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Reviews of How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith

How the Word Is Passed

A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

by Clint Smith

How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith X
How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2021, 352 pages

    Dec 2022, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rose Rankin
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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

The publisher is unable to provide an excerpt of this book.

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. What was your educational experience in school when learning about the history of slavery in the United States?
  2. How has this book challenged or aligned with your teachings and beliefs?
  3. How has colonization and the system of slavery affected Senegal and other western African countries' economy and society?
  4. In what ways have Black women been viewed and treated by white colonizers and enslavers?
  5. How does this book make you think about the Union states' and Confederate states' involvement in the freedom and containment of African and African American people?
  6. In what ways has the racial caste system been used to keep African people and African American people from being allowed equal rights that were given to white Americans before and ...
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    National Book Critics Circle Awards


BookBrowse Review


This book's strengths are many, including Smith's mellifluous language and his ability to crystallize the meaning of white supremacy and its effects for Black Americans. The connections he draws both spatially and temporally between the actual lived horrors of slavery and the world as we know it today are both brilliant and vital, as is his emphasis on education and how the teaching of the past is really a reflection of current attitudes, fears and prejudices. How the Word Is Passed should be required reading for white Americans to gain a fuller understanding of what slavery meant and how its legacy permeates the world in a way they may not see or understand...continued

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(Reviewed by Rose Rankin).

Media Reviews

The summer's most visionary work of nonfiction is this radical reckoning with slavery, as represented in the nation's monuments, plantations, and landmarks.

New York Times
[Smith] skillfully braids interviews with scholarship and personal observation...The result is a tour of tours and a reckoning with reckonings, which sketches an impressive and deeply affecting human cartography of America's historical conscience. The book's standout quality is the range and sincerity of its encounters.

The detail and depth of the storytelling is vivid and visceral, making history present and real. Equally commendable is the care and compassion shown to those Smith interviews — whether tour guides or fellow visitors in these many spaces. Due to his care as an interviewer, the responses Smith elicits are resonant and powerful...Smith deftly connects the past, hiding in plain sight, with today's lingering effects.

The Millions
Smith tells his stories with the soul of a poet and the heart of an educator. Smith's ambitious book is fueled by a humble sense of duty: he sought the wisdom of those who tell of slavery's legacy 'outside traditional classrooms and beyond the pages of textbooks'; public historians who 'have dedicated their lives to sharing this history with others.' Smith channels the spirit of Toni Morrison here; the writer as one to pass on the word so that it is never forgotten.

In reexamining neighborhoods, holidays and quotidian sites, Smith forces us to reconsider what we think we know about American history.

Booklist (starred review)
[A] powerful and diligent exploration of the realities and ongoing consequences of slavery in America.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A Black journalist and poet calls for a reconsideration of the way America teaches its history of slavery...A brilliant, vital work about 'a crime that is still unfolding.'

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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...this is an essential consideration of how America's past informs its present.

Author Blurb Annette Gordon-Reed, Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard and Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello
A beautifully written, evocative, and timely meditation on the way slavery is commemorated in the United States.

Author Blurb Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award-winning and #1 New York Times bestselling author of How to Be an Anti-Racist and Stamped from the Beginning
Clint Smith chronicles in vivid and meditative prose his travels to historical sites that are truth-telling or deceiving visitors about slavery. Humans enslaved Black people, and then too often enslaved history. But How the Word Is Passed frees history, frees humanity to reckon honestly with the legacy of slavery. We need this book.

Author Blurb Matthew Desmond, Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology and Pulitzer prize winning author of Evicted
A work of moral force and humility, How the Word Is Passed offers a compelling account of the history and memory of slavery in America. Writing from Confederate Army cemeteries, former plantations, modern-day prisons, and other historical sites, Clint Smith moves seamlessly between past and present, revealing how slavery is remembered and misremembered—and why it matters. Engaging and wise, this book combines history and reportage, poem and memoir. It is a deep lesson and a reckoning.

Reader Reviews

Cathryn Conroy

This Book Will Make Most Readers Uncomfortable…Very Uncomfortable. And That's a Good Thing.
Sometimes the best books are the books that make you uncomfortable. Make you squirm. Make you rethink what you thought was true. Make you realize that myths are not facts and should never be treated as such. Make you realize the harm of not holding ...   Read More
Molly Abbott

Eye opening
I wish I was taught this in school! Now I want to know how I can help change curriculum. Amazing book, lots of facts, Clint puts you in all of the places he visits, I felt as I was there.

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Beyond the Book

The "Lost Cause" Myth and Its Physical Legacy

Robert E. Lee monument on Memorial Avenue in Richmond, VAFollowing defeat and widespread destruction in the Civil War, people in the former Confederate states set about rebuilding their communities and coping with the enormity of their loss. This effort included physical and psychological measures, such as building cemetery monuments and establishing Confederate Memorial Day to honor fallen soldiers. It also involved the rationalization of defeat in the war, which began taking shape almost immediately following Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

First described by the editor of the Richmond Examiner in 1867, the "Lost Cause" myth claimed that slavery was not the issue that drove the conflict, but rather that the South was the victim of Northern aggression and only lost the war because of the ...

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