Beginning in his own hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader through 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 over 400 people on the premises. 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 Prison in Louisiana, a former plantation named for the country from which most of its enslaved people arrived and which has since become one of the most gruesome maximum-security prisons in the world. And it is the story of Blandford Cemetery, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers.
In 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—on which the brutal history of the trade in enslaved men, women and children has been deeply imprinted.
Informed by scholarship and brought alive by the story of people living today, Clint Smith’s debut work of nonfiction is a landmark work of reflection and insight that offers a new understanding of the hopeful role that memory and history can play in understanding our country.
I don’t think I’ve read any of the author’s poems before but as soon as I saw the cover of this book for the first time last year, I knew I had to read it. And while I went in not knowing much about what the book was going to be – expect that it was related to the history of slavery – I was totally floored by the way the author approached this painful past.
I have visited one plantation in the US till now, which is Mt. Vernon – but this was a few years ago and I hadn’t yet started reading up on American politics or it’s history – so I didn’t even realize that the place symbolized more than just being George Washington’s estate, it was also built and maintained by hundreds of people he had enslaved. I have come to regret my trip a lot, now that I know a bit more about the estate’s history, but the author here brought more light onto the lives of the enslaved people by visiting Jefferson’s Monticello plantation and also the privately owned Whitney plantation. As I was listening to the audiobook narrated by the author himself, it was pretty evident how the author was feeling during these research visits of his.
While the author comes to know a bit about the work both the plantations are doing to recognize and present their true history without whitewashing the slavery part of the story, it is still not enough. The tour guides and administrators also mention how difficult it is to tell the true history of the place while not being completely negative about it, because there are always white visitors who are not ready to confront the ugly truths about their historical heroes. This felt like a small microcosm of our current reality where more and more Republican politicians and voters want to curb the teaching of the country’s factual history, while also being completely ignorant (or maybe willfully so) about what CRT entails but using it as a scapegoat to pass censorship laws.
But these chapters were probably the easiest to listen to. Because once the author changed his location to the Angola maximum security prison in Louisiana and Blandford cemetery in Virginia, it was very tough to continue to listen to how the administrators of these places try so hard to whitewash their horrific past, especially in Angola prison whose history of extreme violence towards numerous prisoners in solitary confinement is unimaginable. And the caretakers of the biggest mass grave of confederate soldiers in Blandford just want to continue to perpetuate the lost cause myth and how the civil war was about state’s rights – not that they ever try to complete that sentence and say that it was about “state’s rights to keep slaves”.
I however, felt inspired by the story of Galveston and Juneteenth (it was particularly poignant because I listened to the chapter 2 days before Juneteenth) and how the declaration of the end of slavery was such a significant event – even if ultimately, it didn’t pan out that way in reality. While it took many many decades of violence by white supremacists and activism of courageous Black people to achieve some semblance of civil rights legislation, we are only now realizing how it’s extremely important not to forget all that history, because forgetting what happened will only result in history repeating itself.
But ultimately it was the chapter about New York City’s history that was eye opening. Because while the north maybe praised as a paragon of liberalism, NYC itself is full of forgotten markers of its own racist past – like being a major trading hub for all the raw materials that were produced by the enslaved people in the southern plantations; being the headquarters for all the major banks which used to accept enslaved people as collateral just like any property; or even how the beautiful Central Park is built upon land owned by free Black people who were forced out of their homes by the NYC government using eminent domain to build the park. And all this business created by the toil of the enslaved people is what built the economy of the country – not that anyone seems to want to acknowledge that while teaching history.
With this brilliant book full of visits to historical places, interviews with scholars and references to primary sources, and also stories told by his own grandparents whose grandparents were themselves enslaved, the author tries to give us a new approach of understanding history. It is painful and emotional to listen to, but it is also unflinching in its honesty, and in its earnestness that we should examine our own biases and not be defensive when confronted with uncomfortable truths. It is a huge responsibility to reckon with the country’s past and but only when we acknowledge it that we can move forward and strive for a better future, and make sure that the history will never repeat again. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic, but I particularly think this would be a good resource for students, despite its tough material.