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

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"We need this book." —Ibram X. Kendi, #1 New York Times bestselling author of How to be an Anti-Racist The Atlantic staff writer and poet Clint Smith's revealing, contemporary portrait of America as a slave owning nation 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 p "We need this book." —Ibram X. Kendi, #1 New York Times bestselling author of How to be an Anti-Racist The Atlantic staff writer and poet Clint Smith's revealing, contemporary portrait of America as a slave owning nation 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.


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"We need this book." —Ibram X. Kendi, #1 New York Times bestselling author of How to be an Anti-Racist The Atlantic staff writer and poet Clint Smith's revealing, contemporary portrait of America as a slave owning nation 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 p "We need this book." —Ibram X. Kendi, #1 New York Times bestselling author of How to be an Anti-Racist The Atlantic staff writer and poet Clint Smith's revealing, contemporary portrait of America as a slave owning nation 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.

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

  1. 4 out of 5

    Susan Barber

    How the Word is Passed is a book that deserves a place in today's high school and college curriculum as well as personal reading libraries. The essays are more than the sum of their parts - part research, part history, part personal, part story, part poetic writing, part travelogue, part thoughtful reflection - each part combining to provide a fuller, more accurate account of US history. I read this slowly (not my typical reading style) really taking in each chapter individually in order not to How the Word is Passed is a book that deserves a place in today's high school and college curriculum as well as personal reading libraries. The essays are more than the sum of their parts - part research, part history, part personal, part story, part poetic writing, part travelogue, part thoughtful reflection - each part combining to provide a fuller, more accurate account of US history. I read this slowly (not my typical reading style) really taking in each chapter individually in order not to rush through what I needed to unlearn, relearn and process. Highly recommend!

  2. 5 out of 5

    Isabella (The Feminist Bookworm)

    This book is going to win the National Book Award, mark my words. And it deserves the Pulitzer, too. It is an extraordinary piece of nonfiction. In How the Word Is Passed, Clint Smith seeks to examine how America memorializes, and reckons, with the legacy of slavery. He travels to different plantations, memorials, cemeteries, museums, prisons, etc. and examines how each of these locations reckon with slavery and if they are being honest and truthful, or being dishonest and avoiding the past. It i This book is going to win the National Book Award, mark my words. And it deserves the Pulitzer, too. It is an extraordinary piece of nonfiction. In How the Word Is Passed, Clint Smith seeks to examine how America memorializes, and reckons, with the legacy of slavery. He travels to different plantations, memorials, cemeteries, museums, prisons, etc. and examines how each of these locations reckon with slavery and if they are being honest and truthful, or being dishonest and avoiding the past. It is truly extraordinary. Smith is also a poet, and he weaves his narrative with the prose of a poet in such a lyrical and impactful way. Everyone needs to read this book, so please preorder it, at it to your TBRs, because this book is going to take the world by storm come June.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Oscreads

    I will say this first. Clint Smith has written one of the best books I have ever read. It is definitely one of the best work of nonfiction getting published this year. All that to say because you need this book. This country needs this book. • I mentioned this before but last semester I took a public history class that blew my mind. We talked about monuments, museums, how Americans get their history after they graduate from high school/college, and, most importantly, how this nation tells its his I will say this first. Clint Smith has written one of the best books I have ever read. It is definitely one of the best work of nonfiction getting published this year. All that to say because you need this book. This country needs this book. • I mentioned this before but last semester I took a public history class that blew my mind. We talked about monuments, museums, how Americans get their history after they graduate from high school/college, and, most importantly, how this nation tells its history. It was a course that shifted my way of thinking regarding public history spaces and what public history can do to this nation. In Clint Smith’s upcoming book “How The Word Is Passed,” Clint Smith visits a handful of public history locations across the country—from the Monticello plantation to Houston, Texas—in order to reach a reckoning about history and how it’s told and passed (he also visits Senegal in the end). It is a book that not only examines history through these public spaces but provides a reflection from Smith that is extraordinary to read. It is a book that I personally think everyone should read. • I wanted to touch upon Smith’s language and his attention to detail because I don’t think I have ever read a nonfiction book with such lyricism in the prose. Some paragraphs within this book are so beautifully structured and written. I literally got chills from Smith’s attention to details and critical thinking. Sometimes he would focus on small things as the way his subjects talked and sounded to the weather and scenery around him. Other times he would focus his attention on his surroundings and how that contributed to how he experienced this history as well as its relevance to the history. Additionally, I think the strongest parts in this book are the sections where Smith includes his reflections about how these spaces made him feel physically and psychologically. It’s just stunning stunning stunning work that I won’t stop talking about for a long time.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Zain Aslam

