How the word is passed A reckoning with the history of slavery across America

Clint Smith

Book - 2021

"'How the Word is Passed' is Clint Smith's revealing, contemporary portrait of America as a slave owning nation. Beginning in his own hometown of New Orleans, 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 nations collective history, and ourselves."--

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Subjects
Genres
Instructional and educational works
Published
New York : Little, Brown and Company 2021.
Edition
First edition
Language
English
Physical Description
xiii, 336 pages ; 25 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references (pages 299-320) and index.
ISBN
9780316492935
0316492930
Main Author
Clint Smith (author)
  • "The whole city is a memorial to slavery:" Prologue
  • "There's a difference between history and nostalgia:" Monticello Plantation
  • "An open book, up under the sky:" The Whitney Plantation
  • "I can't change what happened here:" Angola Prison
  • "I don't know if it's true or not, but I like it:" Blandford Cemetery
  • "Our Independence Day:" Galveston Island
  • "We were the good guys, right?" New York City
  • "One slave is too much:" Gorée Island
  • "I lived it:" Epilogue
  • About this project.
Review by Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* Everyone knows that African Americans were once enslaved in the U.S., but how well do we understand what that means? Atlantic staff writer and poet Smith explores this question by visiting sites emblematic of American slavery, including Jefferson's Monticello, the Whitney plantation, which rejects Old South nostalgia to focus on the enslaved, a Confederate cemetery, Juneteenth's birthplace of Galveston, and Goree Island in Senegal, embarkation point for thousands of Africans headed to slave markets in the Americas. Along the way, Smith engages with conflicted tour guides and historians, ambivalent Senegalese students, Confederate reenactors, and descendants of the enslaved and enslavers, including his own grandparents. Smith probes the contradictions of our collective memory and how deliberate miseducation, nostalgia, and denial fuel a belief in Black inferiority and white innocence. Jefferson's cosmopolitan image, for example, depended on "the people he allowed to be threatened, manipulated, flogged, assaulted, deceived, and terrorized," while Confederate apologists insist their ancestors weren't reliant on slavery, despite copious evidence to the contrary. Ultimately, Smith concludes that "in order for our country to collectively move forward, we need a collective endeavor to learn, confront, and reckon with the story of slavery and how it has shaped the world we live in today."HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Anticipation is running high for Smith's powerful and diligent exploration of the realities and ongoing consequences of slavery in America. Copyright 2021 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Atlantic staff writer Smith travels the country, moving from his native New Orleans to Monticello; the Whitney Plantation, which aims to preserve the experience of those enslaved; Angola, a former plantation in Louisiana that now serves as a maximum-security prison; and downtown Manhattan, where people were bought and sold. His aim: to show that slavery has been central to the making of America. Copyright 2020 Library Journal.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Poet, educator, and writer Smith (Counting Descent) opens this latest work with his own story of growing up Black in New Orleans. Although he often passed by monuments to Confederate generals and former slave auction houses, he didn't know much about the history of slavery in the U.S., nor was he very curious about it, until 2017, when widespread campaigns to tear down these monuments began. Smith then started to read classics in the historiography of American slavery and toured historical sites related to U.S. slavery, to interview people who worked there and people who visited them. He pieces together how the history of slavery has been falsely constructed to uphold white supremacy—the same history that has now, in some cases, been rebuilt to form a more honest picture. Some of the sites and histories that Smith revisits are well-known (for instance, Monticello and Sally Hemings's story); others, such as Louisiana's Angola prison/plantation, or the benefit Wall Street drew from slavery long after its abolition in New York, are refreshing new takes. VERDICT An excellent travelogue and introduction to slavery's impact on both the United States and its people. It will hold the interest of readers who are only starting to grapple with the topic.—Kate Stewart, Tucson Copyright 2021 Library Journal.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

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. Agent: Alia Habib, the Gernert Co. (June) Copyright 2021 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

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. Agent: Alia Habib, the Gernert Co. (June) Copyright 2021 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

"'How the Word is Passed' is Clint Smith's revealing, contemporary portrait of America as a slave-owning nation. Beginning in his own hometown of New Orleans, 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."--

Review by Publisher Summary 2

A look at how the legacy of slavery is preserved in monuments and landmarks such as Angola, a former plantation–turned–maximum-security prison in Louisiana that houses Black men working the fields for virtually no pay. 300,000 first printing.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

Instant #1 New York Times bestseller. "The Atlantic writer drafts a history of slavery in this country unlike anything you've read before' (Entertainment Weekly).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.

Review by Publisher Summary 4

Instant #1 New York Times Bestseller Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for NonfictionWinner of the Stowe Prize Winner of 2022 Hillman Prize for Book JournalismPEN America 2022 John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction Finalist A New York Times 10 Best Books of 2021 A Time 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2021 Named a Best Book of 2021 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Economist, Smithsonian, Esquire, Entropy, The Christian Science Monitor, WBEZ's Nerdette Podcast, TeenVogue, GoodReads, SheReads, BookPage, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Fathom Magazine, the New York Public Library, and the Chicago Public Library One of GQ’s 50 Best Books of Literary Journalism of the 21st Century Longlisted for the National Book Award Los Angeles Times, Best Nonfiction Gift One of President Obama's Favorite Books of 2021This compelling #1 New York Times bestseller examines the legacy of slavery in America—and how both history and memory continue to shape our everyday lives. 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.