Instant #1 New York Times bestseller
Longlisted for the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction
Beginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader on an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks—those that are honest about the past and those that are not—that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation’s collective history, and ourselves.
It is the story of the Monticello Plantation in Virginia, the estate where Thomas Jefferson wrote letters espousing the urgent need for liberty while enslaving more than four hundred people. It is the story of the Whitney Plantation, one of the only former plantations devoted to preserving the experience of the enslaved people whose lives and work sustained it. It is the story of Angola, a former plantation–turned–maximum-security prison in Louisiana that is filled with Black men who work across the 18,000-acre land for virtually no pay. And it is the story of Blandford Cemetery, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers.
A deeply researched and transporting exploration of the legacy of slavery and its imprint on centuries of American history, How the Word Is Passed illustrates how some of our country’s most essential stories are hidden in plain view—whether in places we might drive by on our way to work, holidays such as Juneteenth, or entire neighborhoods like downtown Manhattan, where the brutal history of the trade in enslaved men, women, and children has been deeply imprinted.
Informed by scholarship and brought to life by the story of people living today, Smith’s debut work of nonfiction is a landmark of reflection and insight that offers a new understanding of the hopeful role that memory and history can play in making sense of our country and how it has come to be.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Stories of slavery and racism are often whitewashed from historical sites, and Clint Smith wants to change that. In this unforgettable journey, the poet and staff writer for The Atlantic visits important landmarks to find out how each one handles its ties to slavery. Bypassing PR reps and spokespeople, Smith initiates chats with tour guides and fellow guests, and nearly every conversation highlights how the pivotal role that chattel slavery played in the history of those places has now been all but erased. Smith brings a poetic flair to his observations as he lays bare the gaping omissions in the narratives told at one historic site after another. You’ll be shocked by his description of visiting Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison, a penitentiary built over a plantation where prisoners still pick cotton. Smith evocatively illustrates how slavery’s impact can be measurably felt today—making it clear that avoiding the subject should have never felt like an option.
Poet and Atlantic staff writer Smith debuts with a moving and perceptive survey of landmarks that reckon, or fail to reckon, with the legacy of slavery in America. Visiting Monticello plantation, Smith describes how Thomas Jefferson's self-perception as a "benevolent slave owner" often conflicted with his actions. On a tour of Angola prison, Smith discusses how nonunanimous jury verdicts fueled the "convict leasing system" that replaced slave labor in post-Reconstruction Louisiana, and notes that when the state switched from the electric chair to lethal injection in 1991, Angola inmates refused to build the prison death bed. At the Blandford Cemetery for Confederate soldiers in Petersburg, Va., Smith questions on-site historians about the ethical implications of preserving a place of honor for the defenders of slavery. He also checks in at the annual Juneteenth festival in Galveston, Tex., and takes an illuminating walking tour of underground railroad sites in New York City. Suffused with lyrical descriptions and incisive historical details, including Robert E. Lee's ruthlessness as a slave owner and early resistance by Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois to the Confederate general's "deification," this is an essential consideration of how America's past informs its present.
How the word is passed
My first 5 star book review. Excellent book, supremely educational in a tone that understandable and personal. A must read for anyone interested in American History.
Reading this book is like a journey into the United States and a journey into our past. Each chapter recounts a visit to a particular place with a special connection to the history of slavery. It feels like I am there too, the authors travel companion, with how descriptive and powerful his writing is. Interjected within the narrative of the visit is the history and background. Usually I find history to be dense and uninviting but this writing was captivating and smooth.
Loved this book
I could not put this book down. Clint Smith gave me so much to think about in terms of US history and white people’s resistance to accept our history. Thank you Mr. Smith for writing such a beautiful and insightful book.