    Clint Smith’s nonfiction debut is a masterpiece that eschews simple characterization. “How The Word Is Passed” is a travelogue and a series of historical essays in which Smith visits various places across the United States, along with Gorée Island in Senegal. In painstaking detail he writes about the many ways, almost all of them deliberately hidden by centuries of racist legislature, the enslavement of Black people—along with the genocide of Indigenous populations, has shaped the borders and id Clint Smith’s nonfiction debut is a masterpiece that eschews simple characterization. “How The Word Is Passed” is a travelogue and a series of historical essays in which Smith visits various places across the United States, along with Gorée Island in Senegal. In painstaking detail he writes about the many ways, almost all of them deliberately hidden by centuries of racist legislature, the enslavement of Black people—along with the genocide of Indigenous populations, has shaped the borders and ideals of the United States. Smith writes about his visits to Monticello—Thomas Jefferson’s home and plantation in Virginia; Angola State Prison in Louisiana; Blandford Cemetery, a resting place for Confederate soldiers in Virginia; and Manhattan in New York City—along with many other places. In these diverse locations, which represent various levels of contemporary American society—rural, urban, incarcerated, et cetera; we witness with Smith the cruel and cyclical impacts of institutions like white supremacy and capitalism in every day American life. The neglect and violence of some of the most common American figures and symbols is debilitating. For example: did you know, reader, that Thomas Jefferson owned over a hundred slaves? Were you aware that the current Louisiana State Penitentiary is housed on a former plantation? Certainly, I had no idea that Central Park was built in place of one of the first Black neighborhoods in Manhattan. This book is not just full of reveals, but it genuinely offers a glimpse into histories that have been white-washed or erased over time. A majority of the details in this book are difficult to swallow and infinitely enraging. However, Smith introduces us to characters throughout these pages who have been working within their communities to either broaden the perspectives of our history, or empower Black and BIPOC identity in America. For example, there is Damaras, an educator in New York City who unveils the brutally racist history of America’s “cultural capital.” Plus there’s a chapter on Galveston, Texas and the history of Juneteenth—which is a real life fable, or fairy tale, of communal strength and persistence against a vicious establishment. “How The Word Is Passed” is a history book about the present. It reinvents how we can engage with history as residents and communities. The history in this book is overbearing. However, with this history, we have the language and evidence to build a society that is anti-racist and equitable. I highly recommend this book to everyone who is committed to social reform. Further, Clint Smith's skill as a writer and poet is on full display in every page. I doubt that any other writer could provide his complex insight with such clear arguments.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Max Gruenig

    Fantastic book that causes us to rethink symbols we’ve come to accept or disregard because it does not necessarily directly impact us. It shows how history and the narrative that is passed is more important than ever. We must reckon with our past history no matter how hard it is.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jamie

