater respect of place, history, landscape, uh, in the Pacific Northwest.

Adam Davis: So at the beginning of that comment, you said the whole concept of monuments are invasive. And I want to go to really the first part of that sentence, which is like, the concept of a monument. What's your understanding of what that concept is? 

David Harrelson: Yeah. 

Adam Davis: What, what is the concept of a monument? 

David Harrelson: I guess that's the challenge. To me, I think if you make it really basic, it's to mark place, time, events. I think that the way that it gets represented is very reflective of the last hundred-plus years and that the stories that people are telling by marking important events, place, and time have this, like, theme that's following industrialization. It's following legacies of manifest destiny. It's, you know, very deeply tied to all of these colonial actions that I believe are layered as one seam of history, but yet the basis of place in history is much deeper. And so when we're looking at that, like, temporal time, or looking at it from a time perspective, I'm really interested in trying to reflect things or have things that reflect much deeper traditions. And to give an idea about time, right, I talked about a hundred years, and for most people, a hundred years is a super long time, right? That's like ancient. Well, that's a part of that concept of being native, like, we say we've been here since time immemorial. It's like, well, what's that? Well, that's literally since a time that no one can remember. And the oldest things that we remember are thousands of years ago events that happened, that match up geologically, where these cultural teachings and scientific ideas come together and are confirmed events, like the Bonneville landslide that plugged up the Columbia River, you know, 400, 500 years ago, the eruption of Mount Mazama that created Crater Lake 7–9,000 years ago, the Missoula floods, right, that flooded the Willamette Valley with over 400 feet of water happening between 13 and 18,000 years ago. So when we're talking about time, I think that we want to get to that, of talking about that sort of deep time in these forms that quite literally created the rich soil in the Willamette Valley that made farming possible, that has made it one of the richest farm areas known in the world, right? 

Adam Davis: So when you think about that kind of time, how do you mark that? How do you call attention to stuff that happened 10,000 years ago, 17,000 years ago? 

David Harrelson: Well, one of my takeaways of this, too, is that it's a way of thinking about the world that may come from a tribal perspective, but there's many people that have already operated in that thinking. Like it's not exclusive to just tribal people. This isn't a disruption activity. What this is is this like almost an inclusive activity, because place has this ability to unify. So some examples: almost daily on my drive to work, I pass Glacial Erratic state park, right? It's this little tiny state park, and it's a glacial erratic that came in on these flood events. There's a big rock halfway up the hill. No way to really explain how it got there except for this huge flood event that happened, and it's one of the best places to see sunrise in the Willamette Valley. Right? So, and you know, all you have to do is drive down the highway, scramble up the hill, take a look, look out over, and be like, Wow, this rock is here. And the only way is this story that's being told. And there's some interpretation on the site that does that. So that's a way that the state of Oregon has been doing that, acknowledging those events for a really long time.

There's a hotel out in the North Willamette Valley that they named the Allison. And the Allison is named after Lake Allison. Allison being the person that made that geological discovery that the Willamette Valley was flooded by these floods, right? So we're not using Indigenous names for those events, although we have traditional stories, but yet we all have these common linkages to it. And some people are putting that forward and celebrating that understanding of place. 

Adam Davis: It's interesting to think that place, to think like, how does place emerge a little bit more centrally onto people's consciousness? And that may be getting harder as we change place, literally make over place, more roads, more pavement, more buildings. So what place was is a little bit harder to see, which in a strange way, seems like an argument for, if not monumentalizing the place that was, in some way more deliberately calling attention to what a place was, as that place kind of disappears. What about that? How to deal with the reality of disappearing past as we move into the future.

David Harrelson: Yeah. You know, this theme reminds me of a lot of the ways that we think about time in the western world, which is this idea that time in front of us you can't see as well, but time behind you, you can. And so it's very different from tribal teachings and perspective. There's an idea that everything is kind of happening at the same time and reliving itself, and it's like conceptually a very different way of thinking about things. So you know, now is this moment, but you're obligated by different social teachings and other actions to have the past inform as well as the future. It's something that's regularly heard amongst different tribal people that will talk about this, this idea of the seven generations. So you'll hear that from tribes all across the nation of this idea of planning for seven generations out.

