Monument and Memory: How the Word Is Passed

I am currently in a training workshop with the Zinn Education Project, having received an advanced copy of Clint Smith’s forthcoming book, How The Word Is Passed. Part reflective memoir, part travelogue, part historical text survey, part poetic response, it takes us on a road trip to the places in the United States and abroad that memorialize slavery. I love the way Smith verbally paints the places he visits in vivid landscape and the people he meets in precise portraiture. We are along with him for the ride. He also shares personal history, familial connections, and internal ruminations. His notes reverberate; my own experiences traveling to  places like these and teaching this history bubble up from the depths of my subconscious. I have many other books about slavery in America, but this one is unique. 

The workshop has gathered a mighty group of educators, and we are being asked to consider how this book might inspire us and how it might inspire the students in our classrooms. 

Clint Smith is a poet and an educator and a lover of history. We are kindred spirits.  Not many people know that my masters degree is in museum education. I did not intend to become a classroom teacher; I wanted to work in the kinds of places Smith writes about. I wanted to shape the narratives that people encountered outside of the classroom, outside of their childhoods, during their freetime, and on their vacations. Almost 15 years ago, I interned at the New York Historical Society during the mounting of its exceptional exhibit, Slavery in New York (you can still access a version of the online exhibit here but the Flash elements are no longer supported).  The primary goal of that exhibit was to remind old and new generations of New Yorkers that, while New York City was not the South, from the beginning there was slavery.  That enslaved people were integrated into the earliest groups of settlers. That they built Wall Street. That they sought freedom among the encampments of both British and Patriots troops during The Revolution. That they were integral fibers in the tapestral history of this metropolis and that their bodies still lay beneath the streets.  

It’s strange, but I forgot about that experience until the workshop facilitator asked us to craft a response to Smith’s writing and I began this post. Giving tours to school children at NYHS was a precursor to giving Saturday Academy tours of Seneca Village with the Central Park Conservancy, which begat teaching 4th graders at Dalton about the Amistad, Olaudah Equiano, and The Gullah. We visited the African Burial Ground, which is also mentioned in Smith’s chapter on New York’s racial history. After I moved, I taught about slavery to 6th graders as I shared my family tree during our culture project and to 8th graders on a spring break trip to South Carolina and to 7th graders studying The Civil War. I teach it to my son. Everywhere I have taught, I have taught about slavery.  As a museum educator, as a classroom educator, as a parent, it has always been relevant. How The Word Is Passed, indeed. 

My husband’s family is proudly from Hampton, where the first Africans were brought to Virginia.

Even now, as an English teacher, it occurs to me that To Kill A Mockingbird is itself a sort of literary monument linking slavery to segregation to racial terror and injustice in America. It is iconic, persistent, and flawed like many of the places Clint Smith visits in his book.  Each person who encounters it must reckon with its continued existence and make sense of their own experience. They have to walk around the edges, go into the doorways, look around, touch the walls. I am my student’s tour guide on this journey, focusing on what I want them to notice and pointing out what they might miss, but ultimately not in control of what they might walk away with or how this visit will resonate and connect many years down the line.  

In a few weeks I will present with my good friends Anthony Cohen and Michael V. Williams at the Independent School Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) Winter Institute, the theme of which is Reflection, Reckoning, and Rebirth: Inspiring Change Amidst Global Crises. Our workshop will present the work of The Montgomery County Lynching Memorial Project and invite educators to reflect on narratives of historical conflict and reconciliation within their own communities, to conduct research on those topics, and to build curricular ideas for integration into the classroom. I plan to share how I am connecting MoCoLMP’s work to To Kill A Mockingbird, since a book so deeply connected to the history of lynching must be tethered to both the work the Equal Justice Initiative and our area’s own unearthed skeletons.  I hope to encourage other local schools that teach TKAM to do the same.  In September, they can participate in a soil collection during the planned Remembrance Weekend. One day soon, there will be markers they can visit. This history belongs to all of us, and the wounds won’t even begin heal until we all take part in remembering. 

Smith writes that we can learn this history from so many people and places, but “at some point, it is no longer a question of whether we can learn this history but whether we have the collective will to reckon with it.” 

Perhaps I hope most to give my students the will to remember and to reckon, and maybe, to find a way to heal. 

Here are a few resources for thinking about and teaching monuments and memory. Comment and share if you have others. 

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