    In How the Word is Passed, Clint Smith visits historical sites that hold importance to the way we craft stories about slavery in this country (and beyond). Beginning in New Orleans and the Monticello plantation, he considers how the legacy of Thomas Jefferson still needs to be critically examined, and the unwilling of so many to complicate the narrative. His visit to Angola Prison reveals the replication of slavery and Jim Crow laws. At Whitney Plantation, he considers how the function of a plan In How the Word is Passed, Clint Smith visits historical sites that hold importance to the way we craft stories about slavery in this country (and beyond). Beginning in New Orleans and the Monticello plantation, he considers how the legacy of Thomas Jefferson still needs to be critically examined, and the unwilling of so many to complicate the narrative. His visit to Angola Prison reveals the replication of slavery and Jim Crow laws. At Whitney Plantation, he considers how the function of a plantation can change the narrative, while also questioning how the pressures of society and funding affect such a project. He wrestles with New York’s history in slavery and visits a confederate gathering. Traveling all the way to Goreè Island, the persistence of a European gaze on the history of enslavement in Senegal frames the experience of young Senegalese students reckoning with this history and the tourist destination/experience the buildings that held the enslaved. What makes this book different and necessary is that Smith approaches storytelling with the deftness of a poet, immersing the reader in the physical and emotional detail of each of his visits. He critically examines who is telling what story: from the way they are dressed, to the specific language they use, to they way others react to them. He doesn’t take personal distance from any of these descriptions, rather, he demonstrates how history is an embodied experience through these descriptions and his own response to them. He allows us to follow the connections he makes from his scholarly training to other historical contexts as well moments of personal connection. It’s deeply moving, bringing the complex and violent history of enslavement into today’s context.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Sarada Choudary

    This is SUCH a good book. Clint Smith is a talented author. In this book, he was able to weave his literary skill of story telling with historical knowledge and the discussion relevant issues. He does this in a way that makes something heavy and complex - easily accessible. The concept of the book is creative; each chapter is devoted to a different place/event of public history, that has a connection to slavery, that he’s visited. After each chapter, I was left with the feeling that I went on th This is SUCH a good book. Clint Smith is a talented author. In this book, he was able to weave his literary skill of story telling with historical knowledge and the discussion relevant issues. He does this in a way that makes something heavy and complex - easily accessible. The concept of the book is creative; each chapter is devoted to a different place/event of public history, that has a connection to slavery, that he’s visited. After each chapter, I was left with the feeling that I went on that tour or was part of that conversation shared. I think every reader will have a different chapter as their favorites - for me it was the Angola one and the final chapter. The former because it was mind blowing to me what I learned on a topic that I already had some familiarity with; the latter because I really appreciated the discussions about historiography and the role of education. And I love how he was able to bring full circle talks about symbols and changing the narrative, that were brought up in the confederacy chapter, and parallel it with conversations in Senegal. I think this must have been the first time I’ve read a history based book that reads like a novel. I can see this book being used in high schools and colleges (and even middle school depending on the group). There’s something to learn for everyone regardless of your background or academic experience...and ideas and messages that are so important to be repeated and shared. Shout out to Zinn Ed Project for making this advanced copy available to me - I feel very lucky for this opportunity. I highly recommend this book to all readers!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Hope

    Truly loved the way Clint Smith used the stories of the people he spoke with as a way to let the nuance of narratives show themselves. As the reader, you're just listening and processing and piecing together everything along with him. It was such a great way to let stories and memories and history come alive — showing you what's lost by the lies and omissions and what we have to gain from the truth. Truly loved the way Clint Smith used the stories of the people he spoke with as a way to let the nuance of narratives show themselves. As the reader, you're just listening and processing and piecing together everything along with him. It was such a great way to let stories and memories and history come alive — showing you what's lost by the lies and omissions and what we have to gain from the truth.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Brandon Westlake

