AP Annual Conference 2023

Closing Plenary: How the Word Is Passed: Exploring History and Teaching with Clint Smith

The AP Annual Conference ended on Friday, July 21. It had moments of inspiration, hope, and some dance party joy. The closing plenary featured a networking luncheon and a conversation with author Clint Smith. 

College Board Trustees Chairperson Tom Moore kicked things off with a reminder of the power teachers possess to change the world, even when educators face unprecedented challenges. Moore, superintendent of Niles Township High School District 29 in Skokie, Il., reminded the audience that mindset can make all the difference.

Moore shared a story from early in his career as an AP European History teacher in West Hartford, Ct. A peer recommended a special needs student, a football player Moore knew, for his AP history course. “He was a student in what we called then a socially and emotionally disturbed classroom; and my first thought was this wasn’t an AP student,” Moore shared. “But my friend reminded me the student loved history and could do the work, so he became an AP student,” he said.

The student succeeded and paved the way for making AP courses accessible to all students at the school. ”It started with me changing my mindset—all I had to do was ask kids,” Moore said.

The experience, Moore said, made him a “dealer in hope.” He called on teachers to remember the power they possess to create transformative experiences for students.

“It breaks my heart to see how you have to fight to do your job, to do what you know is right for students,” he said. 

Moore added,  We must  keep up the energy to welcome our students, to believe they can achieve, and to know they’re the foundation for change.” 

A conversation then took place between AP African American Studies Program Manager Dr. Brandi Waters and Clint Smith, author of the New York Times bestselling book How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America and the new poetry tome, Above Ground.

“I wanted to write [How the Word is Passed] for 15-year-old me, who was trying to make sense of who I was and my place in this society and world,” Smith shared. “This book is a manifestation of that effort.”

Smith, a New Orleans native, said that in 2017 he noticed Confederate statues across his hometown being dismantled. He wanted to explore how those statutes came to be in a majority Black community. He pointed out that his parents still live on a street named after a Confederate general.

“The reality is that versions of slavery have been recreated in places around the country,” he noted. 

Smith told me about his experience visiting Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary and largest maximum-security prison in the United States with 6,300 prisoners, which is recounted in How the Word Is Passed.

“It’s the nation’s largest prison. Most of the inmates are black men, many sentenced as children. The prison was built on the site of a former plantation. Those inmates work in fields and grow crops guarded by white men on horses with rifles on their laps.”

“It’s not an abstraction─it’s a version of the past.”

But Smith cautioned that it’s important to be mindful of how others see that same history. He recounted his conversation during a Sons of Confederate Veterans Memorial Day Celebration in Petersburg, Va. A member of the organization shared with Smith his experience of visiting Blanford Cemetery, a Confederate burial ground. This was a place he came to with his grandfather and heard stories that the men buried there were fighting to protect their families from intrusion, not slavery.

“He told me that he brought his own grandchildren there, played his banjo, watched the sunset over the trees, and told the same stories about the men buried there,” Smith said. “To accept the truth of it all would require him to accept the fact that his grandfather who he loved lied to him. We must take that reality seriously.” 

Smith also thanked the teachers in the audience for their dedication to helping students encounter facts and gain a better understanding of slavery and how it created America. But he also reminded teachers to extend grace to themselves. 

“These jobs are harder than they’ve ever been. So, find the time for the joy, the happiness that recharges you,” he said.

Smith shared how he finds his joy in his two children and an after-dinner ritual. He read the poem “Dance Party” from his new book Above Ground. It ends with:

“It is at this moment that their mother comes home. And when she opens the door, everyone is screaming, the speakers are blasting, and the percussion is shaking every wall around us. We look up at her, and she looks down at us, and we have no explanation for this strange scene, only an invitation for her to join.”