Meanwhile, there's this whole system of obligation and reciprocity to the past. 

Adam Davis: Can I follow up what you just said by asking about when the horizon both back and forward is, is long, relative to say, a non-Indigenous American approach, and when the horizons are in a way so closely related to each other, how to, in the current moment, try to mark stuff, to mark the important stuff?

David Harrelson: One of the pieces about trying to do this work is that you're having to follow that like affirmation and like look to your community. Like, it takes a community to process. It takes listening. It's being inquisitive but being open and allowing things to shape of like what would work and so it centers less of the individual.

And that, I think, is a really challenging thing to do in today's world, especially being out West, how we are—our rugged individualism of the American West. You know, and you know, I also grew up here. Right. I'm all of those things too. I'm not only a Kalapuya person from the Willamette Valley who's Indigenous of this place; I'm also a product of all of the lived experience that informs everyone else.

And so I have, throughout my life, I've also struggled with that, of being like, is that the path that I'm gonna choose, of feeling these forces of rugged individualism and the ability to be the one person that makes it happen, or I'm the, you know, creative disruptor, entrepreneurial person, right? That doesn't seem to have much resonance, like within a traditional cultural community of where our people came from. And the only way that I can be affirmed of that is through dialogue, conversation with my fellow community members about where we're going, how does it work? And that's maybe what is missing so much. You gotta engage in community dialogue, civic engagement, because there's all these forces that seem to be minimizing that, while there aren't the same spaces that are available, where people are actually maintaining cultural communities, whether it's a tribal one, whether it's a local community, whether it's religiously based, however it is, the community seems to be wavering, from my lived experience.

Adam Davis: That's super interesting and it makes me think back to your description of your experience in DC and, how many statues and monuments are of individuals, uh, you know, great men or more recently, say, great people. But it is this, we are going to memorialize individuals as a way of telling the story about cultures and communities.

And there's something about that way of doing it that necessarily retells the story about individuals. So can we talk about herons for a minute? Uh, you've been working on, with other folks, a memorial involving herons. Can you, can you describe that a little bit, why that choice and how it might look? Cuz that sounds like it's pushing in the directions we're talking about. 

David Harrelson: Yeah, absolutely. So, there's a long Clackamas cultural tradition of, uh, placing carved herons down by the river as the watchers that watch for the fish runs, and there's a whole cultural protocol to that that leads to our first fish ceremony, something that we still do today. We do it as an individual private community, small events.

But this idea of this ongoing Clackamas cultural practice that we maintain in our community, it's more of a private affair, we got curious, and I got inquisitive, and I asked the other people who were a part of this activity, I said, is there some way that we can share some of our cultural teachings since they're the teachings of this place, in a way that's public? That we keep doing what we do privately, but you know, a part of what this does for us as a community is it centers our attention on the river. It puts us into relationship with place, with salmon, with herons, which I'll, you know, because we place the herons out on the river, they're watching for the fish. When the fish come up the river, we catch the first fish, right?

Then we bring the carved herons to the event where we cook the fish, and then we eat the fish as a community. And traditionally in the past, no one was allowed to fish for five days afterwards. So the first run of fish that comes up the river gets to go up the river to spawn. Which means that, right, it renews the cycle. Right. And so those are sort of like cultural teachings. So that was the inception of this. Hey, let's ask this question. And then a series of conversations with different community members and people that lead that ceremony, to bring, come up with this idea of, well, let's do a seasonal installation, but let's invite artists, different artists, to design these large sculptural element, you know, graffiti resistant, etcetera, etcetera.

You know, our wood carvings are, they're not monumental, they're human scale. They're one to one scale, right? We put 'em out on the shores of the river and one of the translations to that was for us, the herons are only out there a really short period of time, but we were like, well, let's um, put out the herons during the whole spring fish run.