    Smith's book is in a class of its own. Such an intriguing, thought-provoking analysis on the lasting legacy of enslavement and how contemporary American deals with it. The book details Smith's visits to several sites around the country related to enslavement, from New York to Louisiana. The strength of the book is in its accessibility. There have been other books written on the subject, and some that Smith even mentions within the pages of this book, but some are more academic. This book manages Smith's book is in a class of its own. Such an intriguing, thought-provoking analysis on the lasting legacy of enslavement and how contemporary American deals with it. The book details Smith's visits to several sites around the country related to enslavement, from New York to Louisiana. The strength of the book is in its accessibility. There have been other books written on the subject, and some that Smith even mentions within the pages of this book, but some are more academic. This book manages to fuse readability with the great commentary on those issues. For instance, Kevin Levin's book on the African American confederate myth is great research, but I don't see it being picked up by lots of casual readers and on book club lists. This book will be and should be. The most fascinating chapter in the book was on Angola. As a history teacher, I have sought to make a connection between talking about enslavement, mass incarceration, and Angola; Smith provides a great overview and readable expose on the prison. It's worth picking up the book by itself. For many, again, this will not be new information, but it is presented in a personable way that will allow for conversation and reflection. Smith does a great job explaining how people's emotions still carry weight regarding policy and attitudes in American society. He makes clear the long-term impact of such a horrible institution that after reading it is impossible to say that "it's time to move on"

  10. 4 out of 5

    Cecil

    Clint Smith is a poet, and his prose has a flow and beauty not found in most non-fiction. Granted, I did start making a guessing game of how he would describe someone’s voice or the color of their skin but, as a whole, his descriptive talents added additional depth to an already gripping narrative. This is an important book for anyone who grapples with the question of whether what we have been taught in our schools about the reality of slavery and its continued effect on our country is the truth Clint Smith is a poet, and his prose has a flow and beauty not found in most non-fiction. Granted, I did start making a guessing game of how he would describe someone’s voice or the color of their skin but, as a whole, his descriptive talents added additional depth to an already gripping narrative. This is an important book for anyone who grapples with the question of whether what we have been taught in our schools about the reality of slavery and its continued effect on our country is the truth. It is also a terrific companion volume to Tony Horowitz’s “Confederates in the Attic,” about those Southern whites who are still fighting their war, and Connor Towne O’Neill’s “Down Along With That Devil’s Bones,” about the debate over the existence of monuments to Confederate leaders and soldiers. Highly recommended.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Trey

    This is a must-read on the history of slavery, how that history is told, and how we interact with it. Go pre-order it. I got an ALC from libro.fm for being an educator. Something that struck me is how humanizing the book is. Everyone he interacts with, even those with whom he disagrees, are beautifully described. His language constantly reminds the reader of the humanity of everyone: those enslaved, founding fathers, and those he interviewed. This focus on humanity breeds both empathy and complexi This is a must-read on the history of slavery, how that history is told, and how we interact with it. Go pre-order it. I got an ALC from libro.fm for being an educator. Something that struck me is how humanizing the book is. Everyone he interacts with, even those with whom he disagrees, are beautifully described. His language constantly reminds the reader of the humanity of everyone: those enslaved, founding fathers, and those he interviewed. This focus on humanity breeds both empathy and complexity. When we see Jefferson as human, we see his deep faults for what they were and can hold that to account in our history. When we view those enslaved as human, we really feel the deep injustice and tragedy of slavery.

  12. 4 out of 5

    kat

    So beautifully written. To experience these places, from Smith’s research and perspective... I’m just grateful I had the chance. The audiobook is hard to put down! Thankful for this book in a time where visiting museums is difficult to do in person. Learned and unlearned a lot. Can’t recommend highly enough.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Emily Rheault

    This book was interesting and easy to read. While it didn’t have any groundbreaking history, it provides a good survey of the history of slavery in the United States and why that history matters. It did leave me wondering who its audience is.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Andréa

    Note: I accessed a digital review copy of this book through Edelweiss.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Mara

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jack Pando

  17. 5 out of 5

    Sara I

  18. 4 out of 5

    Christie Oleaga

  19. 5 out of 5

    De'Sean Weber

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kato Gupta

  21. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

  22. 5 out of 5

    Michael Taeckens

  23. 4 out of 5

    Anna

  24. 5 out of 5

    Caroline Gerardo

  25. 5 out of 5

    Christina

  26. 4 out of 5

    Daven J. Oglesby Sr.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Nate

  28. 5 out of 5

    April

  29. 4 out of 5

    Book Hippie

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Nock

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