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How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

Review

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

About a year and a half ago, my family and I took a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, where we toured the McLeod Plantation Historic Site. We chose this particular property on purpose. Operated by the Charleston County Parks Department, the McLeod Plantation’s management has made the conscious decision to center the stories and experiences of the people who were enslaved there, rather than glamorize the lives their white owners were able to enjoy due to the exploitation of the workers they enslaved. As we toured the property, I was struck by the power and sadness in the stories we were being told, and wondered how different the experience would be at a plantation site where white tour guides dress like Scarlett O’Hara or where weddings are hosted in a way that both erases history and celebrates nostalgia for an evil past.

I was reminded of that tour frequently while reading Clint Smith’s HOW THE WORD IS PASSED. An essayist and poet, Smith spent months traveling to different locations across the South (he is originally from New Orleans and lives in Washington, DC), as well as to New York City and Senegal. He set out to uncover how the story of slavery and its legacy is being told at these historically significant sites, and how much our understanding of our country’s history and our own identities can be shaped by how those stories are told.

"[HOW THE WORD IS PASSED] will encourage any reader to contend more deeply with our country’s history --- and maybe even set out on their own journeys of discovery and reckoning."

Smith opens his journey with a tour of Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, which now offers, in addition to the “standard” tour celebrating Jefferson’s accomplishments as an academic and statesman, a tour that tells the stories of the many people who were enslaved there, including the Hemings family. Jefferson fathered several children with the enslaved woman Sally Hemings and in turn enslaved those children. He also visits a plantation in Louisiana similar to the one I toured in Charleston, one that centers the experiences of the enslaved people and tells their stories --- as much as they’ve been able to research them.

Another stop is Galveston Island in Texas, where Smith speaks with the people who have fought to preserve the historical locations and stories of Juneteenth, as well as to educate young Black people about their own history and heritage. As one researcher contends, “[T]his knowledge gave their students new eyes, a new sense of freedom and understanding --- the ability to know the lie, so they could not be lied to anymore.”

During his trip, Smith heads to two American sites whose historical narratives for visitors are a bit more complicated. He visits Angola Prison in Louisiana, tracing a line between its one-time use as a plantation built on the backs of enslaved people and its ongoing use as a brutal cog in the machine of mass incarceration --- a link that the prison’s public-facing image seems reluctant to acknowledge. Then he travels to a Virginia cemetery and monument that glorifies the history of the Confederacy and attends a Memorial Day commemoration conducted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, many of whom deny that slavery was the foundational reason for the Civil War.

Some sections of the book --- such as those that I’ve outlined above, as well as a chapter about New York City’s complicated history with slavery --- will make many readers, especially those who are white, uncomfortable. But, as one tour guide in New York points out, “That’s what learning and development is as a human being, being uncomfortable.” Smith urges us to look beyond simple narratives that cast Confederate slaveowners as the “bad guys” and instead to acknowledge that white privilege across the country is predicated on the labor of enslaved people, which was the chief driver of the US economy for more than two centuries and continues to reverberate today.

There’s so much to say about HOW THE WORD IS PASSED --- which hit the New York Times bestseller list at #1 this week --- and I'm so glad that many people are eager to read this vitally important work. For me, aside from the value of uncovering, acknowledging and narrating the stories of slavery and tracing its impacts, it is a powerful testament to the value of making history public, whether in plaques that identify long-buried (literally and figuratively) sites in the shameful history of our country, or in the invaluable work of skillful tour guides, bravely telling the truth even when it makes tourists uncomfortable. It will encourage any reader to contend more deeply with our country’s history --- and maybe even set out on their own journeys of discovery and reckoning.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 11, 2021

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America
by Clint Smith

  • Publication Date: June 1, 2021
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316492930
  • ISBN-13: 9780316492935