And we have a really imperiled fish population runs on the river themselves. And I think that the hope is to help people understand that there's fish in the river, by having like a physical representation onshore. 

Adam Davis: It's interesting to think in that particular example, uh, there's dedication to memorializing and calling attention to the place and culture, and built into it, the idea that the way it's done and who it's done by will continue to change, and that itself seems like a big departure from the way much memorializing is done. This is pretty complicated. Who should be the leading voices in determining how culture remembers what this place is, where it comes from, and helps shape what it might become? Especially because there's so much movement now. Things change fast. How do you think about that big question?

David Harrelson: Yeah. You have to be hyper specific or intentionally broad and inclusive. And you basically keep going in a direction until you hear no, and then you stop going in that direction. Right?

So it really is like the way that you build consensus is sort of this lowest common denominator. Like, does this idea work? Does it work? Does it work? Nope. It doesn't work. Turn your attention to another thing, like, keep coming up with new ideas, Be creative. And I think that the challenges come when people try to strike the middle ground and do something that isn't as universally understood. So it's easier to do that because it's a Clackamas tradition, and I'm able to like work that way and work with Clackamas people to bring that forward. If I tried to make like a fisheries monument of the lower Columbia River, that is like the middle ground. That is gonna have so many voices and be…it makes it so weighty that it's almost impossible to build consensus, right? Because there's so many voices. 

So it's that idea of making something that can be ephemeral, that gives you the opportunity to try, to test out, to engage in community dialogue, cuz inevitably something will go wrong. Somebody will do something that's offensive. Something like, that's what happens when you do things, but it shouldn't stop you from doing them. But approaching things with humbleness. And understanding that that's gonna happen, and know that you're in a relationship, and you're gonna make things right, and that's that, like, human component that we can’t architect and design it to be perfect from the beginning. We gotta figure it out by starting to do it.

Adam Davis: Yeah. So much of what we've been talking about is around that. It's around how to build and deepen people's understanding of the place they live in and the people that have helped shape that place and what the place and the people might become. And it's hard to work on understanding, and it's hard to work on it deliberately and have it go in the ways we hope.

So I, I just want to point to the complexity there and that, that helped me when you said that, understand some of what the effort is for. Maybe as a way of closing, I want to ask you, like, as you do this work, and as you talk to a lot of people trying to do this work together, do you find that there's a persistent question or a knotty question that continues to arise for you that, that you haven't gotten the answer to or figured out the answer to? Are there, or a couple of questions that keep coming up?

David Harrelson: You know, there's a paradox of people that want to hold Natives as this kind of magic Indian that knows everything, and meanwhile in the same breath and the same action of doing that, seem to not be able to allow Native people attributed like the basic sets of humanity that we expect of all people. And so as a tribal person, we're magic, and we're also lacking of qualities attributable to humanity. And it's in the past and in the present. And it's this paradox, and it's such a challenge because, we're trying to live in that time continuum that I talked about and like make a difference. So we might be provided an opportunity, but it comes with this baggage, and yet that often isn't recognized because it's, it's also this mentality that seems to exist of like, free information and open input, and there isn't that obligation and reciprocity of exchange, where that is sort of from the tribal perspective of things, it's like, okay, well we're in relationship and we're gonna like exchange and we're gonna go back and forth. People are holding those two paradoxes when they're approaching things, and so it can be hard to make a difference, but that's the knotty thing that I, you know, get challenged with is, it's like, I want to help, I wanna do my best, but then I'm trying to overcome this conflict in paradox that is really hard to point out to people, because it can make them feel vulnerable or frustrated, or, uh, shameful. Right? But it seems omnipresent in trying to do the work of bringing things like this forward. 

Monuments are an opportunity to reflect your community. And I think that if people don't see themselves or their communities represented in those monuments, that they should seek ways that they can be represented. And I would say that the other part about it and doing that work, if you're gonna do it in a way, don't think of it—be forewarned about scarcity thinking and think abundantly. Just because something already exists doesn't mean that something else can't also exist. So make more.

Adam Davis: David Harrelson is the cultural resources manager for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic, a poet, and the author of How the Word Is Passed, a Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. Clint has done a lot of thinking about memorials. He grew up in New Orleans where there are memorials to confederates who owned enslaved people in a majority Black city.

Clint asks, to what extent are places being honest about their relationship to history, and to what extent are they hiding from it? I spoke with Clint as part of Oregon Humanities’ Consider This program, in April 2021. 

Clint Smith: I fundamentally believe that unless we understand, in a sort of national context and in an international context, the historical processes and decisions that have shaped what our contemporary landscape looks like, then we will fail to create the necessary solutions or, or we will be grounding possible solutions in sort of, um, ahistoricism, right?

You know, so for example, the book is about different places across the country, and how they reckon with or fail to reckon with our relationship to the history of slavery. And so I go to different places across the country, um, and consider to what extent is this place that has a very specific relationship to slavery running from, directly confronting, or doing something in between.

And I'm, I'm doing that in part because slavery is one of those things that, like the insidious of White supremacy makes us feel like we talk about it all the time, right? They're like, Oh, you know, I know about Frederick Douglas, I know about Harriet Tubman. I watched 12 Years a Slave. You know, I know about slavery, that was such a long time ago. But it wasn't that long ago, right? Like, I think all the time about my grandfather who was born in 1930 Jim Crow, Mississippi. And there would be moments where my, you know, this was in the before times, we haven't seen him since covid, but where my three-year-old son would be sitting on my 90-year-old grandfather's lap, and I imagine my 90-year-old grandfather sitting on his grandfather's lap. And in that moment, I'm reminded that my grandfather's grandfather was someone who was born into slavery. And that this thing that we tell ourselves was a long time ago was not in fact that long ago at all, that the woman who stood next to the Obama family in 2015 to open the National Museum of African American History and Culture was the daughter of an enslaved person, right? Like her father had been enslaved. And, and so there are people who are still alive, who loved, who had relationships with, who were raised by people who had been born into intergenerational chattel slavery. Right? And that, you know, slavery in this country, or what would ultimately become this country, has existed for a hundred years longer than it hasn't. You know, like we had slavery for, you know, if we consider the beginning, in 1619, and the end in 1865.

You know, slavery existed in this country for around 250 years, and we've not even, we've not come close to that period of time. And so all that's to say, I'm fascinated by how deeply—this book was driven, because it is clear to me that slavery still is, that slavery is the origin point of so much inequality that continues to persist today. And the treatment that it often gets in public discourse, in classrooms, is not at all commensurate with the economic, social, cultural, or political impact that it has had on our contemporary landscape of inequality. And so I wanted to go to these places, like an Angola prison, which is one of the places that I go, and think about, well, what does it mean that this prison, the largest maximum security prison in the country, is built on top of a former plantation? Seventy-five percent of the people held there are Black men, 70% of them are serving life sentences. It's bigger than the size of Manhattan. Um, and again, it is built on top of a former plantation.

And what I tell people is that if you were to go to Germany, and you had the largest maximum security prison in Germany built on top of a former concentration camp, in which the people held there were disproportionately Jewish, that place would be a global emblem of antisemitism. It would be such an upfront to all of our moral and ethical sensibilities. It would be abhorrent. It would be disgusting. We would never allow a place like that to exist, and rightfully so. And yet here in the United States, we have the largest maximum security prison in the country in which men go out into fields in the morning, and in the evening, and continue to work on land that was once a plantation with someone watching over them on horseback, with a rifle over their shoulder. You know, working for virtually no pay. And most of them are Black men serving life sentences. I mean, so what is the, what are the ways that racism and White supremacy not only enact violence against people's bodies, but also you were talking about memory, collectively numb us to certain types of violences that would otherwise in different contexts be wildly unacceptable.

And what is the failure of America's collective memory that allows that place to exist and that place to look the way that it does, in ways that reflect, I think, a failure of this country to reckon with how slavery has continued in, you know, both these sort of imagery and symbolism and iconography, but also the spirit in many ways, of slavery and enslavement to continue to exist.

Adam Davis: Again, there's a lot, and that's an incredibly vivid, and I would say horrifying example, the Angola example, and the analogy, which is hard not to feel the power of. And I would just tell you that it's interesting, interesting also, your emphasis on, like time and the people who we have relationships with. My family, you know, comes from a part of Poland that they left, those who could leave, and those who didn't were killed. And so we actually don't have the possibility to go back in that way. 

You make an argument in a sort of recent piece for like intimate history, to talk to family members, and I think I just wanna ask a little bit about that. How does that work, bringing family relationships and an understanding of sort of the country's not fully reckoning with itself? How do you put those together? 

Clint Smith: Yeah. I'm sort of obsessed with family history and oral history. And I, part of what happened is, so I was reading the, over the course of writing this book, I was reading the Federal Writers Project documents and narratives. And so for those who aren't familiar, the Federal Writers Project was an initiative that happened between 1936 and 1938 as part of FDR'S New Deal. And it was meant, it had a couple purposes. It was meant to employ writers who had been laid off. And so it employed thousands of writers, um, who during, you know, this is after the Depression, um, and sent them all across the country to collect these stories of what made America America, in essence.

And a big part of that initiative was collecting the stories of people who were formerly enslaved. And so this is 1936 to 1938. So the people who were still alive, who had lived through slavery, had been, they were very old, and they had also been children around the time abolition happened. And so part of, there was a recognition that we didn't have a really robust collection of interviews and stories of people who were formerly enslaved, and that these people were about to pass away and something needed to be done to collect those stories.

And so there were over 2000 stories and interviews that were done with people who were formerly enslaved, and the power of these stories is so profound. And so I was reading these narratives, and I was really interested in the idea that these stories had been collected before these folks had passed away, and they were so important because so much of the emphasis of the stories that we're given around the history of slavery is around Frederick Douglas, is around Harriet Tubman, is around, uh, people who were these sort of extraordinary individuals, whose stories are worth sharing, but also who are not, whose stories aren't necessarily reflective of the sort of larger population of enslaved people, right?

Like Frederick Douglas is not your average, right, not only average enslaved person, but your average person. And so it doesn't really give you a sense of the sort of small quotidian daily nature of what slavery was because this was such an extraordinary nonrepresentative human being. And I was thinking a lot about people who've lived through Jim Crow, and people who've lived through Jim Crow apartheid, and how that generation is gonna slowly begin, not even slowly, I mean, but it's beginning to pass away. And you know, we, over the past few years, we've lost so many sort of giants of the Civil Rights Movement, and also I was thinking about all this, and I was also doing this book and had this moment where I realized that I, as a researcher, as a writer, as a journalist, I've spent so much time asking strangers to tell me about their life stories and to tell me these sort of intimate parts of their lives, and I never really brought the same level of intentionality to my own family. You know, like I, and so part of what I did in, what I do in the epilogue of the book is sit down and have a conversation with my grandparents and try to get a sense of like, what was it like, you know, in a very intentional way over the course of multiple hours, like, tell me what it was like to grow up in Mississippi in like 1930, what was it like? And in the thirties and in the forties, what was that like? Same thing with my grandmother in Florida. And, and I just learned so much that I never would've otherwise learned. You know, it's the kind of thing, you get into the sort of, when you bring a level of intentionality to it, you get into the types of things that you don't necessarily talk about in passing at Thanksgiving, or might not come up when you're surround, you know, in different contexts. But, um, I was really grateful that I did that. In part, I try to emphasize to folks that that's, it's such a powerful thing to do, you know, whether you're a Black American or, or of any other group.

I mean, I think to your point, so many of our family members and our elders have lived through these profound moments in American history and world history. You know, one day some people are gonna ask us like, what was it like to live through the great plague of 2020 and 2021? 

Adam Davis: Right now there's so many efforts to think about monuments and memory, and they're all, it feels like, in a way, people are paying more attention to memory now than they were five years ago, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago. And some of the arguments seem to be, let's not, let's not pay attention to this, or let's pay attention to it in a certain way. Either because paying attention to it sort of re-traumatizes or because we wanna make sure we're telling the accurate story. And if what we're thinking about is how we move forward, like, do you have a take on, let's say monuments and, it's probably too general a question, but is there a specific example that you've come across where you think, here's how we should be addressing this attempt to memorialize what is a tough thing? 

Clint Smith: Yeah. So the book began in earnest in 2017, when the statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard went, came down in New Orleans. And those are, you know, two Confederate generals and, uh, the president of the Confederacy. And as I was watching those statues come down, I was thinking about what it meant that, what it meant that I grew up in a city in which there were more homages to enslavers than there were to enslaved people. Right. And like, how does that happen? Especially, in any city, but in a majority Black city. And again, when we talk about the sort of failure of memory, um, thinking about how, like the construction of so many of these statues that sort of ornamented the edges of the city that I grew up in, and having grown up there and never actually having been taught what those statues were and what they represented, right? Because when you're a kid, you kind of pass it and these are, you know, majestic statues that you drive by, you know, every day. And I think a lot about how I never learned, I never actually learned like what the Confederacy was. And that's part of the success of the Lost Cause is that it made it so that these statues were about heritage and honor and state's rights and just, you know, an honoring of a group of honorable people who did what they thought was best, rather than what it was, which is a treasonous army who fought a war predicated on maintaining and expanding the institution of slavery.

And then in what happens is that you say that. and then people are like, people try to turn it into an ideological statement rather than an empirical one. Right. Rather than one that's actually grounded in history. Because, you know, I remember being a high school teacher and trying to teach very directly about slavery and getting some pushback because it's like, you know, people are like, oh, well you gotta be careful not to indoctrinate students with your political views. And it's like, I'm not indoctrinating people with my political views, I'm just saying this is what the primary source documents say. Right? Like, all you have to do is go to the Ceclarations of Confederate Secession in 1861, where a state like Mississippi says our interests are thoroughly aligned with the institution of slavery, are the greatest material interests in the world.

Right. Like they make no, it's not, there's nothing confusing about why they left the Union, they said it for themselves. They were not vague about it. They thought Abraham Lincoln, after the election of 1860, was gonna take their enslaved workers away. And they, thus they had to secede and fight this war in order to protect and expand, hopefully, for them, the institution of chattel slavery.

And so there is no context in which I think that a statue on a public grounds of someone who fought a war based upon that cause, I don't—that statue shouldn't be up, right? Like if you wanna put a statue of Robert Lee in your backyard, that's your business, you know? But like in front of a courthouse, in a park, in the middle of a street that is funded by taxpayer dollars, you know, like Confederate monuments kind of are like the low hanging fruit of this debate to me. That's the easy thing. I think there are harder conversations. I think there are harder conversations to be had about some other statues and some other monuments and some other people that are tricky. And I think, you know, people of good faith can have different ideas about what should be done with statues of some of these folks.

But I think, you know, more generally, I'm interested in how can we think differently about what memorialization looks like, and the role that monuments are even supposed to play in our country. You know, I'm interested in monuments to sort of collectives of people more so than individuals.

You know, one of my favorite monuments is to the 44th, uh, the 45th Infantry, Massachusetts Infantry in Boston, which was the elite, all-Black infantry unit of Black soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War. They had, you know, the movie Glory with Denzel Washington was made based on that group of folks.

And then there's another one in DC that is a monument to sort of all 200,000 Black Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War. And that's more interesting to me because it is a recognition that history's changed through collective action rather than through individuals. Even things that are ostensibly individual decisions, or presented to us as individual decisions, like Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation is actually the result of many, many people pushing and pulling Lincoln to make a set of decisions, you know, like, does that decision happen without Frederick Douglas? Does that decision happen without hundreds of years of enslaved people pushing, you know, pushing the abolitionist cause and fighting for something that they knew that they might never see, but knew they had to fight for anyway.

And the historian David Blight talks about how, what would it look like if we had statues or memorials or monuments to sort of aspirations or ideas, right? Like, what is the monument to abolition look like that is not a person or embodied or personified in a person. Um, what does, and what does it look like to have monuments that sort of represent who we aspire to be, um, or who we are trying, what we're trying to move toward that serve, as you know, so that we have not only reminders of our past, but also reminders of what we're trying to, to move toward.

And I'm not a visual artist, so I can't say specifically what those would look like, but I do think there's room and the possibility of saying, Hey, like, what would it look like to, instead of to drive past the statue of Robert E. Lee on my way to school every day, what would it look like to have driven past some sort of sculpture or something that is a reminder of justice or freedom or equity, or, you know, so many of the promises that this country made in its founding documents that it's yet to live up to.

Adam Davis: What's interesting, I was just gonna ask, and so, well parried, you anticipated the question about what something might look like, and you had a good sort of, don't ask me that, I  don't, I'm not a visual artist. I would've said the same thing. I can't tell, that's on them. But I do think, I mean, you're not far from Washington, DC, and I know the experience of walking around DC is to be surrounded by both monuments and phrases which are supposed to speak to our aspirations. And there are times walking around DC when every one of those rings painfully. They feel, it feels like, how could we have these words up, or this aspirational figure up, and feel so far from it? It's almost like a reminder of our shortcomings.

I think my question there is how do you do both things? How do you both call attention, empirically, to the terrible stuff, the ways we're falling short, and appeal to what you were just describing, which is something that may not yet exist, but we wanna point towards? How do you do both of those things together?

Clint Smith: It's a good question. I mean, I, you know, they certainly aren't mutually exclusive. And something I've been thinking a lot about recently, I brought up Germany before. They have something in Berlin called the Stumbling Stones. That's the sort of English translation. I can't pronounce what it is in German.

But it's these sort of, these bricks that are like slightly elevated off the ground. And on the bricks are the names, you know, the brick might be in front of an Apple store, or it might be in front of a hotel. It might be in front of. you know, a jewelry shop. And my understanding is that when you walk in front of these places and you see these bricks on the ground, they have the names of the people who were taken from those homes, the homes that had once been there, and sent to their death in concentration camps. And so you can't walk into this Apple store without knowing that like that store was once the home of a Jewish family who were taken from their home and sent to Auschwitz, or sent to any, you know, any number of these death camps.

And that is so powerful to me. And it's not to say that Germany doesn't have issues around antisemitism. It's not to say Germany doesn't—is doing it perfectly, but it's such a powerful example of what it means to situate that sort of iconography in places that make sure you are always being reminded of it.

Right? And like what would that look like in the US? What would it look like if we had stumbling stones or any iteration, you know, sort of artistic iteration of that, that remind us every place we went, reminded us that this place used to be, ss a place where enslaved people used to be sold, or this place is a place, you know, used to be where enslaved auctions were held. This place used to be the home of this prominent enslaver, or on the other side, like this place was the home of these enslaved people. Right. Almost focusing more on the people who were enslaved than simply the ones who were doing the oppressing. But it would, I think our understanding of inequality in this country, I think our understanding of the origins and manifestations of, of anti-Black racism and White supremacy would be far more sophisticated and would be far more collectively comprehended and sort of oriented if we had these collective reminders that we had to encounter all of the time. And I think that that, you know, we talk about the past and the future. I mean, I think that that would shape policy, right? Because we know that like symbols and narratives—or symbols and monuments shape the narratives we tell. And the narratives we tell shape the policies we create, and the policies we create shape the material conditions of people's lives, right? So none of this is disconnected. Because if you're not understanding why inequality looks the way that it does today, then you fall into the trap of thinking that some people live in the conditions they do because they may have done something to deserve it, rather than because things have been done to these communities decade after decade after decade after decade.

Adam Davis: Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

You can find links to Clint and David's work in our show notes at The Detour is produced by Keiren Bond. Dave Friedlander is our editor. Our assistant producers are Ben Waterhouse, Alexandra Powell Bugden, and Karina Briski. Thanks for listening. See you next time.




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